For me, a visit to New Mexico always brings out my shadow self. Here in this beautiful place, it’s as if a protective layer has been stripped off and nerve endings are exposed. Like that twelve year girl who left here when her family blew apart, stored up all the hard emotions for me to claim upon my return. All those years ago, she didn’t feel safe enough to bare the full weight of them. The grown up version of her does though. So, here I am, able to feel it all.
If you are unfamiliar with your shadow, we all have one. Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed our unconscious is made up of different layers. We come into this world open and free of judgment for anyone, including ourselves. As we grow up, we receive messages about what is acceptable to our parents, teachers, our religious community, and what is not. We are judged by others and in turn judge ourselves. The “unacceptable” parts are pushed into the hidden part of our psyche.
Jung believed the shadow holds positive traits that were invalidated or minimized by those around us. We repress those parts in an effort to protect our authentic self. But by doing so, we lose touch with those pieces of who we are.
Everyone longs to feel whole and peaceful. That is why learning to reintegrate all our various selves is so important.
My shadow is the part of me who feels totally mortified by making her needs met. It is the scared, hurt version who was rejected for asking. Growing up, I had no qualms doing so. As one of four kids, I received the message that I was too demanding. I still asked for what I needed but felt bad about myself for doing it. And then my mother left. That combination left me feeling that asking was a spectacularly bad idea.
When I come to town, asking for what I need is so difficult I find myself short of breath. And when I do it with folks who still expect me to deny myself, the rejection is more shocking and awful than I remember. It’s possible I am actually feeling it for the first time.
One way we can recognize our shadow selves is by observing our triggers. Because this place can be a minefield for that, I have watched myself run away from situations that cause me anxiety; extend invitations out of guilt that did not serve me; and feel deep shame over the rejection from stating my needs. I am often surprised by how much work I still have to do. And then I am reminded that we are constantly unfolding and evolving into our truest selves. I am gratified to be doing the work.
The part of me who is hyper-vigilant to avoid rejection walks around feeling like she must only be concerned about everyone else. That way of thinking grew up right here in New Mexico. My way of guarding against being abandoned was to people please til the cows come home. Here, the urge to do it is intense and automatic. When I am not doing it well enough or fast enough, I panic and start to lose things. On separate occasions, I have lost my phone, my car keys and my sunglasses. Each time, I stopped to re-center. And luckily I found my stuff.
I realize the only way to make peace in my mind and body is to be gentle with my shadow. I appreciate all her efforts to protect me. She is safe now and welcome to join the rest of who I have become today.
Here is what I am doing to make peace:
- Becoming a curious observer. My dear friend Ilana is great at this. When she experiences a trigger or notices a problematic behavior, it is her cue to get curious. “That was interesting!” she exclaims. When we become aware of patterns and themes, we build self-awareness. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle believes that awareness is all we need to begin to change. The more we learn to witness how our minds work, the more we see how our shadow influences us.
- Practicing non-judgment. It cannot be overstated how much judgment gets in the way of expressing our true selves and being the space for others to do the same. Judgment is why we repress our healthy parts in the first place. When we chastise ourselves for “doing the wrong thing” we become the problem. We heap more disapproval on our own shoulders because we have been conditioned by our the world around us to do it. I will not judge that little girl in me for trying to make everyone happy. All she wanted was love and she tried so, so hard. Still does.
- Find support. If you need to uncover trauma and recover from it, therapy is the best option. If you are at the point of discovering what you really want for yourself and would like to develop steps to get there, you can do it in partnership with a coach.* For me, here, I have been fortunate to find comfort in nature and the company of old friends. They know why I came here and have shown up so beautifully. My dear Ilana picked me up at the airport with a chilled bottle of alkaline water and gluten-free snacks. She drove us all over Santa Fe and willingly submitted to a steady diet of green chile of which she has already had her fill after living here a lifetime. She even set me up with a borrowed car, sparing me my dad’s ancient Volvo. My friend Jenny devoted her entire day off to me and assembled a gorgeous care package, including a journal, the first page in her tidy cursive of a Navajo poem I heard once and never forgot. (!!!) And a lumbar pillow hand-stitched by her loving mother Sally who recently passed. Decades ago, Sally took me in when I had nowhere, despite family living in town. My very first best friend Natalie and elementary school pal Alberta both made time to reconnect, share and listen. My friend Jill welcomed me to her home without hesitation. We will spend this weekend hiking, gallery hopping down Canyon Road and enjoying the last bits of Santa Fe before I head home.
- Journal. I am living proof of the physical and mental health benefits of getting your thoughts and feelings out of your body and onto the page. I have lived this over and over and the results are well worth it. Naming the emotions you are expressing and the situations in which they are triggered helps. The how and why are important to notice the patterns. You will figure yourself out this way, I promise. If you share it with a compassionate witness, so much the better. Thank you for being that for me.
Your shadow self just needs love and understanding, not more judgment. I hope you find your own way of embracing that hidden little person inside of you.
POWERFUL QUESTIONS: In what situations do you find your shadow self making an appearance? Can you get curious about where that behavior came from? How might you meet the moment with compassion for your shadow?
*I am now trained to offer one on one sessions using the Wayfinder Coaching model designed by Martha Beck. If you would like to find out if this work is right for you, you are invited to schedule a Discovery Session at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you are family or a friend, I have a wonderful coaching community who are ready to partner with you.
Do my weekly stories come to your inbox? If not, you are invited to sign up. Click on elizabethheise.comand subscribe today. And if you like, come find me on the socials for my daily(ish) essayettes: @elizabethheise.coach on Instagram and @heiseelizabeth1 on Twitter. Happy reading!