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Carrying the Unconscious of Others: Shadow Work in Relationship

When I was younger I was in a relationship with a man who was uncomfortable in the emotional realm. And a few months into our relationship, I realized I was constantly crying around him.

I'm no stranger to tears, but never had I cried like this. And it was about anything and everything. But only when around him.

So, I decided to ask him about his relationship to crying. It turned out he never cried. In fact, he only remembered shedding a tear or two, once as a young adult.

It became clear to me then, what was going on...I was feeling his emotions for him. It seemed he had unconsciously projected his disowned feeling self onto me, and with it his grief, his compassion, his melancholy, his broken-heartedness. And I had unconsciously taken it on.

Realizing how unsustainable this dynamic would be, not only for me, but also for us, we sat down to talk. I told him that if we were going to make it, he would likely need to do some work with this part of himself and I would have my own work to do as well.

In an adult relationship, it takes two to shadow dance. In choosing a partner who never cried, part of my work was getting in touch with my more cool and stoic side. We tend, after all, to be drawn to those who mirror something significant we might not be in touch with. Another part of my work was learning to better discern what was not energetically mine. Which first required learning to better discern and become more aware of where I ended and another began. Which included a tendency to introject - a defense mechanism that involves unconsciously taking on or acting out the projections others place on us.

But the story doesn't end there. The night after I confronted this dynamic, an amazing thing happened. I dreamt I was being exorcised. And this dark and cloudy energy was being drawn right from out of me. When I woke, I felt a great burden had lifted. Not only did my incessant crying cease immediately after, but in a matter of weeks, he cried, and deeply, for the first time in all those years.

To some degree, this is an inescapable aspect of every relationship. We all carry the shadow and the unconscious of our partner in different ways at different times, just as our partner does for us. It is just that we aren't aware of it. And it certainly isn't a fun job. In fact, it is rather thankless and goes mostly unacknowledged on both sides. (What would it be like, I wonder, to thank our partner for carrying this burden for us?) But it is a profoundly important job. And it can be healing, if the dynamics are eventually made conscious. And *both* parties are willing to do their fair share of the work in giving back what is not theirs and taking back what is.

Because ultimately, if we are willing and able, this difficult dance can be where powerful healing occurs. While all this projecting and carrying certainly causes us much strife, if we dare look deeper - we realize these things are actually showing us what wants our attention. Without projections and the hooks in which they hang on, without conflict and tension, these aspects of ourselves would forever remain hidden in the unconscious. When they show up in front of us, we have the opportunity to confront them with honesty and fierce compassion. And this is when shadow turns to gold.

It is also important to note that some people are prone to feel the unconscious of others more acutely or more often. Sometimes this is simply because we are sensitive and empathic and live with an ear turned towards the unconscious. But there is a deep shadow side to this as well, that usually needs to be reckoned with before it truly is that simple.

This might mean we have too porous of boundaries, or have unresolved trauma. Or are empathetic in an unconscious and codependent way. Or that we lose ourselves in others. Often, too, it connects to having been the one in the family that carried too much of the parent's shadow and used introjection as a coping mechanism.

We also see that sometimes the more pressing the unconscious material is - the more strongly it will show up in whomever that person is relating to.

In an extreme example, one unfortunately sees this in many survivors of sexual assault - where the survivors feel the shame that the perpetrator should have felt but did not. Because if the perpetrator had felt healthy shame, they would not have done what they did. To add one more nuance to the matter, it is also true that, as Marion Woodman says, "A conscious person in the presence of an unconscious person's pain may suffer more than the unconscious person."

While we could easily use this idea to delude ourselves and skip any honest shadow inquiry, there can at times be truth to it. The difference here, however, is that the person Woodman describes is not unconsciously feeling or acting out the pain of others, but instead they are feeling it with clarity and consciousness, boundaries and compassion. The more conscious we become of ourselves, the more we will know what is ours, what is not, and what is the grey area in between. And we will learn what of theirs we can carry for time and what we must give back and when.

It is no easy task knowing what is ours and what is another's or what is a mix of both. It is not easy knowing where our shadow is dancing with theirs or not or what must be done about it. The nuances are endless. Each individual, each interaction will be different and discernment and rigorous self-scrutiny are key. But the pay off is worth it. Not only will we become more and more ourselves, but in becoming more ourselves, we might just help another do the same.

Originally Published on Facebook HERE


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