by Alyce Barry –
The holidays seem to bring old, unresolved issues out of the woodwork. It’s certainly true for me, and gathering by what I read and see on the news, it’s pretty common.
To like myself during this challenging time of year, what helps me is to remember that an old, unresolved issue is, in fact, a strategy. Once upon a time, that strategy was the best one available to me. It served me well. Now, however, as an adult, my life is quite different, and the old strategy isn’t working so well any more.
SHADOW AS STRATEGY
Let me give you an example. Let’s say a father bullies his son. If the bullying happens repeatedly, the son learns that one way of being a father is to act like a bully. Does the son become a bully like his father, even if that means not giving others the respect they deserve? Or does he decide never, ever to act like a bully, even if that means never fighting back and so not giving himself the respect he deserves?
In either case, he puts something into shadow — respect for others, or respect for himself. And in either case, he’s choosing a strategy.
Maybe, in his family, becoming a bully is a good strategy. Maybe that makes him the bully’s ally, where he’s less likely to be victimized. Or maybe becoming the victim is a good strategy, if it gives him a feeling of righteousness and he feels justified asking for sympathy.
Whichever strategy he chooses, the son makes a decision. That decision remains in effect throughout the rest of his childhood and into his adult life. He probably doesn’t even remember making such a decision. That’s because being bullied by his father was painful, and a merciful part of him helps him forget. He comes to think of his strategy as “just the way I am.” He can change the strategy, however, using Shadow Work or another form of healing. But he can only change it once he becomes aware of it.
STRATEGIES IN FOUR FLAVORS
Below are some common shadow strategies as they might appear during the holiday season. There are four categories, one for each of the four archetypes.
I’ve described each strategy by some of its typical behaviors. But keep in mind that every one of us can act in these ways from time to time. A behavior by itself doesn’t necessarily indicate a shadow.
What indicates a shadow is having no conscious control over that behavior. If you want to act in one way and instead act in another — if you “can’t help yourself” — then it’s more likely that the behavior is revealing something you have in shadow.
THE SOVEREIGN STRATEGIES: GOD BLESS THEM, EVERY ONE
The Grandstander and the Shrinking Violet. At the holidays, the Grandstander gives big, shiny gifts that say, “Aren’t I wonderful for giving you this?” On New Year’s Eve, the Grandstander is the show-off wearing the lampshade, doing just about anything to be the center of attention. The Shrinking Violet, on the other hand, gives lots of helpful gifts that may strain the family budget. For the group gathering or school pageant, the Shrinking Violet works long hours behind the scenes and rarely gets back as much as he/she gives.
The Grandstander and Shrinking Violet strategies are responses to conditional love. People using these strategies came to believe that they aren’t worthy of love the way they are, so they have to earn it. The Grandstander tries to earn love by being big and shiny and getting all the attention. The Shrinking Violet tries to earn it by being humble and staying small. At the holidays, both are trying to buy love with gifts, but in different ways. What the Grandstander and the Shrinking Violet really need is the blessing of unconditional love: to believe that they’re okay exactly the way they are, that they don’t have to earn love, that they deserve it just the way they are.
The Zealot and the Apathetic. During the holidays, the Zealot is a perfectionist who buys exactly the right gifts, decorates perfectly with just the right tree, sends out just the right cards. For the Zealot, the holiday has to be “just so” because that means he/she has done well enough. The Apathetic, on the other hand, is the family Scrooge or Grinch, who shops at the last minute, if at all. The Apathetic is a cynic about all things sentimental and enjoys raining, or should I say snowing, on everyone else’s parade.
The Zealot and the Apathetic strategies are responses to neglect. People using these strategies came to believe that they didn’t deserve to be taken care of. At the holidays, both are proving they care, but in different ways. The Zealot cares about everything being done perfectly. The Apathetic cares about his/her own needs to the exclusion of everyone else’s; the motto is “looking out for number one.” What the Zealot and the Apathetic really need is to be cared for regardless of what they do, to believe that they deserve to be cared for simply by being.
