The Real Reason Why “I Can’t Do What I Know I Need To Do”
If you are one of the people who have had difficulty putting into practice the suggestions of self-help books, you are not alone. Don’t take it personally. It’s not your fault. Well-intended though they may be, many self-help books generally don’t. Help, that is. What they often do is point out and suggest ways in which we can change our behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and even our thoughts, in order to bring about changes in our life that we desire. There is no arguing that these suggestions can be very beneficial, if we can implement them. The operative word here is “if.”
Oftentimes, that ability is more limited than we realize, not because of any intrinsic deficiencies on our parts, but because we may be locked into unconscious patterns to which we have a stronger allegiance than we realize. While self-help books can assist us to see the paths that can take us to our desired goals, they often fail to address the piece of the iceberg that is underneath the surface of our awareness that is committed to resisting change. And although they can be useful in suggesting behavioral changes, they often miss the mark in regard to providing the necessary link between a good idea and a new outcome.
When we can’t do what we think we need to do or should do, in order to bring about a desired outcome, it’s easy to be left with a feeling of inadequacy or personal failure or a sense of disappointment with ourselves. Many books remind us that we just need to let go of our fear, drop our resentment, practice forgiveness your partner, stop manipulating and be more honest and vulnerable. Well-meaning as this advice is, as most of us have discovered, embodying it is usually quite bit easier said than done.
Part of the problem in doing so is that behind every intention, there is a (usually unconscious) competing commitment or shadow intention, to do the opposite. For example, behind the intention to be more open, is another intention to close down and protect, and behind the intention to stand up and speak your truth there may be an intention to avoid disapproval. The failure to adequately appreciate the strength of the grip that these shadow commitments can have on us can leave us disappointed and angry at ourselves for not “doing what I know I should do”. Self-condemnation generally isn’t particularly helpful when it comes to making life changes, most of which require patience, practice, self-compassion, understanding, and support.
Recognizing the shadow aspects of ourselves, those parts that we have denied, disowned, or attempt to conceal from others, is a powerful step in the process of becoming a more self-accepting person, which is a pretty important aspect of any successful relationship.
Yet the desire to shed light on our shadow has it’s own shadow, which has to do with the commitment to continue to conceal what we consider the unattractive aspects of our personality in order to promote a more favorable impression to others. The commitment to continue to do what we have always done and avoid the risk of potentially upsetting life-changes is an intention that is present within most of us, even when it seems to make sense to risk upsetting the applecart. Since it’s not possible to get a “shadowectomy”, the next best thing is to identify, accept, and ultimately even appreciate the gifts of the shadow, and in so doing to transform our relationship to it from that of an adversary to that of a partner. Again, easier said than done, but do-able. And worth the effort.
There is no getting rid of the shadow, and the good news is that we don’t need to. It’s possible to neutralize its resistant aspects without eliminating it. This process calls for the willingness to illuminate that which has been concealed in the darkness and, in doing so, to recognize the underlying attachments, desires, and fears, that keep the shadow in its place. In doing this, our relationship with the hidden aspects of ourselves changes from denial to acceptance, and from concealing to revealing. Changing our relationship with parts of ourselves is the first and most important step in the process of transforming the quality of our relationships. As many of us know from our own experience, it’s impossible to change how you feel towards others until you change your experience of yourself.
“Shadow work” is essentially a process of cultivating self-love and self-acceptance. It is not a process of “search and destroy,” but rather “search and befriend.” As we bring a curious, accepting and non-judging attitude to our own experience, parts of ourselves to which we had lost access become available to us in ways that allow us to see ourselves and others in radically different ways. We don’t have to do anything differently. We don’t have to change. It’s more a matter of viewing ourselves through new lenses, rather than trying to be the person that we think we “should be”.
Shadow work isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires a strong desire for authentic relatedness, a willingness to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves, and a hunger for deep and meaningful connection with others. The demands of the work are high, but the benefits are great. When we are no longer afraid to face ourselves or be clearly seen by others, we can finally be free. Freedom means that I am no longer a slave to the need for external acceptance or others’ approval, and that I can live with integrity and open-heartedness.
There, is, however, a danger in setting foot on this path: It is habit-forming. Once you start, the old defensive patterns gradually lose their appeal and their grip on us. The sweetness of an open heart is very compelling. There is a saying that once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in. But, then again, why would you want to?