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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

In the Shadow

Usually when we speak about parts of ourselves that we have disowned and placed into the shadow, we're referring to less desirable material such as jealousy, rage, selfishness, and shame. Usually, the shadow is seen as the dark repository for all the so-called negative aspects of ourselves, i.e. our unhealthy dependency, unacknowledged narcissism, unmet hopelessness, and the entirety of our unlived lives.

But it is not only negative aspects of self that we dissociate, split off from, and project onto others. Many of us have lost the capacity to access and embody more “positive” experiences such as contentment, pleasure, creativity, empathy, and intimacy.

Some of us have disconnected from the simple experience of joy, a spontaneous sense of elation at being alive. We can split off from the experience of joy . . . and call it depression.

For many it was unsafe to express joy as children. The experience of simple delight became tangled with danger in our young, developing nervous systems. To avoid any likelihood of an incredibly painful rupture with critical attachment figures in our lives, we hid our joy in the face of a parent's unhappiness.

There might be times when you become aware of a very simple, childlike, causeless joy coming to the surface as you recall an experience you've had, . . . and how, coincidentally, a (subtle) panic or anxiety arises in response. You may quickly change the subject, generate some sort of conflict, dissociate, or get busy with some activity or to-do.

Perhaps, instead, you can become curious about what is going on with this pattern of expression and begin to explore the thoughts, emotions and somatic experience associated with a possible joy/fear conflation. It's not uncommon for parents to misatune to the energy of children and react to a child's silly playfulness by becoming punitive or angry . . . demanding that the child “grow up” and stop acting like “a baby” or "you're making this so hard for me." When one parent is overtly reactive, the other may simply shut down and turn away to avoid the conflict. The child is left feeling lost, unseen, unheld, and utterly confused.

Some children learn to equate feeling full of life and natural states of delight, interest, and enthusiasm with being judged and rejected. But we can always re-embody the full spectrum of experience and touch the natural joy that was disconnected at an earlier time in life.

While the term "shadow" has a negative, darkened connotation, it is not only “negative” experience that we place in the shadow, but any material that has not found a home within the relational field. To retrieve the lost joyous little boy and girl is an act of love, really, not only for one’s self but for all of life.

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