Making your shadow your teacher

Making your shadow your teacher

I’d been jostled out of boarding the tube once that morning and I wasn’t going to let it happen again… so when the doors swung apart and the crush of morning bodies surged forwards for the second time, I elbowed my way impatiently in front of the dad with his small son and left them stranded on the platform, looking exasperated. My aggression dissipated into guilt. I felt something similar last week,  when I’d been blocked from pulling my car in to the nearside lane for the motorway exit by the last 6 evening commuters and the rudeness of the other motorists was making me angry… so I parped my horn, revved my engine and pulled in front of the next car anyway, earning myself a one-finger sign that got two back from me before my indignation gave way to remorse.

Now, standing, sardine-like, between stations, reflecting on this behaviour, I felt a little embarrassed. All this inner drama to be one step ahead of some else! Tuning in to my embarrassment with cautious curiosity, I realised that it is the same with me at supermarket checkouts, airport gates, buying drinks at busy bars… My initial feeling is anger. But looking deeper, what fuels this irritation with others is a nauseating sense of being powerless. I hate being taken advantage of, being ignored or overlooked. A whole script plays out in my head about being thought to be weak and insignificant. All of this drama happens in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of the situations that trigger me, of course! We all have such trigger points that cause us to lose perspective and ‘act out’ in ways that are not in line with our values and which we might feel vaguely ashamed of upon reflection.

If we can catch these moments when our ‘shadow-side’ gets activated, and enquire directly in to what is really going on for us, such moments can be transformational. Our anger, or anxiety, or fear, can become entry-points to self-understanding, and enable us to identify the underlying sense of deficiency and related, limiting beliefs about ourselves that cause us so much pain and striving. Without enquiring in to these ‘trigger-point’ moments we go through life trying to prove ourselves, trying to work hard to feel OK, trying to over-compensate to avoid the soreness of feeling somehow deficient.

I’ve come to see that we all have this core belief that something is wrong with us – that we can’t fully trust ourselves, can’t fully trust others, can’t fully trust Life… It’s as true for me as for my clients – the wondering about whether I really have something to offer, whether I am good enough, loveable enough, sorted enough, whether I really belong and can connect deeply enough… The key to healing such self-doubt is allowing the feeling itself to be an opportunity to practice self-enquiry. The practice goes like this:

  1. Noticing that I am triggered by a situation
  2. Taking three slow breaths to centre myself and find my balance
  3. Bringing curiosity to what lies behind my initial feelings and  assumptions, and identifying my inner storyline
  4. Determining, when I believe this storyline, what is it like in my body? How do I act?
  5. Asking myself, ‘Is this storyline really true?’ (for example, is it really true that I am don’t matter and am powerless?)
  6. Asking myself, ‘What would it be like to live without this belief?’
  7. Coming back to the moment, what has changed for me in my relationship to myself and others?

Over time, enquiry practices such as this surface which deficiencies and self-doubts most appear for us, and begin to help us feel more compassionate, spacious and free to choose different responses. Something transforms within us, from the quiet but courageous investigation in to our own inner experience.

Enquiry of this sort is not easy work. Places where we are vulnerable are often not amenable to quick fixes, but little by little, the practice of seeing that ‘everything that irritates us about others can lead us to self-understanding’ (to quote Carl Jung) helps us become more present and release us from the grip of reactivity.

Posted in Change Coaching Compassion Mindfulness on Monday, Apr 17th, 2017


This spoke clearly to me and many of those same thoughts have been my own reflections. I have more time to wait or be patient or practice courtesy. Yet, having time does not erase the urge to get in there first or conveniently. I thought it was just an American attitude, but I see it everywhere. Reactivity seems more a result of behavioral attitudes that fit our current society worldwide and three deep breaths could make the difference, if we take them.

Add new comment