The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us
“When one or two years old, most of us had 360-degree personalities. We were literally balls of energy radiating from all parts of our body and psyche. But as time went on, we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. “Can’t you sit still?” Or, “It isn’t nice to hit and bite.”
“To keep our parents love, we started an invisible bag, and we put in that bag the parts of us our parents didn’t like. By the time we got to school, our bag was quite large. There, we added our teachers’ comments. “Play nice with others, don’t be bossy, don’t be so self-centered, and don’t get angry.” So we take our anger, our sense of self-importance, and put it in the bag.
“As teens, we do an extraordinary amount of bag-stuffing in high school. This time it’s no longer the evil grownup that pressures us, but people our own age. So the student’s paranoia about grownups continues.
“I so maintain that out of that round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice. Let’s imagine a man who has a thin slice left—the rest is in the bag—and we’ll imagine that he meets a woman. Let’s say they are both twenty-four. She has a thin, elegant slice left. They join each other in a ceremony, and this union of two slices is call marriage. Even together the two do not make up one person!
We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed. Suppose the bag remains sealed—what happens then?”
~(from A Little Book on the Human Shadow, HarperCollins 1988)
When I read Bly’s essay, I felt like he was speaking personally about their relationship. Hell, he was also talking about me. And any number of other friends who will remain unnamed.
He warns that there is a very significant downside to repressing parts of ourselves: they begin to fester and amplify, sabotaging our lives. “Like hungry monsters clawing to get out of a dark basement, our shadows want to be brought into the light of consciousness,” Bly says. “The longer we put off facing our shadows, the more they stealthily control and manipulate our lives. Like puppets on strings, we become vulnerable to the control of our dark side in moments of anger, stress, temptation, jealousy, or tiredness. Instead of learning to meet, acknowledge, and befriend our wounded parts, we make them our mortal enemies. If you have ever felt at war with yourself or like you are your own worst enemy, it is because your shadows are controlling you, not the other way around.”
The fact is that we all have skeletons hiding in the closet and monsters lurking in the depths of our minds. We all have nasty tendencies we refuse to acknowledge, and wounds we haven’t been able to face. We all have repressed anger and unacknowledged greatness buried deep inside.
All right. I get it. There’s work to do. But…how does one know where to start?
He draws on his readings of the poets, Greek mythology, Hinduism, Zen, and his own experience of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the path into the dark parts of our human nature.
The book contains essays which lead you down the path of doing your “shadow work,” with each essay followed by a section of journal exercises and topics to ponder.
However, it’s not for everyone. I used to use the book for a class I taught on shadow work, and some of the students complained that Richo’s approach was overwhelming. There were a lot of tears in every class. I don’t think that’s any reflection of Richo’s teaching; looking inward and facing personal demons is hard work.
I continued to research, and I think I’ve found another source as good as Richo’s Shadow Dance, and written in down-to-earth language that divides the shadow work into more easily-understood sections.
The workbook I’ve referenced below is by Aletheia Luna and Mateo Sol. Luna is a psychospiritual counselor and writer who escaped the religious cult she was raised in, and now works to help others become conscious of their own entrapment and find empowerment. Mateo Sol was born into a family with a history of drug addiction, abuse, and mental illness, and was taught about the plight of the human condition from a young age. Sol’s mission now is to help others experience freedom, wholeness and peace in any stage of life. Together, Luna and Sol run a spiritual self-discovery website, www.lonerwolf.com .
I’m including a selection of questions from their shadow self workbook. If you’d like a copy of the entire workbook for your personal use, please go to their site.
Shadow Self Workbook
Following is a series of simple but powerful questions and activities which will help to shine a light on shadowy areas of your life that you might be unaware of. As shadow work should always be preceded by and/or incorporated with self-love, you will find some self-love activities within this journal as well.
Shadow work is an extremely deep form of inner work and should not be taken lightly. If you struggle with low self-esteem, we encourage you to focus on the self-love aspects of this journal instead. If at any time you feel intensely uncomfortable or disturbed by any shadow work activities within this journal, please stop immediately and practice self-love. Without self-love, shadow work can easily make you feel a million times worse about yourself. And we don’t want that! So always strive to incorporate self-care and nurturing self-compassion into and shadow work that you do.
Please note that not all questions within this journal will necessarily help you or be applicable. However, do pay close attention if you feel strongly tempted to skip or avoid any question – this is a sign that your shadow self has been provoked! Also be aware that it’s possible for you to project onto another person a quality that they really do possess. Psychologists call this “projecting onto reality.” So for instance, if you think your father is an out-of-control tyrant, you may be simultaneously disowning and projecting your own shadow onto your father as well as seeing him for what he actually is. However, remember that this journal is about taking responsibility for your own shadows, not pointing the finger at others. You cannot change others, but you can change yourself. Let’s leave it at that.
Exercise 1 - Playing Small
a) In what areas of life are you holding back and playing small? (Think about the times you consistently feel weak or small.) Write your answer below.
b) Try to put a face and name to the part of you that feels disempowered. What does it look like or sound like? How old is it and where did it come from? What name would it choose to call itself? Record your response below. By personifying this afraid and suppressed part of you, you’ll be more capable of understanding an important part of your shadow self.
Exercise 2 - The Saboteur
Explore how you play out the Saboteur role in real life. (Other names: destroyer, serial killer, mad scientist). At the very core of the inner Saboteur festers the desire for complete self-destruction. Fueled by self-hatred, the Saboteur within us is a wrathful companion that destroys everything beautiful within our lives. Relationships, friendships, careers, health, mental stability — nothing stands in the way of the Saboteur’s desire for self-annihilation and oblivion.
How does the Saboteur show up in you? Record your reflections below.
Exercise 3 - Negatives and Positives
What negatives or positives do others point out about you that you have trouble accepting?
Exercise 4 - Emotional Suppression
Emotional suppression and repression often point to areas of shame buried within you. Reflect on the following questions and record your answer below:
a) What emotions do you rarely express around others? b) When did you first start hiding these emotions?
Exercise 5 - Hot Buttons
What are your “hot buttons” or triggers that cause you to get angry or defensive in the presence of others?
Exercise 6 - Family Members
a) What qualities in your family members do you most dislike or have trouble dealing with?
b) What might these qualities in your loved ones secretly reveal about you?
Exercise 7 - Tolerance of Beliefs
In which areas of life do you tend to expect others to conform to your beliefs? b) What scares you the most about allowing others to have their own beliefs in the above areas?
Exercise 8 - Self-Criticism
When are you the most critical of yourself? Explore what your self-talk sounds like below.
Exercise 9 - Self-Love and Gratitude
Self-love activity: Describe five things you love about yourself and feel gratitude about. (Gratitude has been scientifically proven to enhance your happiness and wellbeing – these are important qualities to carry into shadow work).
Exercise 10 - Self-Love Letter
Self-love activity: Reflect on a period of life where you were at your worst (i.e. most self-destructive, addicted, numb, argumentative, etc.). Write a short, but heartfelt letter of understanding, acceptance, and compassion for that version of you. You can return to this letter later whenever you feel rotten about yourself.
I’ll post another 10 exercises this weekend when I conclude our month of shadow self blogs. And remember, if you’d like to delve deeper, the entire 50+ question workbook is available at www.lonerwolf.com.
Be good to yourself, and Blessed Be.