Think of your most embarrassing moment
and you find your "dark" side. You know, that part
you wish weren't there, the part you want to hide or forget
Most of us stuff these moments into the bottom of our memory
bags. But you know what happened when you hid those veggies
you hated under the tablecloth when Mom wasn't looking? She
eventually found them, and you got found out. It's the same
way with hidden parts of ourselves. Like neglected children,
they eventually cry out for attention.
Those hidden parts can only stay hidden as long as no one lifts
up the tablecloth. If the defenses we build around these hidden
parts are penetrable, we may unveil them ourselves.. When we
form an intimate bond with a romantic partner and live with
that person on a daily basis, the tablecloth usually gets lifted
eventually. But if they are made of heavy iron mail, even falling
in love cannot melt them. Then the relationship may fail, as
if we unconsciously choose to hide and be safe rather than to
grow in intimacy and experience our full aliveness.
So why do we not go ahead and take that inner journey on our
own? What stops us? Let's look a moment at human development.
We are born whole (holy). As Wordsworth so beautifully expressed
it: "trailing clouds of glory do we come." Look into
the wide open eyes of a newborn and you know this is true. If
our parents notice and respond to our needs, we feel great.
To the extent they don't, we feel pain. Believing our survival
is at stake (and sometimes it is), we do our best to please
our caretakers. We hide the needs that weren't met. Somehow
they get lost in the shadows.
In most families, only parts of us get nurtured and developed,
usually the parts our parents had nurtured and developed in
themselves by their parents. What came through the intergenerational
transmission process often determines how much of our true nature
gets encouraged by our parents. Some unhealthy messages about
how to live get passed down.
To grow into the magnificent beings we were born to be involves
shining light on our dark side. Then those split off parts -
our lost selves - can be reclaimed and given the nurturing attention
they didn't receive when we were children.
But how do we do this? Here are three ways: attending to our
dreams, noticing the traits we most intensely dislike in others,
and noticing the traits we most intensely admire in others.
Dreams show us aspects of ourselves that we haven't yet recognized
in our waking life.
Once as a young woman newly out of school, I struggled in a
work situation that required me to interact closely with someone
I found very abrasive and critical. As a child, I was taught
always to be a good girl and never to rock the boat. One night
I dreamed that I physically attacked my obnoxious co-worker.
When I awoke, I was horrified. But, as I had been taught, I
wrote the dream down just as it occurred, noting the mood, to
see what I could learn.
This led to the beginnings of learning to be assertive. Slowly,
over time I dared to move into the middle ground between being
the good girl who dared not rock the boat or acting out my dream
behavior. I began to express myself more directly, saying clearly
what I wanted from my co-worker. Although I did not shed a tear
when he left his job, I should have thanked him, because working
with him gave me an opportunity to learn to use my own power
more effectively. That was an example of working with my shadow.
Finding our lost selves through observing what we despise or
admire in others can be a bigger challenge.
I do an exercise with groups or individuals that involves thinking
of people you dislike the most and admire the most and listing
all the corresponding negative and positive traits. Cull the
list down to the top five. Then identify the polarities, i.e.,
rageful vs. passive.
In many cases, if we hate rageful people, we lean the other
direction and become passive. We let others use us like a doormat
and pile up resentment that can build into rage. This energy
has to go somewhere. It may implode and create illness, or it
may explode and then we blow our stack and feel guilty and horrible
Here is an exercise that may help. For the negative traits,
fill in the blanks in the following statement: when you decided
you could not be ____________ (negative trait) the positive
aspect of being _________ (negative trait) that you lost was
the ability to be_______________. For example, when you decided
you could not be rageful, the positive aspect of being rageful
that you lost might be the ability to tell your truth. From
there you create a personal behavior change request. Such a
behavior change request for yourself might be, first, to look
for moments in the next week when you hold back your truth and,
then, to dare to express it one or two times.
Similarly, when we put those we admire on a pedestal, we often
fail to nurture the seeds of greatness in ourselves that we
see flowering in them. Looking up to them may prevent us from
looking inward to claim those traits we can't imagine finding
We spend our early lives creating our shadow. To become whole
means investing time and energy into illuminating it and reclaiming
our lost selves. Just as valuable ore is found deep inside the
darkest caves, the gems of lost life energy are found deep within
our dark side. Replace fear and shame with courage and curiosity
and we can become spelunkers of our souls.
Carlton, LCSW, is a Clinical Social Worker in private practice
in Chapel Hill with over 27 years experience. She specializes
in hypnotherapy, Imago Relationship Therapy, and relationship
coaching for singles.