On patting your dragon, feeding the dark wolf, and finding harmony within.
by Lance Baker
hadows can be ominous. They play tricks on our eyes. We think we are seeing something that we are not. They may trigger our fight or flight mechanism and increase our heart rate, so it’s no wonder that the notion of a shadow self can sound intimidating at first.
Yet what we find with these ominous shadows is that as soon as we turn a light on them, their true form is revealed. The tall elongated figure that stared down upon us with a persistent gaze was only the bedpost. The craggy arm that reached into our room threatening to touch us was only the old tree in the backyard. With this newfound awareness, we can then turn off the light and look upon the same shadows without the fear and anxiety they produced only moments prior. Our shadow self operates much in the same manner.
In his book Owning Your Own Shadow Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche,Robert A. Johnson explains the shadow self this way:
‘The persona is what we would like to be and how we wish to be seen by the world. It is our psychological clothing and it mediates between our true selves and our environment just as our physical clothing presents an image to those we meet. The ego is what we are and know about consciously. The shadow is that part of us we fail to see or know.’
Our shadow self, being something that lies just beneath our conscious awareness, can play tricks on us. It can cause us to see things that are not there. It can raise our anxiety levels and produce fear from sources that don’t warrant a fear response.
And just like those ominous shadows on the bedroom wall, they are neutralized once they are illuminated.
The Power and Weakness of Shadow
It is important to understand how powerful shadow can be when it exists just outside of the conscious mind — be it the shadow on your wall or your shadow self. According to Johnson, this is why parrots learn profanity so easily. He states:
‘Parrots learn profanity more easily than common phrases since we utter our curses with so much vigor. The parrot doesn’t know the meaning of these words, but he hears the energy invested in them. Even animals can pick up on the power we have hidden in the shadow!’
It turns out there are quite a number of video compilations featuring cursing parrots. You can get a sense of their owner’s personality through the tone and intensity of the parrot’s swearing. Of course, I only mean this in a comical sense but it does illustrate what happens when certain aspects of our lives are expressed with great energy. And our shadow can produce a great deal of energy if left unchecked.
There is the well-known and often quoted Cherokee story of the two wolves that illustrates this another way. The story goes like this:
One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.”
It sounds very nice. It is black and white and very tidy, but there is a major problem with this popularly quoted version. As I recently learned from Beth Bradford, Ph.D. there is more to this traditional story that provides a more holistic perspective. There is an alternate ending that adds a bit more nuance:
The grandson thinks about this for a few minutes, and then asks his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replies, “They both win if you feed them right.”
“You see, if I starve one wolf, the other will become imbalanced with power. If I choose to feed only the light wolf, for example, the shadow one will become ravenous and resentful. He will hide around every corner and wait for my defenses to lower, then attack. He will be filled with hatred and jealousy and will fight the light wolf endlessly.“
“But if I feed both, in the right way, at the right time, they will live side-by-side in harmony. There will be no more inner battle. Instead, there will be inner peace. And when there’s peace, there is wisdom. The goal of life, my son, is to respect this balance of life, for when you live in balance, you can serve the Great Spirit within. When you put an end to the battle inside, you are free.“
This alternate ending honestly makes far more sense than the rather sterilized version you see hanging in doctors’ offices and classrooms. If you tossed chunks of meat to the white wolf only, the shadow wolf would become more ravenous, deranged, and desperate. It would become unpredictable and uncontrollable. Johnson describes this destructive potential of the shadow self in this way:
‘It often has an energy potential nearly as great as that of our ego. If it accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage or some indiscretion that slips past us; or we have a depression or an accident that seems to have its own purpose. The shadow gone autonomous is a terrible monster in our psychic house.’
The easiest way to control the shadow wolf would be to feed it, get to know it, and befriend it. You learn to understand your anger, see the truth behind your jealously, and discover the pain behind your anger. Awareness and understanding rob the wolf of its power over us. The powerful shadow that threatened to overtake us becomes weak and submissive with a bit of food and attention.
Pet Your Dragons and Feed Your Shadow Wolf
Another great illustration of this comes from the classic children’s book, There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon by Jack Kent. Here is a summary:
- One day, Billy Bixbee wakes up to find a dragon in his room. (That is, he discovers the presence of the shadow.)
- When he tries to tell his mother about it, she declares that there is no such thing as a dragon. (She denies the shadow and pretends it isn’t really there.)
