I grew up in a large family where it was never quiet. Nothing was ever totally still and there was never complete darkness. There always seemed to be a light on somewhere and, when I was young, I could fall asleep anywhere except in the dark. My children, too, could never sleep in total darkness. Fear of the dark seems to be a common human tendency. In most religions, light is seen as a positive thing. Believers are encouraged to walk in the light or be the light or simply be enlightened.
Carl Jung, the noted psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, made the statement:
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
Jung, and other more recent figures, believe we all have something called a shadow. In his book, Bringing the Shadows Out of the Dark, Robert August Masters describes the shadow as “our internal storehouse for anything in us we have disowned or rejected, or are otherwise keeping in the dark—things such as anger, shame, empathy, grief, vulnerability, and unresolved wounding.” For reasons of survival, we deny or bury our deeper pain and core wounding. The shadow contains what we do not know, do not like, or deny about ourselves. Masters further explains: “The more we push it [the shadow] away or ignore it, the stronger and more rooted it becomes, insinuating its way into our everyday life.”
My friend, Dr. Paul Fitzgerald, recently helped me walk through addressing some shadow issues in my life. He and my spiritual director held my hand (figuratively) through this process. I consider addressing my shadow to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
In the past, I experienced a religious life where people used spiritual language to bypass issues related to the shadow. These psychological issues could be signs of trauma or wounding and often religious people would attempt to bypass these issues with a quick spiritual fix that excused the seriousness of the problem. Although good intentioned, often these quick fixes cause the shadow issues to become more pronounced, wounding us further. When the shadow is ignored it tends to come out in reactive, blaming, and irrational ways. This is why a normally stable board member blows up in a church council meeting or why a husband suddenly blames his wife for all the troubles in his life. However irrational it may seem, this type of behavior is not the conscious self but the unconscious heart of a much younger self that was wounded and buried that pain to survive.
Many times, our religious conditioning can cause things to remain packed away in our shadow until we investigate it. We are reactive because we operate on autopilot losing our core self or essential individuality. Problems with the shadow happen when it breaks out and misbehaves. Unless we bring our shadow out of the dark and encounter it, we will always be faced with the unpredictable return of what we suppress. While this all sounded a little mystical to me at the beginning, by the end I found it to be very true and very helpful.
My shadow work began when I read the following statement from Masters’ book:
One of the first steps in healing this dynamic (shame) is to bring its origins out of the shadow and get in between our inner child and our inner critic, identifying with neither while loving and protecting the child in us. We then neither lose ourselves in our shame nor flee it. We are present to it, holding it with a well-grounded awareness.
My son, in his early years, would often swagger out of his room, gun in holster, cowboy boots on, ready for action. Except, he was only wearing his underwear. He would often walk around the house dressed this way, holding my hand, all his faith put in my ability to protect and provide for him. When I think of my own inner child, I see myself standing there coming out of my own inner room, wearing not underwear but my own insecurities and frailties, gun in holster, ready for action. However, there was no one there to hold my hand and I received some bad feedback. Thus, my shadow self was formed when I pressed down those emotions.
When I think about my current struggles, I can see how my inner child and the inner critic have been responding from the shadow and ignoring my conscious mind. When this happens, I tell my younger self (Joey) very simply, “I have your back.” I want him to know that he does not have to be afraid because I am holding his hand. I am stronger than his fears, insecurities, and frailties – I am able to assure him that I can keep him safe. This is a conscious look at my unconscious soul. When I did this the first time, I began to weep in a way that I do not believe I ever have. I cried out, “Oh God!”, but I could not say anything else. I simply began to think about my children, their courage, and my hopes for them.
Afterward, I felt a peace like I have not felt in a long time – maybe never. I made a list of all the times I had been rejected and forgave those people. I released some current struggles I was having and simply sat in genuine light. Too often though we avoid this healing due to spiritual bypassing.
Masters also talks about the tendency toward spiritual bypassing:
“Spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs. It is much more common than we might think and, in fact, is so pervasive as to go largely unnoticed, except in its more obvious extremes.”
Aspects of spiritual bypassing include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being.
Spiritual bypassing is common, but it doesn’t solve our core problems. Healing core issues that plague us takes work and time. I can only offer you my testimony of how I am better because I stepped into the darkness and interacted with the shadow lurking there. As Jung stressed, we must become “conscious of the darkness”, only then can we begin to unravel the unconscious hold it has on us.
Now that they are grown, my children no longer need a night light in order to sleep. I am finding that I can sleep in the dark too, I do not need a constant sense of motion, noise, or presence. I have challenged my shadow, stepped into the darkness wearing all my insecurities, gun in holster, ready for action. And in that place of shadow, I feel a strong hand holding mine, a soft whisper tickles my ear, “I’ve got your back”. And I am safe, I am free.
Step into the darkness then walk in the light you find there.