The men sitting right in front of me were howling in fury at me.
“You cheated!!! You got us to do what you wanted!! You always win! You rigged the game!”
I dug in my heels even further, shocked by their poor sportsmanship, their inability to accept defeat gracefully. Frankly, I couldn’t believe they were serious. “Look man,” I said, “I was just trying to show you how to play the game. I in no way used that to my advantage. It’s just how the game worked out.” "Settlers of Cataan" is a widow maker, but this was different. They were questioning my honor, my integrity. I was astonished.
They hammered back even harder, citing examples of how I steered their decisions in the game and of course their ultimate evidence was that I had won—they had not.
In truth I wasn’t being defensive. I genuinely didn’t believe I had done what they said. It wasn’t within the limits of my view of myself.
Have you ever experienced that? When you’re being accused of something, or perceived a certain way, and you feel incensed or totally blindsided by the thought?
In Shadow Work this kind of exaggerated self-defensive response is a subtle indicator that we are working with an unacknowledged shadow.
What is the Shadow & How Did It Come to Be?
I get asked that a lot when I talk about the effects of dealing with my own, or working with other men around theirs. People are genuinely curious what it means.
The Shadow, simply put, is the collection of all the parts of self that we have repressed and suppressed in order to be acceptable to others. It begins very early, as the messages of what we’re supposed to do or think or feel come before birth even. As Robert Bly, one of the father’s of the expressive men’s movement, said:
We came as infants trailing clouds of glory arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe…with our radiance intact and we offered this gift to our parents. They didn’t want it. They wanted a nice girl or a nice boy.
As we continued to hear these messages our consciousness fragmented into pieces. We brought forward the sort of behaviors that were reinforced and were called good and decent. We also shoved into the background anything that could disconnect us from others, from relationship or having our needs met.
Imagine being given a great pile of raw materials and then constructing a skyscraper above ground. Only the best materials are utilized, and anything that might be seen as inferior or subpar is discarded and falls down. It’s shaped and fashioned to impress and to house visitors who we want to acknowledge us.
But at night, and in the darkness, workers come and remove the discarded parts. They begin to dig down into the soil and construct a long basement out of those pieces. In fact, for every level of the skyscraper, the basement extends in equal measure.
We spend a good bit of our early life creating those two conjoined structures. The basement of our shadows is constructed from who we are and into it we place every thing that we wish to go unseen or be unknown about us. Much of what is naturally occurring in us goes into that basement. Our spontenaity, our wildness, our unpredictability—all of it. In fact, part of the overall “life plan” we come up with early on is a divorce from these shadowy places. We want to ensure that our living is something structurally sound and that can be seen and counted on. And so we lose sight of those parts that aren’t dedicated to the edifice erected above ground.
Always Lurking, in the Shadows
However, our shadows are still present. They continue to live and grow there in the darkness. Without the light of day and conscious cultivation they become something primitive and undeveloped. Think of a man who is divorced from his anger—and only allows himself to experience it when he is totally enraged and out of control. The anger is always there—however it’s in the basement of shadows, and has grown into an unruly caricature of itself.
This is true for anything we tuck away in the basement of shadows. Our sexuality, our sense of freedom, fun, indolence, anger, jealousy, assertiveness, aggression, activeness, or impulsiveness—all of it develops in primitive ways. There’s a sort of staleness to anything left there in the basement over time. These attributes are musty, messy and over-eager. When the door is opened to them, they lurch out and wreak havoc in the tidy world we have created above.
Of course our friends and loved ones are surprised and shocked when they see these monsters emerge. We scramble to sweep them back underground—sufficiently reinforced by what we always assumed: there are pieces of our self that are not welcomed and must be avoided at all costs.
The cycle repeats itself, over and over.
