Sunday, December 14, 2014

More Shadow Work

Sometimes the shadow self, or even the inner child, can resist intimacy.  A history of being too hard on yourself, ignoring your undesirable (or even desirable or neutral) aspects, or perfectionism will need practice, time, patience, and compassion to alter.  It sounds cheesy, but focusing on the "control" in "self-control" deprives the "self."

I've found several guided meditations that involve imagining and analyzing both the shadow self and the inner child.  Most of these are beneficial, as there might be underlying symbolism and it can be easier to communicate with something that has a face than with something ethereal and vague.  But then these meditations often instruct hugging, comforting, melding with, or invading the safehaven of the shadow self or inner child.  Even though these are all parts of oneself, these meditative acts can feel invasive.  This is especially true if your conscious or "light" self have a history of self-berating or idealization or denial.

With the understanding that there are the inner child, the shadow self, and the light self, it's possible to discern a continuum.  The inner child might have grown more into one self than the other.  At some point, a division occurred - this isn't the snapping of a twig, more like a treetrunk dividing as it grows.  If the inner child grew into the shadow self and your light self developed later on, what created it?  If the inner child grew into the light self and your shadow self feels like a parasitic vestige, what's made it develop?  And if the inner child seems equal in both the shadow and light selves, when did the disparity begin?  

Go back to what made that split.  Was it a traumatic event?  The leaving from a long-term traumatic situation?  A benevolent or cruel new person or influence?  The inner child, shadow self, and inner self are all interconnected - find where their roots come together.  That is a starting point for intrapersonal bonding, communication, and healing.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Big Post on Shadow Work

Shadow Work is intrapersonal work on analyzing the negative aspects of oneself, learning how to accept them, and harmonizing them with positive and neutral aspects.  This isn't berating or fixing or glorifying.  We all have negative aspects of ourselves, destructive or greedy or envious or proud or ashamed and it's very tempting to either sweep them under a rug or drown them or even to put them on a pedestal.  None of that is healthy, it's like a house with a divided foundation.  The shadow self is compost for personal growth - it's not pretty, it smells bad, it takes up a lot of time and space, but patiently working with it allows for beautiful things.

If you've seen/read Scott Pilgrim, you may remember that the protagonist confronts Nega-Scott, his shadow self.  It kicks his ass repeatedly and he keeps either running from it or trying to destroy it - Scott's victory isn't getting the girl or defeating the bad guy, it's making peace with Nega-Scott.  Another book by the author, Bryan Lee O'Malley, called Seconds, has a similar theme.  The protagonists in both these stories keep tripping over their own feet and getting in their own way until they find personal harmony.  This is done by approaching the shadow self honestly and openly, utilizing intrapersonal communication, and choosing to make a present different from the past.

Shadow Work can be done through many psychological techniques: journaling, meditating, interviewing oneself, art therapy, visualization.  Many people also use metaphysical techniques such as Tarot and poppets.  Make no mistake, these may seem like delicate strategies - but approaching (not confronting!) the undesirable parts of oneself is very difficult and painful work.  This is particularly true for people who have been abused and/or traumatized.  Seeing a therapist in conjunction with these exercises is a good idea, and it's completely okay to take a break if the work is too painful right now.  Shadow Work isn't something to do during a traumatic event and definitely isn't helped by drugs or alcohol as internal stability and clarity are needed (if that only happens during therapy, see if your therapist would be open to doing this with you.  Or maybe a trusted friend or relative).  Be gentle with yourself and practice self-care while doing these - I'm listening to John Denver and James Taylor right now because I'm a big dork ;)

Here are some exercises I've found:
1) Create (draw, paint, embroider, etc) an image of your shadow self.  Don't worry about artistic ability, that isn't the point of this.  Even if you just smudge a sad blue blob with some sidewalk chalk, putting an image or even a series of images can be very revealing and easier to approach the shadow self.  Here is a video about this exercise (this is a great video altogether, but the details of this exercise begins at 4:00).  Be patient with yourself while creating this image, and then look at it peacefully when you're ready.  Is it scary?  Vulnerable?  Heartbreaking?  See if there are any colors that remind you of anything (the skin I painted on my image is the color of the carpet of my mother's house, which was completely unintended), analyze how big the image is compared to the size of the paper.

2) Interviewing or interrogating the shadow self.  One technique of this is described in that same video above at 5:55.  Another way of doing this, instead of back-and-forth interviewing, would be freewriting.  Relax, drink some water or tea, find a space away from others (unless having a therapist/friend/relative around would be better).  Some people prefer writing by hand and others typing, but just write for a set amount of time (one minute, five minutes) or until you're done.  Don't think about it, don't edit, don't read until it's finished.  Sometimes this takes practice, maybe at first you'll think about it too much to let go.
A cousin of mine lent me a wonderful book about freewriting when I was 15 and I did all the exercises very enthusiastically.  But doing it was making me angry all the time and I couldn't stop the bile from spilling out over everything now that I had started to dredge it up.  Eventually I realized this was happening because I was living in a dangerous, abusive situation and couldn't do anything about it - freewriting was revealing to me that I wasn't healthy and I had no control over my life, and more importantly that I had squelched myself down in order to function.  I had every right to be angry.  But trying to change my situation only made it more dangerous.  I had to stop freewriting so that I could survive.  If you do this - or any - exercise and discover this is happening to you, it's okay to stop.  If you begin to realize through Shadow Work that you're in an abusive situation, get to someplace safe before continuing!

