Exalt your shadow side: healing a split-self.

Sometimes emotional responses we have to events are desirablee.g. ‘great I achieved something or got something I wanted – let me post a pictureon fb so that everyone can think that is all of who I am’.   But what happens in those times when you seeand feel things that you recognise as undesirable or destructive? Maybe feelinginferior, hurt, unappreciated, or fearful. Do you shut it away and ignore it?. Repeatedly doing this can leave historical potentially dynamic parts ofyou remaining trapped, unknown, unseen and un-exalted.

By exalted I mean seen as a potential source of somethingpositive, something which deserves attention, action and representing a piece ofyour own universal truth.  My Buddhistpractise and my therapy training tells me that there is a place for everyemotion and behaviour in this world and my deep determination and need is toknow everything happening in my inner world has a right to exist and hasmeaning.  So, I pluck up the courage to faceand explore the sides of myself that I shun and discovered they contain a greatwealth of energy and release through creating a bridge with split off parts ofmyself that I rejected. 

It is a long story but in summary, I rejected my father’s violence,my mother’s sense of helplessness and suicidal desires, experiences of sexualand emotional manipulation from the very people who were closest to me.  For many years I shut off their impact – and rightlyso, I needed to; what madness would it be for a child to actively connect withsuch harmful experiences? It totally saved me emotionally at the time.  But there were imprints left deep down thatcaused me great anxiety.  Where was my actionto protect my mother? Where was my voice to say I was being molested and it wasn’tright? Where was my courage to speak truth and voice anger at being manipulated?Where is it now?.

After years of panic attacks at potentially high achievementpoints in my life I decided it is time to acknowledge my inner instinctual animalthat would have acted at crucial times and I consciously empower it to act inthe present.  Rejecting the animality in thoseclosest to me means I reject it in myself, cutting off the flow of energy that arisesfrom acting on my own instincts.  I alsohave the potential to be violent to defend myself or someone else, I might needto abandon someone toxic although I know how it hurts.  My instincts might mean asking difficultquestions.  Hearing and telling difficulttruths. 

As long as my actions are guided from a place of compassion (whichis where 12 years of SGI Buddhist practise helps me), I can exalt these same tendenciescreate benefit with them.  I have hadmany experiences where choosing to embrace this side has stopped destructive situationtowards me and others in their tracks.  Forexample, when I see intimidating youths in my area (within reason), I now approachthem, make sure I show no fear, feel my animal instincts vibrating; I talk withthem – I don’t reject their energy because I also embrace mine and it hastangible impact. 

It might sound stupid but at times when I feel insecure or fearful,over and over I invoke an image of a fearless and wise panther and prepare toact.  It has become a source of groundedenergy that acknowledges every part of me and others without judgement.  Projecting a purely positive image can inspireothers but it can also alienate and intimidate them.  Carl Jung says that the more you supress orreject a part of yourself the more it subconsciously controls and manifests inyour life.  Instead, find support to embraceyour past and the dark parts of yourself as something potentially incrediblygood and healing through exploration.

Learning to ‘do love’ better

As I strive to grow in my identity, my experiences of love with others are by far the most motivating, shocking, exciting pleasurable and inevitably the most painful ones to learn and grow from.  Love puts me in to contact with myself and others through different aspects that I like (I am at a point where I think it’s OK to say that I have some! lol) such as sweet-natured-ness, humour and compassion and passion and then abruptly points to aspects where I need to grow such as anxiety, shame and anger.  Love facilitates inner change all the way through its initiation, maintenance and ending.  Through the loss I am learning to ‘do love’ better.  So, I wanted to share some reflections.

I want to say firstly that some kinds of love set a new standard for me in life.  My first experience of being truly in love was with my son; I can remember looking at him aged about 18 months and every time just welling up with a huge emotional joy at his investigation and enjoyment of the world; it made its imprint on me forever.  That ecstatic feeling still lives in my body with those memories.  The flip side is that through this love I never saw so clearly or cared so much about my egoistic side, the potential harm of my selfishness to take someone for granted, my unresolved issues from my past.  All needing to be worked on and held otherwise the pain I feel at the thought of him being harmed, especially by me, is quite simply unbearable.  Through stages of his growth we have difficulties but because I love him, I must change in order to love him better as an individual.  Awakening the desire for Self-improvement is one of love’s gifts. 

