Personal Shadow Work

I’ve talked a lot lately about the cultural shadow, and how we need to bring it up into the light and acknowledge it and accept it as part of who we are.

There is an ancient Greek saying: Physician, Heal Thyself – It stems from the myth of Charon, though Luke quoted it in his gospel (4:23).   It’s joked about in Dr. Who, and I have seen references on House.  This is a deeply symbolic phrase that touches our unconscious – or it wouldn’t be so pervasive.

If I want to try to present ways to heal the cultural shadow, then I need to attend my own, too.  It occurs to me that doing this here – in the public eye, so to speak – is a good way to show the process.

My Joints Hurt

As I type this post, my wrists and fingers alternate between throbbing and piercing sorts of pain. My left hip has been wonky all morning, varying between a dull ache in the joint and shooting pain down my leg. My right hip is still stiff and doesn’t want to play.  My ankles are wobbly and weak and still stiff.  My legs don’t really want me to walk around right now.  The NSAID I just took will help me stay mobile today, but it won’t keep the swelling or pain totally at bay.

The doctors won’t treat this with more than an NSAID until we know what it is.

I go back to the rheumatologist tomorrow, to hear the results of my blood work.  If the CCP is not normal, then it’s definitely Rheumatoid Arthritis. I am apparently a textbook presentation of RA, but it could still be something else, like Psoriatic Arthritis or Lupus.  If all of my bloodwork is normal, then I have to wait two more weeks for a diagnosis – and treatment.

There is still an outside chance that this is reactive arthritis – an inflammatory response to some bacterial or viral infection. I don’t think I’ve been sick, so it’s definitely a long shot. But reactive would go away on its own after 6 weeks. (Yes, it’s been 4 weeks like this already.)  If, after 6 weeks, I still have this same set of symptoms, then even with normal blood work, the doctor would call this RA.

The Physical Body As Shadow

Our subconscious selves have a few ways they can send us messages. One is through dream imagery – especially those patterns or images that recur over time.   One is through “fated” external events – little synchronicities that look like coincidence or luck or massive life-changing events that hit us like mack trucks.   The subsconscious can also speak to us through our physical bodies.

Anyone who has done body work – like dance, sports, yoga, or acting – will know that their bodies send messages all the time.  People who do energy work also recognize this.

I love this summary by Connie Zweig in Meeting the Shadow  – this is her introduction to the chapter on the Body as Shadow:

The human body has lived for two thousand years in the shadow of Western culture. Its animal impulses, sexual passions, and decaying nature were banished to the darkness and filled with taboo by a priesthood that valued only the higher realms of spirit, mind, and rational thought. With the advent of the scientific age, the body was confirmed to be a mere sack of chemicals, a machine without a soul.

The result: The mind/body split became entrenched. Culture shines its light on left-brain logic and the striving of individual ego, wile shading right-brain intuition and carnal matter. Like a river bed, the split runs deep in our cultural terrain, creating polarities anywhere it touches: flesh/spirit, sinful/innocent, animal/godlike, selfish/altruistic.

Our bodies have messages, if we’re willing to listen, because they are inseparably parts of our selves.

Doing My Own Shadow Work

What is my body trying to tell me? I’ve been sitting with this for weeks.

One of the easiest ways to catch a glimpse of the personal shadow is to see what strong (and usually irrational) feelings you’re projecting onto people around you.   It’s basically a three step process:

  1. Identify the feelings you’re projecting onto other people
  2. Flip the script and restate those feelings as your own
  3. Acknowledge this inner wound, and allow it to heal

Step 1 – Identifying the feelings I’m projecting:

If you’re having a strong / outsized response to someone in your life, sit with that. Make a list of the things you think they think about you. Make a list of the things you think about them.

Right now, most of my projection is being leveled at my husband and my boss – it’s not unusual to project on the people closest with you.  Here is a sample of some of the things I wrote down in my list of projections:

  • that my husband forgets my needs
  • that my husband doesn’t love me when I’m needy
  • that my husband resents me
  • that my husband will leave me because of this
  • that my boss doesn’t see how stressed I am
  • that my boss doesn’t understand my workload is impossible
  • that my boss doesn’t hear my requests for help
  • that my boss fails to protect me

Remember, none of these things are true about these other people. This is stuff I’m projecting onto them – I’m throwing it on them because I don’t want to see it in myself.

Step 2 – Flip the Script

I’m going to tell you that this part SUCKS if you try to do it alone. I recommend getting experienced help if you’re not used to facing your shadow.

The next step is to rewrite all of those in a way that is true – acknowledging that those are my feelings about myself.

  • I often forget my own needs
  • I don’t love myself when I’m needy
  • I resent that I have needs at all
  • I fear abandonment if I’m needy / helpless
  • I don’t acknowledge how stressed I am
  • I haven’t acknowledged that my workload is impossible – and haven’t said “no”
  • I don’t hear my own requests for help — I don’t ask for help enough
  • I fail to protect myself

If you do this right – this is just about the point when you’re sobbing.  I copied these out of yesterday’s journal entry, so I cried then, and again now.

Step 3 – Acceptance & Healing:

The third step here is healing.  This means accepting these rejected parts of self.

My body is telling me that it needs my attention. That I need my attention.  I need to keep in mind what is important to take care of myself. I need to remember my needs, and love myself even when I’m needy.  Right now, I need cushioning and padding and warmth. I need stillness and rest. I need hot baths and hot tea and purring cats.  I need fuzzy socks and homemade blankets.

RA is an autoimmune disease. Inflammation like this is an immune response. Poetically speaking, the immune response is the thing that makes us strong, resilient, healthy.  So, if I turn this into a metaphor – which Jungians are wont to do – That which makes me strong and resilient is what is causing me to hurt right now.  My source of strength has turned against me. 

Glance back up at those “I” statements….

My overachieving capacity of getting “everything” done has left no time for self-care. Because I don’t accept or acknowledge that my workload isn’t reasonable, I just take on more work, and don’t give myself time for rest.  My resistance – both in terms of fear and in terms of self-loathing or shame – to asking for help makes it so that I am unwilling or unable to ask for help even when I need it.

What’s Next? Do it. Live it.

The hardest next step was to ask for help, and to acknowledge that a lot of people who love me are not only willing to help, but want to help however they can.  So, a few days ago, I made a wish list on Amazon in case anyone wanted to get me any of the little weird things I needed to make my life easier with joint pain.  When I checked it this morning, everything on the list had been purchased.

It was vulnerable and hard to ask for help at all. I considered a limited-visibility post on Facebook, to only let people see it who I carefully selected. It was really hard to just throw it out there for all of my friends.

The net result is that I feel supported, and loved, and encouraged.  Asking for help was the right thing to do. Accepting it is hard, too, but it’s also the right thing to do.

Because I so badly don’t want to ask for help, it’s very hard for me to let other people help me.  I’m learning this with Brett. He is willing and able to help, but I have put up so many barriers to that end.  Yesterday, he did all the grocery shopping for the first time in our 11 years together. Yes, even my gluten-free stuff.  He would text me photos of questionable ingredient lists.

My body is forcing me to sit the fuck down.  I often laugh that even when I’m playing and resting, I’m doing something – creating, writing, noodling.  I can’t really do anything right now.  I spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling and talking to the cats.  I can’t even hold up a book because of the pain and weakness in my wrists.  I’m learning a new way of being, and it’s not pleasant – but I think it’s necessary.

7 thoughts on “Personal Shadow Work

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