3) Approach the fear.  Your shadow self is probably afraid of something, something big and maybe something vague.  Chances are that some experience has confirmed this fear at least once.  Try to figure out a way to approach that fear - not conquer.  Beating your shadow self over the head with what it fears won't help.  Start small, like if you fear being perceived as poor then volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter one afternoon.  Patience and compassion will help.  Of course this is easier said than done, as the very idea of the smallest step towards my fears makes me want to run away.

4) Is your shadow self using someone else's voice?  Remove others' voices layer by layer - this takes practice.  One method I use is whenever my inner critic takes on a past abuser's voice, I say out loud (provided I'm alone) "thank you for your opinion, you may go now.  Goodbye!"  Find your shadow self's actual voice, it's probably much smaller than you'd think.
If someone or a group of people have contributed greatly to your shadow self, write a letter to them.  Not a letter to send, just get out everything stewing around in you that you might want to say to them.  If you're feeling too much to write coherently, scream into a pillow.  It's easier to write a letter or scream at a contributor after you separate them from your own voice.
Write a letter to your shadow self if you'd like.  Be gentle, don't berate.  Shadow Work is for understanding and reconciliation, not fixing or cutting off.

5) Go somewhere with your shadow self, take a walk or see a movie or even take yourself on a date.  I find that I feel more stagnant and claustrophobic whenever a few weeks go by without me exploring somewhere new or going for a long hike.  Fears, self-criticism, impatience, and boredom take up more mental space when I don't make the time to expand my worldview through hiking and travel.  Take your shadow self on a small vacation alone (if possible/desirable) and all of you will feel a burden lifted.

6) A meditation I do roughly once every other week, usually whenever I go hiking, is something I call Cleaning the Carrion.  When the shadow self is in disharmony with other parts of oneself, it infects those other parts.  Bad habits form (procrastination is #1!!), irritability, spiritual disconnection, even physical problems like fatigue and headaches.  Patiently and gently amend those while working on your relationship with your shadow self.  I find that it's easier to fix those bad habits when I do the Cleaning the Carrion meditation.  This is pretty graphic so you don't have to do this or you could even skip reading the rest of this bulletpoint: I imagine my flesh rotting away and eaten up by maggots and vultures until only my skeleton is left.  The skeleton is the shadow self, picked clean of infection.  From there, forming new growth is easier.

7) Find the pattern.  Sometimes it feels like the shadow self takes control - lashing out, pushing people away, manipulating, debilitating depression, problems eating, etc.  Chances are that you have some internal red flags before this happens.  I always have the same dream before a flareup and only through Shadow Work have I managed to notice the pattern, figure out what it means, and work towards changing it.  Your shadow self will probably tell you what it wants or what's stirring it up before it takes over.  Figuring out its triggers and patterns will enable communication and ways to work cohesively as a more whole person.

8) Don't force self-love.  When I was a kid, my mother forced me to hug people whether or not I wanted to, whether or not I even knew who they were, whether they had been ignoring me or screaming at me or pinching me.  It wasn't until a few years ago when a cousin of mine asked his toddler whether or not he wanted to hug me, and then said it was ok that he didn't, that I had even ever remembered that.  Forcing a kid to hug someone they don't want to, especially someone they're afraid of, tells them that their fear and consent are invalid.
Forcing self-love right away only reinforces the shadow self's fear/animosity.  A cat is more inclined to nuzzle your hand when you let it approach you, not the other way around.  Clean away the carrion, communicate, and analyze your shadow self.  Bruises and wounds need to heal, we need to learn to trust our own selves, before we can fully embrace ourselves.  Accepting the shadow self means accepting that it will welcome self-love when it's ready.

9) Word maps.  The #1 word I would apply to my shadow self is fragile.  Think of a word to associate with your shadow self.  Then think of the opposite, what feels the opposite, a word to summarize your "light" self.  If your first impulse is "good," that's ok but that is not the opposite.  The opposite of shadow is light, not good.  The opposite of fragile, as I feel it, is ambitious - these are emotional opposites, not antonyms.  Come up with other words and notice other opposites, like the opposite of comfort feels like shame.  Which ones do your selves have in common, if any?

10)  Woo (I absolutely loathe that term even though I think it's necessary in order to talk about how we approach "metaphysical" practices today).  Hypnosis, astral travel, Tarot, prayer, ritual, etc.  It is not my place to discuss how "real" these things are or aren't, in fact I don't know if that's something anyone can really claim or disclaim.  But what matters here is that these practices can have beneficial effects for some people, and there is no shame in trying any of them out.  I do Tarot readings as a nonverbal intrapersonal communication tool and even though I don't believe in fortune telling or psychic abilities (though I'm open to them) it is a form of personal therapy not much different from painting or hiking.  I've done a few Tarot readings for other people too, which I really enjoy and those friends have gotten both interesting ideas and reassurance out of them.

Links: (this has an important point related to #8.  There are meditations to "go to where your shadow self dwells."  I don't know how to else to describe it, but this can feel like trespassing where one isn't welcome yet.  Even though it's all within yourself.  Again, be patient and don't force self-love) (SO GOOD!)