For some people, especially women, it can be incredibly difficult to imagine breaking the normal boundaries of niceness. In Getting Unstuck, a guide to unblocking your creativity, it’s suggested that you talk to your shadow side to learn what’s holding you back.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Brooklyn Heights, NY, authored Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman’s Guide to Unblocking Creativity. She has also had essays, stories, and poems published, and helps those who are struggling with creative blocks.
What O’Doherty wrote about acknowledging our shadows was an eye-opener for me. I know I hold onto plenty of “shoulds” in my life, but I think I’ve chosen most of them mindfully. Yet I envy people who say “no” to distractions and “yes” to the priorities of their own essential selves.
O’Doherty offers the following suggestion:
Imagine a day without consequences. … No one will remember any of this [what you do or don’t do] tomorrow. In fact, it won’t have happened. You can eat whatever you want without gaining an ounce, you can conduct an affair free of guilt or complications, you can even commit murder–and your victim will spring back to life tomorrow. What would you choose to do?
Record your imaginary day, and then think about how you would characterize a person who did those things. Begin a dialogue with this person, your shadow.
Would I spend the day pigging out on chocolate licorice or M&Ms? I don’t know if I want to hurt anyone, even if it’s only imaginary. Could I be kidding myself about that? As for accessing my shadow, if that’s a freeing thing to be able to do, maybe that’s where my interest in writing fiction has come from: it’s a safe way to explore the darker stuff I can’t or don’t want to access otherwise.
I asked O’Doherty about that, and she responded
That exercise, and the book, are intended for those who are unable to produce at either the rate or depth they feel capable of. If you are writing well, and making use of fiction writing to explore issues it would be dangerous to act out in real life, skip the exercise.
But what if a client of hers said she didn’t want to hurt anyone, but then added that there are some people she regularly wants to throttle? O’Doherty said that in such a case she would probe for an internal struggle between the desire to be a moral person and some anger that doesn’t fit into this positive self-image. “Many of us are raised to discount our anger, because it challenges the image of niceness and kindness that we want to embrace, or are taught that we should embody.” She continued
Anger is a signal, like pain. Anger isn’t fun or pretty, but it often serves to tell us that we’re in an emotionally dangerous or untenable situation. Exploring such feelings can give us insight into the real nature of the problem. For example, the person we feel an impulse to strike out at may not be the one we’re really angry at–a coworker may remind us of a family member about whom we have unresolved feelings; or our resentment of a more successful peer who seems to be showing off may actually spring from anger at ourselves for not taking more risks or pushing ourselves to produce more. And it’s hard to find a solution to a problem unless we’ve identified the real, rather than the surface, cause.
O’Doherty reminded me that in Getting Unstuck another writer balked at this exercise. “Elizabeth” was shocked to uncover a fantasy of stabbing her ex-mother-in-law with a kitchen knife. The writer wasn’t a violent person in her life, her writing, or her conscious fantasies. And she didn’t really want to hurt her mother-in-law (who was already dead in any case). Both this client and O’Doherty came to believe that
what her shadow wanted to accomplish was to “kill off” the emotional power this woman still had over Elizabeth. Our unconscious minds sometimes make use of violent imagery to make a dramatic point, but as artists, we know that symbols aren’t meant to be taken literally. So if you do try the exercise and find yourself throttling someone, this could provide valuable clues to a quality your shadow wants you to confront, rather than an indication of murderous tendencies!
In my own workshops and classes, I’ve found that being a “bad” person, or dread of being thought one by others, is indeed a major hindrance to many who would like to open their creative selves more fully. O’Doherty’s practical advice and strategies get to the heart of what many of us have to struggle against in order to find and be ourselves, and to enter flow.
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Last reviewed: 19 May 2010