We all have things about ourselves we do not like and keep hidden, whether we do it consciously or not. This is our shadow. When we ignore it, we are incongruent and live in a state of dysregulation. To be whole, we must live in harmony with our shadow. We cannot run from it and we cannot ignore it.
We must sing with our shadow.
We also intentionally and unintentionally make choices which negatively impact our lives. These decisions, which cause us and others pain, become our cactus. The idea of “hugging the cactus” is a state of being which keeps us locked in a cycle of grief, remorse and self-pity —stunting our ability to grow. When you are hugging the cactus, you are intentionally holding on to past sorrow, disappointments, bitterness and self-criticism —preventing forward movement in life. Instead of hugging the cactus, while challenging, we must tell the story of our bad choices and move on with a commitment to growth.
Don’t hug the cactus.
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist whose work has also been influential in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, psychology and religious studies. He created the concept of the shadow, or “the thing a person has no wish to be.” In Vol. 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East, he wrote:
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it… But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.
Franciscan friar and teacher, Richard Rohr, described the following about the shadow on the Center for Action and Contemplation website adapted from Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking, disc 3 (2012):
To put it very simply, as children we learn which behaviors cause approval and disapproval from our family, teachers, and friends. If we want to have some sort of control over our lives and create pleasant outcomes, we tend to develop those things which are acceptable and repress those things which are not. Those things we repress or deny about ourselves become our shadow. The qualities we “place” in our shadow aren’t necessarily or only bad; they simply are the ones that are not rewarded by our family system or culture.
…(W)e need to be especially careful of clinging to any idealized role or self-image, like that of minister, mother, doctor, nice person, professor, moral believer, or president of this or that. These are huge personas to live up to, and they trap many people in lifelong delusion that the role is who they are or who they are only allowed to be. The more we are attached to and unaware of such a protected self-image, the more shadow self we will likely have.
In the book The Tools, Phil Stutz and Barry Michaels explain the shadow is one of many “archetypes.” An archetype is a patterned way of perceiving the world. For example, everyone has a sense of what a mother should be like, and this shapes what one expects from their own mother regardless of how she behaves. People have the same ideas about their own role in society, and the disconnect between the archetype and reality in part forms our shadow, or how we see ourselves.
My childhood was marred by trauma. My counselor friends have taught me that there are “big T” traumas and “little T” traumas. A big T trauma is one most would consider shocking and life altering, such as an event causing permanent injury or the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one. I would put divorce in the category of a big T trauma, although it is more of a process than an event. A little T trauma is a less significant incident lamented at a more personal level, like when I was fired from my first job as a lawyer. For me personally, the effects of at least three major painful incidents were running in the background of everything that happened at 1390 Dianne Drive, where my childhood home was located.
It started before I was even born when my parents both divorced their first spouse. In the 1960’s, only 2.2 out of every 1,000 marriages in the United States ended in divorce. While I did not dig deeply into the statistics, I would presume there were even fewer divorces in Mississippi, the buckle of the Bible Belt. The choices and the associated choices had to be a source of embarrassment for both my mom and dad. A cactus. In addition, irreconcilable differences divorces did not exist in the 1960’s in Mississippi, so a person trying to end their marriage had to go to court and present evidence they had a legally recognized reason to sever the marriage, which always makes things worse —because it is public.
My mom’s first husband was George. His name was never mentioned in my house. George and my mom had a daughter and a son. When I got older, I met George a few times. He went on to marry again, and was with his second wife, Sissy, for over forty years before he passed away at the age of 84. By everyone’s account (except my mom), he was a good man. I have no idea what happened between the two of them.
My dad and his closest brother by age married sisters. Daddy married Betty, and Albert made a life with Sarah. As of today, Albert and Sarah have been married for over 65 years. Betty had two sons with my dad before they ended their marriage. I know very little about her, except that she never remarried and she worked hard to raise her boys, basically alone, because my dad was little help. I was told Daddy did not visit his sons very often until they got in high school and played football.
My parents married each other several months after their divorces were finalized, and they had my brother, Keith, a few years later. I was the last, having been born in 1974. My mom was 38 and my dad was 43. When I was around 4, my mom’s son James was accidentally shot and killed by a police officer. Less than five years later, my dad’s son, Mike, took his own life. I have faint memories of these events, but they impacted all of my parents’ future decisions. How could they not? I still remember the knock at the door by the police and my father sobbing in his bedroom, being consoled by a pastor from the church. In some ways, I feel guilty I was the beneficiary of these terrible happenings, because Momma and Daddy made better parenting choices in the wake of the most painful experience a person can endure —burying a child.
And they did it twice.
My parents did not talk about their past mistakes. Honestly, they did not talk about their past at all. They hid their shadow, but they did not hug the cactus. While they made a family together, they left their old life far behind. The ideas of embracing one’s shadow and not hugging the cactus seem to be in opposition, but like everything, they require subtlety and balance. The answer is not found in an “either-or” mentality. It’s both. We must acknowledge our weaknesses, tell our stories, use our experiences to help others, and move forward in life. Embracing our shadow creates integration and wholeness. Hugging the cactus keeps us stuck in the pain.
Into the Wild is a fantastic book about Christopher McCandless, an Emory University graduate who gives all his money to charity, rids himself of all his belongings, and sets out on a journey to the Alaskan wilderness, where he lost his life. A fantastic movie of the same name was based on the story. The soundtrack by Eddie Vedder is even better. The former Pearl Jam front man knows about singing with the shadow. Read the lyrics while you play the song Far Behind as we conclude this time together.
Take leave in conscious mind
Found myself to be so inclined
Why sleep in discontent
For the price of companionship
My shadow runs with me
Underneath the big white sun
My shadow comes with me as we leave it all
We leave it all far behind
Ah, empty pockets will
Allow a greater sense of wealth
Why contain yourself like any other book on a shelf
Subtle voices in the wind,
And the truth they’re telling
The world begins where the road ends
Watch me leave it all behind
So, again… I will leave you with these words,
Sing with the shadow. Don’t hug the cactus.
Craig Robertson is the founder of Robertson + Easterling. For over 20 years, he has practiced exclusively high net worth divorce and complicated family law in Mississippi. You will want him in your corner because he knows the things you care about deeply are at stake –family, safety, and security. He values family, health, wellness and creativity. He will encourage you to embrace your shadow and to let go of your cactus.