Just to be clear, I don’t teach about relationships because I have mastered them. I have my struggles just like anyone else. I teach about relationships because there is so much growth, inspiration, healing, fun, beauty, and love to be experienced from developing healthy relationships. Furthermore, we are designed to thrive in relationship, and life is more fun and peaceful when we’re all thriving. Most of all, I believe we need to get better at relationships if we’re going to turn things around and stop destroying the planet and ourselves, because no one can do it alone.
Perhaps the most difficult part of relationships for me has been taking responsibility for my shadow and my projections of my shadow onto others (the shadow is where we hide the parts of ourselves we’ve repressed, disowned, or buried away because they weren’t accepted and supported by our parents, or caregivers, or the society in which we were raised).
I’ve spent several years exploring my shadow and getting help with rescuing and reclaiming my disowned parts. It’s been humbling, and I’m certain there is much more humility to come. In fact, along with awareness, humility is one of the key ingredients of healthy relationships: it’s difficult to reclaim disowned parts if you aren’t aware or can’t admit you have them (for more about disowned parts and the shadow, see my blog post: Reclaiming Disowned Parts). If you aren’t aware of your disowned parts or can’t admit you have them, then your relationships will suffer because you will project your repulsion, fear, hatred, or denial of those parts onto others.
Taking responsibility for the shadow is difficult for many reasons. To start with, most of us weren’t raised with parents and adults modeling how to take responsibility for disowned parts and the feelings they generate. Instead, we learned the game of blame in which we project our judgement and loathing of our disowned parts onto others and blame them for our feelings. This doesn’t just happen in marriage or between friends and family members. We can project our disowned parts onto anyone. Furthermore, we don’t project only painful parts of ourselves; we also project our disowned positive qualities onto others. This is why some people give so much of their time, attention, and money to celebrities and athletes; they are seeing in them their disowned power, creativity, beauty, strength, inspiration and belief in themselves.
When it comes to romantic relationships, we often project both our positive and painful qualities onto our lovers. Bill Plotkin sums it up well in his book Soulcraft, “…when she falls in love, she will project not only the most noble qualities of her own soul but also, eventually, her most negative shadow qualities. She knows it will be a while before she sees her shadow in her lover’s face, but, when she does, it will be disheartening, frightening, possibly repulsive. Knowing this is inevitable, she’ll say yes to love anyway. She understands that unveiling the shadow is as valuable a result of romance as any other.” (Plotkin, 2003) (Plotkin switches back and forth between the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he’ when he writes.)
Taking responsibility for the shadow, full responsibility, is also difficult because it requires that we learn to be and feel the things that were not acceptable to be or feel when we were young. It requires that we rewire neural networks that formed around avoiding these things at all costs.
I try to get as much help as I can for reclaiming my disowned parts. But, of course, the help isn’t always there in the heat of the moment. What I have found immensely helpful in those moments is awareness and the humility (when I can muster it; unfortunately, humility doesn’t always come easily to me) to speak about my shadow to whomever on I’m the verge of projecting it onto.
Naming the shadow out loud often lessens the intensity and power of the pain in our disowned parts and puts the breaks on projection. In other words, when I sense that my shadow is activated—when I notice strong feelings and a strong impulse to blame or judge someone—I can let the person I’m with know that I am up against my shadow. Naming the shadow in this way doesn’t usually deactivate it completely, but it does shine some light on it and stops projection from taking over.
Naming the shadow allows you to slow things down and focus on implementing a process for transforming the shadow, or on getting support, instead of escalating into an argument. The process would be any agreed-upon collaborative, co-regulating strategy for working with shadow activation (see my Tip for the Road—Talking about Conflict When You’re Not in Conflict). Support could be found separately from counseling or empathy buddies or self-regulating strategies.
One of the hardest parts of my shadow to reclaim is vulnerability—needing others and of letting others need me, and opening my heart more and more to another. Sometimes I can be graceful with vulnerability; sometimes I feel terrified or repulsed or numb; and sometimes I want to judge or make myself wrong or make another wrong for being vulnerable.
How do you know when the shadow is activated and you are projecting it or about to project it? It’s not always easy to know for sure but possible indicators include:
- Incessant or strong judgemental thoughts and words
- Excessive praise and fixation on another
- A compulsion to fix another person or get them to change
- Stronger feelings both painful and positive stimulated by another
- A reaction that seems out of proportion to the situation
- An inability to have compassion or empathy for the other person
You’ll know the shadow is not activated, or at least not in control, when you can express yourself while still having compassion and empathy for the other person, and when you have a collaborative attitude instead of an adversarial attitude or a strong attachment to changing or fixing the other person.
Disowned parts can be very difficult to uncover, because we’ve buried them so deeply and because our projections can mesmerize us. But it’s well worth the effort because few others things can have such a positive impact on our relationships with others, with ourselves, and with life.
If you’d like to hear one of my songs about the shadow—The Miracle Display—you can find it at this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsW9L5PclT8
This song is going out into the world thanks to the incredible contributions from my band-mates—Mina Chung, Simone Bowers, Mark Dadson, and Anna Kemble—and thanks to the support I’ve gotten for reclaiming more of my truth, my voice, my inspiration, and my trust in myself.