I believe that authenticity matters; hiding who we are stifles growth opportunities for the individual and collective. So in this blog I write about all things that genuinely fascinate me: art, spirituality, the puzzles of personhood--and their ongoing interplay. For some, learning the artist's thoughts contaminates the experience of the art, and I respect that. It might be best to avoid this blog and visit only my gallery pages. Personally I can't get enough of the stories, ideas, and people behind art, so this blog is most appropriate for an audience similarly curious and open-minded, and who won't take offense at challenging perspectives and taboo topics. It's especially for those who are aware they're undergoing a spiritual awakening and seek to feel less alone in that process. I wouldn't be at this better place in my life if it weren't for the wayshowers I found online who helped me understand what was happening to me and to the world, and I hope to pay it forward by doing the same for others on the awakening path. But most of all this blog is for me, as writing helps me clarify my thoughts and record my progress like nothing else.
This is the first in a series of posts on what I've learned from my dysfunctional upbringing and my thoughts on how the systems and beliefs that comprise our culture can improve. For my full story, see the December 2020 post titled, "We Are Shaped by Our Experiences: An Origin Story Pulled from the Shadows." My intention is to inspire others to develop greater awareness about their own lives and to share ideas for building healthier, more supportive families and communities. Because I believe, as Teal Swan says, "We are given the very wounds we are meant to teach others to heal."
I wrote the origin story in my last blog post in my mid-40s. If I had written a similarly family-centric narrative about my upbringing at any point between my childhood and early twenties, and I knew others would read it, it would have sounded something like this:
My mom was always very involved with her children's lives and trying to keep us safe--much more than other mothers, because she was more aware of how dangerous the world was and she cared about us more than other mothers did. She would discipline us a lot because she knew that children are inherently lazy and bad and will get into trouble if they follow their instincts. Anything that Mom did that felt like abuse was only because she herself was so stressed out because of her lack of support, so it was not her fault. She understood that children need to be shaped into obedient people who do well in school and learn valuable skills like playing musical instruments. She knew that having parents require you to do things you don't want to is good because it teaches you discipline so you can do well in life. I appreciate that she always reminded me that I needed to think harder because my lack of intelligence and common sense stemmed from my sheer laziness.
Mom never got a day off from being a mother. My dad was rarely home so it's like he abandoned her, making her a single mom. Even though she had no support, she selflessly put her children's needs above her own by, e.g., driving us to multiple music lessons every week and other activities like riding lessons, sewing lessons, swimming lessons, College for Kids courses, and Girl Scouts. She baked blueberry muffins for breakfast and chocolate cakes for our birthdays. She allowed me to take the ballet classes I wanted as a kid and bought me Star Wars action figures because she knew how much I loved those movies. At age eight Mom gave me the white kitten that I had wanted so badly for years, and this made me so happy! I named her Tasha after Mom's favorite childhood author Tasha Tudor. Mom made sure we had a wealth of books to read. She noticed and nurtured my artistic talent with lots of beautiful art supplies. She arranged for me to take sewing lessons and I had so much fun making my own clothes. In middle school I wanted a pair of silver penny loafers so badly and Mom kindly bought them for me. She freely allowed me to borrow her sweaters whenever I wanted to wear them, and bought me a big collection of sweaters of my own over time. Mom sent me so many care packages while I was away at boarding school and college, and I always looked forward to the thoughtful gifts she packed inside them.
My mom was a lot smarter than other mothers, and even though I didn't appreciate it all the time because having someone so smart around made me feel stupid, I was lucky to have a mom like her. She wasn't afraid to do things her own way, which was better than other families who just blindly engaged with shallow, dangerous pop culture and other mainstream activities that made them unintelligent and morally bankrupt.
Mom and I were very close, even throughout my teenhood, a time when most teens want little to do with their parents. In fact, my interests were always indistinguishable from hers: music, clothes, books, outlook on life. It makes sense that I would have such grown-up tastes and perspectives because at a relatively young age I understood and accepted that Mom knew best for us, and therefore I was so much more mature than my sisters, who childishly rebelled. I owe my mom so much for everything she did for us--especially since she had such a difficult life and my ungrateful sisters made her life harder and ultimately abandoned her, leaving Mom with nobody else but me to be her support system. I'm glad I had an upbringing that taught me it's better to give than to receive, because now I'm focused on working hard to make the world a better place. I was privileged as a child and it's now my primary duty to help others.
