Processing the Shadow - Projection, Shame and Femininity


This month I have been reading a book called "The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Hidden Power of Your True Self" by Debbie Ford, Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson. I have been changed by this book. It builds on my healing work and spiritual development and has given me new tools through which to analyze myself and my behaviours. The Shadow is commonly referred to in alternative healing and new age spiritual circles. It draws upon a Jungian Archetype and refers to the aspects of ourselves that were shamed, punished and otherwise discouraged when we were developing our sense of self during childhood.

Doing shadow work involves looking at the aspects of yourself that you consider undesirable or downright repugnant.

It can be hard to look at the darker parts of our personalities. Attributes like impatience, stubbornness, jealousy, anger and hatred. It can be even more painful to acknowledge shadows that manifest as internalized racism, sexism, femmephobia, transphobia, ableism, elitism, etc. But it is very easy to identify a shadow. Simply notice the things you judge in other people. I found myself repelled by someone's arrogance the other day, and had to recognize that I am sensitive to that characteristic because I am self-conscious of appearing overly confident. The book suggests that somewhere in my past during a developmental period, my brazen self-confidence was shamed or punished. As a result, I stifled this characteristic and created a version of myself that exudes a more humble demeanor. We condemn in others what we fear in ourselves. This is called projection. It is important that we face our shadows directly, revisit our shame and experience it so that the darkness does not govern our lives from deep within.

Often self-destructive behaviours like addictions, infidelity, eating disorders etc. are fueled by the shadow. We will do everything in our power to embody the version of ourselves that is socially acceptable, that promises belonging. What strikes me about all of this is how shame itself is inherited, how we take on the shadows we are given by our caregivers. I have caught myself judging the frivolity or flamboyance with which someone expresses themselves, priding myself on my own seriousness and intelligence in contrast. This is in direct opposition to my true values, beliefs and my own high femme identity politics. When I trace it back to my early experiences, I recall how my role models expressed discomfort with expressions of femininity, and promoted a version of feminism (very white, middle-class early 90s) that involved a derision of traditional feminine accoutrements and near- religious devotion to practicality. I understood early on that to be taken seriously as a woman, I had to act like a man. Masculine traits are valued over feminine traits, and we all understand this from a very young age.

I am committed to a femme philosophy that values femininity, and refuses to blame it for women's oppression.

In fact, our devaluation of femininity is a product of women's oppression. For me, it is oxymoronic to claim feminism and deride femininity in the same breath. My femininity was shamed personally and culturally as a child, and I created a version of myself in the trope of 'strong, smart woman' as defined in cis, white, hetero-patriarchal terms. I am only now beginning to understand how this shame still manifests within me. And I am now redefining this trope as 'strong, smart and femme as fuck'. Importantly, this redefinition occurs through embodiment: not only theoretically and politically, but emotionally and viscerally by facing the feelings of shame buried so long ago.

What are your shadows? What bothers you the most about the people in your life? What might you actually have in common with them?

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