Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in Edinburgh

Reflections 1

Notes on the denial of the shadow
(A reverie on the 25th of January)

Still on the fascinating subject of shame, I came across this statement by Linda Cundy:

People with a “dismissing” pattern of attachment have a huge repertoire of defences that they use to keep others – including their therapists – at arm’s length. They may be full of anger and lash out at others, or are self-controlled and perfectionist, demanding high standards of themselves and other people and are contemptuous when these are not achieved. They can be self-sufficient, driven or evasive. The core difficulty is shame – they are not acceptable to themselves. (my emphasis)
What struck me reading this is that what could be mistaken for the personality of someone might be a cover up of their utter
loneliness turned into some form of self-sufficiency. And then what challenged me was to try to understand what it would need for such a person to be enabled to feel loved.

For starters, approaching our 'Shadow' is pretty well as impossible as coming any closer to the shadow you cast against the light... but for different causes. Try touching your own shadow; it is intangible! To put that in terms of Frank Sinatra's lyrics 'Me and my Shadow, strolling down the avenue' is by comparison, amid many similes like wallpaper sticks to the wall... you'll never get rid of it. You're either merged with the darkness, or it's pursuing you, overtaking you, stretching out ahead or multiplying as you go under the street lights one after another. But, when it's sleeping time, that's when we rise (sic Sinatra) ... there's the rub: namely the bad dream, though I would prefer, despite the galling content of the dream, to believe with a certain optimism, that your unconscious mind is mounting a challenge while you are asleep and you can't help but being plugged in. It is releasing some of the content of our 'Shadow', providing us with a coded version of our fix for the purpose, it would seem, of providing us with a means of exploring what it is that is preventing us from living a fuller life, closer to our true selves and thus furnishing us with an option to free ourselves from the severe restrictions of the adopted 'Shadow'.

The word Shadow conjures up a ghostly presence and thus gives rise to attempts at exorcism. In that case we are talking about getting rid of rather than relating to. If the Shadow embodies all the life in us that has not been allowed to thrive it would be compounding the problem to try to get rid of it by burying it further in layer upon layer of unconsciousness (hence a probable dream of exhuming a parent's body buried in the back garden!). That brings to mind the way Burns puts Tam O' Shanter's sulky sullen dame in a nutshell as nursing her wrath to keep it warm while Tam's way to face down the devil is with his drouthy neibors... bowsing at the nappy... getting fou and unco happy. The term Shadow' (or ghost) itself conjures up the idea of an absent being and also the notion of being possessed. Nursing wrath comes close to a hateful outburst, the result of an unacknowledged frustration of keeping unlived life at bay. When Tam on his way back from the pub is confronted outside Alloway's auld haunted kirk he is both fascinated and scared to death when out the hellish legion sallied. Here the shadow is seen, according to Mark Oakley (The Splash of Words) as a time bomb which as long as we are not attending to it we are at risk of being blown away. We are tip-toing around what threatens us from within, not living, but rather trying to get along without vital parts of ourselves, while deluding ourselves by burying what we don't like in our selves. Perhaps another way of saying that is we studiously avoid admitting what we are ashamed of. Meanwhile the clock is ticking while more and more of our life is unlived. This may be at the root of depression. Envy of others or repulsion come back to unlived life.

Another example of the unexplored Shadow may be seen in an attitude of shrinking back, not daring to take a stand because standing one's own ground has not been honoured. It has been seen and treated as rebellion or envied by those elders who are not living their own lives and who are threatened by the potential freedom of the child to the point of wishing to destroy an 'outlaw'(!) for not fitting in with the half-alive bullies and must be punished by being exiled, in other words shamed.

The playground of the Shadow is revealed in our dreams as messages from our unconscious birth-right which is not being taken seriously. When we waken from a nightmare or 'bad dream' it is too easy to try to forget it. But it is 'good' not 'bad'; it is a timely warning. It is drawing attention to what has so far been forbidden yet needs to be integrated into our conscious lives not hidden away in shame. It is maybe why as a boy I had an obsessive dread of volcanoes masquerading as a sign of an enquiring mind. Tam's way to face down the devil was whisky (Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil) under the horror of being found out... and meanwhile the clock is ticking while more and more of our life is Burns warns in Tam o'Shanter: Nae man can tether Time nor Tide, the hour approaches Tam maun ride.

He has to make his way home in the dark on his 'grey mare' and by way of Alloway's auld haunted kirk.
Mounted on his gray mare Meg on his way back from the pub Tam is confronted outside Alloway's auld haunted warlocks (wizards) and witches in a dance...and seated at the window in their midst is auld Nick himself . Tam stops and is astounded by the spectacle, particularly what Burns' description conjures up, namely, a performance as might have more than equalled a show in the same vein as the old Windmill Theatre in Soho was famous for. And in his excitement at the wild frenetic erotic scene Tam, gloriously drunk, and seeing things in his state of Dutch courage, roars out his unguarded support: as it were a rowdy soccer fan egging on his team, 'Weel done, Cutty-Sark!'... And in an instant all was dark/ And scarcely had he Maggie rallied./ When out the hellish legion sallied. Here the Shadow is seen, but not owned.

But he has captured the attention of the 'hellish legion' a symbol of unlived life in the form of a gang. So what does he do? He does not see it as what inhabits him or indeed his miserable hate-filled wife he drinks to blot out. So, digging in his stirrups Tam makes his getaway and makes it, by the skin of his teeth. Oh it is not he that suffers! but his faithful steed that symbol of an honest life. With one leap she delivers her rider, but loses her flowing tail... Ae spring brought off her master hale But left behind her ane grey tale. The carlin* caught her by the rump, And left poor Maggie scarce a stump. A classic way of hiding the shame is to pass it on to another being.

*carlin, a stout old woman (possibly used by the poet to refer to an outburst of the 'sulky sullen dame' as awaits Tam's arrival home drunk and how Tam would slide out of blame and leave the wife with her misery).

Depression can be thought of as a serious warning that we are running out of time to live our lives. So can a virtuous pose. And of course it can be left until it is too late let alone the fact of having shamed the next generation. We have to seek to find within ourselves a good enough mother; we have to trust the other to thrive before we can know ourselves. For the opposite of that is seeking to get rid of our shadow on to the other. Ali Farka Toure the musician in his native village on the banks of the Niger the borders of the Sahara performs a number called Ai Du in an African language called Songhai. The lyric is translated for us as follows: 'Trust and faith in your fellow man has no equal. If you have experienced trust you will know its strength. You must know yourself before you know others. The song itself would almost seem an enactment of coming to terms with the Shadow.

Burns ends his long poem with a caution against drink as a false panacea: Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear. Remember Tam O'Shanter's Mare.

I will finish with a beautiful piece of poetry written by a close friend of mine:

When I fell into the wound
I was both embraced by it and
I stopped resisting its claim.
I became perhaps myself for the first time
I felt I was birthed through a loving reunion
my split-off self was embraced by my spirit
we made love.
In the end there simply wasn't anything else to do
than allow the gravity of shame to take me,
but it was gentle and more like tepid waves
folding over me.



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