I stand by both this narrative and the other one; they both contain truths. (All truths are true; they serve some aspect of our experience and evolution during the period in which we hold fast to them.) So what accounts for the big differences in narrative focus between my younger self and older self? It's because it gradually dawned on me as my adulthood progressed that I was not ok--but I had no clear idea what the source of my problems could be. Seeing psychologists and psychiatrists and taking antidepressants provided neither answers nor relief. At first I didn't think my problems had much to do with my upbringing. After all, as a child I had clean water, food, clothes, a home, and education. What more does a person need? I noticed that charities worked to give needy kids the very things I had taken for granted. There were no social services providing kids with more intangible things like friendship or mentoring...except for Big Brothers and Big Sisters. But from what I knew of those programs they were only for kids in poverty who were missing a mom or dad. I wasn't financially poor and had both parents--therefore, just as everyone told me, I had absolutely nothing to complain about.
Or did I? At some point something in me stopped wanting to talk to my mom and dad. I'd take days to answer their phone calls. Eventually I'd stop returning their calls altogether. Something in me just couldn't do it. Meanwhile, bits of childhood memories would come back, accompanied by flashes of anger that somehow felt justified--but that also made me feel guilty, because I wasn't supposed to be angry at the parents who had done so much for me.
But I was growing undeniably angry, particularly at Mom. How could I reconcile the very obvious privileges of my upbringing with this uneasy sense that some as-yet unidentified thing about my childhood had done me harm? Eventually I realized that enjoying homemade muffins for breakfast doesn't cause a child to grow up unable to make real friends. Having endless piles of books to read doesn't cause a teen to lose her periods. Receiving the white cat she always wanted doesn't make a person chronically suicidal. So, what does? The answers lay in the feelings that were boiling up in me, seemingly from nowhere.
Honoring the Pendulum
A system out of balance will experience wild movement before order is restored. Just watch what happens to a pendulum dragged to its maximum on one side and then released. The pendulum doesn't immediately reach stillness at center; it first swings all the way to the other side. I witnessed the same thing happening to me. As a young person I had adopted a single, denial-riddled outlook. My pendulum was firmly parked way over on one side that some might (simplistically) call the positive side, because of how I presented myself to the world and in relationships: I'm strong, independent, and confident! Even though I struggle with everything, if I work harder I can make myself fulfil the expectations of authority figures so everyone can be happy! I had such a privileged upbringing that it's my duty to fix the world's problems through a life of selfless service! If I'm ever unhappy it's just because I have a bad attitude and need to learn not to think about my past or depend on other people! No one ever needs to worry about me, and I won't be a bother to them!
But eventually another part of me, desperately seeking answers to my persistent health problems and depression, gave me no alternative but to take a look at the areas of my life that I had until then ignored in the name of keeping "positive." And so the pendulum swung to the other side as I dived deep into all my buried emotions that others had told me in childhood were unacceptable: sadness, anger, envy, blame. As an empath and codependent child I had felt compelled to please others, so I suppressed and denied these supposedly "negative" emotions. They didn't disappear, though; they became my shadow, sneakily sabotaging various aspects of my life by influencing my thoughts, behaviors, and actions in ways that I couldn't control and didn't understand.
There is a common misconception that the term shadow, synonymous as it is with darkness, refers to aspects of the self that are negative or bad, i.e., things we need to eliminate. But a more accurate and helpful definition of shadow is: the aspects of our psyche and behavior of which we are not fully aware, because they have been suppressed, denied, or disowned as unacceptable. If your flashlight picks out the face of a hissing kitten in a dusty corner of a barn one winter night, is the kitten necessarily a bad thing just because it was in the dark and will scratch you if you come too close? Most of us will understand that the kitten is actually scared, because it hasn't yet experienced human kindness--so we won't consider the kitten bad. In the realm of the psyche, conscious awareness acts as the flashlight. It's an apt metaphor for this process of psychological discovery, since shining the light of awareness on things hidden in shadow brings them out of the dark so that they can be fully seen, understood, and appreciated for why they exist at all.
Maybe Don't Shoot the Messenger
What I learned is that those shadow emotions like sadness and anger were not inherently negative. Instead, they were messengers desperately trying to signal me about out-of-alignment conditions in my life, i.e., conditions that had not served, or were not serving, my highest good. It was then my task to find out what those conditions were and their continued effects on me so I could change them to improve my health and relationships and find fulfilment and peace. This kind of exploration is frequently known in spirituality and some psychology circles as shadow work.
The origin story in my previous blog post represents the first stage of my own shadow work: a conscious identification of the memories and feelings from my childhood that I had hidden in my shadow because others found them unacceptable.
