embrace shadow

Last week, after facilitating a retreat for a client in Sedona, I talked about how the shadow shows up in a group, and I promised that I’d also talk about how the shadow shows up in me. Now is that time.

This is going to be personal. It’s also going to be a little hard, because the shadow is all of that stuff that I don’t want you to see in me. That’s why it’s called the shadow – because I’d rather keep all of that uncomfortable stuff tucked away out of the light.

The more I address the shadow, however, and the more I bring my own weaknesses and shame into the light, the less power it has over me and the more I am able to transform it into growth and gift.

Some surprising things came up in the group in Sedona and the experience brought up some old stories about my own ability to hold space well. As is often the case when we introduce circle work to a group of people who are unaccustomed to facing each other and unaccustomed to the deeper conversations circle invites (and perhaps don’t have enough time to do the circle justice), resistance shows up. Sometimes people leave the group, sometimes they sabotage what’s going on, and sometimes they simply don’t engage and cause the space to feel less safe for the other people there.

When this resistance shows up, it can trigger me and bring up old stories of unworthiness. The shadow singers in my head begins to repeat some old choruses of “You’re an imposter and everyone in the room sees through you.” or “You’re not very good at handling conflict.” or “This stuff is silly and not important enough for people to care.”

Early in this work, when these triggers showed up, I would do one of three things: consider walking away and leaving this work to the “real professionals”, get defensive and push back on those who’d resist (and sometimes – I hate to say it – become downright unkind to the resisters), or become overly accommodating to make sure everyone was happy.

It has taken a lot of personal work to address this shadow in me. That work is not finished and it may never be. (Check back with me when I’m 90.)

Even when I’d come home discouraged from a workshop or retreat, though, I knew that I was committed to this work and that there were things I needed to learn from the rough spots. Every one of those resisters served as a teacher for me. Every one of them helped me see something I needed to address in order to rise stronger than I was before. As I reflect back, I try to extend gratitude for each of those people who have helped me learn.

As I’ve written about before, it is essential for anyone holding space for other people – whether it’s our employees, children, friends, clients, parents, or partners – to practice holding space for ourselves first. When we do this, the shadow has less power over us and we are less triggered when the resistance or the old stories show up.

Contemplative practices and rituals help us release anger, frustration, self-doubt, etc., and stay present in the now. Gentle self-care helps us revive our energy and strength and reminds us that we are worthy. Self-inquiry (through journaling, art practice, etc.) helps us detach from what others think of us and learn to tell new stories that re-shape the experience.

Most importantly, we must practice seeing both ourselves and the people who trigger us through the eyes of compassion.

When we see through the eyes of compassion, the resister in the circle or the person who triggers us is no longer “the idiot who’s trying to sabotage our work” but “the person who is dealing with something in his life that is making this hard right now” or “the person whose background/culture/education/trauma has taught her that this is not a place of safety”.

When we see through the eyes of compassion, our own response to the trigger is not “a sign of weakness”, it is “an opportunity to learn something about ourselves”.

While I was in Sedona, I tried to practice what I preach. I did a lot of journaling, I sat by the creek and went for walks as the sun came up over the red rocks, and I was as gentle as I could be with myself and those I was with. When I came home, I continued to hold space for myself by taking naps, going to a movie, and having lots of intentional conversations that helped me unpack the week before.

Unfortunately, though, (or perhaps fortunately, depending on perspective) my learning wasn’t over. When I landed back home, I had to deal with several challenges that continued to trigger me. A conflict arose with a family member, a critique from a friend made me wonder if I was more arrogant than I cared to admit, and some of my parenting methods were called into question. It felt like all of my flaws were being spread out on the kitchen table and I was being forced to look at them one by one. And there came that old voice again “what do you REALLY know about holding space? You’re failing on all counts. You’re a fraud.”

It wasn’t a fun place to be, but I continued to do my best to dive into the learning that was being offered. What I realized was this…

It takes both humility and confidence to do the work of holding space. Humility and confidence may seem like opposites, but, like the yin-yang symbol, they work together to keep us grounded and balanced.

The challenging thing about humility and confidence, though, is that they both have a shadow side that gets in the way when we don’t pay attention. On the shadow side of humility is shame and on the shadow side of confidence is arrogance. Shadow sometimes tries to masquerade as light, and so we can become arrogant or ashamed when we’re trying to be confident or humble. Both arrogance and shame hide our true light and cause us to sabotage relationships rather than grow them.

My work, in the last two weeks, has been to practice being humble enough to admit my failings, apologize where necessary, and accept responsibility for the consequences of my actions. It has also been to practice being confident enough to know that some of what I’m tempted to call failures were actually successes and that the work I do continues to have an impact when I get my own ego out of the way.

It’s been an intense couple of weeks, and now (as is so often the case) I’m getting a chance to teach exactly what I’m learning. This weekend, I’ll be teaching a workshop for a client on the theme of holding space. The participants of the workshop are all people who hold space for family members with operational stress injuries (specifically those who’ve served in military combat). I am humbled that I get the chance to work with these people, because I am sure that many of them have learned much more than I have about what it takes to hold space in difficult circumstances. I hope that I can bring them some encouragement and inspiration.

And I hope that you too will be gentle with yourself as you peer into your own shadow and dare to step forward with confidence and humility.


Note: I hope to offer more workshops like this, so if you know of clients who could use support in this area, please pass my name on to them or send me your suggestions. I will also be creating some offerings (both online and off) that will be available to anyone who’s interested. Stay tuned.

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