2.3 Shadow and gift

Shadow does not exist by itself, it is cast, by a real physical body. … shadow is shaped by presence. Presence comes a priori to the flaws and absences that we say cast a shadow… shadow is a beautiful, inverse, confirmation of our incarnation. Shadow is intimated absence; almost a template of presence. It is a clue to the character of our appearance in the world. It is an intimation of the ultimate vulnerability, the dynamic of being found by others, not only through the physical body but by its passing thoughts and acts; and even its darkening effect on the world of others; shadow makes a presence of absence, it is a clue to ourselves and to those we are with, even to the parts of ourselves not yet experienced, yet already perceived by others. Shadow is not good or bad, only inescapable.
– David Whyte; from Readers’ Circle Essay, Shadow

Becoming present in and with our self, as described in the first chapter, really isn’t that hard to do. It invites an embracing of the subtler sensing in ourselves, and the barriers to doing this turn out to be far from insurmountable – only somewhat countercultural here in the West. Expanding our awareness to the outside, to the pro-verbal other, we get into the area of relationship. We will see that becoming more present and aligned in this domain asks for something else, something that can be hard to accomplish – at least, so it seems.

In our little Flemish women’s circle, we would spend a lot of time figuring out or cleaning up the relationships between us. After all, we were all psychotherapists, so that was what we were trained for and experienced in! Our purpose was very clear: we wanted to come to a point of continuously open awareness with no emotional attachment at all. But, oh boy… how difficult was that!? Was it not ‘the other’ who was unfriendly, inattentive or harsh? Was it not ‘the other’ who was wrong and didn’t see things in the right way? Was it not ‘the other’ who hurt me? It was sometimes a long, tough ride to clear the space of our projections onto one another and return to a point of open heart and unconditional love. We spent hours and days on this work of untangling emotions, judgments and projections. Clearing the space of projections didn’t mean that we would always agree with what the others did or said, but – as Rumi said – there is a field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing and that was were we wanted to meet.

When we want to learn to become more present in relationship with others, we can’t skip the topic of shadow, which is, for many, related with the concept of ego. A deeper understanding – in the sense of a lived experience and real embodiment, not just a cognitive knowing – of this crucial piece of psychology would solve many conflicts in our daily lives, as well as on many larger scales, even globally. The expression ‘doing shadow work’ points to this being a process: simply put, it involves recognising hidden aspects of ourselves in order to re-integrate them into our sense of ourselves.

Here, too, we will apply the four movements of inner alignment: observing, accepting, honouring and living what is – only this time in connection with an outer alignment, like on a horizontal plane, with others.


Ego isn’t bad. Neither is shadow.

In a lot of spiritual literature and personal development work, the ego is to blame and one should at all costs avoid acting from there. In some networks and communities, this is accepted as a core truth and one that is deeply ingrained in those subcultures – although people don’t have a clear, shared definition of exactly what an ego is and is not. Having practiced for decades as a psychologist and a professional psychotherapist, I have developed a more nuanced view on ego that goes beyond just judging or blaming it and seeking to eradicate it.

In this world of time and space – the realm where we actually live, and which is probably different than the realm our souls came from – we all need an ego in order to grow up. We need a vehicle, a structure that enables us to be here on Earth and in our society, to ground ourselves in and deal with the context in which we live. This structure is our unique way of dealing with the world around us; after all, ego means ‘I’ in Latin. So there is a healthy and necessary aspect in this kind of ego building; it allows us to deal with the physical and social world, it is a healthy sense of self. It is primarily a drive to do all sorts of things and to express who we uniquely are. I learned a long time ago that people who haven’t developed enough of this kind of grounding need ‘ego-strengthening therapy’. So we see ego as a sense of self, a locus of selfhood. In short, we can’t get rid of ego, nor should we. But… and…

In the journey of growing up, some parts of our selves get rigid and ossified. Patterns or habits are formed that were initially needed for our emotional and/or physical survival. They were formed long before we began consciously acting in the world, while we were babies, toddlers and small children. These habits become ingrained in how we think, in what we feel and in how we act. They account for a substantial part what people tend to call ‘personality’. Because they are charged with a great deal of unconscious emotional energy, these patterns are sealed or blocked. For our purposes here, I call them habitual patterns. Often, our sense of self – what we call our identity – is closely enmeshed with these patterns of behaviour. This explains the confusion between ‘ego as sense of self’ and ‘ego as habitual patterns’. Despite what it may look like it at first glance, these patterns are not what defines us; they are not our essence – far from it! They are survival patterns, and were needed for survival in our own unique context. Now that we are older, as adults we can learn to disentangle our identity from them. We are vastly more than these patterns of habit.