Sometimes even strong love reaches a point where it can grow more and this can bring conflict.  I had an experience with one of my best friends who ‘adopted me’ as family almost instantly when we met on a night out at university, we connected through our love of dancing, sex with hot men and having fun!  She was already capable of deep love and showed me this consistently, eventually I was able to trust and love her back – the laughter kept us going on the way.  We only hit obstacles after many years when the deepest line between friends and family became apparent through our children and I felt hurt.  Despite this, allowing the feeling of trust and companionship to enter my body was a force for growth and the tension was a sign I was striving to love and trust myself more than I felt she did although she may not have understood.  Was conflict avoidable? Probably.  But authenticity is crucial when it comes to love.

In terms of romantic love; it is a hard process to understand the different parts of it. Many times, in the beginning I have felt the excitement, the buzz of feeling wanted; sex and orgasms that rocked my world and I thought well this must be it – ‘love’!  But in those connections, we didn’t really love each other in any depth although the pain of breaking the attachment was sometimes intense.  There was not enough consistent and genuine care on either side to hold us together.  I don’t regret these times but I am learning to hold the initial ‘buzzy love’ feeling without investing in it as something which could endure the truth of what it is to be human with each other for a lifetime.  Now I want to people in their bigger picture, not just my fantasies of them before making decisions; I am now more willing to give and receive truth and honesty to avoid more pain.

I am surprised that all of my experiences with love have nothing or very little to do with sex besides enhancing the intensity.  I forged many connections through lust and believing in a fantasy future, who’s actions were not matched in the present – usually the stronger the fantasies, the more deluded I was!  Sometimes it even felt like destiny pulling me to someone – and maybe it was, but hormones + fantasy + ego = a destination of disappointment and then a little learning.  Sometimes we can love people for the things we feel they reflect in us or how it looks to others, but this is more to do with vanity and the choice to love is a decision which highly protects the integrity and individuality of each person, this is something I’m really grounding myself in currently.  Carl Jung said “companionship thrives only when each individual remembers his individuality and does not identify himself with others”

My first experience of someone loving me meaningfully made me freak out and break the connection.  It emerged in a particular man who was a close (but I thought platonic) friend in the form of courage to protect me one in a home situation one night.  At first, I was just shocked.  It led to an admission of softness between us and a gentle light that did not want to switch off.  I had no fantasies about this man and this makes me think that maybe if someone wants me to know they love me I have to be quieter and able to listen to signs.  On that note, I have also learned that the love I take most for granted is often the most profound, most aspects of it are boring, everyday occurrences of care, tolerance and compassion and small, consistent efforts and it is easy to forget when chasing a more stimulating fantasy.  This tendency makes me sad and I am reflecting on it deeply.

In whatever form you experience love it’s a big deal.  If it doesn’t last, trust that you are strong enough to both hold the pain of loss and treasure the love and move forward.  Love makes us vulnerable and humble as we shudder at the thought that we might be insignificant in someone else’s eyes who we see as important.  But I’m seeing that the best way to find it is to be full of love before I get there.  As Will Smith said (yes Will Smith really has some wise words AND well, he is married to Jada!) ‘we need to find our individual, private, separate joy and present ourselves to a relationship and to each other already happy, not coming to each other begging with our empty cups out demanding that she fill my cup and demanding that she meets my needs.  It can be destructive to place responsibility for your happiness on anybody other than yourself”

Love makes us vulnerable as does the pain it brings but we need to experience vulnerability to allow us to feel alive and strive for deep change. All I know at the moment is that what I want is to feel love for an independent person, to enhance happiness with that person and then project it unselfishly in to the environment.  The next step is as mysterious and innocently taken as the first and last.

First useful observations during meditation: The glue of attachment, creating self-esteem and a template for self-regulation.

I have heard many people report after meditating regularly that they experience a sense of peace and calm that they didn’t have before. I have also heard on the news that school children who are sent to meditate instead of being punished for their behaviour tend to see dramatic improvements. These are the known outcomes but as a training Gestalt counsellor I am curious about the how the mental process of meditation facilitates these changes. I am sure there are numerous literatures about this very topic however I wanted to share 3 key realisations of my first recent experiences of silent meditation and focusing on the voice.

