Dancing with the Shadow: A Conversation With Connie Zweig in Psychology Today
Mark Matousek: How should we think about authenticity when the "self" is made up of so many inconsistent parts?
Connie Zweig: We have all had the experience of a shadow character or part of ourselves erupting in spontaneous anger, lying, greed, or feelings of jealousy. We recognize the eruption in a critical comment we don’t mean to make, or in a repetitive fight with our partner, or some unacceptable behavior we can’t understand. Those parts are in all of us, and they are formed in our childhood through what psychology calls “defenses.” Sometimes those parts are repressed and sometimes they are projected onto others, but these forbidden feelings are unacceptable to our self-image and typically denied by the ego. “That’s immoral—I’d never do that,” or “That’s impolite.” Most people are aware that there is some part of them correcting other parts, but they may not be aware of a higher self or what we could call an intuitive self. It’s the part that allows us to come back into equilibrium, and learn how to observe the shadow parts.
To observe and do shadow work, we need the experience of being centered in a higher self. That is why our spiritual practice is so pivotal. Without space inside our minds to observe forbidden feelings and behaviors, they take over. When they do, we feel controlled and overshadowed by them.
For example, the moment you feel road rage and flip the finger at another driver, you lose your center and capacity to witness. In your anger, you’re unconsciously identified with that shadow figure. My work is about teaching people how to break that resultant unconscious identification of “I’m bad,” or “I’m an angry person,” and come back to the center. They learn to have a relationship with that part, and dialogue with that part, in order to recognize that it is not the essence of who they are as spiritual beings. And in this way, they connect to their authentic selves.
MM: Are you saying that without the ability to witness our thoughts the identification with our shadow is too strong for us not to be caught in destructive behavior?
CZ: That’s right. I have a client who came to see me because she was cheating on her husband and she had no idea why. Her first marriage had been unhappy and she made excuses for herself because she was miserable. But in the second marriage, there was a lot of love and stability as well as a new baby. She really wanted that relationship, and yet this self-destructive behavior kept erupting. And so she practiced centering, through her practice of Vipassana and walking meditation, and she began to watch the impulse, her internal dialogue and feelings, before she acted out the behavior. What she uncovered was that she didn’t feel seen or desired in her marriages. So she would have anonymous sex because she then felt desired; she liked the danger. That cheater part of her had unconscious needs that were getting met when she cheated but not in her marriage. In that first layer of shadow work, she began to express those valid needs to her husband and see if she could get them met. Shadow behavior has intelligence—it’s trying to tell us something.
Then we uncovered that in her Catholic upbringing, hse was told she was bad and there was nothing she could do about it because that was her nature: to be evil and wrong. So that cheater part was confirming her badness. And when she acted it out, her higher self was completely overshadowed. The message that she was bad was confirmed. In our shadow work, she realized that all the anxiety she had felt in both her personal and work life was connected to this message that she was bad. And that if she wasn’t good at work, she would be abandoned, and that created workaholic behavior. What motivated her was a negative motivation not to be bad. And in her relationship, it drove her to be a good wife and mother. She was performing so she wouldn’t feel like she was bad, and then she was acting out the badness in this shadow character, the cheater. There is a lot of knowledge in these shadow parts but if we dismiss or repress them, we miss out on the gold that’s there for our own self-knowledge, for the evolution of our higher consciousness. We also miss out on the repair from our childhood because all shadow behavior is rooted in childhood messages.
MM: How does exploration of the shadow alter our relationship to the world, and other people?
CZ: An ability to observe expands the range of our lives so we’re not living in a narrow persona that’s always deemed acceptable, which is where most people live, people trying to be proper. So there’s a lot of richness and possibility in exploring these shadow parts, even though they may be scary and feel risky. The other thing with that client was her search for thrill and danger. She needed to find constructive ways to experience that, because that’s a positive wish. She was at mid-life and needed more excitement. So you can see there’s a lot of needs inside of the shadow character that have a positive quality to them.
MM: How much leeway do we allow ourselves in that swing between the acceptable persona and the part that needs to risk and transgress?
CZ: For some, there can be symbolic transgression rather than physical. Some people can do this through their creative work or through their dreams. In our dreams, so much can happen because there’s no rules by that ethical monitor: the ego. For other people, that’s not enough, and so they need to face fears and find excitement in their lives. As long as you don’t hurt yourself or hurt another person. As long as you honor your commitments and don’t break your word, then you can do all kinds of things. But that zone is different sizes for different people.
Yesterday I saw the movie Captain Fantastic, which I highly recommend. It’s about children being raised in the wilderness in kind of a hippie setting with a lot of freedom. Their father has them do dangerous things: they kill animals to survive, rock climb and break bones, and the question becomes, What is aliveness? What is the value of learning to survive independently in the woods and what is child abuse? I think we all wrestle with that for ourselves because we want aliveness. It’s also like the movie Wild. We became domesticated and civilized, and that wildness is in the shadow. I think it’s one of the causes of the increasing violence in the world today. One of the reasons people want guns is because we’re disconnected from that wildness. And that spontaneity, that animal instinct is in all of us. It’s very repressed but it’s coming out now in some of these crooked ways.
MM: You’ve written, “To live with shadow awareness is to turn away from the peaks toward the valleys, away from the heights and the rarified air toward the depths and the dark and the dense. It is to turn toward the unpleasant thoughts, hidden fantasies, marginal feelings that are taboo. Our secret lust, greed, envy, rage. To live with shadow awareness is to move our eyes from up to down, to relinquish the clarity of blue-sky thinking for the uncertain murkiness of a foggy morning.” That is so beautiful, and yet we live in a culture that’s addicted to blue-sky thinking. So how can people begin to open themselves to the shadow in their lives?
CZ: That’s such an individual question. There’s a risk that if we don’t hold both, we lose part of our humanity, and we may also force another person to carry what we don’t carry for ourselves, creating imbalance in relationship. So how much can you allow yourself to see, to feel, to know and still hold on to your truth, your center? Not be carried away, either by the light or by the darkness, but actually live in your ground, in the center of your reality? Look at what happened in the Catholic Church. Sexuality was in the shadow. So we can see it all around us. We can see it in the class divisions of working class people hating wealthy people and wealthy people angry at poor people. And cops violent with African-Americans. And native people hating immigrants. This is all shadow projection that adds to the collective shadow and creates darkness in the world. So for some people, whatever contribution they can make to the larger world is their call. For some, their suffering forces them to look inside. For some people, addiction is the call they have to answer. It’s different for different people, but it’s important for all of us to answer that call. We have to take that journey, or we only add to the darkness of the world.
- Mark Matousek + Connie Zweig in conversation