“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” — Mary Oliver
While it is easy to perceive darkness as a downer and something to be avoided, perhaps at all cost, American poet Mary Oliver is right. Darkness can be a gift.
Also described as our shadow, our darkness is simply those parts of us we have yet to heal. And once we open ourselves to this basic spiritual principle, we make great progress on our journey toward unconditional love for ourselves, and for others.
Darkness Wants to be Healed
You see, when we experience our shadow, or that of another, we see what wants to be healed.
Understandably, this simple truth can be challenging to comprehend, let alone accept and allow. After all, religions, parents and teachers often tell us to be ashamed of our faults, and to hide our weaknesses.
Surrounded by this belief, we’ve layered shame and other forms of fear over our dark spots. Hoping to close them off from view, we bury them deeper and deeper, as if it were possible to hide them from the light.
We Can Acknowledge and Accept Our Shadow
Believe it or not, this “acknowledge and accept” approach has formed the basis of the work we’ve done in corporations and non-profits for the last 30 years. Like many executive coaches and consultants, we use a style assessment tool to help individuals and teams understand better themselves and each other.
And while many of these instruments are great for describing our interests and usual behavior, we chose The Birkman Method™ because it also describes eleven core psychological needs and what our stress behavior looks like when those needs aren’t met.
In other words, it describes the part of our shadow that often plays out at work – and, of course, in the rest of our lives.
Then, in our one-on-one coaching, as well as our team-building sessions, we talk about stress behavior as simply an indicator that some need is not being met. Next, we coach people how to identify and meet those needs.
No judgment. No shame.
Stress behavior is nothing more than a signal that a need isn’t being met. Take responsibility for yourself, take steps toward getting the need met, and the stress dissipates. So does the stress behavior.
It’s a funny thing: the more we focus on getting our needs met, the less we need them to be met. In time, we simply realize that the stress we are feeling is from an unmet need, and it doesn’t “run” us or stress us nearly as much. We’re able to let it go.
Yes, even in a corporate environment, people accept this principle, and treat themselves and others accordingly. They are able to treat needs as clues that help them be more effective, and work more easily with their colleagues. True, we don’t use the words “darkness” or “healing” in these settings, but we don’t need to.
Healing Our Country’s Shadow
And 30 years of this experience of acceptance of differing needs and stress behaviors is what gives me hope for us as a society.
In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a huge increase in racism, misogyny, discrimination against immigrants and homophobia – all aspects of humanity many thought were behind us. But no. It turns out we’ve just packed them in the basement and covered them with what some call “political correctness,” and others see as basic respect.
So now, like it or not, our shadow is up all around us. And it’s easy to worry that this darkness is now running our country.
Yet, we know the components of the antidote to these stress behaviors. Compassion. Acceptance. Listening to understand even when we can’t condone.
These are the ingredients to the unconditional love that heals all wounds, one conversation, and one heart at a time.
Are you looking for guidance and clarity?