If you notice that you are not flexible in your ways of dealing with others and life in general, then you are – in the language of Scharmer – ‘downloading’. In my psychotherapeutic language, you are acting out of your habitual survival patterns. This is the shadow. It relates with Scharmer’s concept of the blind spot: not realising where your thoughts and actions originate from. The personal shadow is that part of us that was not allowed to live in the full light, not invited to be expressed and so, because nothing else was possible, it retreated into the shadows – what psychology calls the subconscious. Later in life, we are fully convinced that it is the other who carries this shadow, not us. They are angry, not me! He hurt me! She didn’t listen! The litany is endless. Our shadow parts are fully out of sight of our own eyes and so we project them onto the other(s). Later in the book we will see that, beyond the personal shadow, there are also cultural shadows and even shadows at the level of humanity.

To do shadow work is to take the projection back. This means we need to re-integrate something back into our healthy sense of self. Most likely, we feel some shame or guilt around whatever it is, it is hidden somewhere deep down inside us, we are not even aware of it. The shame originally arose because our childish, spontaneous, lively expression was met with some kind of negative response: we might have been ridiculed, blamed, not seen in our needs, not allowed to express ourselves or punished for being who we were. Because the expression came and felt totally natural to us at that time, the only ‘explanation’ for this negative response we got as a baby, toddler or child, was that there was something wrong with us. Better to hide that part in the future! Thus is the shadow born. Habits are installed and become ever more ingrained over time.

As adults, we now need a high dose of inner sensitivity and courage even to begin recognising our shadow part(s). This is quite difficult because, as we said, it is completely hidden to our own eyes and there is a tendency to avoid it – at least the strong and painful emotions that are connected with it. After recognising and acknowledging it for our selves, the next step is to allow it out of the closet and to share it with others. When we can do that, what we see is nothing awful or shameful, simply a hurt child who only needs some care, some space and attention to be welcomed and recognised. That’s it. In this sharing and expression – that wasn’t possible in childhood through a lack of support – the re-integration of the shadow part is done and we become more whole. This re-integration process also has a huge influence on how we look at others: we become more humble, because we realise how blind we were to our own ‘stuff’; our hearts can stay open to them, and we can see them as fellow human beings with their own characteristics, wounding, patterns and gifts.

Leadership begins when we stop blaming others or making excuses. Leadership is not a role, it is an attitude.
– Peter Hawkins, www.now-here.com/talks/talks/necessary-leadership

One dark winter evening, I was on the phone with Geert. We had seen each other a few times over the last months and I hoped a partner relationship was sprouting. “You always want to be the boss.” he said. I immediately felt a contraction in my stomach. “Oh, my god, here we have it again!” flashed through my mind. I knew it too well. Many times my women friends and a previous partner had tried to explain that, on many occasions, I would put myself outside of the mutual relationship and behave as if I knew better or didn’t have needs like others did. I knew there was ‘something’ in this, but I didn’t understand it at all. However, being trained as a psychotherapist, it had dawned on me: this is my shadow!

