Writing Reflects Life, Life Reflects Writing

As writers, we know that what we are dealing with in our lives will somehow show up in our writing. Sometimes this means our relationships inform our characters’ relationships, our struggles shape our characters’ struggles, or our issues become our characters’ issues. Sometimes the correspondence is not so tidy or one-to-one. The events of our lives may instead define our themes or plot elements, or they might show up in some symbolic way. The specifics vary, but our lives will show up in our writing, even if we are not conscious of it until reading over what we wrote later.

It is also true that what we are dealing with in our writing will somehow show up in our lives. My current work in progress, the sequel to A Gift of Wings, is called A Gift of Shadows. And I knew going into it that it would stir things up for me, that in writing a book about Shadows, I’d have to face my own.

ShadowWebster’s defines “shadow” as “an area of darkness created when a source of light is blocked.” For Carl Jung, the “shadow” is the unknown or denied “dark side” of the personality. Our negative, or socially unacceptable, emotions like rage, envy, and anger, for example, are usually part of our shadow. As Dr. Stephen Diamond writes, in a 2012 Psychology Today blog post, “Whatever we deem evil, inferior or unacceptable and deny in ourselves becomes part of the shadow, the counterpoint to what Jung called the persona or conscious ego personality.”

Most of us are familiar with the opening lines to the 1930’s radio program The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” If we think about this statement in Jungian terms, it makes perfect sense. Of course, the Shadow knows the evil that lurks in our hearts, because the very things we define as evil and hide in our hearts are what create the Shadow in the first place. In a way, our Shadow is our self-created evil twin.

No surprise, then, that “facing my Shadow” doesn’t show up on most people’s list of Top Ten Favorite Activities. We deny the shadow parts of ourselves because we don’t like them, we think they are unacceptable. We don’t want to be forced to recognize that they are, well, us.

But here’s the thing. Denying the Shadow makes it more powerful. When we deny our own capacity for, say, anger, when we believe it is unacceptable to feel anger or give it expression, we often project that anger onto others, whom we define as enemies or adversaries, or we turn that anger inward, where it becomes self-hatred or depression. And at the same time, our angry Shadow side grows stronger—so that when the anger finally does come spilling out, it’s bigger and badder than it ever needed to be.

What we resist persists.

Resisting our Shadow suppresses our creativity, harms our relationships, and limits our ability to fully engage with life. In contrast, accepting those things we would deny opens us up. Psychotherapist and Buddhist Tara Brach writes and teaches about the importance of what she calls “Radical Acceptance,” which means accepting what you are experiencing and feeling just as it is and regarding it with compassion. (See her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.) In The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, Michael A. Singer explains how the energy of things we resist (either external events or internal events like emotions we don’t want to feel) gets trapped inside of us. Acceptance is the key to freeing that energy.

So, I’ve been facing my own Shadow and learning to accept those things in myself that I have wanted to deny (like fear, anger, judgment). It hasn’t been easy, and it certainly hasn’t always been fun, and the work is far from done, but I feel a greater sense of peace and joy and happiness than I have felt in a while.

Perhaps I chose to write A Gift of Shadows, because on some level I knew it would force me to face my own Shadow. Or maybe the writing just led me here all on its own. I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that whatever we do, if we engage it with our whole heart, our whole being, the doing of that thing will change us, shape us. We each forge our own path into this thing called life. And we each choose our own compass to guide us. For me, for now, writing is that compass.

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