As I progressed in my shadow work, I came to understand what messages these suppressed emotions were trying to give me:
Clearly my origin story, "pulled from the shadows" as it is, has a theme that some might dismiss as negative. But knowing what we do about the nature of shadow and the overly-positive coping mechanisms I used as a young person, and by adopting an attitude of curiosity instead of judgment, we can explore why this newer perspective was useful at this stage in my life of expanding awareness.
Let's first take a look at what we typically consider a positive outlook: I'm 100% responsible for my life. I think only the best of other people. I can do anything I put my mind to. It's better to give than to receive. If that attitude is actually making me depressed and physically ill (I have blog posts coming up with medical evidence of how this works), then how can it be positive with regard to my own life? Clearly this attitude that people around me regarded as positive was actually having a negative effect on me due to the denial of unmet personal needs that it entailed. Plus it eventually had a negative effect on the people around me, because although other people's egos liked my "positive" outlook because it made their lives easier, it also shielded them from facing hard truths about what was healthy for me--and even for themselves and countless other people in our society whose minds and bodies have different needs than what is convenient for those around them. Remaining in the dark about this prevented people from learning and growing. But that's the very reason why our souls incarnated in Schoolroom Earth: to learn and grow!
There's a term that has become popular in recent years for adopting an inauthentically positive outlook: spiritual bypassing. Shadow work is the opposite of spiritual bypassing. Shadow work is uncomfortable. Yet here on Earth--one of the most difficult places in the universe to incarnate--growth tends to happen more in difficult and uncomfortable circumstances. It was uncomfortable and inconvenient ("negative") for others to learn of how I was not actually ok as a child, but in hindsight it was necessary that they learn for the sake of our evolution.
So can you see how the labels positive and negative are too simplistic and thus fairly useless in describing the shadow? Something can be positive for one person but negative for another, or positive first and then negative later. Some more useful and specific replacement terms are, e.g., in alignment with the mutual evolutionary needs of the souls involved, or, out of alignment with some part of the self that has unmet needs. It's much more helpful at this point for us to acknowledge the complex, multifaceted nature of ourselves and our relationships and avoid use of oversimplified labels.
Another Perspective on Blame
Quick: is blame negative or positive? No doubt you'll say negative. Everyone feels this way. "I'm not playing the mom blame game!" June used to say defensively if we brought up something that still bothered us about our childhoods (never mind that all during our upbringing she herself had blamed my sisters for their "bad" behavior, blamed my dad for her stress levels, and blamed me so constantly as a child that I became chronically suicidal). If the new-age spiritual community had a list of 10 commandments, this is number 1: Blaming is bad so you should never do it and if you do you're, like, the worst person ever.
It's helpful to try to understand blame by exploring the concept of responsibility implied by the word. Let’s first take the opposite, when someone credits another person for causing or creating something positive in their lives. In his TEDx talk, Sam Berns, a high-school student with a rare disease that causes rapid aging, giving him an unusual appearance and health challenges, presents his philosophy on how to live a happy life. His second recommendation is: “Surround yourself with people you want to be around.” Says Sam: “I’m extremely lucky to have an amazing family who have always supported me throughout my entire life.” Nobody is going to accuse him of identifying his family's influence on his life--because he noted that it had a positive effect.
But how many children are similarly “lucky” or can choose their families to be the kind, supportive people they “want to be around” during those critical, most formative years of their lives? What if one of these unlucky children acknowledges that mom or dad affected them in a negative way? This is when someone who disapproves of such acknowledgement--usually the perpetrator or someone who has no sympathy because they lack similar experience--accuses them of "blaming" someone else.
So how can this be? One case of identifying the responsible party is socially acceptable, but the other case is not. Both cases involve cause and effect, so denying one sounds pretty arbitrary to me. The word "blame" itself is drenched in shame. It's taboo to identify someone as affecting you in a negative way. Isn’t it interesting how we widely accept the saying, there are no bad dogs, only bad owners? But how is it that in a world where children are often treated like property and held on a metaphoric leash or (emotionally if not physically) abandoned like an unwanted pet by many parents, there is no accepted corollary, there are no bad children, only bad parents?