- The dragon grows day-by-day, obviously impacting life in the Bixbee household, but everyone continues to deny the reality of it.
- Life eventually becomes dysfunctional as the dragon eats Billy’s food, grows so large it takes over the entire house, and eventually runs off with the house itself. (The shadow grows its power and influence.)
- Mr. Bixbee comes home to find his home and family gone and wonders how something like this could have happened. Billy cannot maintain his denial any longer and says it was all because of the dragon.
- Before his mother can deny the existence of the dragon again, Billy insists that there is a dragon and pats it on the head.
- As the dragon is acknowledged and patted on the head, it shrinks down to the size of a kitten. (The shadow is assimilated.)
- Mrs. Bixbee acknowledges that a dragon this size isn’t so bad and wonders why the dragon had to get so big. Billy replies that he thinks it’s because the dragon only wanted to be noticed. (Bringing awareness to the shadow robbed it of its power.)
So the more the family tried to ignore the shadow in their lives, the more pronounced the shadow became until it consumed their lives. Once they accepted and embraced the shadow, it no longer overwhelmed them and became a manageable part of their lives.
Many people think that if they just don’t pay attention to their shadow then it will go away. It should be clear by now that this is not the case. Overt positive thinking can have negative unintended consequences. You can’t just repeat affirmations and ignore all negative emotions and feelings. For a time, it may feel like those negative things go away and are overwritten but they are just being repressed. Johnson describes it this way:
‘But the refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own — the shadow life. The shadow is that which has not entered adequately into consciousness.’
Your shadow, your dragon, your dark wolf just needs a bit of food and attention and it will allow you to get close enough to know it more intimately. Only then can you assimilate it.
Projection, Scapegoats, and the Outer World
Hungry wolves, attention-seeking dragons, and ominous shadows can wreak havoc on your interior life if not assimilated. But as we learned with the cursing parrots, the energy of our shadow greatly impacts our outer world as well.
The chaos that ignorance of our shadow can create is obviously going to affect how we engage with the world. But this outer chaos tends to manifest in very specific ways. When we fail to assimilate and bring awareness to our shadow, we project our shadow onto others. Johnson states it this way:
‘Any repair of our fractured world must start with individuals who have the insight and courage to own their own shadow. Nothing “out there” will help if the interior projecting mechanism of humankind is operating strongly. The tendency to see one’s shadow “out there” in one’s neighbor or in another race or culture is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche. It has created two devastating wars in this century and threatens the destruction of all the fine achievements of our modern world. We all decry war but collectively we move toward it. It is not the monsters of the world who make such chaos but the collective shadow to which every one of us has contributed.’
In other words, if we do not recognize our shadow within, we will recognize it in others around us. People hate because they are broken. Rather than dealing with the pain that is repressed within their own shadow, they become angry at some external thing (a person, race, political party, religion, etc.) and blame that for the brokenness they feel — but are largely unaware of. The unattended shadow controls and manipulates them to act out in dysfunctional ways.
Or, we will find most annoying in others what we unconsciously find most annoying about ourselves. If we can’t stand how someone at work is always chatting everyone up about their latest hobby, maybe it is because we lack a hobby that we could be equally passionate about. Or maybe we have an outlet but don’t know how to share it with others as they do. Or maybe we feel annoyed because they seem so shallow and like such a know-it-all when we are actually the shallow know-it-all. We just haven’t been able to admit any of these things.
So doing our shadow work is vital because it literally changes how we see the world. The Chinese parable of The Missing Ax illustrates this perfectly:
A man whose ax was missing suspected his neighbor’s son. The boy walked like a thief, looked like a thief, and spoke like a thief.
But the man found his ax while he was digging in the valley, and the next time he saw his neighbor’s son, the boy walked, looked, and spoke like any other child.
The shadow of the man was projected onto the boy. Even though the boy had nothing to do with the ax, his perspective of the boy changed completely because of this projection. How many times have we done this to those around us? How much of our world has been, and is, altered by the unconscious projection of our shadow onto things and people around us?
Johnson explains it this way:
‘Unless we do conscious work on it, the shadow is almost always projected; that is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it.’
You can do this work. You don’t need to fear the dark wolf, the dragon, or the shadow within. These things are powerful when on the periphery — just outside of our consciousness. You only need to feed them, pat them, or shine a light on them. With a bit of attention and awareness, they actually become quite manageable.