In my teens through mid-thirties, I was diagnosed with severe and recurrent Major Depressive Disorder as well as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. A well-meaning friend who witnessed me struggle to get through my days recommended a then-popular book by Dr. Wayne Dyer, though I can’t recall its title. Its premise was that if you simply change your thoughts, you can change your reality.
I devoured chapter after chapter while riding the bus to and from work one day, hopeful that something so simple might be the solution to lifelong anguish.
Aspiring to be among Dr. Dyer’s best students, I thought about happiness, well-being, and churning out articles that that would knock my boss’s and editor-in-chief’s socks off at the magazine publisher that employed me. I also envisioned a few rainbows and unicorns for good measure.
But the dark clouds remained fixed in my world, and where I expected beautiful, white legendary creatures, I met horned inner demons who seemed to get louder and more intimidating the more I tried to ignore them. My boss too remained unimpressed with my moodiness and its impact on my ability to meet work deadlines.
I tossed Dr. Dyer’s book and opted instead for more psychotherapy with someone who warned me against the pitfalls of esoteric teachings that promote spiritual bypassing, a term coined by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood in the 1980s. It refers to, in Welwood’s words, a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” [i]
What happens when you repeat affirmations or chant mantras in the mirror about how lovable, powerful, or abundant you are, for instance, while squashing beliefs that you’re loathsome, weak, and lacking? Or worse, what occurs when you ignore the chest pains, jaw clenching, gut pangs, or other ways your body tries to communicate to you that something within is out of alignment?
Remember American Beauty character Carolyn, the ambitious real estate broker and disdaining wife who drove around listening to motivational speeches on tape. She did what so many of us have been taught to do: think positive and visualize success while never acknowledging thoughts and emotions that indicate otherwise. Some of us were taught by our parents and other authority figures to buck up, get over it, snap out of it, move on, look on the bright side, find the silver lining, make lemonade out of lemons, and so on.
If you understand human nature, you picked up on the fact that Carolyn believed deep-down that she was unworthy or unlovable. She had minimal awareness of her true self, which lay hidden beneath the layers of “I’m not enough” buried in her subconscious.
She drove underground and disowned the aspects of herself she feared would keep her from the “worthier” tribes of society. But you can’t hide from your own shadow indefinitely. When you try, it either comes out sideways or in emotional breakdowns like this one:
or this one:
What lies buried within our shadow can contort and fester if ignored long enough. It can manifest later as chronic mental- and physical-health problems or in judgments and behaviors towards others that are cruel, passive aggressive, dishonest, or manipulative.
Carolyn needed help. Either from herself or with the guidance of a nonjudgmental witness or professional guide (a psychotherapist, shaman, or other depth worker) who has done her own shadow work and knows his or her way around the dark. Carolyn needed to turn off the positive thinking tapes and spend some time bringing the light of awareness and compassion to the hurt aspects of herself that she’d disowned.
Such leaders in the positive thinking communities as the late Louise Hay, Dr. Dyer, and Jerry Hicks, as well as Hicks’ living wife, Esther, were not wrong when they professed that our thoughts create our reality. But this truth is a little more complex than most of us who study the Law of Attraction have interpreted it.
You can think with your conscious mind all you want to about success, as Carolyn did. But that which remains buried in the subconscious can be an equally if not more powerful point of attraction—because what we deny and resist pushes back with equal force and is mirrored back to us by our external life circumstances.
Success, healthy relationships, fulfilling work and careers, financial wellness, and the like come to those who know that their personal value is not dependent on them but that they deserve to live full and happy lives.
And yet even this is an oversimplified explanation of the more complex Law of Attraction. For the purposes of this article, however, I’ll leave you with this.
What does happen when you speak or hear the positive statements many people use as affirmations or to override the shadow that lurks beyond the light? Take a deep breath, tune into yourself, and simply notice what emotions arise when you read a few statements below. Work with each individually and take notes.
There is nothing wrong with you.
You are enough.
It’s OK to be imperfect.
Notice where in your body you experience any emotional responses and the physical sensations that accompany them. Place your awareness, if it’s tolerable, right into the emotions or physical sensations. What else comes up for you? Images? Memories? More emotion? Non-logical thoughts that are the breadcrumbs to a deeper layer?
These are aspects of you that have wanted your acknowledgement and healing for either many years or for most of your life. Can you witness what you’ve discovered with a balance of detachment and deep compassion, as though you were listening to a dear friend or loved one?
Imagine sitting around a fire next to them for no more than 20 minutes, holding space for what arises. Let these aspects tell you their story. Allow them to feel what they feel and you to feel what you feel as well. All the while, breathe long, slow breaths of self-love and compassion right into the center of what may feel uncomfortable.
If the intensity of the emotions or the stories these aspects of you have to share are too intense, stop the exercise and seek the assistance of a counselor, mental health practitioner, somatic therapist, shaman, or other depth worker. (Please note that this exercise is contraindicated for people with deeper trauma or a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or complex PTSD, psychotic disorders, or dissociative disorders).
If you have questions about how the exercise works, send me an e-mail.