The Shadow's Gift

Brokenness comes in the form of terrible personal crisis. In the "Broken Open" series (starts HERE), I shared some stories about that. Brokenness also comes in the form of a generalized, ongoing sense of what’s wrong with me? If personal crisis might be called “acute brokenness,” there’s also “chronic brokenness” which is an abiding or recurrent feeling of not being whole.

We have our shadow side, the part of who we are that we don’t like. We have tried to push it away, bury it, ignore it, repress it, kill it – project it upon others. Wholeness comes from embracing our shadow.

The first thing to notice is that the gift and the shadow enable each other.

We could say that if your gift is diplomatic skill, the shadow is that you don’t speak your mind. Or if your gift is that you’re open and speak your mind, blurting, even if nonjudgmentally, the shadow is that you are sometimes inappropriate or give offense. If your gift is the wisdom of experience, the shadow may be an absence of youthful enthusiasm. Or if youthful enthusiasm is the gift, then there’s a lack of long-experienced wisdom.

There are many positive qualities a human being can have, but no single person can have all of them because some of them contradict. Whatever your gift to the world is, that gift is made possible by not having certain other gifts.

Lately such books as Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking and Marti Olsen Laney’s, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World have described the gifts of introversion. Extroversion is also a gift. No single person can be both introvert and extrovert. Certainly, each can learn to sometimes step into the mode of the other, but it isn’t what comes naturally. Introverts can, as LoraKim occasionally reminds me, choose to speak up, contribute -- chat. And extroverts can, as I occasionally remind LoraKim, remember that not everything has to be processed out loud.

Second example: Some people are more likely to trust information that is in the present, tangible, and concrete: They distrust hunches, and prefer to look for details and facts. For them, the meaning is in the data. Other people trust inference and are less dependent upon the senses. For them, the meaning is in the underlying theory and principles which are manifested in the data. It’s a gift to be oriented toward the big picture, the principles and theory at work – and the shadow that comes with that gift is a tendency to be less connected to the concrete reality on the ground. It’s also a gift to be attentive to facts and details – and the shadow is sometimes missing the forest for the trees.

Third example: Some people have a natural preference for approaching decision-making from a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent, and matching a given set of rules. Others prefer to approach decision-making by associating or empathizing with the situation, looking at it 'from the inside,' oriented toward finding the greatest harmony, consensus and fit among the people involved. Each of those preferences is a gift -- and each comes with the shadow tendency to overlook the need for the opposite approach.

Final example: Some people like to get decisions made and to have matters settled. Others are more comfortable keeping decisions open, staying flexible. Each tendency has advantages and each tendency has the shadow that it lacks the advantage of the other.

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves: It’s OK to be who you are. You don’t have to beat yourself up because you have the shadow that comes with your gift. There are advantages to being tall and advantages to being short. You can’t have both. Yet sometimes we catch ourselves, in essence, wishing that we were both tall and short. If you didn’t have the shadow, you wouldn’t have the gift that comes with it, so relax. It’s OK to be the unique person that you are.

If you could really become the person that your inner critic seems to want you to become, we would lose so much. We would lose the gifts of who you are. Please remember that. Because when you beat up on yourself, you’re beating up on a friend of mine, and I kinda wish you wouldn’t do that.

When your inner critic starts in on you, talk back. Say, “OK, I appreciate that you’re trying to protect me, Inner critic. You want me to be competent and respected and liked. Thank you for your concern. And I realize that you are visiting with me today because some new challenge has arisen, or an old challenge has reasserted itself. And we didn’t want this particular challenge right now, so we’re wishing we had somehow headed it off. OK, let’s just be with that and look at that. If we had headed it off – if we had done something different or been a different kind of person – what would have been the cost? The full cost?”

Then you and that inner critic can have a reasonable conversation.

Suppose, for example, you forgot your anniversary, and now you’re in trouble. OK, so what would it have taken to have remembered and what would be the cost? Maybe it’s fairly simple – you can tell the calendar on your computer or smartphone to give you reminders both a day in advance and the morning of. In any case, it’s worth looking at why you forgot. The resources of your attention were somewhere else. You were focused on that. And focus is a gift – its shadow is that you’re not paying attention to other things.

If you weren’t so focused on that other thing, what would be the cost? Be honest with yourself. Given who you are, would that cost be worth it? Maybe so, maybe not.

Or suppose, for example, you find yourself in trouble for the opposite reason -- you weren’t focused on something your inner critic thinks you should have been focused on. You were paying attention to home, family, kids -- and at work you were tending to relationships, process, and clearing out your email inbox, but weren’t focused on just that one project which is now overdue. Well, OK. Look honestly: what would have been the cost of that focus? What would have gotten neglected if you had paid more attention to that project? What would have been the cost of the extra stress, of lost sleep, of exhausting yourself, of not taking care of yourself?

Once you’re honest about those costs, then you can decide whether they’re worth it – and if they aren’t, then what?

There’s always a reason for what you did and didn’t do – and the reason is NOT, “because you’re a stupidhead.”

You have gifts. You have shadows. And I hope that you see that the shadow isn’t some unnecessary mistake, some brokenness of your nature that could be fixed. The shadow is the absolutely necessary condition of your gift. The brokenness comes from trying to deny the shadow, from trying to be both tall and short. Wholeness becomes possible when we embrace our shadow and become the unique person that we are.

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