That’s what I shared with him, immediately and on the spot, and I asked if he was willing to describe to me – in full detail – what it was that I did and said that made him come to this conclusion. And he did. To this day I am grateful that he made the effort to explain it all to me. That evening it finally dawned on me how my shadow expressed itself in my life. Emotionally, it was very unpleasant and extremely intense: a real dark night of the soul. I curled up on the sofa under a blanket and saw the many, many instances in my life where I had indeed taken myself out of the equal relationship and – very hidden and secretly –saw myself as knowing better, being wiser, more developed, having more clarity and so on. In this way I distanced myself from my best friends, again and again. This behaviour was totally in contrast with the values I espoused and truly thought I lived by! It felt like watching a real horror film. Every scene called forth fresh tears and I wept from the bottom of my heart because of the unintended outcomes and the distance I myself had unwittingly created,. After some hours I fell asleep on the sofa; I had finally come to grips with the feedback that friends and partners had been trying to give me for over 10 years.

When I dared to feel that far into my inner depths, I found that I always thought of myself as knowing better, as knowing more, as having more personal growth than others. Acknowledging this felt deeply painful. I had a mother who had always put her self above her own pain and needs. She had shown me a (catholic) definition of love that looked as if it was ‘beyond selfishness’, but what I got was a mom who wasn’t really present, who hid her needs and her vulnerable parts, even when she was very sick and dying. Only when I was able to share this part of my childhood with my best friends, acknowledging and really accepting (not judging) the mistrust I had in others and the pain of my childhood, could I integrate my own needs into my sense of self. Through this episode, my secretly held opinion of “I know better”, changed into a conscious knowing that “sometimes I know something that others don’t”. The gift of authentic leadership, now in a more humble form, became discernible in me. Welcoming our selves, our projections and our pain – instead of judging them or feeling guilty or ashamed – is of utmost importance when dealing with shadow material.

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At the level of embodiment and emotional energy, in this process of reclaiming the parts of our selves that have been concealed in our subconscious we need to learn to hold a lot of emotion, much of it painful. Taking back our projections will always open up some blocked, unexpressed emotions from a long time ago. You are invited simply to accept these emotions and their expressions as yours; feel the pain and cry; feel the anger and shout; feel the sexual energy and dance; feel what you missed and share your needs. If we are not at ease with doing this, the shadow material will stay were it is – in the shadow – and will keep on pushing us into our habitual patterns of reaction. Again, this calls for ongoing practice: any kind of practice that trains our ability to hold energy and/or intensity will help us not to be taken off guard when these emotions seek their natural expression in the sharing with others.

Wherever and whenever you notice that you are inflexible and always react in the same way – when you are downloading – this is part of your repertoire of habitual patterns that you may want to change. Most likely it is your partner, your friend, your colleague or (your) children who will point out your shadow to you. Because, as we have said, we ourselves are blind to it. Most, if not all, people will at first defend this part of their habitual self by saying “this is how the world is” or “this is how I am” or “that’s not true!” It takes a big dose of self-awareness to suspend this defense, ask for more explanation and look deeply inside. It is worthwhile, however, because the gift is in the trauma. In other words: your shadow will reveal your unique contribution to life, the unique ways in which you are called to express who you truly are.

It is so easy to blame others – or circumstances – for what is not working well or for ‘causing’ your deep emotions. But unless we can act flexibly (having a broader repertoire of responses than just blaming or making excuses), we are basically stuck in our patterns and not present. When I say ‘flexible’, I really mean flexible: having a wide range of options to choose from: we can use humour, or we can play it the other way, or we can choose to not answer… above all, we don’t take it personally. Instead of having a single, habitual reaction, we have a range of responses, depending on the circumstances. There is always – and I do mean always – a way of opening yourself to other ways of dealing with any situation, even when it really, really looks as if you are right and the others are wrong; or when the circumstances really do seem to be the cause of your suffering. There are always more and different options for how you can act and respond – instead of reacting and downloading – that are healthier and cause less suffering to yourself and others.

From my experience in many groups and gatherings, I am surprised by how little most people understand this process of projection and the concept of shadow. They keep on blaming ‘others’ for their own emotions, or use them as excuses. Those ‘others’ can be a real multitude of actors: their partners, the system, the hierarchy, their friends, the facilitator, the teacher, their children, the design, the neighbours… We would be well advised to lend an open and attentive ear to the feedback coming from our closest friends and partners, look at it, and contemplate it… let it sink in, even ask for more specific and detailed examples. Look and listen for recurring patterns in the feedback you get from different people. They are all offering you something you can learn from and it will enhance the quality of the relationships in your life.

