MenWeb logoMenWeb   

Integrating the Shadow

Copyright © 1998 by Dmitri Bilgere


Help us help men
Every $20 helps!

book cover
Dmitri Bilgere's book
Beyond the Blame Game
Order on-line

Integrating the Shadow

By Dmitri Bilgere

Bob, a man in his mid-thirties who describes himself as "someone who never gets mad" is, at this moment, beating his father with a baseball bat. "I hate you!" he screams. The people looking on yell encouragement as he pounds on her father. "You abused me!" he yells. "You abused me and I hate you!"

What is going on here? Bob isn't participating in any criminal behavior, and his "father" is actually a pile of pillows on the floor. Bob is attending one of the many personal-growth workshops, now popular across the country, that encourage participants to "get into their shadows." Bob is expressing long-repressed anger at some behavior of his father. Because his father isn't actually present, Bob knows he can fully express his anger without actually hurting his father, whom he loves. Yet he is also angry, and he pounds and pounds the pillows.

The facilitator tells Bob that he is "in his shadow." What does this piece of new-age jargon mean? In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly says we are all born into the world with what he calls a "360° personality." As babies, we can honestly be however we are, and behave freely in any direction we choose. Through the course of being brought up, Bly says, we learn that some ways of being are okay, and that other ways of being are not. We learn that, in order to be good people, or in order to get love, we must repress parts of ourselves. The parts of us that we repress become our shadows.

For example, our ability to feel our feelings may go into shadow. When Bob was a little boy, and his angry father hurt him, he may have learned that anger is a bad, hurtful emotion. He may have decided that, in order to not be a hurtful person, he would never be angry. By deciding that anger was hurtful and deciding to not ever be angry, he put her anger into shadow.

Scott, another workshop participant, tells about how his feelings went into shadow. "I remember the day I decided that it was better to not feel at all. I was a little boy, in my room, and my parents were fighting downstairs. It just seemed better not to feel, so I decided not to."

While putting feelings into shadow might be a good survival strategy for a child, it doesn't work so well once we grow up. As an adult, Bob complains that he can't use his anger constructively. He can't defend himself, and can't set boundaries. Scott complains that, as an adult, he finds his life boring. "I don't feel anything," he says. "I just know I'm missing out."

When Bob and Scott put their feelings into shadow, they don't get to see their feelings when they are having them-but other people do. Bob's friends may find him subtly angry or passive-aggressive, but because he believes he is never angry, Bob will be the last to know about his anger. Scott may be controlled by his shadowed feelings, and never know it. When we put parts of ourselves into shadow, it only really means we don't get to see, or control, those parts of us.

Animal trainers have long known that the best way to control an unwanted behavior is to put that behavior on cue, then to never give the cue. For example, when confronted with a dog who barks too much, they will teach the dog to bark only when signaled to do so. In this way they take control of the dog's barking, and can use that barking any way they wish.

This principle also applies to shadowed behaviors. When we can choose to do a behavior on purpose, we can also choose to not do it on purpose. At the seminar, Bob is able to choose, for the first time, to express his anger just the way it is. When Bob learns he can get into his anger on purpose, he begins to put his anger on cue. Once he can choose to be in his anger, he can also chose how he uses the power of that anger. He controls his anger, rather than it controlling him. He has "integrated his shadow" by owning his anger, and learning to control it.

Anything we think we aren't is in shadow for us. If I think I'm never mean, then my meanness goes into shadow. If I think I'm not attractive, then my attractiveness is in shadow. If I think I'm not loving, my loving nature goes into shadow. We integrate our shadows by playing pretend, like children do, with different behaviors. We do this in environments in which there are no real-world consequences. As we play safely with our shadows, we integrate their power.

As the sages say, we are actually all one anyway. In the greatest sense, anything in this universe we think is not part of us is part of our shadow. Integrating your shadows is an important step on the road of returning to the oneness of all life.

Dmitri Bilgere is a seminar leader who has lead workshops all over the US, in Canada, England, and South Africa. He is the author of Beyond the Blame Game: Creating Compassion and Ending the Sex War in Your Life. Click here for a review of that book. Order on-line

Help us help men
Every $20 helps!

Articles | Men's Stories | Poetry | What's here? | Home Page | Search MenWeb | E-mail MenWeb

Press the "Back" button on your browser to return