All strategies say something good about us. These Sovereign strategies say that we chose to believe in someone else — the one who loved us conditionally or neglected us — rather than believing in our own inherent worthiness and right to be taken care of.
THE LOVER STRATEGIES: THE HOLIDAY DRAMA
The Traditionalist and the Wanton. Over the holidays, the Traditionalist wants to do everything the same way it’s been done before, even if the traditions have become empty. Thanksgiving sees the Traditionalist insisting that the stuffing be exactly the same, even if everyone else is ready for a change. The Traditionalist is the sibling most likely to lord their married status over their unmarried siblings. The Wanton, on the other hand, finds any repetition boring. He/she wants something new, new, new, even if what happened last year worked really well. At the office Christmas party, it’s the Wanton who’s exploring the new by cheating on their spouse in the copy room. The Wanton is the one most likely to hear from the parents about “settling down with a nice boy/girl and getting married.”
The Traditionalist and Wanton strategies are responses to a damaging relationship. People using these strategies were in a relationship with a loved one who acted in an inappropriate way. They came away believing that there’s something wrong with how they love, so they try to prove they’re loving people. The Traditionalist tries to prove it by clinging to relationships and tradition even if they’re empty. The Wanton tries to prove it by loving many others, even if the encounters contain no genuine feeling. Both are “going through the motions,” but in different ways. What the Traditionalist and the Wanton really need is to see what loving people they really are.
The Overwrought and the Stoic. The Overwrought strategy is to go through the holidays not just a little sad or angry but REALLY sad or REALLY angry. The Overwrought is the one sobbing at the end of the Nutcracker, or raging because the poinsettias were sold out. The Overwrought is the one most likely to hit “holiday overwhelm” and go home from the holiday party sick. The Stoic, on the other hand, keeps all feelings stuffed well below the surface. At the holiday gathering, the Stoic is the one least likely to react when the rest of the group is in hysterics, but most likely to seek out sentimental holiday programs where a little emoting is accepted.
The Overwrought and the Stoic strategies are responses to alienation. People using these strategies were alienated from a loved one and came to believe that there’s something wrong with what they feel. The Overwrought compulsively expresses feelings in an attempt to get rid of them, while the Stoic stuffs them in an attempt to hide them. Both are alienated from their feelings, but in different ways. What the Overwrought and the Stoic really need is to reconnect with their innermost selves, where feelings are our most fundamental, human responses to life and are therefore incapable of error.
What these Lover strategies say about us is just how loving we are: we chose to connect and feel as our loved ones did, rather than what our own sexuality or feelings would naturally dictate.
THE WARRIOR STRATEGIES: I TOLD YOU TO DECK THOSE HALLS
The Bully and the Victim. Over the holidays, the Bully is the one who’s telling everyone what to do even if they’re not listening. The Bully is the one most likely to commandeer the family celebration onto his/her own territory or make the children participate in activities they dislike. The Victim, on the other hand, is the not-so-silent martyr who really wanted a different gift but will suffer along with this one. The Victim is the one most likely to indulge in passive-aggression, saying nothing while holiday arrangements are made and then holding the family hostage when his/her own dissatisfaction becomes evident.
The Bully and the Victim strategies are responses to intimidation. People using these strategies were consistently intimidated by those in authority. They came to believe that they’re nobodies, so they try to prove they’re somebody. The Bully tries to prove it by seizing or dominating territory. The Victim tries to prove it by making it clear who’s really to blame. What the Bully and the Victim really need is a clear sense of personal identity that is acknowledged and honored.
The Hair-trigger and the Pushover. The Hair-trigger is the one most likely to start a fight with a sibling at the family gathering, or an argument with the boss at the office party. The Hair-trigger compares everybody else’s gifts with theirs to make sure there was no slight. The Pushover, on the other hand, is the one most likely to act as mediator between warring family factions but will fail to get his/her own needs met in the process. The Pushover is the “doormat” who lets everyone else walk all over them but will eventually stop existing in some sense.