I want to state this very clearly: doing shadow work does not mean getting rid of something bad or wrong about you! Many people understand shadow as something that is to blame, but the truth is that this hidden aspect of your self actually holds an essential gift of who you are. In my dark night of the soul, the crucial point was not to get rid of the mistrust and bossiness towards others, but to integrate the more vulnerable, needy and equally human part in myself. In my story, the essence was not that I got eradicated my habitual pattern of creating this gap with others deep in myself; rather, it was about recognising and sharing my own needs and longings, and acknowledging my pain that my mom had always kept her vulnerable part away from conversation and communication with me. Shadow work is simply about integrating something in yourself that has been prevented from living fully in the light. The purpose of doing this work is to become more whole, and to be ready to express and share your full self with others and the world.

When you notice lingering shame or guilt around certain part(s) of your self, you are not looking at this part as it is. Instead of witnessing, observing or acknowledging, you are downloading and judging. It is good to realise that every human being – without exception (as far as I know) – has shadow parts. So there really is nothing special about yours, although it usually feels like that: I have a secret, ugly part that I have to hide, otherwise others won’t accept me. This is the childlike belief that persists, with no grounding in the reality of today. The point now is to accept these parts in yourself, by yourself. Then you are ready to share them and be open about them: that is the re-integration.

This aspect of becoming more aligned and present in all relationships is not easy. It asks for a deep commitment to consciousness, again and again, over and over, in all manner of situations. The hurt child will hold on to its survival pattern and is scared to drop it for fear of not belonging or not surviving! The commitment can be seen as a heroic journey. As Thomas Hübl said in an interview (with Sergio Baroni on YouTube): “We need to be a hero of our own consciousness.” Once you have realised that all your inflexibility and charged emotions are yours (including the so-called positive, highly-charged emotions like falling in love), there is a huge release! No more fighting, discussing, blaming, hoping, trying to get something, holding back, expecting… All that liberated energy becomes fully available to create something, and is open to an ever-expanding vista of possibility and opportunity. The rigidity is gone, and others are seen in a new light: just as they are, as authentic human beings, nothing more and nothing less.


Quote from blogpost:

We speak of ‘holding the shadow’ and ‘loving the dragons’, but it became clear that to understand what this really is about, we have to sink deeper into ‘the koan of the shadow’. The shadow is not what we think it is, the koan will help us see what it really is: because it is not dark and it is not a thing. It is like clouds casting a shadow, but the cloud isn’t something to touch or to hold, you can just walk through it! Instead of the shadow there is an Intense Beauty! Can we live in the Direct Light, not putting anything between our selves and the Light? (May 2009)

Quote from participant:

Because if I don’t acknowledge the ugly inside of me, if I don’t acknowledge the destructive force, then there’s a part of me that doesn’t rise enough, you might say – that isn’t awake enough. There’s a wakefulness in recognising that there is an enemy. And this doesn’t happen to be an outer enemy. And the thing to do with enemies is not to kill them. The thing to do with enemies is to transform them. So the transformative outer dynamic perhaps comes from a thousand tiny steps of internal transformative dynamic. And they’re not the same. – Marianne



Shadow work is a deep and essential part in the process of inner and outer alignment that we are describing in this book. Before you can relate in an authentic way, you have to notice and deal with your own inflexibility and heal the unconscious parts of yourself that are related to that. I have noticed that a lot of people take the word ‘authentic’ to mean expressing your emotions with the implicit or explicit expectation that the other will or should change; they now have a free ticket to lay their emotional charge on others and to go beyond the polite social self. On the contrary. relating in an authentic way, as we construe it here, means that you take responsibility for your own emotions, without expecting the others to save you from them, to offer healing, or to change how they are or how they express themselves. In this way, you have created a response-ability in how you deal with your environment, and you are no longer dependent on how ‘the other’ is doing or not. Relating in an authentic way means that you can share your emotions as yours, in all their vulnerability, when and where appropriate.

