Shadow Letters: Moving Past Trauma with Our Words

Buckle in, friend, this ride is going to be a long one, and it’s sure to be bumpy. This particular entry may be triggering for some, as it deals with very heavy subject matters. Because of the sensitivity of this topic, I will not be interjecting pictures or cutesy quotes into this blog. It is a dialogue, and one I would like to open for those who may need it- including myself.

Clear your mind, and try to picture clearly the following.

Imagine, if you will, a brand new world. In this brand new world, there is only one person. This person, being the only conscious living soul on Earth, is inherently all things humanity is capable of. Both light and dark, evil and good, this person is all aspects of human emotion and abilities wrapped into one individual package. This person is both Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa, equally. He or she is both Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, equally. He is both pure instinct, or animal, and civilized- equally. Can you picture that? It might be difficult at first. If need be, imagine a person- or blank shell- carrying a brief case with cards for every human emotion and tendency you can think of- good and bad. They can wear those cards around their neck and be any of those archetypes at any given time, or multiple at once.

This person lives as he want. Kills as he wants. Rapes and pillages, as he wants. Saves baby animals, and heals as he wants. Steals and gifts as often as he wants. He is both awful and kind- and there is nothing (mentally or outwardly) that tells him any action or feeling of his is right or wrong.

Now, in this world, create a new society somewhere nearby. This society is filled with people all living according to an invisible set of rules, and they are all similar to each other having grown up in this place; yet your person is completely different in all ways, an outsider who has never been taught a moral compass or an ethical rule. They are a group of people that your imaginary person has never interacted with, and up until now had no idea existed, nor is it a group that your person understands.

Picture your person, a tumultuous force of the most debased human emotions and the most intense pleasantries, walking into this society. Immediately, this society sees the differences of this person- the danger in his individuality, and they tie him up and threaten to kill him.

The society holds pointy sticks up to the throat of your person, and demand that he become the same. Your person, fearing for his life, agrees and hides away the parts of his self that are not acceptable to his survival. He become exactly like the others in the society, and lives according to their rules- existing as only a shell of his former self in fear that being who he once was (free) would result in his death.

This imaginary scenario is a rough introduction to the Shadow that Carl G. Jung penned years ago- and a very large part of my practice. Our Shadow is all of the aspects of ourselves that we hide away to survive and, this survival can look different to each person depending on their life experiences.

In your imaginary scenario, what rules did the society impose on him? I’m sure for most of us, the obvious ones would be not to murder, rape, or pillage and so he hides the parts of himself that feels the urge to do those things deep into the Shadow.

But, let’s move out of that scenario and focus on ourselves. What rules has society, or life placed on us? Again, I’m sure we immediately think of the obvious ones mentioned above- but do they go further than that?

A woman, living today, cannot express her sexuality freely without being ridiculed or called a slut. A man, living today, cannot cry openly without being called a sissy or worse. A parent cannot make a mistake in rearing their children in any public fashion, or they will be shamed and harassed. A couple cannot decide to forego children without being questioned and made to feel guilty A victim of physical abuse may have been told to never wear anything ostentatious again, or they’d be beaten. A sexual abuse victim may have been told that their bubbly attitude asked for it. A mentally abused victim may have been told that they would never amount to anything if they didn’t do exactly what their abuser wanted.

In each of these instances, arbitrary and unwritten rules were made up by other people (society) and imposed on our selves. And, in order to fit in- which is what we all strive for, as it’s the paradox of human suffering, we hide pieces of ourselves away and pretend they do not exist.

The woman who wants to be freely sexual, as men are allowed to be, hides away any part of herself that is sensual- becoming insecure and afraid of her sex. The man, who feels as strongly as any woman does, asserts his dominance and hides away any empathy he might have. The parents hold on to unmovable guilt and shame, fearing that the world will judge them, and they hide away the part of themselves that grows and learns from mistakes. The couple who do not want children hide away their desires, and don’t discuss their options with strangers or unsupportive friends and family in fear of judgement.

The physical abuse victims may hide away the parts of themselves that make them individual, taking on the personality of their abusers in fear that anything that stands out will make them a target. Sexually abused victims may hide away any sensual, flirtatious, or obstinate tendencies, in fear that they will be taken advantage of again- or that it will mean they really did want it in the first place. The mentally abused sufferer may hide away any ambition, goals, or drives, because they’ve been trained to believe they’re not worthy of them.

These are all aspects of the Shadow. The things we hide away, the good and the bad parts of ourselves, in order to survive. It’s why, as I’ve said, everyone’s shadow will look different, as everyone lives a unique life experience and their rules of survival will look vastly different than those of us who have no lived that way.

They aren’t always bad either. They can be pieces of ourselves that simply don’t fit into our idea of what we want our life to be, and only until later do we realize that we never had to hide those parts of ourselves to get it.

When we deny parts of ourselves, they fester, projecting their issues on to other parts of our lives, or even onto people. The old lady who’s upset at the young girl for being promiscuous is in fact angry with herself and with society for denying her the satisfaction of her own sexuality. The man who yells at the boy crying is projecting his own insecurity of perceived machismo onto the child because he himself was denied access to his feelings.