One reason is that parents generally can’t handle being told their wrong. Why? Parenting is hard. I get it. There are few people more justifiably defensive than parents who face the impossible task of raising healthy children without an instruction manual or adequate support network. But there's a deeper reason. And here I introduce a compassionate insight I haven't seen elsewhere: I do believe that the reason parents get so defensive is because something in them--their own inner child--knows that they themselves are not the ultimate source of the harm they are causing their children. It's the unsupportive circumstances in which they were raised and/or in which they are raising their kids. But this knowing is deeply subconscious. If it were conscious, then instead of responding with, "I'm not playing the blame game," they would automatically say, "I understand why you feel this way, and I'm sorry this happened to you and me both"--and then deliver a presentation on the underlying social and/or economic conditions that introduced stress into their families' lives, causing parents not to meet their children's needs, thus misdirecting their children's nervous systems into constant survival mode, which generates warped perceptions and dysfunctional behaviors that are then carried into the next generation. Most parents don't acknowledge this because they haven't learned of the connections or cascading effects.
What does blaming another say about the blamer? Blame is actually fairly innocent. Just as for the defensive parent, it comes from the most hurt part of us, the inner child, who is still reeling from the pain-pattern of chronically unmet needs. Blame is as much a feeling as a thought--and an inescapable healing truism is that the only way to move beyond painful feelings is actually to validate and feel them to their fullest (something I'll explore more deeply in a later post). Blame is useful in the early stages of healing trauma as we blindly stumble around, desperately seeking to identify the cause of an effect in our lives. In a world where healthy social connection is critical for human development and survival, blame correctly identifies that something, somewhere, in our relationships is out of balance and causing our needs to go unmet. We may not know exactly what the problem is, but our instincts tell us, you're getting warmer. Especially for people like me who constantly were shamed and told they had only themselves to blame, identifying someone else's behavior as contributing to our circumstances is actually an important step in developing a healthier sense of self.
Blaming another person becomes a problem only when it constitutes the endpoint of responsibility tracking, the final conclusion reached after exploring why something happened. Because finding someone responsible for an undesirable condition is always, always just one of many breadcrumbs leading back to the ultimate yet hidden cause. Thus shaming someone for blaming someone else can only prematurely halt not only a personal healing process but the very important process of problem-solving for a better world--and no, that's not too grandiose a claim.
Here's an example: As a child I blamed myself for my supposed lack of intelligence, which others pointed out to me as my fault. Eventually I found out that the concept of "unintelligent" is an arbitrary social construct in a society with a left-brain bias, that intellectual ability is very much a product of the early-childhood environment, and that it isn't very nice to demean someone for their intellect. So I blamed June for what I perceived to be my low IQ and low self-esteem. But later I realized that June's shaming behavior toward me could only mean that she had grown up under conditions where someone had shamed her (likely her father) since there's nothing more true than hurt people hurt people. In addition, June lacked all kinds of support in raising her kids, so her stress level was high during my upbringing. Stressed people often don't make the best decisions or act in the kindest ways. As I learned more about our family history, I knew that her father faced financial stress, had turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, and, like June, he also lacked adequate social support that would have helped him be more understanding and patient with his own children.
So what was the larger cause in this chain leading to my low intellectual capacity and self-esteem? A socioeconomic order that fails to provide the material, educational, emotional, and social support critical for family and individual welfare. Our modern world just isn't designed to meet human needs. That's the thing we need to target with creative, practical solutions.
As I identify in later posts, there are indeed many solutions out there to prevent children and parents from experiencing what my family and I did. But it took me a multi-stage journey commonly known as the dark night of the soul (dedicated post on that to come)--which, like it or not, included temporary stages of depression, rage, and blame--to finally feel and release those emotions, so I could become able of taking a broader perspective and seeking out those very solutions. So I say thank you to all the other "negative" emotions for hissing at me from the shadows; I appreciate the role you've played in my drive to create a better world.
"Integrate" Is the New "Let it Go"
We don't want to eliminate what we find in the shadows so much as integrate it--that is, learn what it is, why it was hidden, what it's doing to and for us, and what its broader message is that we can share with others. "Let it go" is what people say when they're uncomfortable with your shadow aspects and callous of the unmet needs they represent--usually because they are unwilling to admit their own contribution to your pain, and/or because someone else dismissed their needs and feelings and told them to toughen up and let it go, too. But integrate is what one does to show the shadow the respect it deserves so that one can finally heal. Maybe after getting good food and care, that scared kitten hissing and scratching at you turns out to be the excellent mouser in the barn you were looking for all along. As spiritual teacher Teal Swan points out, our shadow also contains our gifts.
"Higher consciousness doesn't avoid lower consciousness. Higher consciousness encompasses, cradles, holds lower consciousness. And it doesn't chastise it, it doesn't condemn it. It holds a space for it. It allows all information to be seen. It allows all information to express. - Phil Good (philgoodlife / Instagram)