The Hair-trigger and the Pushover strategies are responses to invasion of boundaries. People using these strategies came to believe they had no right to protect themselves. They’re compelled to differentiate, the Hair-trigger by picking fights, the Pushover by acting the role of the only person who takes no side. At the holidays, both are trying to “stick out,” but in different ways. The Pushover is the one most likely to suffer from depression because it believes it has no right to defend itself against criticism, either internal or external. What the Hair-trigger and the Pushover really need is a clear line of defense that is respected.
What these Warrior strategies say about us is that we’re willing to take on an identity defined by someone else — the one who intimidated us or invaded our boundaries — rather than to claim the identity we would naturally define from within ourselves.
THE MAGICIAN STRATEGIES: HO HO HO
The Predator and the Prey. The Predator is a trickster and a critic. The Predator is the one most likely to spike the holiday punch without telling anyone or crack a joke at the first sign of sentiment. The Predator is also the one most likely to ridicule someone in front of the holiday group. The Prey, on the other hand, is the one most likely to fall for the trickster’s pranks and be humiliated in front of everyone. The Prey can take the slightest comment as criticism but, unlike the Hair-trigger, will respond by withdrawing in fear rather than by fighting.
The Predator and Prey strategies are responses to abuse. People using these strategies came to believe that people, including themselves, are bad and can’t be trusted, so they need to stay in control at all times. The Predator tries to stay in control by becoming an abuser, by siding with the “bad guys.” The Prey tries to stay in control by trusting no one and by refusing to see that there’s any of the “bad” energy within. Both will sabotage the holidays, in different ways. What the Predator and the Prey really need is to experience in a safe way the energy of control that’s within all of us. It’s an energy that isn’t evil in itself, although it can be used in evil or unhealthy ways.
The Dogmatist and the Scatterbrain. The Dogmatist is the one who wears mental blinders, for whom there is exactly one right way of doing anything, and one way to see the world. The Dogmatist is the one most likely to insist that the Christmas story be read from the King James version, and to act in a prejudiced way about religious celebrations. The Scatterbrain, on the other hand, will consider so many options that he/she will become confused and fragmented. The Scatterbrain is the one most likely to feel stressed and “split out” when there are too many gift decisions to make or holiday occasions to attend.
The Dogmatist and Scatterbrain strategies are responses to narrow-mindedness. People using these strategies were told so often that they were wrong that they came to believe that they can’t trust what they know. Both go on trying to understand life, but in different ways. The Dogmatist tries to understand by seeing just one “right” option. The Scatterbrain tries to understand by accumulating facts without focusing in a useful way on any of them. What the Dogmatist and the Scatterbrain really need is to trust their own inner knowing, their intuition, which can guide them regardless of what others say.
What these Magician strategies say about us is how trusting we humans really are. We’re so trusting that we can be perpetrated on by people we love. We’re so trusting that we’ll let them tell us what to think, even when it disagrees with our own inner knowing.
HOW TO LIKE YOURSELF OVER THE HOLIDAYS
- Any behavior you can’t control is a strategy from long ago.
- When you adopted that strategy, it was the best one available.
- You adopted it in the midst of a personal crisis.
- That’s why you don’t remember: mercifully, that painful memory didn’t hang around.
- The strategy used to serve you well. In fact, it may have been the only strategy that could have pulled you through that crisis.
- The strategy has remained in place for years, probably without your knowledge.
- If it’s not working for you now, that’s probably because your life is different now.
- You may think of this strategy as “just the way you are.” That’s not true, however. The blessing of realizing it’s a strategy is that it means you have a choice about it. You can choose a different strategy, one that works better in your life today.
- The strategy wasn’t your fault. Now that you’re adult, however, no one but you can change it.
- You’re taking the first step toward changing strategies, by becoming aware of the ones you use.
Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, available in paperback and on audio CD and as an e-book.
This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in December 2005.