In this response-ability, while one part entails staying out of your own shadow parts, it is just as important not to engage with the habitual patterns of others. In the end, of course, it comes down to the same thing and the same questions: can we deal with the others in another way? Are we sufficiently centred and flexible to come up with a novel take on how to deal with this experience?

Habitual patterns also exist in the form of ‘always being nice’, ‘always taking care’, ‘always being challenged to defend or explain’, or ‘always taking too much responsibility’, and hundreds of similar (more ‘positive’) patterns. If we are able to stay out of our survival patterns, and refrain from engaging with the patterns of the other, implicitly or explicitly we are inviting him or her to also come to a different place of engaging in the communication between us. If we are not triggered into our own form of downloading, we offer a space free of emotional charge where the other can quieten down and slowly start to understand that something new is going on.

Getting mired in the habitual patterns of others is what often sucks the life out of us. We get tired of the conversation, which always seems to go in the same direction. There is no real life in this downloading, it is just one more survival strategy engaging with yet another habitual pattern. It has not the quality that can bring us to a deeper understanding of each other, let alone to being fully alive and generating something novel together. When you can hold of your own and others’ patterns as described here – without expressing your emotional charge and/or engaging with the emotional charge of others – the experience is similar to those good moments as a parent, when your child is angry and you can hold its emotion without reacting by answering back with an equal charge of anger. You don’t take it personally. Not reacting in your habitual way, you are response-able.

The point of discernment is always: are you flexible in how you react? Can you do something else or answer in a different way? People who are always nice and polite need perhaps to learn to say: “Please Leave!” People who tend to react in an angry way need perhaps to learn to say: “Sorry.” You can check with yourself: do you have a wider repertoire of ways of acting? If one way doesn’t do the job in the relating, can you do something else? And something else again, and yet something else, without losing your own centre? Do you have different ways of engaging with the situation: humorous, emotional, rational, wacky? Can you offer a question that breaks some shared, unconscious assumptions? Can you do something totally unexpected that takes the conversation to a different level, until you find something that works in this moment, for this relationship?


The gift is in the trauma

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious.
– Carl Gustav Jung; Alchemical Studies, Collected Works Vol.13, par 335, p.265

From my story, that night on the sofa, when my friend explained to me in detail how I would distance myself from him and seek to dominate, I learned an lot about leadership. Not the bossy kind of leadership that takes authority by some kind of force, but rather a leadership that establishes itself because it is recognised by others as helpful and wise.

I don’t remember where I picked it up, or even if I invented it myself, but the expression ‘the gift is in the trauma’ holds so much value. I know for myself how recognising and integrating my wounded childhood feelings – my mother who kept her vulnerability far away from others, and from me – did away with my inner survival pattern of “I know better.” As a toddler, I knew inside that something else was possible; that relationships and community could be different than how I experienced them with my mom and in her family at large. So, yes, I knew something! But of course, nobody asked me, so I kept it a secret inside for many, many years.

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I can see, in hindsight, that my whole life has moved around this topic of leadership, assuming responsibility in different situations, many times initiating new groups and initiatives, while my own vulnerability stayed more or less remote from it all. Because our lives revolve around our deepest trauma, we have seen and approached it from many different angles, from every imaginable perspective, so that after some 20, 30 or 40 years we have become an expert on the topic! At least, if we manage to disengage, step-by-step, of the emotions of hurt that are entangled with it. Working through these emotions and bringing in some consciousness allows us to uncover the gift that is hidden in there. In chapter 5, where we will dive into our soul’s calling, we will build on this unique flavour that each of us brings to life.

Sharing these deep feelings is what creates deep relationships. The quality of our vulnerability is first of all a gift to our own self, but it is also a gift in our relationship with the other(s). If this quality is present in a group’s process, true friendship can arise and we will create a collective space where we are in flow, instead of being hindered by our habitual patterns of defending, blocking, withdrawing and the like. In this shared vulnerability, we open up more, something pours through the cracks of the no-longer-needed identity/personality, and then there is a wider space to embrace and radiate more of life itself.


Next: 2.4 Widening balance as a process of outer alignment
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