Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Ego and the Shadow: The Dysfunctional Couple Within Us

As I continue to delve into the shadow and ways to look at it, it's important to look at what we're up against. Namely, that's the ego. In the broadest non-psychological strokes that I can use, the ego is typically all the socially acceptable (or perhaps personally acceptable) traits that we display in the world. The shadow is all the unacceptable traits that we've repressed, ignored, or avoided. Usually, the part of us doing the repressing, ignoring, and avoiding is the ego, so the battle that so many of us feel tearing us apart is often between these two main parts, neither of which is actually who we are.

Walking the Tightrope of Shadow and Ego Work
We're so programmed to create egos and identities and stories about everything, that this type of work is particularly tricky. You're not going to be damning one or the other of these attributes. You're also not going to just mindlessly embrace the shadow in an up-yours move to your ego. Running off to go wild in the woods at a festival in a sudden explosion of shadow-dancing doesn't help you necessarily to understand the shadow. It doesn't necessarily help you to understand the ego that you created to repress the shadow elements of yourself. So after your journey into the full embrace, you collapse back into your own ego patterns, and you start all over again until you explode again in some other way of relatively healthy or unhealthy expression.

Peeling Back the Layers on Your Spiritual Walk
Really, this whole combination of work is tricky because we are so full of desire and fear and a whole bunch of unmet needs. Unmet needs is a phrase that I'm whole-heartedly stealing from a friend, and I think it's a great way to frame what the ego and shadow are both trying to do: meet some kind of need. This is where you have to do a lot of personal work (not necessarily, but for most people, it makes them feel like they're getting somewhere). You have to figure out what are the needs that you're trying to meet. I could tell you that I think 90% of the time people are simply trying to feel loved and connected, but that probably doesn't help you if you don't really know how you've gotten to where you are.

If you're a director of marketing who hates her job, is stuck in a failing marriage, and misses spending time with her children, then you've got some work to do. How did you end up in this job? Why did you marry this other person? Why can't you create time with your children? These are just doorway questions. You're going to have to drill down through more layers to get to the core. This is important otherwise you won't really understand why your shadow side just wants to go on a binge-drinking spree and have an affair. That will probably look really good at the time, and then it'll be a terrible mess (especially if your partner finds out). Then you'll feel ashamed and try to repress that shadow side again, but the shadow was just trying to meet the needs that you haven't met. It's just doing it in an unacceptable way (I'm using unacceptable loosely--it's tough to write about these things in this language without using judgmental terms).

The Ego and Shadow Battle
What you can't get lost in is labeling things good or bad. To start to understand yourself will involve a lot of compassion, love, and patience. If your shadow really wants to have an affair, then perhaps you should look at this as being unable to meet intimacy needs. Then dig a little deeper. What kind of intimacy do you really want to have? Why can't you feel that now? That last part will throw a lot of you for a loop. So much of what we feel on the spiritual path is a deep connection to ourselves. Through that deep connection to ourselves, we feel deeply connected to others. Part of the ego battles that people live within in this world is a struggle to get the world and everyone around us to please us. This is always futile. Acceptance is the only way to truly engage with the world. Everything else will lead to misery.


Moving Out of Ego Misery and Bringing Light to the Shadow
The shadow is always there. It's following us around wherever we go. It also shows up with the people that we draw into our lives. Whenever we see something we don't like in someone else, we're usually seeing something we don't like in ourselves. It's a humbling thing. It's not true all the time, but for the most part, we have to learn how to see things about ourselves that we haven't liked. We have to see our own cruelty and unkindness towards others, and when we do that, we start to understand why others bring cruelty and unkindness to us. This isn't law of attraction stuff exactly. I don't believe that everything we have happen in our lives is stuff that we've specifically attracted. I believe in chance and that sometimes shit just happens; there's no story about it. It simply is.

With all that said, learning to figure out what your needs really are is important. Money, awards, great lovers, and all the rest are simply attempts to meet those needs. Usually it is to feel happy, loved, and connected. In some ways, humans are the most simple creatures, but we've complicated the hell out of everything. You gotta do a big rewind on your life, and usually, that rewind takes you back to playing in a garden or jumping in mud puddles as a kid. Here's an example of a rewind, taking someone from a point in their career through some of the core assumptions:
  • I need to make a 6 figure income to afford a home and have a family.
  • I need to get married.
  • I need to get a better job to get more money.
  • I need to get an intimate partner.
  • I need to get a job to pay bills.
  • I need to finish my degree and graduate.
  • I need to get accepted into college.
  • I need to get good grades in school.
And what was before that first one? What were all those other ones trying to do? I'm sure they seem practical, but that sort of real world practicality is a lie. It's always future-looking to find happiness in something else. Before that one before the first "need" probably wasn't anything. It was probably you as a child just being happy with what was. I'm not saying everyone has great childhoods, and there's a whole other conversation to be had about childhood trauma and family issues. I'm saying that in the return to awakening (because that's where we all start until we forget), that we become a child again. We aren't repressing our needs and forcing ourselves to act out often in unhealthy ways. We also bring to the situation the wisdom of adulthood, so we don't need to stick our hands in the fire to discover that we get burned. We already know.

The Wisdom of Children
The combination of childlike innocence and adult wisdom makes us feel loved, happy, and connected. Which is what both the ego and shadow have almost certainly been trying to achieve at the very root cause of everything. And once you get back to that place, you won't need the ego or the shadow in quite the same ways. They won't necessarily go away, but the game will now be much more in your hands. You'll be making your choices much more consciously, and with that awareness, you probably will get all the things that you've always wanted, which may not turn out to be as much as you first thought.
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