Most of us choose to live blissfully unaware of our shadowy parts. We have outbursts from time to time, but generally imagine it’s not an element of whom we are, and can be controlled through things like therapy, religion, alcohol, and other sedatives. These certainly help us distract from the murky parts of our being, but often simply help continue in the building of our above-ground self without much consciousness around what lies beneath. When we run from our shadow, and refuse to face it, often confronting it with willpower alone, we simply allow the power of those places to sink back into the unconscious again. Telling the Devil to “get behind me” may feel empowering, but in reality it pushes the “Satan” (or adversary) in our experience behind us—further into the shadows where it works itself in negative and projective forms.
The Unpleasant Wake Up Call
For many of the men I work with, and certainly in my own life, awareness of the shadow comes as a result of the floor falling out, so to speak. We receive feedback that we didn’t count on; life tells us what we needed to know all the while, but tried to avoid. An affair, a divorce, the loss of a job or career, an ultimatum, a car accident, physical pain or illness—all of these things can amount to a wake up call for a man.
When a man comes to this point the scaffolding of his aboveground and golden life has fallen down. He has been plunged into the darkness of the basement. This is frightening and bewildering. Resource less, ego-less, and in many ways powerless—the man who undergoes this type of confrontation begins a long road not only of confronting his unacknowledged shadow but also picking up the pieces of his life and his lively-hood. It is unfortunate that most of us wait that long to address what is.
I’m often asked if there’s a better way to begin to work with those unseen parts. Thankfully, there is.
There are, in what many experts have agreed upon, five primary ways we can peer into our shadow.
Feedback, as I’ve just said, really is a very good lens through which we can witness our own reflection. If we choose to see it, this can be an opportunity to see ourselves as others see us. However, there are some powerful obstacles to this method. One obstacle is that we tend to take the wrong feedback too seriously and the other is that we tend to take the right feedback not seriously enough.
In today’s culture the WRONG FEEDBACK is based in the realm of reputation, or what strangers think of you. Social media, in particular, has allowed for a wave of opinion mobs and platform storming. The stories are rampant: a misguided comments on Twitter, and suddenly you’ve been labeled as a hate monger and villianized next to Darth Vader, without the cool mask. Oddly, this extreme targeting, actually effects us. It produces all the same results that an intimate friend saying these things of us might. We can tell ourselves that this doesn’t matter, but at the end of the day it effects us internally, and for many, the feedback loops of perfect strangers have ended their careers and relationships. Mob mentality, jumping to conclusions, and the polarizing of positions are symptomatic of what happens when we create a culture in which we imagine not only does everyone’s voice matter—but also should in fact matter to us.
The voice of the stranger, while perfectly valid, is not the voice you need to be listening to. Your reputation—or what strangers think of you—is not what you should be listening to. On the other hand, what those close to you know of you—your character—does in fact matter.
Sadly, we are often highly defended against these. “What on earth are you talking about?” we might say, if they point out something they’ve noticed, or a pattern they’ve observed.
Of course, if we were truly open to the feedback, and had an interest in confronting our shadow, we’d listen and notice, and validate what is valid. Those who live with us, and spend time seeing us, are some of the best indicators of what we’ve become.
I can recall a moment when my spouse confronted the fact that I had been complaining about a toothache for months not addressing it. She was tired of hearing about it! She wanted me to take action.
Often that’s how the feedback loop works. We can live with these painful places in our self, but others can’t. When we allow them to communicate clearly and with effect we benefit.
The Projection Profile
Another place we witness our shadow is through projection. When we begin to examine our exaggerated responses to others –whether positive or negative—we can notice the shadow dimension at work.
Have you ever been around someone who suddenly provoked your ire? Recently this happened to me. I was around a female friend of mine who is quite influential in her world. She primarily works with women around the qualities of the Divine Feminine. However, everywhere she went, as we were together, seemingly progressive males bore down on her and exhibited grooming behavior towards her. They professed interest in her work, but then shortly thereafter transferred the energy into something more amorous. It was hard to watch. I felt infuriated. But why?