Image curtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Observation 1: My ‘glue’ of attachment
As I attempted to keep my mind clear of any thoughts (first feeling very unsure of what that even meant) some thoughts attracted me like a magnet, these often had an accompanying emotion; Feeling hurt, angry, excited or anxious. Instead of seeing these as a sign of failing meditation, I observed what pulled me in; this felt like vital information about me. The thoughts with the strongest pull were ones I knew too well, well worn, and on reflection the most tempting to ruminate on a closed loop circuit. However, when I tried to pull away and re centre my mind, I felt resentment like I was having my favourite toy taken away. The ‘glue’ of my attachment was in the emotional stimulation I got out of them – like a smoker craving more nicotine or a fish tempted by the bait on a hook. If this is what happens in my ‘real life’ there are such positive benefits realising it’s ok to pull away from toxic thoughts.

Observation 2: The surprise of self-esteem
The process of pulling away from these thoughts was like trying to pull a rabbit backwards out of its warren. I had already started launching in to replaying a dialogue with someone, going deeper in to the feelings, my body reacting as if I was there, uncomfortable, trying to distract myself and wanting to stop. After I pulled away, I felt myself in the room, the vibration of my voice and was shocked by the accompanying message. I’m leaving this alone so ‘I must be more important than this thought’. I felt an increased sense of care for myself in the present. I felt calmer and emotionally regulated.

Observation 3: A parallel process of self-regulation in real life.
Often in real life when a distressing thought occurs, the failure to pull away from it, causes a spiral of negative emotion such as anxiety or anger that can drain me psychologically and causes physiological reactions which reinforces their influence. Self-regulation; returning to a state of feeling calm and present often comes through distraction – watching Netflix, playing candy crush, or maybe having a joint. But what meditation is teaching me is that I can centre my mind at any point if I develop the ability. Exercising the ‘muscle’ of self-regulation through meditation is empowering; for me its not so much about remaining clear headed at all times but more about knowing what pulls me in, that I can pull away and that I can support myself emotionally by doing so. If I can apply this to real life it could save me hours of distraction! Perhaps, when school children get in to trouble, they are also hooked by their emotions and are learning self-regulation through mentally walking away. I carried my experience the following day feeling more assured that I don’t have to go down that rabbit hole when a thought occurs. I’m now hooked on creating a healthy mind through meditation – what a simple, powerful tool!

Russian Doll inside: Holding the trauma of our past to live more fully in the present.

Many people including myself have had experiences that make feeling vulnerable or intimate a bit more overwhelming than it needs to be.  Maybe you had experiences at school being bullied, with parents who were unavailable for support, an abusive or painful heartbreak which left a trail of mistrust and fear.

RussianDolls AnAccidentalAnarchist.blog
Image courtesy of Bradley Davis (CC BY-ND 2.0)

When we encounter a current situation that might resemble one of these experiences, those past feelings can get stirred up and leave us feeling confused, anxious, angry or feel that we want to keep people away.  For myself at times like this I usually don’t feel ‘like my-self’, with feelings that seem unsafe to express to anyone except those I feel close to and they aren’t always available to talk.  I have found that the feelings can affect my immune system, my digestion; supressing my appetite or make me clumsy (although to be fair I’m not usually that graceful anyway!).   These bubbling feelings can affect every day functioning at work where I need to feel focused, positive and confident but they leave me wondering how to pull myself together emotionally when I feel like liquid inside.

At those times I have found it helpful to visualise my life contained in a series of layers in time, like a Russian doll; each layer marking a point in my life where a particular feeling was very strong, such as an experience of family loss, betrayal or feeling alone. The layers go deeper, backwards in time until finally at the point of birth where are my first experiences of being with my parents; the most tiny and vulnerable Russian doll layer.

Connecting overwhelming feelings as belonging to one of those layers has been a helpful way to bring me to a sense of safety in moments when the emotional layers of past and present start to merge.  A way of both owning my emotions (- it is often tempting to blame outwards on the person triggering them!) and knowing that because they arose from my past and are seeping out in to my present that I can contain them; at least until they reduce and until I am able to talk to someone I trust (this is vital).

Finally imagining myself as the outmost layer of the Russian doll as I am now and drawing a boundary around my emotions helps me to stop and take a breath, ground myself in the present and to understand the difference between my feelings and what triggered them. I feel more able to respond the way I want to rather than just react and most importantly brings me back to the self I want to create right now.

We are all so vastly unique and complex, having experienced unspeakable things that creating a structure to help us identify what layer is operating within us can allow us a vital space to climb out.

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