One of the most powerful forms of magic is to take a negative energy and turn it into a positive force, a force for good.
One of the ways we can do this is through Shadow Work, where we can utilize what we see in others as insight into our own blind spots (and ultimately healing of these blind spots).
It is in this way that we can turn even the most toxic, unfortunate, hate-filled, and ignorant person into fuel for self-realization and healing. In time we can even thank such people for showing us parts of ourselves that would be difficult, if not impossible, to be able to see within ourselves.
In simplicity, Shadow Work can be defined as what we do not know about ourselves. A big part of this is recognizing the parts of our personality that we have cut ourselves off from because family and early school experiences taught us that those parts of ourselves were wrong.
We can then spiral deeper into shadow work where we sit with emotions that we were taught not to feel. While this often involves sitting with and reclaiming a lot of “negative” emotions like anger, it also ends up being about claiming our light. Our joy, positivity, curiosity, sense of play, unconditional love and connection to the divine are all things that we were told (explicitly or implicitly) were not okay to feel or be connected to.
In my book, Shadow Work for the Soul, I talk at great length about how one of the most effective ways to see our biggest blind spots is by sitting with what we notice in other people. Shadow Work is such an effective tool for self-realization and healing because it requires for us to utilize what we see in others as a way to gain insight to ourselves.
If we are willing to look, what we see in others is a mirror to what we have not claimed or realized within ourselves.
We spend so much time continually waging war against ourselves in the outer world. By doing shadow work we gain back the considerable time and life force we once spent on hating or being in conflict with another. We can then utilize this energy for something constructive and life-affirming.
Part of the mechanism of the shadow (what we do not yet know or cannot claim within ourselves) is that we externalize and project our shadow parts onto others.
We do this to as completely as possible cut ourselves off from our own suffering and conflict. However, this type of externalization is also an ingenious way to observe parts of ourselves in conflict. We can much more readily see ourselves through being an observer.
Consider each person you are in conflict with, each person you hate, each battle and war you take part in, to be something playing out within yourself.
Contempt is a form of hatred. It can express as mockery, disdain, or behind a veil of intellectualism. The purpose of contempt is to make the other person feel small, wrong (such as morally bad), and inferior.
I will utilize my experiences with contempt as a way to show clearly how shadow work can truly turn something into a positive (in this case, both educating others as well as personal healing). This will also show the “spiral nature” of healing– basically, the longer that we sit with something, the more we heal, our relationship with it will change.
While contempt has expressed in varying ways towards me, the way it expresses itself most often in my life these days is as a result of being a female spiritual teacher and author. The underlying hatred that is expressed in misogyny is a good example to utilize for shadow work as well.
At first, I was puzzled by why such animosity was coming my way. While I have experienced the sort of casual misogyny that every woman has, the virulent nature of such hatred that came in my life when I first became a published author and started publicly teaching was a much stronger strain of this.
My first immediate response was anger. When I sat with that anger I realized that it was coming from a righteous place. I validated that anger (let it know that I had a right to feel that way), and looked further into it.
When I asked my anger what it really was about, it was about the unfairness of it, the injustice. If my name was Mark rather than Mary, they would not be saying these things to me.
To add on top of it was the “spiritual” sort of toxicity that comes from purportedly conscious people speaking such hatred towards me.
When I recognized this spiritual toxicity (experiencing contempt from “enlightened” or spiritually quite invested folks) I felt sad for them. How sad it is to have such a large blind spot that you are still expressing such hatred without any self-awareness?
When I internalized this grief, I saw my own sadness at lack of recognition. How times in the past I didn’t see this contempt clearly, how I took it on (such as blaming myself or taking ownership of contempt energies when they had nothing to do with me). When I went through a full grieving process for my former selves who did not have this perspective on contempt, I was able to move forward from this spiral.
When I fully moved through this spiral I saw this contempt plainly. I was able to separate it out from people who simply didn’t like my work, or who were offering critique, or from the other types of suffering that people play out in the world.
By seeing this contempt play out clearly, I no longer took it seriously. In fact, I began to feel contempt for those who expressed contempt towards women.