Certainly I felt protective for my friend. I was unquestionably justified in my grievance. Still, the truth is that I too have practiced those behaviors. I also have, in the past, utilized my own progressive and empathetic “feminine side” as a smoke screen for hitting on a female. I wasn’t aware that I was exuding this in those moments, but eventually came to see what was happening. When I encountered those same tendencies in another it became an uncomfortable mirror. I instantly wished to reject in them the places I’ve wanted to reject in myself. As I watched these unitiated males it was though I was witnessing parts of my own self, that I realize since had needed to be confronted.
One of the simplest methods for using projections as a shadow illuminator is to make a list of the qualities that set you off in someone else. It could be lack of consideration, short temper, selfishness, guilt tripping, manipulation, etc.… Chances are, you’ll discover that these places are also found in yourself in some form, whether highly developed or not.
Of course not every critique of someone else reveals the same truth in us. I like to say that just because serial killers outrage me doesn’t mean that I’m simply projecting my inner serial killer outward. However, anytime our responses are exaggerated or rooted in excessive emotion, you can almost guarantee that there is something that is unconsciously activated here.
This actually works out in the positive too. When we start to truly admire someone or notice their greatness, and compare ourselves to them—or even evaluate ourselves in the light of their strengths this is a sign of projection. It’s often called “the halo effect” in which a person isn’t possibly capable of doing anything wrong. Truly this points us towards our own shadow work.
Slip Ups as a Revelatory Experience
Another inroad to the basement of shadows is through “slips” or accidents. My wife provides a wonderful example of this. Several times throughout the course of our marriage she has made out-loud critical statements of others, without knowing she’s said it. When I reflect back that she’s said something, she is mortified, and has even accused me of mind reading. No, I assure her, it’s simply a slip of some sort on her part, and not psychic telepathy. What’s happening here? Her ability to be critical is a deep part of her shadow. She’s cut off from it, she avoids it, and she dislikes it about herself. Despite her best efforts, she occasionally slips up and the critic comes out anyhow.
We all have those moments, where we meant to do or say one thing and something else entirely emerges. We feel embarrassed and want to take it back. But the cat’s out of the bag. The best thing to do in that moment is to begin to work with the slip and get profoundly curious about it. Does this connect to something else under the surface?
The Dream World
Still an additional element of shadow work is dream work. This is a spiritual practice and modern western psychological one that is well worth the investment. As the most spontaneous form of our unconscious our dreams truly deliver a profound visual on what may be arising for us. When the shadow arises in our dreams it is almost always the thing that we are afraid of, dislike, or feel disgusted by. Sometimes we are being pursued by this figure. We tend to imagine its separate from us, but in reality it’s a part of our self. If we look at it long enough we see the thoughts, plans, and dreams we have attempted to deny or escape from on a conscious level.
What Happens Next
These are all ways we can look into this long basement of shadows. If we don’t attempt this, we fall prey to the monsters sneaking out and running amok in the world we have created. The weight of the edifice of waking life becomes too heavy and the floor caves in.
The older we get, the more this hour of devastation’s effect upon us. But, if we go, voluntarily, into that basement, and flip on the light of awareness, mindfully investigating what’s there something curious starts to emerge. Everything we assumed to be monsters just ends up being shadows cast by the darkness and light, illusions. That villain over there? Just the junk left from grandpa’s attic. The demon in that corner? Something we stowed away from elementary school. The basement of shadows turns out to be a rummage bin. And when we learn that we can choose to sell those things off at a sale, or dust them off and invite them upstairs into the aboveground places. Either way, they’re not scary any longer.
Recently I was speaking at a conference, and I fantasized about meeting people from my past who might know me, or know of me. I imagined them approaching me and saying all sorts of awful things and drudging up old haunts about me. What would I say? What might I do? Then I realized exactly what I would tell them. Looking them squarely in the eye I would share, “I’ve met my demons. I know them by name. Some of them have gone elsewhere, and some have become my best friends. Either way—we’re well acquainted. How about you? Do you know your shadows so well?”
There’s a strength and power that comes from facing your inner world. If you’re interested, scared, or wanting to know more—reach out. Let’s begin to explore this together.