Trying not to trip on my shadow (in which I admit to my weaknesses)

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.

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.

Wherever relationships grow, the shadow is sure to show up


Last week, I had a unique opportunity to travel to Sedona to support a 5-day retreat and working session. A business development consulting company was gathering their team for a two day retreat, and then was offering a brand new, one-of-a-kind program where a client joined them on retreat for three days and was taken through an intense process of visioning and business development. By the end of the three days, the intention was for the client to leave with a new website and business plan. This meant that they were doing all of the writing, logo design, website development, and photography on-site in a really intense period of time.

The owner of the consulting company had the foresight to bring me in to help hold the space, host circle, and take the process to a deeper level. Though we didn’t articulate all of these things ahead of time, I was also there to do some coaching, help the client through some blocks when they came up, ground them in the soul of the place when things got crazy, and create ceremony in support of what was being done (ie. smudging, release ceremony, labyrinth walking, etc.).

None of us really knew what to expect in this uncharted territory, and some of the things that came up were surprising for all of us. There was one thing I knew, though… in this kind of intense environment, the shadow is sure to show up.

“We’re excited to begin,” I said the first day, when we gathered in circle together, “but there are some things worth considering even in our excitement and anticipation. Know this – at some point this week, things will get uncomfortable. The shadow will show up in the group. Suddenly, you’ll discover you don’t like each other as much as you thought you did, and you might not even like yourself. Little things will get on your nerves and you’ll get frustrated and restless and you may be tempted to walk away.”

“I know it will be uncomfortable, but, if you stick with it, that discomfort will help you grow. In the end, it can make this team stronger than it ever was.”

Within a few days, true to form, the shadow was there in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways.  What seemed easy at the beginning started to feel hard. The relationships that seemed solid at the beginning started to feel a little wobbly. Good work and lots of learning and stretching was being done, but there was an undercurrent that couldn’t be denied. Some of that had to do with the newness of the experiment and some had to do with the intensity of trying to get the work done in a shared space.

We didn’t have a lot of time for processing what went on while we were still together, but I’ve continued to think about it since and will continue to reflect back on it with my client.

Every time I witness this kind of shadow showing up in a group, I think back to my first trip to Africa. It was an intense time, traveling in a place of heart-breaking poverty with a group of 12 people I didn’t know. That experience became, for me, a microcosm of what it means to build a community.

Fortunately, a friend had recommended the book A Different Drum, by M. Scott Peck a few months before my trip and that helped me process what happened while we were together. In the book, Peck talks about the four stages of community.

At the beginning, there is pseudocommunity when people are extremely pleasant with each other and avoid disagreement. “People, wanting to be loving, withhold some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict. Individual differences are minimized, unacknowledged, or ignored. The group may appear to be functioning smoothly but individuality, intimacy, and honesty are crushed.”

The second stage is chaos, when individual differences start to surface. “The chaos centers around well-intentioned but misguided attempts to heal and convert. Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to obliterate them. It is a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle. It is no fun.”

If people dare to stick around after chaos has erupted, they reach a stage of emptiness. “It is the hardest and most crucial stage of community development. It means members emptying themselves of barriers to communication. The most common barriers are expectations and preconceptions; prejudices; ideology, theology and solutions; the need to heal, fix, convert or solve; and the need to control. The stage of emptiness is ushered in as members begin to share their own brokenness–their defeats, failures, and fears, rather than acting as if they ‘have it all together.’”

A group committed to wholeness will eventually get to true communityIn this stage, the group chooses to embrace not only the light but the shadow. “True community is both joyful and realistic. The transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires little deaths in many of the individuals. But it is also a time of group death, group dying. Through this emptiness, this sacrifice, comes true community. Members begin to speak of their deepest and most vulnerable parts–and others will simply listen. There will be tears–of sorrow, of joy. An extraordinary amount of healing begins to occur.”

During my trip to Africa, I found it quite remarkable to witness exactly what M. Scott Peck had said would happen. When our group plunged from the warm fuzzies of pseudo-community and into the chaos and shadow, it was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t surprised to see it coming. Fortunately, many of us were willing to stick with our relationships long enough and empty ourselves of our expectations, prejudices, and solutions to get to something deeper.

I try to encourage people not to give up hope when chaos erupts and shadow shows up in unexpected places. Instead I invite them to dare to persevere, and dare to sit with the discomfort until we get to the really juicy, really authentic place of true community. (In a future post, I will write more about what it feels like to be a leader or facilitator in such a process and how our own shadow shows up and threatens to further sabotage the growth of the community. I am still working through some of my own shadow that came up last week and continues to stick with me this week.)

I deeply believe that this is why we need containers like the circle to help us hold space for this kind of emergence. When we are intentional about our conversations right from the start, when we commit to certain agreements and have a shared understanding of the process, we create a space where we can look into the shadow without blame, shame, or avoidance. I wasn’t deeply enough immersed in circle work to bring it into the African experience, but I don’t think I’d step into such an intense experience again without it. Even something as simple as the talking piece can ensure that the conversation is slowed down enough that each voice in the room is heard and respected.

Last week, we kept returning to the circle, and though there were days when there was “just too much work to do” and the time in circle took away from the work time, I insisted that at least a check-in was necessary. When we sit in a common space where we look into each other’s eyes, we speak with intention, listen with attention, and tend the well-being of the circle, we have some hope of deepening our connections and ensuring we stick with the process even when the chaos hits.

Whatever relationship you are in – whether it is in a community, in a marriage, in a workplace, etc. – you can be assured that there will be times when the shadow makes it so uncomfortable you’ll want to run from it. The tough work will be in deciding whether it is worth it to stick with the process and build a strong enough container to get through to the really good stuff.

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.

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