Dancing With Shadows
I grew up in the crown jewel of the deep south, Mobile, AL. We did many strange things like take ballroom dancing in fifth grade. Yes, you heard me, fifth grade. It was hands down the most awkward thing I’d experienced until then, and I’ve always felt at home on a dance floor.
This was different though. Kids from a couple neighboring schools would gather on a Thursday night at 5 o’clock in a big gymnasium at St. Ignatius Catholic church and learn all the old-school couples' dances like the fox trot, waltz, and others I’ve purposely erased from my memory. The most unbearable part of it wasn’t learning the dances, it was learning the dances with the boys. They were hyper, smelly, and had no rhythm. They also thought they were beyond cool. Ya’ll, it was torture. My favorite part of the night was when I spotted my mom’s minivan headlights in the carpool line. She’d swoop in and pick me up and then we’d proceed to Checkers for the long-awaited chocolate milkshake(s). I had to take the edge off somehow.
Learning to dance with our shadow, or shameful parts, can feel just as unpleasant. Oh you’ve got them too, I promise. They are those parts of us we’d rather not talk about. In fact, we try desperately to hide them from the world around us. They are the parts of you that you swear, if someone saw, they’d ultimately reject. It might cost you their affection—their acceptance. You'd be exposed…and deemed unloveable.
For so long, I tried to hide and change the fact that I was a quiet observer as opposed to the popular party girl. Large groups of girls made me uncomfortable. I absolutely hated summer camp, gossip, and sleep-overs. I followed southern suit and joined a sorority in college, but it was really more for my mother than for me. Eventually, I dropped out but nearly died trying to show up and fit in. I’d much rather hang with my older friend, Liz. We’d smoke Marlboro lights, listen to Dave Matthews, and talk about evolved things like boys, music, and what we dreamed of doing when we “grew up.”
More recently in my late thirties, I’ve felt shame around not taking the traditional route as a stay-at-home mom. Instead, I’ve chosen, albeit indirectly, to focus on my career, (or that’s what I tell myself and others). At 39, I may or may not ever be a mother of children. Even though the ballot’s still out, this feels a bit shameful to me. Regardless, I build up the more admirable, palatable case that, “I’ve chosen to build out other areas of my life.” It feels cleaner—safer. At the core, however, this is really my shadow part and her name is inadequacy. I’ve never really cared for her.
What are the shadow parts you’d rather forget about? Is it depression, body shame, singleness, or even sexual trauma as a child? If so, I can fully resonate with you. Guess what? Just like the smelly boys at ballroom, we’ve got to learn to lean in, let go, and learn to dance with them.
One of my favorite concepts in self-development is integration. This feels incredibly expansive and powerful to me. The less compartmentalized, or fragmented we are, the more integrated and whole we will become. Just as we are made up of hundreds of different body parts, muscles, and organs, we also have so many different parts of our emotional, relational, and creative beings.
Oftentimes in therapy sessions with clients, these parts come up. Take anxiety for example. Anxiety is an emotion, or part of us that can be immobilizing. The common misconception is in order to deal with anxiety, we must numb, fix, or run from it. But anxiety is really just a shadow part of us that needs compassion and understanding just like, say, the creative part of us. When we stuff our anxiety and try to avoid it, we really just give it more power and as a result, create imbalance.
What might dancing with this anxious shadow look like? Well, first we must listen to and get to know it. This allows us to cultivate empathy for that anxious part of us. After all, she has been working overtime for a while now to keep us performing, staying safe and “on the ball.”
Shadow work is really a reckoning with parts of ourselves we’ve misjudged for a long time. The payoff is wholeness—flow. It’s realizing those parts we’ve been hiding for so long aren’t so terrible after all. In fact, they end up being the best parts because they are the most loving, consistent teachers.
That anxious part of you desperately wants you to see her for who she really is: someone who deeply cares about your future yet may go about it clumsily. She wants you to sit with her, commune with her, and realize the worst thing that can happen isn’t so bad in the end because you have other resilient parts of you that can step in and take over when she needs to sit the next song out.
Second, simply take a minute and visualize the part of you that you dislike, a lot. Perhaps you feel guilty about this part or constantly judge her. What does she look like? What is she doing? How does she seem? In the same minute, take one step towards her… then another, and another. You left her alone a long time ago and she feels abandoned, even scared. She knows you dislike her but she desperately longs to know you and play on the same team. She needs you big time.
If this feels completely terrifying, it should. Your brain is freaking out because it has no idea what it’s doing. Hang in there though, this is perhaps the most life-giving work you’ve ever done. Dancing with strangers or smelly boys is probably not on your bucket list. But I bet I know what is…
To be loved…fully.
Love & Gratitude,