Linda: Here is a good example of a couple that has been doing Shadow work, that interrupted a downward spiral and turned a breakdown into a valuable conversation.
Finn: “Shortly after Poppy and I committed to supporting each other in doing shadow work, we experienced the beginning of a horrendous fight that we were able to interrupt. It was precipitated by an incident in which she expressed frustration over an agreement that I had made several months earlier to clean out the garage. Just as Poppy was beginning to express her feelings, I exploded in a verbally violent rage, calling her nasty names and accusing her of trying to control me with her relentless criticism. Fortunately, I caught myself red-handed and put the correction in fast before I did further damage; I was able to get the bully in my shadow in check. Once I was calm, I could speak gently. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that you were so upset? Did you think that I would get mad at you?’
Poppy: “I think that if I had expressed my feelings earlier before I started smoldering in resentment towards you, that you probably would have responded to my complaint very differently than you did just now. What’s really true is that for months, I have been aggravated every time I go into the garage. I had been trying unsuccessfully to let go of my annoyance. I’m willing to take responsibility for my shadow figures of the pleaser and the avoider popping out to cause trouble here. What you got from me was a complaint with about five months of pent-up accumulated anger attached to it. No wonder you got so reactive. I really will try my best to not deny my feelings and to report to you sooner if something is bothering me. Still, that doesn’t excuse your saying those nasty things to me. I am NOT a self-centered controller, and it’s not true that I am never satisfied with anything that you do. Even though I know that you probably don’t mean everything that you say when you go off like that, it still hurts.”
Finn: “You’re right. No matter what was going on with you, I was clearly way out of line in dumping on you the way that I did. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”
Poppy: “Yes, but let’s find out what else was going on so that we can learn whatever lessons we need to learn from this.”
Finn: “Well, I can tell you what was going on with me. I got defensive when I heard the judgmental tone in your voice. That’s what got me going. I felt like you were scolding me like a disobedient child and I just blew it. I’ve already got so much guilt and self-criticism for not fulfilling my agreement that your words and tone of voice pushed me over the top.”
Poppy: “Well if you’ve been feeling so guilty why didn’t you handle it before now?”
Finn: “That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Maybe because I haven’t been honest with myself about how I feel. Every time I think about cleaning up the garage, I tell myself that it can wait. There’s my shadow figure of the procrastinator. I tell myself that it’s not that important to me and if it’s a big deal to you you’ll let me know.”
Poppy: “Well eventually I did and look what happened.”
Finn: “Yeah I know. I had convinced myself that it really was O.K. not to fulfill my agreement if you didn’t seem to be too unhappy, but when I saw that you really were, I got angry at the lazy and irresponsible part of myself that had once again caused bad feelings between us, and I displaced it all on you rather than feel bad about it myself.”
At the very beginning of their interaction, Finn couldn’t see his shadow possessing him. He liked seeing himself as a high integrity guy who always keeps his promises. He didn’t like to see the part of him that was a lazy, irresponsible procrastinator. And he certainly didn’t like seeing himself as a person who is aggressive and verbally violent. Finn’s buttons had been pushed and he was clearly in hyper-reactive attack mode. Finn was reactive and trying to put back on his mask of the good guy, making Poppy the culprit here.
Fortunately, Finn’s partner Poppy had enough presence of mind to resist the temptation to react defensively or aggressively, choosing instead to affirm her desire to work out some kind of an understanding. In her willingness to take her part and to stay open and non-reactive in the face of Finn’s aggression, his anger began to dissolve almost immediately.
Once his mind wasn’t so inflamed, Finn soon realized that his reaction was not only excessively dramatic, but it was an extreme overstatement of the situation. Finn was committed to his work to stop sending his image to the relationship. Becoming more accountable when his shadow possessed him, he could admit that Poppy intention was not out to control him, but merely to reaffirm the agreement that they had made to complete an overdue project.
Finn’s willingness to rise up to a higher level of responsibility invited Poppy to acknowledge her part by not speaking up sooner before her procrastination left her marinating in resentment. Poppy acknowledged that there was more anger and resentful towards Finn than she had been letting on. She admitted that underneath her frustration with him, were judgments towards herself for not having been honest about how distressed she had been about the disorder in the garage.
What in the past would likely have deteriorated into an all-out raging battle that might have taken days for them to resolve got worked out in the space of less than an hour? Finn needed to own up to his lazy, childish, irresponsible part of himself that needed to be reminded to fulfill his commitments. He also had to accept the critical perfectionistic tyrant in himself who rages and displaces his anger onto others. Poppy had to own her inner wimp and the pleaser who stuffs feelings rather than risk upsetting other people.
Whenever we focus on each other rather than ourselves, we are rarely successful in working things out. When we each agree to speak from our experience, focusing on our own feelings rather than each other’s behavior, we are so much better off.
By letting down the image that they had been so committed to keeping up to themselves, each other and the world, and coming into relationship with the parts of themselves that they had been so tied up with hiding, they were both free to let their image down to become real with each other. Their relationship took a turn for the better. As they continued to embrace their shadow figures and to come into right relationship with them, they ceased to project their figures on to each other and to enjoy greater harmony in their partnership.