Seen your shadow lately?
I’ve been missing mine, which troubles me - reminds me of this thing I saw on the zoetrope recently. Mine doesn’t get Riverdale, so I ended up watching a story by Hans Christian Andersen called “The Shadow.”
It’s about a man whose shadow runs off to make a life without him, and then when it’s rich and famous it comes back to usurp his life. It’s a weird little story that a lot of people have spent the last century or so trying to interpret, because it’s got a lot of really strong symbolism that doesn’t seem to quite come together as a single coherent message or theme. I find it pretty compelling for this reason - I love a narrative I can twist until it says something entirely unrelated to its intentions. The subjectivity of words is my favorite thing about
The most common interpretation of this story seems to center on the idea that when we separate ourselves from our darker selves, from our self-destructive impulses, our malice and fear, our bad choices, our despised former selves, we make ourselves permanently incapable of true understanding or vision. The story seems to argue that we rob ourselves of access to real beauty and meaning when we attempt to enter into it solely as the most idealized, aspirational version of ourselves. When we refuse to identify with and acknowledge our failures, we make ourselves into a paper puppet, beautiful on the surface but with no true understanding of how beauty is created, externally lauded but internally empty, the eternal impostor.
We can succeed by doing this, but we can’t enjoy our success. We can acquire security this way, but we’ll never feel safe. The time always comes when the Shadow comes back, a dark reflection, the two of us still the same kind of empty suit - rich, well-loved, and more lost than ever.
We hate to admit that our Shadow is our Self, that we are and always have been one. When we see that we’ve made a mistake, a bad choice, we want to fix it - we want to become that shining New Self, the one who understands what we just learned and would never do that thing we just did. We are ready to be that shiny new person now, so we rush to step away from our Shadow, to push the Shadow away until it’s someone else, someone unconnected to us. To stand there in the room with our Shadow and stare at it, to have someone point at it and say, “This was you. This was the wrong thing that you did. You, yourself, will always be the person who did this.”
Small-scale example - this happened to me at a job once. I’d screwed up something, can’t remember what it was, but my boss was dressing me down for it and the thing is, I agreed with him. I knew I’d fucked up. So I was like, “You’re so right, absolutely, so how can we fix this, what can I do better in the future?” I was sitting there all bright-eyed like yeaaah look at me being good and taking criticism and improving and my boss said, “Wait, hold on. I’d like you to take responsibility for the thing you did before we get into how we’re going to do it differently next time.” He didn’t feel secure that I wouldn’t screw up in the same way again, because I was so desperate to not be the person who screwed up that I wasn’t willing to look straight at my mistake, accept that I did it and understand how and why. I was trying to get out of feeling bad about myself, not trying to learn how to not do the thing I deliberately did that resulted in me feeling bad.
This can be a well-meaning impulse too, it’s not always us trying to weasel out of something. Sometimes we just want to get better already, just want to stop being in pain. We want to be someone else who doesn’t feel like this, put down this burden we’ve been carrying and just leave it behind. But doing that doesn’t actually relieve those burdens or heal that pain - it just puts it out of sight, makes it harder to find when we’re actually ready to engage with it and do the work of healing.
Early on during my time in therapy, I got upset at my therapist because I perceived her as pushing me toward solutions and strategies, ways to get better, and I didn’t feel ready to get better yet. I’d spent so long denying the pain and anger I felt, denying the ways in which I was mistreated, that I needed a little time to just sit with my Shadow, to listen to it talk, to say, “Yeah, I’m actually really, really angry and sad about this stuff, and that’s totally normal and reasonable, I deserve to be angry and sad about it and I don’t have to stop feeling that way to be a whole person. My anger and sadness about my trauma is not a symptom that needs to be fixed, it’s my body telling me that what’s happening is doing me real harm, and I need to listen to that, not instantly stop listening and go looking for answers.”
She responded flawlessly, of course - she was perfectly willing to adjust her approach, and I never again felt like I was being pushed to heal in a specific way or timeframe. It wasn’t a mistake she made out of malice - with other people it wouldn’t even have been a mistake, it was just that I wasn’t yet at that point in my recovery process. Acknowledging where we currently are, and letting ourselves be there, is the only sustainable way to move forward, otherwise we’re just scrambling, falling all over ourselves to get away from the Shadow and doing nothing but diminishing ourselves further in the process.
The Shadow isn’t your enemy. It’s not your illness, it’s not your trauma, it’s not your addiction. The Shadow is you, and without embracing it, allowing it to be part of you, you can’t be whole. You can’t have the good stuff without the bad stuff, is the real problem. That’s something else my therapist told me, in reference to addiction. There’s no such thing as 'an addictive personality,’ she told me. When people consistently choose addictions, it’s because they hold one or both of these fundamentally mistaken beliefs:
- They believe that happiness and peace can come from somewhere outside themselves, and/or
- They believe that they can avoid or escape feeling their negative feelings.
Real growth requires us to accept that these are falsehoods, and that’s very difficult, because a lot of our society is built to teach us these ideas and reinforce them. Capitalism runs on these fundamental beliefs - it operates explicitly by telling you that happiness comes from outside you and you can escape negative experiences, and all it takes is money. And, well… I mean, America in the 90s was pretty much the epitome of the rich, successful Shadow, right? The man who trumpets his supremacy louder and louder to drown out the whispering doubts in his head? The castle built on sand, and King Haggard laughing as he falls into the sea, as he always knew he would.
We have to sit with the pain, face our Shadow. If we don’t fully explore our pain, it will fester and rot and grow again under the happiness we plant over it. If we silence the bad feelings, we silence all our feelings, and if we don’t take responsibility when we lose, we also don’t give ourselves credit when we win. You can have all of you, or none of you, but you can’t have just the parts of you that you like. Wanting to destroy some part of yourself, even a shitty part, IS being suicidal, it turns out. You can’t just want to kill a little bit of you. It’s all you, whether you like it or not, and until you accept that, you never will like it.