Shadow and Leadership
I discovered something shocking to me (but perhaps not to people who know me). I am a bully. We’re always the last to know. In my life I’ve encountered many bullies, and they’ve never scared me. Now I know why. I can bring forth my bigger bully when I need to (and that bitch can be damn useful).
But I always framed myself as the hero, overcoming the tyranny of the bully. But self-awareness is a real bummer sometimes. Because now I realize that is not always the case. In fact, I bully myself all the time—specifically that timid, unsure, scared part of me. One of my favorite sayings is “put your big girl panties on.” In other words, it's not ok to be scared. It's not ok to be weak. It's not ok to be a little girl. Be a big girl. They don’t cry. You get the drift.
I came to this insight through a journal exercise on the shadow. The prompt asked me to reflect on a person or conversation that led to an overreaction or a “super-sized” reaction. Someone or some situation that really got under my skin. So, this woman at work . . . it's always at work, right? She is super feminine, soft-spoken, timid and unsure of herself. Yet she’s in a position of some responsibility and has influence over an important aspect of my work life. My reaction to her is primal. Like I’m a cheetah and she’s a gazelle and I’m about to run her shit down and eat her guts for lunch. What. The. Fuck.
I mean, I am a very nice person. Just ask anyone. So where did that rage come from? Apparently in that long black bag I’ve been dragging behind me all these years that contains the shadow parts of myself. The “shadow self” is a Jungian concept brought into the mainstream by author and poet Robert Bly. Bly explains that we are born as a 360 degree self. But as we grow up, we get messages from our parents, our peers and society that there are certain things about us that they don't like, so we split these parts off and put them into a long black bag that we carry behind us.
So how did this bully get into my bag? Growing up I was rewarded for being smart and being tough. I stopped playing with dolls when I was 7 or 8 and traded up to a chemistry set and a microscope (nerd alert!) I had an older cousin who was super girly and a bit whiny. I can still recall vividly the revulsion on my Dad’s face in response to her behavior. So it was clear--not ok to be like her. No dolls, no whining. Put your big girl panties on, go be tough and climb trees with your boy cousins. So that’s what I did. Put that right in that long black bag.
As always happens for me, when I pay attention, the universe puts things in my path that I need. Luckily (yes, luckily), my long black bag sent me deep into a bottle early in my life. I was pulled out of it in my early 20’s, and since then engaged in various types of radical self-inquiry including shadow work. So while this rage and aggression did take me by surprise, I have plenty of tools to deal with it. And while me and the woman from work will never be besties, at least I am aware of her impact on me, and hopefully this increased self-awareness makes me a more effective leader.
Many thanks to Jerry Colonna and his team at Reboot. Their vision is for work to be a place where we can realize our full potential and show up as our whole selves, a philosophy I share. Check out their podcast including the conversation with Parker Palmer on Shadow and Leadership.
What part of yourself have you put in the black bag? How can you pull it out and repurpose it or at least tame it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on radical self-inquiry, which tools and resources you find helpful, and how you work to become a more self-aware and conscious leader.