“You’re the Puppet”: Some Thoughts on Personal and Institutional Shadow Work

Something is Happening. And it is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than just the implosion of Emperor Babyfists’ house of self-delusion. This is much bigger than Babyfists, or even a massive constitutional crisis, although it is that too. It’s an awakening, a quickening. Politically, spiritually, collectively, we are truly waking up.

The phrase “We are all connected” used to drive me totally bananas. It didn’t make any sense to me. It was something dumb hippies said, like “namasté” and “love and light,” so they could feel smug and self-righteous before going home and kicking their dogs.

Here is how it works, without going down the whole rabbit hole. This is what I understand “we are all connected” to really mean. Our perception of other people is, completely, 100%, a mirror of what is unresolved in ourselves. I know that sounds trite and ridiculous, unless you’re already on the woo-woo train with me, in which case you are probably nodding sagely and muttering “namasté.”

I know you’ve read versions of it before—”other people are your mirror, love and light.” And it is functionally meaningless without real practices attached to it. Let me try to break it down.

We only can recognize qualities in other people because we ourselves possess them. We “know it when we see it” because there is a part of us that resonates with it. This works equally for things you admire and things you detest. The things you admire in others are, almost always, something you would humbly acknowledge you also possess, to some degree. When we say something like “I wish I had her courage,” we don’t mean that we have no courage. We mean we wish we had *more.* Obviously we have SOME scrap of pathetic courage somewhere deep in our soul. We can find, if pressed, examples throughout our lives of moments in which even the most fearful of us have shown some semblance of courage. Or if we are too blinded by self-loathing to find any evidence at all, we can ask someone who loves us and they will tell us. The concept of “courage” simply doesn’t exist without some kind of self-reference. Humans can’t make sense of the world in any other way.

When it’s something shitty, though, it gets tricky. We don’t like that. We don’t acknowledge the shitty things in ourselves as readily. Some things we don’t acknowledge at all, or only in a very abstract way. When we say, with disgust, “Babyfists is racist,” or “Babyfists is delusional,” or “Babyfists doesn’t care about anything except money,” those are not things most of us easily recognize in ourselves.

Think about where interpersonal conflict in your life comes from. It comes from your perceptions of crappy qualities in other people (or occasionally your belief that they have such perceptions about you.) When our boyfriend behaves badly and we say “he doesn’t care about me,” or when our frenemy at work “throws us under the bus,” or we are upset because someone has betrayed us, neglected us, sabotaged us, underappreciated us.

When those things arise, they are an opportunity to, as teacher Byron Katie says, “turn it around.” What happens when you say, instead of “he betrayed me,” “I betrayed him?” At first, you might scoff and recoil and say of course you didn’t betray him, HE is the loser, he is the bad one, he is the ruiner. YOU are the victim here. You are impeccable. But if you get quiet with yourself and do a thorough investigation, can you find evidence of your own betrayal? Your own neglect?

Jungians call this “shadow work,” and it is not an easy or comfortable process. Most people, even if they dabble with it briefly in therapy or a spiritual retreat in a yurt in the woods somewhere go right back to old patterns the next time a serious conflict emerges. I read once that every fight in a relationship is a struggle over who gets to be the biggest victim. A struggle over who is more wronged and who has a more legitimate claim to self-righteousness. That is certainly my experience, in my own relationships. And is it not, in some significant way, what is playing out before our eyes in the collective at this moment?

The task, the game, the whole point of being human at all, is to work with these things. Not to shove them in ever-darker moldering corners of the psyche never to be spoken of again. And we need each other to do that. One of my teachers, Matt Kahn & Julie Dittmar, describes this process beautifully, although it takes some turning over in one’s noodle to really grok what Matt is saying here:

“Life dresses up as characters to trigger you solely to get you to admit to yourself ‘what’ you’re feeling in order to break apart the beliefs that you shouldn’t be feeling something that you don’t like.”

In other words, when we find ourselves agitated by other people, the task is to investigate the source of our agitation. That piece of ourselves that we have repressed into oblivion. In investigating it, we lead it out into the light where it can’t run the show behind the scenes anymore. Love and light. Namasté.

As we do that, not only do we open immense space in our own lives and personal relationships, creating an ever-greater capacity for joy, but we also open that immense space in the collective for ever-greater possibility and well-being. We are not doomed to infinitely repeat the patterns that brought us to this point. But we aren’t going to get a free pass either. We have to do the work of excavating everything within us that we have denied.

It isn’t that Babyfists *isn’t* racist or delusional or only cares about money. He most certainly is and does. And if the current constitutional crisis emerging manages to depose him and all of his simpering minions without bringing democracy down with it, I will support and applaud that with as much enthusiasm as anyone else. But at the end of the day, Babyfists is a toxin that can only grow in a very particular environment. We created him. He came from us. And, bless his little delusional candy-corn heart, he is here to show us the way out.