You and Your Shadow

 "To confront a person with his own shadow is to show him his own light." ~ Carl Gustav Jung

Strong, negative emotions can catch us by surprise, and can be incongruent with who we know ourselves to be.  Feeling irritable for no apparent reason, or catching an unexpected frown on our face in the mirror, are perfect examples.   Wouldn't it be so wonderful to have a magic way to make fearfulness, anger, and insecurity disappear for good?  

We all have a "dark side", or shadow.  The shadow is represented by deep mental grooves that lead to negative feelings and behaviors.  Besides triggering strong feelings, it may result in unwanted habits, such as being habitually late, self-sabotaging, or spreading gossip about others.  Other examples are stretching the truth, erupting at the ones close to us, or masking insecurity with pride and boastfulness.  The shadow is the person you'd rather not be.  It personifies the selfish, unpredictable, primitive, egocentric, and violent aspects of yourself.  These 

undesirable

 aspects of self have often been dis-owned by consciousness, nicely packaged and filed away deep in the unconscious.  

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As painful as these aspects can be, they have important lessons to teach us once we bring them into consciousness.  Let's take the example of

Nora*

, an administrative assistant at a medical office.  Nora took pride in being a conscientious worker and "always going the extra mile" for her supervisor and patients.  Over time, she found herself having resentful feelings towards her boss, the medical director, whom she perceived as neglectful and irresponsible in patient care.  She became irritable with him in meetings and found herself frequently rolling her eyes around him.  After meeting with a therapist and exploring her feelings and behaviors, Nora became aware that her judgment about her boss mirrored her judgments and fears about herself.  She herself was insecure and afraid of seeming "incompetent", which she covered by over-functioning in numerous ways.  When Nora became aware of the harshness of her inner judge, she was able to let go of the resentment and judgment of her boss.  Their relationship subsequently improved.  More important, Nora was able to feel more compassion for herself.

Raising awareness for one's shadow is important.  Getting to the root of these feelings and behaviors can be liberating and improve our relationships to ourselves and others.  So how do we do this?  Here are some tips:

  • Listen to feedback from others about your behaviors (eg, about being habitually late, having a short fuse, etc.).  
  • Notice when an encounter with a person leaves you feeling emotionally charged.  Look at your reaction to people you feel strongly negatively about.
  • Recognize that the "dark" qualities you react to in others may be feared or unacknowledged aspects of yourself.  
  • Consider what (harsh, unrealistic) expectations you have of yourself, others, and the world.
  • Consider talking to a counseling professional to gain perspective and depth of understanding.

*

Nora and her example are purely fictional for illustrative purposes of this article.  Any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidental.

Improving Relationships Through Vulnerability

A universal and very human struggle is how we can feel less alone and more connected to others.  Attachment is hardwired into our brains.  Like it or not, we are all social creatures in need of connection.  It's a basic need for survival, dating back to when we are newborns and are so utterly dependent on another human being to continue life.

In a now famous lecture on TED.com, Dr. Brene Brown spoke about the important concept of worthiness.  The fear that we are unworthy, she says, keeps us from fully connecting to others in our lives, and keeps us isolated and afraid.   Dr. Brown's research shows that people with a sense of worthiness believe they deserve love and belonging, have self-compassion, and possess the amazing courage to be imperfect.  People who have a strong sense of worthiness are also willing to take more interpersonal risks - they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in relationships while being comfortable with the idea that there are no guarantees and certainties in relationships.  They allow themselves to be seen and known by others while embracing their imperfections.

As a society, we are obsessed with perfection.  This also means obsession with appearing not-vulnerable.

 Perfection can mean an unhealthy preoccupation with trying to make all the uncertainties in life certain - a futile quest.  When we realize that we are indeed vulnerable human beings, we tend to try to numb this often scary feeling - by acquiring material goods and overspending, turning to food and drugs, avoiding responsibility and blaming others (just to name a few examples).

Dr. Brown says we all have an immense fear of disconnection from others; she calls this the definition of shame.  This fear is part of being human.  She suggests that in order to improve relationships and have that real connection, we could consider making ourselves vulnerable:

- To let ourselves be seen by others as we truly are

- To love with our whole hearts even though there's no guarantee

Practice gratitude and joy in everyday life

- Embrace the belief that we are enough, that we are worthy of love

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The power of vulnerability - what a concept!

Dr. Brown's full lecture is available here.

New Year's Resolutions - How About a Little Self-Compassion?