When I saw this in myself, I questioned how I held contempt for others. In what way did I mock, belittle, or look down upon others. How did I hate other people?
At first I utilized a direct mirror. This means that I questioned any part of me that held hatred towards women and the feminine.
How did I express contempt in the way that others have expressed contempt towards me?
This not only includes hatred or dismissal of women, but also hatred of the feminine: the physical form, intuition, feelings/emotions, sexuality/sensuality, and connection to the Earth/Divinity/the Other/the Spirit Realms.
We are taught to hate the feminine in so many ways, and in doing so we have trapped it, dismissed it, rejected it, called it crazy, separated from our innate wisdom, our sexuality, creativity, our connection to the Earth, and our embodied connection the divine. We are taught to fear the spirit realms/the Other, which prevents us from direct experience and revelation of the divine.
In sitting with this I did see how I have separated from, dismissed, viewed as wrong, bad, or morally incorrect, parts of myself that are a part of the feminine continuum of Self. I began the process of loving these parts of myself, rather than hating, dismissing, or disregarding them.
One of the ways that victims of hatred and contempt attempt to gain back power is to hate the opposing force. In this case, hatred, contempt, and dismissal of the masculine.
This hatred for hate only fuels more hate.
I realized in this spiral that returning the focus to self, really claiming the beauty and divinity of the feminine, is how to regain the power and sense of self inherent in the feminine.
In being willing to see the ways in which I held the feminine in contempt and hatred, I healed so immensely.
I was then able to see the other ways in which I expressed contempt, hatred, and division.
Through this I began to see how hatred requires ignorance. We must dehumanize those we hate. If we gain knowledge of them we can see them simply as people. This re-humanization bestows enormous empathy, and it only happens when we are willing to see our own suffering mirrored in one another.
The last spiral in regards to contempt was to see how the ignorance, contempt, and hatred expressed at the Other (in this case me as a woman) was really an expression of self.
If we hate women (or men) we are hating half of our own nature. Outer contempt reveals inner contempt and self-hatred.
This offered immense clarity, as well as the type of compassion that we can all come to with shadow work. I now feel compassion towards those who show me such contempt. I too know what it is like to have hated myself, to have dismissed myself, to have felt contempt towards myself.
From my perspective now I can see how such hatred and contempt reverberates out into our reality. If we hate, that hatred will be returned to us. Our lives will be consumed by our contempt for others (and really, for ourselves).
The purpose of shadow work is not to think that each person you meet is filled with love and light, it is to see them clearly. Sometimes that means seeing their ignorance, their suffering, their hatred, for what it is. Ultimately each one of us shows our self-hatred, our ignorance and suffering, in how we relate to others and how we treat ourselves.
The ability to move into this awareness of contempt and hatred doesn’t mean that I no longer receive misogyny directed my way. It means that my reaction to it has changed. It means that I have accepted it as a part of my reality and have released any need (or responsibility) to change the suffering and ignorance of another.
What those in their suffering and self-hatred desire is to pull another down to their level, to share their misery with another. They wish to make someone hate them to play out their self-hatred. They want another person to feel as badly about themselves as they feel inwardly about themselves.
What we hate in one another, the wars we wage with one another, show us our own self-hatred… if we are willing to look.
By seeing this clearly, we can move beyond having hatred for hate, and contempt for contempt. Such games require considerable energy and time we can utilize better elsewhere. They have a cost too high to our personal sense of peace and worth.
As with all things, education and clear-seeing are the antidote to hatred. By doing both we humanize the Other. It is so easy to hate an abstract Other, a convenient person or target onto whom we can project our own self-hatred.
If instead we see within the person we hate or have contempt for a small part of ourselves reflected (or our former selves) it neutralizes that hatred. It no longer returns hatred for hatred, creating more hatred and contempt. If we love and accept even the parts of ourselves that are the most shadow-filled, the parts that hate and belittle and shame and mock– we can come to true self-awareness and self-love within.
And we will stop spending our lives waging wars against ourselves in the outer world.
Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual teacher and author of several books, including the upcoming Shadow Work for the Soul. This book teaches what the shadow is, how to recognize it, and how to work with it.