Seeing into the Shadows
“To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light.”
A year ago, I was struggling with workload, obligation and fatigue.. A couple of months later, I stopped sleeping and it felt like my life fell apart. Diagnosed with burnout, stress and depression, I needed to spend 3 months recovering before I could return to work.
Of course, I know from my experience of consulting in organisations, coaching individual transformation, and working alongside my supervisees on the doctorate in organisational change at @Ashridge_Biz, that 3 months of recovery from trauma barely counts as triage, let alone provides any substantial ground for personal change.
And so I have continued with the work of change. Over the subsequent months, I’ve switched my job role, I take time to exercise, make space for creative work, I write, I’ve adjusted my diet, and spend time relaxing and being with family. At last, it feels as though I’m showing up ‘more like me’ in my life as well as bringing increased clarity and insight to my day job.
But as I’ve reset boundaries and commitments, I realise that I’m still carrying the previous labels and attributions projected onto me by friends and colleagues.
Last week at @Ashridge_Biz, one of our participants led a ‘Privilege Walk’ exercise. As a white, blue-eyed, male, benefitting from wealth and education, I found myself (unsurprisingly) near the front of the walk and curious that my ‘working class, child of a single parent family’ story didn’t seem to have had much effect.
The walk confronted my hero narrative of ‘working class boy done good due to his own hard work…’ and I began to realise that the ‘breaks’ I had been given might not have been offered to other young men; that despite my stories of disadvantage, in comparison to others, perhaps things hadn’t been that bad.
So, as I try to drop my old identity as a highly motivated, no-nonsense, reliable, hard working role model, and move towards a more developed, relational, holistic and graceful way of leadership, I’m aware that my organisation doesn’t seem to know how to categorise me and colleagues seem to struggle with my new contribution. What do you do these days, Steve?
I’m starting to see that the shadow of my power and privilege still reaches beyond me, dropping clues about how I am seen by others. I experience mis-communication where I thought things were clear; despite good intention conflict arises in ways that leave me confused; apparently random dramas beset me; it feels like I’m still ‘not getting it’; life feels chaotic. It’s as though I can’t reconcile a new self with my own blue-eyed, white, middle class wealth, privilege and power.
Pema Chödrön says that, “The elemental struggle is with our feelings of being wrong, with our guilt and shame at what we are.” She tells us to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything - not, as I would have previously framed it, about winning or losing - but ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is.
I know that I don’t need to add more depression, disadvantage, anger or separation into a world that is already riven with fragmentation and division. Yet I carry privilege and advantage that implicitly situates me within a specific part of that reality.
Finding ways to shine a light into my own shadow, to see myself as I am, feels like the next step forward.
I really must congratulate our @Ashridge_Biz #EDOC participants for such an excellent workshop which both held and challenged their cohort with a sequence of thoughtful exercises and challenges.
Throughout this ‘post-burnout’ period, I have found that Pema Chödrön’s ‘When Things Fall Apart’ has been a very helpful guide.
Do your own ‘Privilege Walk’ - here’s how. Adjust the detail of the questions to your geography. The exercise doesn’t provide objective answers but, as I found, is a powerful prompt for reflection.
If a deeper dive into the shadows feels appropriate then maybe ‘The Essential Jung: Selected Writings’ might be useful.