And, so, we’re left with two options, both equally painful and equally traumatizing. We may let our shadow fester, believing that our reactions are normal and that we do not suffer from hidden pain. This can eventually lead to major depression, psychosis, neurotic tendencies, loneliness, misplaced hostility, and even self-sabotaging. Or, we may take the other path, which is shining light onto our shadow- reliving and accepting our past traumas, injustices placed on us, and any other buried parts of ourselves.

When we choose the first path, allowing our shadow to grow in strength, we can imagine the stereotypical perfect suburban house wife and mother- showing up to every PTA meeting, with perfectly groomed kids, a perfect house, and a seemingly perfect life. However, underneath the surface you might find that her husband cheats, she’s a drug addict, and her children are completely detached from their respective realities because nothing is what it seems.

On the opposite path, you might imagine it’s the messy-haired, never on-time, still-wearing-the-same make-up as last night city slicker who fights with her spouse in public and sends her kids to school with change to buy lunch. Yet, if we see underneath the surface, we realize she’s wearing the same make-up from last night because she and her spouse had a wonderful date night and intimate sexual relations until they fell asleep. She’s late because she spent the extra time to listen to her kid’s dreams from the night before and wanted to devote all her attention to him. She fights in public with her husband because working the kinks out is more important than how other people see her marriage.

Understand that both of these are stereotypes taken from Hollywood archetypes, but they are justifiably close to how we can view the Shadow. On one hand, the Suburbanite looks to be the perfect picture for society, denying every aspect of her Shadow until it manifests in ugly and out of control ways, whereas on the other, you have the City-dweller, who lives with both the light and dark aspects of herself and can better manage the stresses of life without projecting her issues onto everything else.

The point here is that we all have a shadow, and like or not, it will either rear it’s ugly little head in bigger and bigger ways, or you will face it head on and accept it. There is no in between.

Now, if you’ve stuck with me thus far, and you understand my ramblings, I’m sure you’ve begun to see pieces of yourself floating in the Shadow. Little bits of ourselves, both good and bad, that we’ve denied in order to survive.

How can we begin to work through these issues and bring about true and lasting peace?

For me, it’s writing. Not just here on the blog, though I will say that it has helped greatly over the last two weeks, but anywhere and everywhere. For others it might be paint, or exercising, or even therapy.

Today, I decided to write letters to my childhood abuser’s enabler (and sometimes, active abuser themselves). It was a tough letter, that in all honesty, I’m probably not done writing. It was emotional, painful, and harrowing- but I continued without stopping. Letting everything I’d ever thought, felt, or suffered out onto the paper. I cried, a lot. And I wrote truths that I had never even uttered consciously, let alone said aloud. Most of them hurt. A lot.

In this letter, that will never be sent, I discuss the brokenness these two people created in me that shifted a lot of who I was into the shadow. My depression, my anxiety about sex, my inability to see worth in myself, my tendency toward anger, it all stems from the pieces of myself I had to put away to survive a life no child should have to survive. And, it also comes from hoping someone would save me, and instead, learning that no one would.

This letter, in its brutal honesty, was hard to write. Not only are the two people involved family, and therefore I’m burdened with guilt for feeling the way I do, but the topics I have to air out are sensitive and not ones I wish to relive. Even now. Some are still so fresh I could feel the pit of fear in my stomach and the acid of terror gripping my throat as I thought about them- yet to move on, I had to go back to them.

There is pain in this letter. There is sadness in this letter. There is anger, rage, and enough visceral hate that it terrifies me. But, I will not let any of them stop me, for they are but guards along the path to my Shadow and I wish to meet her in all her darkness. Everything I’ve written has come without pretense. I have not planned what I will write, I do not think as I write, nor have I sat there consciously and edited my grammar, my ramblings, or my words. If I’ve thought it, no matter how harsh, how cruel, or how angry, it’s gone into the letter.

There is good in there too. It’s, unfortunately, not as much as I would have liked- but healing generally doesn’t look at all like what we hope for. And, even more unfortunately, for those of us who’ve survived abuse- we tend to gloss over and forgive a lot more on the surface than we probably should.

There is a certain sense of guilt with this letter, too, because in my healing I’ve come to realize that what I’ve lived through was a direct reaction to what my abusers lived through- and therefore, I cannot truly blame them for the trespasses committed against me. Yet, for my own healing, they are the source of my pain and therefore the recipient of my letter.

I have many recipients in mind for future letters. From the abuser of my abuser to the exes who took advantage of my weaknesses to the penultimate- my first abuser himself, I will purge the anger and hostility I feel toward them in the best way I know how- through words on pages until there are no pages left to be written.

And then, I will look at what is left, and I will shine the brightest spotlight I can find, and I will no longer be afraid of what I find. It may take me years, and it may take an entire forest of paper, but I will heal through my words. This gift that I have finally chosen to use will be my salvation, and I will no longer live as a prisoner to my Shadow.

Because I have denied myself this anger for so long, and I no longer wish to carry it like chains.

How will you heal?

Until tomorrow, my friends…

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