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Learning About My Holiday Shadows

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By Alyce Barry

In December 2005, I wrote an essay about the holidays for the Shadow Work® email newsletter. The essay described various shadows as they might appear during the holiday season and offered some tips on feeling better about yourself during the holidays. (Read essay)

Three years have passed, and my new CD, Home for the Holidays, Tips for a Practically Shameless Holiday Season, is my first expansion on that holiday essay.


When I started writing the script for the CD some months ago, I thought my primary goal was to help people figure out what happens for them during the holidays so they can enjoy themselves more.

I'm now aware that I had another, less conscious goal: to help myself figure out what happens for me during the holidays and feel better about myself at this time of year.

When I worked in the business world, I often heard coworkers agonizing about going home for the holidays. A boss once told me that for him, the primary choice he faced every holiday season was to go home or stay away. At his family gathering, a fistfight usually broke out before the day was over.

As I worked on this CD, I realized just how often I've agonized about going home for the holidays, and agonized about whether to go or stay away.

I've learned a lot from making the CD.


I didn't originally think of the holiday CD as an opportunity to share an in-depth personal story the way I did in Practically Shameless. I knew from experience that writing about your own issues takes a lot of time. It requires processing emotions and shadows in order to be able to write about yourself authentically. Not to mention time figuring out how to do everything else, such as how to explain ideas along the way.

So I decided to share some stories here, in an essay, instead of including them in the CD script. Writing about them here seems much less "carved in stone." The stories won't be recorded on a CD that might remain in somebody's CD collection for years.

It's also easier to think about writing about my holiday shadows in an essay without thinking I have to have all the answers. I definitely don't have all the answers.

On the CD, I used the same names for the 16 shadows that I used in the Appendix to Practically Shameless. I'll use them here as well.

While I could undoubtedly write a good deal, I'll write about just three of my holiday shadows here, the three that I've learned the most about so far.

Before I start, I'll say for the benefit of anyone who hasn't heard me say it before, that my goal isn't to become shadow-free, because I don't think that's possible. My goal is to become practically shameless, because that's possible. And the way I become practically shameless is by getting the shame off whatever shadows I see in myself so that I can work through those shadows and get the gold from them.


I use the name Zealot for one of the Sovereign shadows, the shadow of perfectionism or extreme motivation. For me, the Zealot shadow speaks in phrases like "I must" and "I'm driven."

I was genuinely surprised to watch how driven I became to complete the CD in time for Christmas, even when it became clear that I would be finishing it much too late to effectively promote it for this holiday season, and even when it looked as if I might not finish it until after Christmas. As I reflected on my drivenness, memories came to me from childhood of working feverishly into the night to complete a special gift or a holiday decoration in time for Christmas.

My belief about the Zealot shadow is that it's a response to neglect or abandonment, to getting the message that "you don't deserve to be taken care of." The Zealot is a strategy for being perfect in order to be worthy of being taken care of. What I've learned about my Zealot shadow this Christmas is that, as I approach the holidays, I see myself as unworthy of receiving gifts, and I take on projects in order to try to deserve them.

The Zealot's opposite is the Apathetic, and the wound beneath both these shadow strategies is often expressed in the words "I don't care." When my Zealot shadow is running, I send the message "I don't care" to my body: I don't care enough about your well-being to get enough exercise and sleep and to eat well. I think it's a common shadow at the holidays: just about everybody says after the holidays that they ate too much, including foods that they don't allow themselves to eat the rest of the year.

When my Zealot shadow runs me into the ground with exhaustion, I flip into the Zealot's opposite, the Apathetic, which says "I don't care" to the world. The Apathetic is the shadow we often identify with Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, who carry on at length about how much they don't care about Christmas.


Another Sovereign shadow I see in myself throughout the year is the one I call the Shrinking Violet shadow, the shadow that most of us call "low self-esteem." Since every shadow is linked to its opposite in a kind of unending dance, that means I sometimes flip into the Shrinking Violet's opposite, the Grandstander.

One way I've often done that at the holidays is with the "grand gesture." I give someone a gift that's more than was needed, or more than I could afford to pay for, or I do someone a favor in an out-sized way. Or I turn down an offer of help that I really wanted to accept.

As I wrote about the Grandstander for the CD, memories came to me of times when I made a grand gesture, or did something in an out-sized way, or turned down an offer of help. I once led a choir singing carols even though I'd never done it before. I once organized a different kind of holiday celebration for the family without asking anyone first to see that it was okay. I once wrote an original holiday song for my family members to sing together even though some of them don't read music.


The shadow I call the Stoic is the hardest of the three for me to write about, in part because a Stoic doesn't want to write about such things. One big thing I learned over the past few months is that my Stoic shadow is by far the hardest shadow for me to deal with during the holidays.

When people refer to the "stress" of the holidays, they seem to be referring to the stress of buying gifts or of having to attend too many events. For me, the stress is all about what I can allow myself to feel during the holidays, and what feelings I can express to those I share the holidays with.

I've known for years that my Stoic shadow means I was told not to have or express any feelings. I think many people hear from their family, "Don't be sad" or "Don't be angry" or "Don't be afraid" or "Don't feel too good." I definitely heard all four of those: sadness was "sniveling," anger was "ugly," fear was being "chicken," and joy was "obnoxious."

What I've newly learned is that the message changed slightly for the holidays. As a child I often felt sad at Christmastime, and I think I was simply expressing our family's lack of connection the rest of the year. The message I got was, "Nobody wants a crybaby around on Christmas."

The message "Don't have feelings" reminds me of what most American companies tell their employees: Leave your feelings at the door. I won't even go into how completely impossible I believe it is for human beings to leave their feelings at the door. I think feelings are at the very core of what human beings are. So that message from the company means, "Don't be who you are." And maybe it also means, "Be who we tell you to be." Scary!

I take comfort from a belief that I'm not alone in finding emotions hard at the holidays. I think our Western culture has its emotions in shadow to a large degree, and those emotions in shadow explain some of our culture's most perplexing problems. I think sadness in shadow results ultimately in obesity and illness, and look at the obesity epidemic and the problems we're facing with healthcare. I think anger in shadow results ultimately in war, and look at all the wars we're fighting.


Thanks for reading. If you'd like to share with me any of your holiday experiences, past or present, email me. I will hold your information in confidence.


This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in 2010. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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