“if you don’t have any shadows, you’re not in the light”
If you don’t have any shadows, you’re not in the light. — Lady Gaga
In a recent post on Positively Positive, Danielle LaPorte asks an excellent series of questions:
“Escaping? From what? Your Pain? Or your Power?”
She makes the point that
“Continually staring down your demons can be an act of avoidance all its own.”
Shadow work – at least as I understand it – isn’t about staring down your demons so much as giving them a name, a nod of recognition, and a place at the table that is otherwise known as your psyche. The very act of putting your attention on something – on bringing it out of your unconscious and into your conscious – transmutes it. It releases new energy.
Reclaiming some lost aspect of yourself gives you a bigger, deeper range of colors from which to create the day-to-day responses to your life.
There’s a gorgeous quote from Rilke:
“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
But by insisting that the dragon is a dragon – by refusing to see it from a new angle, a different light, that might unlock growth or knowledge – we keep ourselves stuck in some unending confrontation with our own damn selves. It’s exhausting, but it’s comfortable. We don’t have to move through it and face the new. We can duck and hide from the sources of our own personal power, the shine of what Robert A Johnson calls our inner gold.
We can project that onto other people instead.
Projection is a psychological defense mechanism: we take the repressed and unwanted qualities in ourselves, those shadow selves, and ‘see’ them in whatever person triggers an unusually strong response in us. It’s a way of taking internal material and making it external, so that we can feel threatened by it, repulsed by it – or deeply attracted to it.
Your shadow is in the shape of the person you learn not to be, disowning those parts of yourself that don’t fit the desired model handed down to you by others – or that simply don’t mesh with your idea of who you are. (“Me? A creative risk-taker? Surely not!”)
It’s not just the individual. Each family casts a shadow.
Society does as well.
Our culture takes what frightens or repels us and blows it up into larger-than-life cardboard figures – stereotypes – that we often feel the need to defend ourselves against (or against becoming).
One of the things our culture squashes is any real connection between femininity and power. We exile that to our collective shadow, where it rises – like Venus from the ocean — as certain kinds of women to be both ridiculed and feared: the ballbreaker, the castrating wife, the power-hungry bitch, Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno.
Add some compelling sexuality and you have the golddigger, the femme fatale, the adventuress: out to use her beauty and gender to exploit and ruin men. (Take away her intelligence and then you have the bimbo, who is so much easier to contain. This was the strategy Marilyn Monroe used, developing the ‘blonde clown’ role that defused her sexbomb persona and disguised the ambition that took her from abused foster kid to major icon.)
I was reminded of this all over again when I had a post of my own in Positively Positive. I described my idea of the creatrix as, among other things, a woman “not afraid to have her own agenda.” (I also stressed her ability to maintain strong relationships, to recognize the value of interdependence and interbeing.) It didn’t take long before one reader implied that such a woman would be self-centered and therefore suspect:
“…you make her sound so strongly powerful in her pursuit of HER OWN AGENDA. Personally I don’t celebrate me me me females – who selfishly steal husbands and think they are the most important in the universe….”
Nevermind that ‘her own agenda’ could be to build a healing community for raped and mutilated women in the Congo.
Or simply to develop her gifts and find ways to apply them in the world.
It had to be about – wait for it – husband stealing.
One way to respond to this is to shrug it off, ignore it, sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never…etc. Yet we live in a world where reputation matters – and women, who grow up with words like slut and whore, or still live in places where one perceived sexual act can compromise your future, or even result in your death — perhaps know this best of all. What people say about you can impact your life: how you move about in the world (or at all), how people relate to you (or at all), whether you succeed at work (or even find work).
We also learn these lessons – what parts of ourselves to play up and what to suppress, what parts are acceptable and loveable and what parts are not – when we are too young to accept them as anything other than laws of nature. It’s the water we’re born into, and swim in, and don’t think to question until and unless we find our way to dry land. Then we can look around and realize that, hey, there’s an alternative. There’s another way of being.
So when strength and power aren’t accepted as part of being feminine – so much so that we feel the need to single out ‘strong women’, or ’empower’ women – a girl often feels compelled to make a choice. She makes it unconsciously, but she makes it. She can disown her power – or her femininity. Either way, she is cut off from some essential aspect of herself.
It’s those cut-off parts, those shadow parts, that we project onto others. She might develop a disdain for ‘girly-girls’ and ‘girliness’ and distance herself from both. Or —
There’s that line from SCARFACE:
“First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.”
Power is held out as an aphrodisiac. Women want so-called alpha males, the reasoning goes, because these men offer the best protection and the best resources for herself and her offspring.
But what if women respond to power in men as a ‘safe’ way of responding to the power in themselves, power that’s gone undeveloped and unexpressed?
Likewise, what if men respond to certain qualities in women as a way of acknowledging the empathy and vulnerability they had to repress in order to ‘be a man’?
There’s a reason why one of the most memorable lines of movie dialogue in recent years is “You complete me.” (Quick! Name the movie!) In that flush of romantic love, we don’t see the other person so much as an idealized version of ourselves, those latent traits we’ve been too afraid to claim as our own. We don’t want the responsibility that comes with them. We don’t want to change our lives, in the way that we know we would have to, if we remembered who we are. We don’t want to risk shining so brightly that we alienate friends and loved ones, or make other people feel bad.
When we talk about owning your power, or taking back your power, this is what we mean: recognizing the power you’ve invested in a lover or celebrity or guru or some other personal hero as your own inner gold.
Before Lance Armstrong’s impressive fall from grace, it became popular to ask in any challenging situation, What would Lance do? (You can buy it on a t-shirt.) You can take any figure that you admire and pose a similar question. It’s a neat exercise. It shifts you into a different way of thinking: out of the water and onto dry land. And it does this not by drawing on that other person’s power, but your own, in a way that’s nonthreatening to your conscious mind (and even mildly humorous.)
It’s also a good question to ask your demons.
Instead of feeling victimized by them, or at war with them, you can strike up a conversation over the mental equivalent of coffee, or perhaps a few shots of tequila.
And then you can go party.