Part of a series, this essay explores a subheading from Chapter Eleven of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.
In our previous three inquiries into subheaders from Chapter Eleven, “So, Now What?” we explored identity, story, and impact. Here we’ll consider what any one of us — or millions of us — might be missing with regard to our own lives and/or our country. “Shadow,” as it’s referred to throughout the book, is one reason, among others, an individual or a collective might not be seeing something.
There are various ways to work with Shadow.¹ One hint that an element of Shadow may be clamoring for our attention is if we notice a disproportionate emotional response to someone or something — especially if that response recurs. So, a recurrent, disproportionate, emotional response to someone or something we experience as being angry or lacking in compassion may be inviting us to explore our own anger or lack of compassion. Likewise, if we have such a response to someone or something we experience as exceptionally creative, generous, or successful, we may want to explore our own as-yet disowned creativity, generosity, or success.
Whether what we’re not seeing is considered positive or negative, recognizing, owning, and integrating it into our sense of self leads to a more integrated, “wholer,” fully human being.
Questions such as these may begin to uncover what might be repressed, denied, and projected:
1. What is it about this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream, such that I respond as I do?
2. What is it about me, such that I respond to this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream as I do?
3. To what extent do my reactions or responses feel disproportionate?
4. What might I be projecting onto this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream that I need to explore in myself?
The first question engages through an external locus of control. It helps begin to identify the source of the disproportionate response by looking toward something out there. Getting clearer about what that something is moves us closer to identifying Shadow — what we don’t yet see or know about ourselves.
The second question engages through an internal locus of control and is more challenging. It implicates us. What is it about me such that I respond as I do? Ooh, is my discomfort with his ease in expressing anger related to my unowned anger? Is my admiration for her success in the art world the result of my own as-yet-unrealized creative potential? What is it, exactly, that brings up my disproportionate response? Now, I’m curious. Repressing and projecting parts of ourselves requires energy. Owning and integrating what we repress and project frees up our energy for other aspects of life.
The third question invites us to authentically consider the extent to which our response is disproportionate to the reality of the situation, person, or thing. Honest, challenging, trusted friends may be helpful here.
The fourth question explores the quality, emotion, trait, or characteristic that may be repressed, denied, and projected. Sometimes we recognize it immediately, and perhaps experience a mix of relief, guilt, or simply, oh, THAT! Sometimes it may be slower to emerge — harder to see and even harder to own and integrate. Oh. That. Me? Lacking compassion? Nah. No way. For that one particular colleague/friend/sibling…? Um, perhaps, yes.
Working with Shadow can be discomfiting. Be kind to yourself.
- Among many, see Bill Plotkin’s Wild Mind (207–34) and Soulcraft (267–80); and Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, eds. Meeting the Shadow (65 essays from a variety of authors).