I am reading Robert Bly's A Little Book on the Human Shadow because I have always felt a resonance with his description of shadow as "the long bag we drag behind us." I think it is working, both in my writing and my living.
Shadow, as described by Bly and others, is anything inherent in a person (or village, country or culture) that is not acknowledged by its owner. Shadow is often thought of as darkness or evil, or at least baseness, but is none of this. It is us, and it is not bad until we disown it.
When we reject a part of ourselves, we cast it on others--sometimes our mother or father, sometimes another culture or group. If you want to see your shadow, look for it on those you admire or deride.
So, what happens then? What can a little shadow hurt?
Two things happen, and they hurt a lot: you lose the energy that went with the part of yourself you reject, and the other finds himself more and more burdened with your expectations. If you cast your "achieving" self on your sister, for instance, she may feel your need to achieve as a nagging, debilitating sense that she has not done enough. If you give the power of your anger to your husband, he may feel an overwhelming rage that seems to pass through him rather than bursting from him. You see your sister as a Type A or a failure, and your husband as a fearsome maniac or a pitiful weakling.
But this isn't your sister or your husband--they are colored by your overbearing, unaccepted self.
Bly illustrates shadow by quoting his own poetry and by referring to the biographies of great artists, mostly writers. He says that an artist will not be great unless he is able to see his own shadow, and that as he ages, he must learn to "eat" his shadow in order to mature--and to continue to make great art.
He says that everyone needs to consume the shadow. If we don't, we will slowly feel a creeping weakness and shallowness, reflecting the slight portion of our real selves we still have control of, and how that tiny self is not enough to power the explosion of creativity, goodness, and excitement we secretly know ourselves to be.
I have begun using his formula to reclaim the energy of my rejected selves. (I paraphrase), "Hey you (person I admire or despise), I know you have my (fear of failure, greed, desire for recognition, hatred of traditional religion). Please give it back to me, so I can regain my energy and quit damaging you."
Last night, I saw my "others" in my dreams as their younger, happier, more alive (sometimes literally) selves. They looked brighter, lighter.
Today, I feel like I am recovering from a long fever. I am weak, but smiling. I am thirsty for something.
Maybe soon, I'll get the courage to eat more of my shadow.