Befriend Your Shadows

Walking a dark path alone is a common experience for survivors of trauma.

Perhaps you have heard the saying, “even your shadow leaves you in the dark.” There are many ways this metaphor can be understood. Some individuals might encourage you not to depend on others, because even your own shadow will leave you when you lose your light. Others might assure you that you are never really alone when things get dark, and that at least your shadow will certainly be there when the light is turned on.

I would like to take this further and ask you to befriend your shadows. Your literal shadow will likely leave you in the dark, but this is when your metaphorical shadows come out, the memories of traumas that are always with you, though sometimes unseen.

Walking alone on a dark path is scary and heartbreaking, yet it is a common experience for many survivors of trauma. When they try to listen for the sound of comfort, it is only the voices of uncertainty and self-doubt that they hear. When they try to look for a source of light, it is only the shadows of trauma that they see.

The shadows of trauma can keep us in a chronic state of hypervigilance even when it is no longer dark. It is important therefore to befriend our trauma stories.

How can you befriend something as ugly and as frightening as trauma? You do that when you practice self-compassion. Edward Smink, PhD, in his impressive book, The Soul of Caregiving: A Caregiver's Guide to Healing and Transformation, referred to our reactions to trauma as shadows.1 As caregivers, when we are depleted, he invites us to notice our shadows and embrace them with compassion. We should know that we will meet our shadows both in times of distress, and also when things feel relatively safe. Sometimes we encounter a moment of deep insight through a painful psychodynamic interpretation in a therapy session, and sometimes that light is illuminated by our support or faith system.

Without self-love through self-care, these shadows can cast darkness on the way we interact with our clients and our loved ones. As a healer, I urge you to pay attention, be attuned to what is stirring within, focus on the current moment, observe difficult feelings with curiosity, and welcome your shadows as brief guests.

That is not at all an easy task. Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, in his new book, What Happened To You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, eloquently wrote, “trauma leaves you shipwrecked. Part of the rebuilding is to sit through the wreckage, looking for what remains, seeking your broken pieces.”2 Michael Hollifield, MD, asked that at the end of that search, “celebrate the pieces you find and mourn the rest.”3

These are dark and difficult times we live in. Look for light and beauty within the individuals you serve and those you love, but mainly look for that within yourself. The world can be a dangerous place, full of shadows. Befriending them might bring us a little closer to our light source, or at least get more comfortable with the darkness.

Your shadows might be the light source you are looking for. Rumi elegantly reminds us that “only in the dark cave can we find the light. At the end, pain is what leads to love. There are beautiful things that you can only see in the dark.”4

References

1. Smink EM. The Soul of Caregiving: A Caregiver's Guide to Healing and Transformation. Wise Media Group; 2018.

2. Perry B. What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books; 2021.

3. War Survivors Institute. Our Team. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://warsurvivors.org/team/

4. Schimmel A. Rumi: Sufi mystic and poet. Britannica. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rumi

5. Reda O. The Wounded Healer: The Pain and Joy of Caregiving. WW Norton and Company; 2021.