Right now we're in that funny place "between the years" - recovering from heavy meals, holiday get togethers, and getting ready for the new year.  New Year's Resolutions are starting to pop up in conversations.  These resolutions can take on a variety of shapes.  Increasing health and fitness, along with decreasing unhealthy habits, is probably one of the most common New Year's resolutions (did you know there's a public run in New York City's Central Park at the stroke of midnight of 1/1/12?).  Others resolve to improve their relationships, change their world view, volunteer and give back, set new priorities, work less and play more, or play less and work more.  I'd like to propose another option - increasing self-compassion.  

Too often do we beat ourselves up about mistakes we make or failing to achieve a goal.  While this may be an attempt at self-discipline, it often unfortunately backfires by creating more pressure, stress, anxiety, or even depression.  Most of us would agree that it's easier to feel sympathy and compassion for others than for ourselves.  How about starting to turn a little of that inward - accepting that we make mistakes, and being warm and understanding towards ourselves.  When we start looking at our imperfections and life's difficulties with self-compassion, we recognize that we can be gentle with ourselves and approach our position in life with sympathy and kindness.  This can ultimately lead to greater emotional balance.  

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Kristin Neff, a prominent researcher on self-compassion, defines self-compassion as a two-fold concept.  First, self-compassion entails noticing that we are suffering at a given moment.  Let's say you beat yourself up about your failure to complete a task on time.  Instead of playing over and over in your head that you did something wrong, try to recognize that you are having a hard time with this.  Second, self-compassion means that you feel warmth and care towards yourself, along with a desire to soothe your pain.  So instead of judging yourself harshly for your failure to complete a task, try extending understanding and kindness towards yourself when you fail or make mistakes.  

Now you may find yourself wondering how this approach will help you accomplish your goals.  You may even find yourself arguing that unless you discipline or judge or criticize yourself, you will "never" get where you need to be.  I encourage you to ponder how self-compassion may actually help you become happy and healthy.  By accepting that like others, you too are a human being who is less than perfect and makes mistakes, you can start to let go of unrealistic hurdles you place in your own way.  Life does not always happen according to our expectations.  That's okay.  That's what makes us part of this place called Earth, of this wonderful and diverse humanity.  Every single being on this earth has encountered frustration, loss, made mistakes.  We are all part of this.  Accepting this instead of fighting against it can make things so much easier for ourselves and those around us.

Some resources to learn more about and increase self-compassion:

- Visit  Kristin Neff's website.  

- A great book is The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by C.K. Germer

- Talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can be a great help. 

Negativity: Talking Back To Your Internal Chatterbox

Thousands of thoughts run through our head every day. 

Just consider your own internal dialogues all day long – about your own actions, about others’ behaviors, about the world as a whole, about what has happened in the past, about what is yet to happen.  The way we talk to ourselves can be positive, negative, or neutral.  Or even a mix of all of those.  Self-talk is often a mostly automatic and even unconscious process.  These dialogues can turn very unpleasant – such as beating yourself up in the face of perceived “failure”.

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Needless to say, the way we talk to ourselves can give rise to many different emotions. For example, if you tell yourself that if you don’t do well on tomorrow’s presentation at work, then you’ll never get promoted.  Or if you feel like a conversation with a friend felt awkward and you find yourself wondering if they now think less of you.  Both of these examples of self-talk can result in feelings of anxiety or hopelessness.  The key about making self-talk more constructive is learning to be more gentle and compassionate in the ways we talk to ourselves.

Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapists work with their clients to change negative self-talk into more rational responses.  The goal is that if we can start recognizing our own automatic negative thoughts and then turn them around, we can feel better about ourselves and the world around us.  Much research has been done to back this up as an effective form of therapy, especially for anxiety and depressive disorders. 

There are different categories of negative self-talk, and if you work with a cognitive or cognitive-behavioral therapist, you will get to know them intimately.  Below are some examples of negative self-talk (also called “cognitive distortions”) and more gentle alternatives.  Note that these are simple examples for illustrative purposes.

1. Should statements:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
  • Better:  I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

2 .  Disqualifying the positive:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
  • Better:  There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

3. Emotional reasoning:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I don't feel good right now, so it feels like I can't handle anything.
  • Better:  I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know I can.

4.  Catastrophizing: 

  • Negative Self-Talk:  If I don't do well on this work presentation, my boss will think poorly of me, I'll never get that promotion, and eventually I'll be jobless and homeless.
  • Better:  Nobody's perfect.  I'll do my best on the presentation and know that less than perfect is not the end of the world.

If negative self-talk is ingrained in the way you think, and is regularly

impacting your mood and relationships, you might consider working with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.  Also look for a future installment on this blog about how to foster more self-compassion.