The Shadow Effect

In my last post, I mentioned I was reading Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. This is not the kind of book you can read in one sitting. Chasing the things you’ve hidden for the majority of your life is no small task, and it’s usually a good idea not to rush the process.

The hardest thing about connecting with your shadow forces, I’m realizing, is finding where they are. Oddly enough, these thoughts and feelings have a tendency to, well, hide in the shadows, away from casual perusal. And for people like me, who have spent the better part of four decades shoving their darkness as far down into the bottom of the bag as humanly possible, cajoling them out into the shallow light can be quite the challenge.

So Monday, while waiting to see my doctor about a nasty sinus infection that just won’t go away (thank you, Kentucky springs and the glorious allergens you provide free of charge!), I popped on my earphones and started listening to a downloaded recording of one of Debbie’s radio shows from the Hay House Radio archive. And as I waited (more or less patiently), a solution appeared to me from nowhere (as they are wont to do when you are wandering in the general vicinity of the question).

How do you find your shadow?

In the course of one of the programs, Debbie Ford instructed a caller to ask herself how she wanted people to see her. What is the best impression she could give the world? And when the caller responded, Debbie told her to flip it around and find the opposite of that image was her shadow side. That, Debbie Ford insisted, was the shame-based shadow persona the caller was trying to deny.

And then she went a step further. As the caller digested the horror of identifying with the antithesis of her view of perfection, Debbie asked her to find the gift in that quality she despised about herself.

I’d like to say that I had an instant personal revelation about myself and my personal insights. But, of course, that’s when the knock came on the door and my doctor came in to talk to me.

Fortunately, this interruption gave my subconscious mind time to ponder upon the question, and by the time I was driving home, the question reared itself again—this time, ready for me to pony up an answer.

How did I want the world to see me? And what possible gift could I find in the humiliating mirror-image I had locked in the basement of my personality?

Beautiful Me, C’Est Moi!

The woman in the picture about is the lovely actress Janis Paige, a legend of the big budget Hollywood musicals of the 1950s. But my first introduction to Janis Paige was a little after her heyday in such classics as Silk Stockings and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. No, by the time I heard of Janis Paige, she’d become firmly entrenched in the TV guest star gigs, from Alice to Mary Tyler Moore to Columbo.

And she played Aunti Viv on Eight is Enough. Now, next to Mame Dennis, Auntie Viv was my idea of the perfect woman. She was worldly, smart, fun-loving, and free-spirited. She swept into town like a hurricane, fresh from all points strange and exotic, spoiling the kids with gifts and stories and leaving a havoc of creative chaos in her wake. (She was cool like The Brady Bunch‘s Aunt Jenny, but the actress playing her was much hotter than Imogene Coca, so she won.)

So, what is it about Auntie Viv, Auntie Mame, and all those other awesome spinsters/bon vivants that exemplified the person I wanted to be?

  • They were worldly. All of them had eschewed the ordinary marriage and kids route for something more daring and glamorous. No dull, country life for this girl—she was meant for broader horizons.
  • They were sophisticated. All of them surrounded themselves with the cream of the crop—intellectuals, artists, free thinkers, philosophers—and found depth and wisdom through the complex relationships they shared. It wasn’t enough for them to grow, live, and die with the same six opinions enveloping their lives. They craved variety.
  • They were fun. All of these ladies were wacky and, yes, a bit crazy. Never a dull moment with these Aunties, who were just as likely to ride in on a camel as in a cab!
  • They were wise and generous. Under the wild exteriors, each of these characters revealed herself to be much deeper and wiser than her persona might suggest. It is the outsider aunt who has the very word of advice the seeker needs at the precise moment they need it most.
  • They were mysterious. The Aunties arrived in a whirl of smoke and lights, and departed just as quickly at the end of the episode or film. There was no chance to see the mundane side—the PMS, the monthly bill paying, waiting for a cab in the rain at yet another airport—alone. No, these ladies were always “on” and fabulous!

The Anti-Auntie

As much fun as it was to compare myself to the Vivs and Mames and Jennys of the world, eventually I had to move to the shadow side of the question—what is the opposite of these traits I don’t want to acknowledge in myself?

A picture arose in my mind that just made me cringe—the Anti-Auntie.

