Eckhart Tolle. Thich Nhat Hanh. Louise Hay. These are just a few authors catalogued in my Dewey Decimal System of “Holy [expletive], life sucks. Now what?” section. I’ve probably read more than 50 self-help books in my lifetime. I’ve creeped aisles many times in Barnes and Noble hoping for a revolutionary book that will heal co-dependence, improve confidence or promote personal growth. I find awkward comfort in the book “Eat. Pray. Love.” possibly as much as you blubber from watching the movie “The Notebook.” (Ok, I admit it. I do too.)
However, I’ve realized it doesn’t matter how educated I am in recognizing destructive patterns or embracing law-of-attraction principles. Don’t get me wrong, awareness of our faults and excuses is the first step toward changing behavior. Although, the real progress manifests from the courage to study my dark sides, improve coping tools, practice accountability and, more importantly, do the work.
My derby wife (I’ll explain another time) “Lucky” refers to the “work” as the willingness to examine our downfalls, confront our excuses, embrace our shadow self and, ideally, transform it. Don’t panic, I’m not going to break out my crystals, discuss chakra imbalance or drag you to a Sedona vortex, although I do want to discuss the importance of our shadow self. Why can it be terrifying and crippling, but at the same time transformative?
My shadow self gained momentum at the wee age of four. My abusive household provided an endless supply of Creamsicles and terror, which fed and satisfied my darkest insecurities. My fears extinguished my innocent spirit and emotional growth. I developed unhealthy coping skills in order to survive a horrifying environment. My home lacked safety, reliability and comfort; therefore, I wore a “mask” that allowed me to ignore my intuition and stuff my emotions inside. Survival was based on being charming, entertaining, agreeable and strong, but also invisible.
Even people who haven’t been exposed to abuse often wear a mask to avoid their shadow self. It might be “humor,” “super-mom,” “hostess” or “career Jedi.” Eventually, the mask becomes overwhelming, and fragments of your shadow creep into daily life. They reflect our darkest qualities of self in our emotions, patterns and responses.
Have you ever met someone and instantly received red flags? At first, it seems ridiculous. After all, you just met this person. Instead of being judgmental, a better approach would be to question your hesitation: what qualities about this person mirror my shadow? My mask was charming (to avoid feeling sad), entertaining (to distract others with humor), agreeable (to escape further abuse), strong (to prohibit others from hurting me) and invisible (to hide from unwanted sexual attention).
If I meet someone who is hilarious, magnetic, confident or even arrogant, I might feel insecure or untrusting. It seems strange that someone who exudes many of my positive qualities would promote mistrust, withdrawal and possibly repulsion. However, the animated individual isn’t to blame. It’s their mirror reflecting the tactics I used as a helpless little girl.
Ever wonder why the “opposites attract” theory is unbelievable and plausible? I often pick partners who are driven, grounded, logical, loyal and often emotionally unavailable. These are qualities I lack in myself. In my mind, these traits might provide safety, stability and reliability.
Emotional unavailability isn’t a healthy attraction, but it’s a logical attraction for a child who was denied safety and love. By maintaining emotional distance from those who could possibly hurt or betray me I think I will avoid the pain of abandonment. However, repeating this unhealthy pattern denies myself the gift of authentic love.
To experiment, ask yourself: What traits do I find attractive? Do I exude those qualities? What words or behaviors trigger overreactions and arguments? Do I continuously repeat negative patterns hoping for a different outcome?
Accepting accountability for my choices and examining my shadow self can be draining and discouraging, but it’s the only effective way to heal my trauma, bury my excuses and encourage new behaviors. My dark traits do not rule or define me. They are trophies of courage, resilience and transformation. From the courageous words of Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”