When I first started exploring my ‘shadow effect’ (A concept introduced by Debbie Ford’s work www.debbieford.com), I thought, “I get this concept but ‘dark side'? I might have to really really look for mine.” I am a rule-follower. I am kind to others. I help when asked. My credit score deserves bragging rights. I return the $20 I find in the ATM tray to the bank personnel. I go out of my way to find a Target employee to show my receipt of paid merchandise, after leaving the bathroom. I received straight A’s in my Master’s program (Except one teacher decided to give me an A- instead of an A for my final class, which knocked my GPA done to a 3.97. He said he wanted me to learn to deal with imperfection.) What a jerk, right? Well, I definitely believed this to be true at the time. I realize now, he was pure genius and saw right through my dark side. Yea, I said that. All that ‘goodie-two-shoe’ stuff IS part of my dark side. It is the bodyguard standing at the entrance, refusing to let anyone close enough, to see what’s really there.
We have many things in our culture and society to distract us from our dark side. What resides in our dark side, you ask? It is usually filled with fear, vulnerability, pain, loss, suffering, and thoughts of ‘Am I good enough?” or “Do I deserve love?”. What does our dark side feel like? You know those headaches, stomachaches, eye twitching, and unexplained pain that don’t seem to go away. Yup, that is what our dark side FEELS like if it goes unnoticed and hides deep down inside of us.
Our distractions from our darkness vary from drinking, food, gambling, watching TV, shopping, keeping busy, excessive exercise and dieting, even humor –just to name a few. And, you guessed it… The “Good Girl” persona is one of them too. Turns out my dark side includes all of my attempts to prove I lacked a dark side. If I act as if I have everything together and “do all the right things”, then people won’t see my dark side; the one similar to everyone else's. Turns out, I too have pain, fear, vulnerability and hurt. Wow, that feels amazing to say out loud. Before understanding this concept, writing this down in a blog for everyone to see, would have terrified me. Now, when I talk about these feelings and negative thoughts, they diminish in size, intensity and frequency. My fears tried very hard to stop me from realizing I actually feel courageous and empowered when I own and face my “stuff". Not shameful and inadequate like they bullied me into believing.
Awareness and understanding of our dark side is just the beginning. Now, we have to remove the fear of facing our darkness, by bringing our light and team of support along our path of darkness.
What are our some of our light sources?
Gratitude and Joy: If we are aware of what brings us joy and gratitude, we will be able to enter the cave of darkness, without feeling like it consumes and envelopes us. Gratitude and Joy journals help us stay focused on the positive happenings and people in our lives. Reminding ourselves of these occurrences on a daily basis provides a sense of grounding and safety, making it easier to maneuver through the darkness. Poetry, collages, music, and bible verses are other ways to record and remind ourselves of gratitude and joy. A way to further deepen our gratitude and joy is to express it with others. (Brene’ Brown talks more about gratitude and joy in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. She is brilliant! Check out the tab "Interesting Articles and Videos" for her presentation on Shame Resilience)
Learning from past failure: Acknowledging and sharing our past failures allows us the opportunity to learn from them. If we hide and ignore them, they become a part of who we are which often leads to the evolution of guilt and shame. When failure makes us feel helpless and inadequate, remember you have control over how it will affect you. It can be part of your healing or part of your baggage. Can you remember a time someone shared with you how humiliated they were because of some recent failure and you responded with, “I hear you. I have been there too. It is so embarrassing?” If so, I bet you can remember watching that person soften and breathe a sense of relief. Genuine connection and healing develop from sharing our deepest, darkest parts of who we are.
Bring along your support system: As I encourage you to face and express your feelings of vulnerability and fear. Be selective in who you disclose and share this information with when seeking support. Not everyone can handle holding a safe and compassionate place to nurture understanding and validation. You don’t want to finally build the courage to share and have someone respond with judgment or possibly minimize your experience and feelings.
Asking for help: For someone like me, this idea is down right cringe-worthy. I am the ‘helper ’ not the ‘helpee’. As I previously mentioned, I have enjoyed living under the illusion that “I am in charge and in control.” In the past, I would have considered asking for help as a sign of failure. A friend helped me realize; true friendship comes from having a balance of giving and receiving. She also shared it was important for her to reciprocate the help I provided her. She wanted to feel useful and productive too. It dawned on me, being a ‘one-sided’ friend, doesn’t allow me to recognize and appreciate my friends for who they fully are and all they have to offer. Essentially, all my ‘helping’ was taking something away from my friend and sending the message, “You need me but I don’t need you”. That message right there puts the brakes on true intimacy, doesn’t it?
Focus on being not doing: I feel productive and useful within chaos. “Shannon to the rescue-I can fix it!” Crisis makes me feel purposeful. However, as soon as calmness and peace present themselves, I am a basket case. I feel helpless and immobilized. Insert the analogy, ‘running around like a chicken with its head cut off’ to describe me when the quiet sets in. When I was young I would go to my aunt’s house to visit. She had a chicken coup on her property. I have seen this analogy in action and it isn’t pretty. I keep extremely busy attempting to avoid that dark space within me sometimes. It is exhausting, running around, unsure of the direction I am going. There is this irrational belief; "If I can move fast enough or stay ahead of 'it', I can prevent it from catching me". Allowing and respecting our quiet time makes our inner voice and direction become clearer and louder. There can be much reward and benefit in allowing the answers to come to us rather than trying to search for all the answers ourselves.
Forgiveness: Self compassion does not come naturally to most people. It needs to be learned and practiced. We are quick to judge and criticize ourselves for our mistakes and poor choices. Taking time to pause and consider how you may respond to a friend, who shares a mistake they made with you, can help in the practice of forgiveness. Consider identifying a comforting, loving message to say to yourself before you need to use it. It is hard to practice compassion after the criticism and guilt settle in. Start saying this message as soon as you start to notice thoughts of judgment.
Take a breath: Practicing deep breathing and relaxation tools are great sources of light. As I have mentioned in previous posts, you cannot have anxiety in a relaxed body. Your power will come from remaining relaxed and open to your feelings as you venture further into the darkness. Practicing deep breathing and keeping calm says to the darkness, “Bring it on. I can handle this.”
Something I have learned from this journey is that our darkness and light have adverse affects when you acknowledge and express them. When we face our darkness, it gets smaller and less significant. When we acknowledge our light, it shines bigger and brighter. To sum up the effects of our own light and darkness, here is one of my favorite quotes from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, “People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the light is out, but when the darkness sets in; their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.” Amen!