As a therapist, I explain that our psyches are not a solid, unified front surrounded by a Teflon wall. They are dynamic, fluid worlds populated by many inner characters that come and go quickly, from moment to moment, changing our moods, attitudes, and emotional needs. During these shifts, we feel as if we are possessed by a single character, while the other parts remain offstage. While one part acts out, it may not feel like “me” at all. As Arianna Huffington says, it feels like a neighbor.
Each of these parts, which I call shadow characters, arises from the unconscious with a personal history, a wound to bear, and a gift to give. They are purposeful, not random, and full of information for us.
The more unconscious the character, the more tightly it holds onto center stage, leading us to feel and to act in unfamiliar or self-sabotaging ways. But as we begin to make them conscious and build a relationship to them, their grasp loosens. And our range of choice expands. Eventually, with ongoing shadow-work, we can offer our shadow characters a place in our psyches where their voices can be heard, and their deeper needs can be honored.
In Romancing the Shadow, my co-author Steve Wolf and I tell a story about the Greek myth of Odysseus, which offers a hint about what to do when we feel caught in a repetitive thought pattern, blown about by the strong winds of emotion, or trapped in a compulsive behavior. The story provides an image of how to how to cultivate a state of mind that can withstand the storms and provide safe harbor by breaking our unconscious identification with the negative self-talk of shadow characters.
Sailing the seas during the Trojan War, many mariners perished when they passed the island of the Sirens, seductive and powerful female warriors who enticed their victims by singing evocative songs. As the sailors approached the island, their ships cracked up on the rocks, and the Sirens attacked and destroyed them.
Odysseus knew ahead of time of these dangers, so he had a plan: He tied himself to the mast of the ship, so that he could hear the songs without hitting the rocks.
The mast of the ship is like the Self; the experience of being tied to the mast is the sense of being rooted or ground in the center of yourself, so that alien forces – disturbing thoughts, powerful feelings, or painful sensations coming from the shadow – can’t throw you off course. When you are tied to the mast, you can hear the voices and feel the feelings without cracking up on the rocks.
In this way, you can develop the capacity for self-observation or witnessing. When you can witness your thoughts and feelings with some detachment, you can experience them without allowing them to take over.
Before you learn to witness, your psyche is splashed with the emotions of the moment, and your identity is colored by them. You might say, “I am depressed,” rather than “I feel sad.” Or “I am no good,” rather than “I am no good at doing that task.”
After you learn to witness, you watch your emotions, and your identity remains clear, uncolored by passing phenomena. You might say, “I feel sad with this loss, but I know it will pass.” Or “I’m not skilled at this task, but it doesn’t detract from my overall value.”
Witnessing provides a sense of spaciousness in the mind, so that you are more able to live with the winds of emotion.
To tie yourself to the mast, you need a rope – a spiritual practice that provides a connection to the Self. Any meditation practice that centers you – belly breathing, Vipassana or mindfulness, TM, Zen – is essential for preparing to meet the shadow.
First, identify your negative self-talk as the presence of a shadow character by these three cues:
1. Mechanical, repetitive thoughts (“I’ll never succeed. I’m too dumb or too fat or too lazy.” “I need to get high.” “I can do it tomorrow.”)
2. Or intractable feelings (fear, guilt, sadness, abandonment, anger).
3. Or bodily sensations (tightening abdomen or shoulders, closing throat; feeling of emptiness).
When you begin to recognize these signals as the sounds of a siren, do your centering practice and begin to witness your internal experience.
4. Give this shadow character an image in your mind’s eye by asking, “Who is there in this moment? Male or female? Young or old?”
5. Give it a name — the Critic, Procrastinator, the General, the Dutiful Daughter, the Abandoned Child, the Fraud, the Loser, the Workaholic, the Addict, the Liar.
6. Recognize that this thought, feeling, or sensation is not who you are. It’s not your spiritual identity, your Self. It’s a shadow character.
7. Trace the roots of this shadow character by recalling a recent time when you heard the same voice or felt the same feelings and fell into the same pattern.
8. Go farther back and trace the history of this pattern by closing your eyes and recalling an earlier time when you experience same exact same internal messages, emotions, or sensations. When you find this, you will see that your reaction in the present is really a reaction from the past.
9. What are the consequences of obeying the message of this shadow character, of acting it out?
10. Knowing this, you can make a different, more conscious choice.
11. Observe your resistance: What stops you from making different choices?
As you continue to bring this bit of unconscious material into consciousness, the whisper of your intuitive Self can be heard again behind the noise.
Dr. Connie Zweig, www.conniezweig.com, has retired from clinical practice and is writing The Reinvention of Age