  • She’s provincial. So wrapped up in the local mundane world that she can’t see past the edge of her driveway. Not that she’d want to. Anti-Auntie loves her tiny little world, and how important she feels being a Big Fish in a Little Pond.
  • She’s mundane. Bring on the bologna sandwiches and Wednesday night television line-up. Anti-Auntie doesn’t like all that weird stuff. She sticks to the tried and true, preferably if she wasn’t the one who first had to try it. Safe and bland is the way to go.
  • She’s boring. Why keep up with news of the world and research and philosophy? That stuff is for other people, snobs who think they’re better than us. Anti-Auntie sticks to whatever everybody else talks about. She doesn’t make waves, even in her own thoughts.
  • She’s petty. The highlight of her life is the faults she can find with her neighbors, and she’s always on the lookout for the latest gossip. Anti-Auntie holds grudges for decades, destroys friendships over the most inane offenses, and never once questions the rightness of her beliefs.
  • She’s overbearing. Every gathering, every party, every event, there must be a spot of Anti-Auntie. The longer she’s around, the more of a burden she becomes on family and friends who don’t dare insult her by not inviting her (even though they really don’t want her around). Oblivious to the fact that she’s not particularly welcome, Anti-Auntie never refuses an invitation and is always the first to arrive and last to leave.

What a horrifying picture.

And she’s my shadow personality.

That’s Why They Call It a Shadow

So the truth of it is, there are days when I don’t feel all that worldly, sophisticated, funny, or mysterious. There are days when I prefer my dull little routine to more challenging experiences, and times when I’m not above accepting a charity invitation to somewhere I want to go.

No matter how far I go, how much I learn, underneath there will always remain the fact that I grew up in a small town (see our courthouse in the picture above) in an isolated part of the country. To some extent, I will always be an ignorant, awkward, boring small-town hick who doesn’t get the joke and never gets invited to the cool parties.

Not a pretty picture, when looked at in the cold hard light of day, huh?

So Where’s the Gift?

The last part of Debbie Ford’s process is to face that part of you that you hate, and try to find the gift in it.

What could possibly be the gift of being a dull, unimportant hick from a small town in Louisiana?

It took me a little while, but eventually I found the nugget of gold, deep down in the shadowy caverns.

This horrible, narrow, dull little person I feared becoming drove me, pushed me to explore and expand my horizons. Every new idea I delve into, every new experience I have, every person of a different culture I try to understand, and every adventure I am brave enough to embrace—all of these are spurred on by that shadow fear of being dull, stupid, petty, or narrow.

From this shadow fear come the most wonderful experiences of my life, those Do I/Don’t I decisions where I decide to go for it when I otherwise might have shied away from the risk. Every time I was brave, every time I did something crazy that turned out to be a fantastic adventure, every time I tried something new that I learned to love, the Anti-Auntie was in the background, scolding and tsking and telling me not to make a fool of myself.

And Auntie Viv and Auntie Mame and Aunt Jenny were on the other side, laughing and telling me I had nothing to lose.

Easy choice, in retrospect.

Where To Now?

So now, thanks to this little process from Debbie Ford, I have new archetypes I can consciously use when making decisions. Do I follow the path of the Aunties, or the Anti-Auntie? Do I choose expansiveness and courage, or narrowness and fear?

And of course, that leads to the following questions for you, dear readers. Who are your Aunties? What are they like, and what characteristics do they have that you want to exemplify? Who is your Anti-Auntie, narrowing your scope and keeping you shackled to the safe and dull? And what gift has this Anti-Auntie given you, albeit sometimes in a roundabout way?

I’d love to hear what you discover. Please feel free to comment.

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3 responses

  1. Debbie, I’m in the midst of starting to look at my shadow self through AA. I tried this once before and had 16 yrs sobriety when I thought I could drink and it would be ok. Well, it wasn’t ok and am discovering that I am indeed powerless over alcohol and my life is unmanageable. Now I start to work the other steps where I will have to look at my shadow self and get rid of the junk. Then replace it with better stuff. This will be an ongoing process for the rest of my life. I think that we all have this shadow self and like you, I shoved it under ground until I finally realized it was killing me. Now the fun begins!!

    1. Julie, I’m very happy to hear about the changes you are making in your life. If you ever need a positive mirror to remind you of how awesome you are, shoot me a message! Be strong and be brave, my dear friend. Live life as the adventure it is.

  2. […] were about three and one when I finally made the decision to leave Louisiana. Now, being the bon vivant auntie I was, the thought of leaving those two little monsters just broke my heart. I adored them, and I […]

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