I once had a colleague who insisted that at the heart of every organization was a “core of rot”. He was a hilarious cynic who’s acerbic tongue often spoke the truth others denied. I remember vehemently denying his theory, as I pushed my rose-colored corporate glasses further up the bridge of my nose and sipped my purple cool-aid with a bendy straw.
For me, his notion struck a similar chord as that age-old existential question: “are people essentially good or essentially evil?” In case it’s not blatantly obvious, I’ve always been a devout member of the “good” camp. But I was so wrong. It’s not about good or bad or essence at all. It’s about wholeness. It about embracing and seeing the gifts in all the pieces that make us (and organizations) who we are – not just the ones we like. Ultimately, it’s about the courage to look our worst fears in the eye. And then befriending them – taking those fears out for a beer, hearing their side of the story and learning from their wisdom.
People have talked about this phenomenon for ages in a multitude of manners – Carl Jung talks about “our shadow”, Debbie Ford calls it “the dark side”. Open our eyes, and we see that our attempts to run away from or – worse yet – deny the existence of the darkest of those polarities are an exercise in futility. The Chinese culture teaches us about the need to acknowledge our wholeness in terms of Yin/Yang. The very planet we live on demonstrates this principle through the ebb and flow of the tides, and by witnessing the dance the sun and the moon do every day to give us both light and dark in our skies. And still we resist. Or at least I do.
Countless writers – including this one – say that it is part of our humanness to resist discomfort. We like peace and harmony and, well…light. Our dualistic culture has done a great job in reinorcing that notion throughout history, embedding those fears into our stories, archetypal myths and social constructs, making “darkness” synonymous with “evil” or “danger.” There is a reason witches wear black hats and monsters tend to come out at night. I’m touching upon a loaded topic – one that is better suited for a piece on diversity and how people and groups of people become marginalized. But for the purposes of this piece, my intent is to illustrate this point: darkness and shadow – and everything associated with it - get a bad rap and because of that our fears cause us to miss out on its gifts.
If you really think about it, it’s actually quite absurd. It’s like denying that a tree casts a shadow in bright sunlight. In that context, it just is what it is. It’s not good or bad, it’s simply part of the picture. Part of the whole. The light and the darkness provide context and perspective for the other to exist. They are both serving a purpose.
Let me first be very clear on what I mean by “darkness” and how that relates to the whole “core of rot” title. What lives in our shadow or the darkness are those pieces of ourselves that we find most distasteful – even shameful. Those pieces that are hard for us to be with; hard for us to find value in. The parts of ourselves that we keep close to our chest, like tightly-guarded secrets (like being judgmental, wickedly jealous, spiteful, needy or insecure. All the things that are not listed in the Book of Virtues. Get it?
We would like them to go away. And so we do our best to make that happen. And in doing so, we often spend ridiculous amounts of time engaged in fruitless attempts to chew our own leg out of the trap that is ourselves. At first we might deny those feelings or traits and then when (surprise!) they return we might resort to berating ourselves for being so petty or trite or small-minded or cruel for even having them to begin with. If that doesn’t work (which it never does), we run. We run as fast as we can into one of our comfortable happy places. We get busy, we create situations in which others need and depend upon us more, we distract ourselves, we isolate ourselves or we numb ourselves. So you tell me…who won this battle? You or your fear? Who is the fugitive in this scenario?
We all do this, myself included. But I’ve recently been playing with a new way of looking at this juggernaut. Envision that each time you cast off these unwanted pieces of yourself, seeing them as unnecessary, unproductive and worthless, you begin to form a pile. Over time, that pile gets bigger and then begins to rot from the inside out. Over time, it begins to stink. In many ways, it can be likened to a compost heap – a repository for all the pieces of scrap and leftovers that didn’t make it into the body. And what do we know about composting? That’s right: with a little turning and churning (some might say loving), it turns into a powerhouse of nutrient rich soil, capable of growing just about everything. Like you. The best version of you possible.
In a similar vein, author Debbie Ford writes about an exercise she went through that invited participants to fill up a bus in their minds with all of their “sub-personalities” and then go on an imaginary bus ride, during which you would get to know all those people on your bus – especially the ones you wanted to most avoid. Turn and churn… Some of her characters included Big Bertha Big Mouth, Angry Alice, Trashy Trixie and Resistant Rita. The idea, she asserts, is that each one of these passengers has a gift for you, but because they each represent a piece of yourself that you have spent a lot of effort and time ignoring, you never receive that gift. Her story was that as soon as she accepted her new friends, they stopped showing up in her life. They felt seen. Known. Valued.
The reality is that many beautiful, powerful and important things have been born out of darkness. Artists and writers talk about the dark places they must go to manifest their creations. As you’re reading this, you might be reminded of particularly horrific incident that enabled something beautiful to emerge – like a phoenix from the flame. Indeed, most of us are brought into this worlld by going through a dark and constricting birth canal. Into the light. And life.
Debbie Ford’s story reminds us of our own resourcefulness. She believes – and I wholeheartedly agree – that “we’re brilliantly designed to heal ourselves and return to wholeness.”
Now, I want to just pause here and acknowledge that this sounds all well and good, but it’s not so easily done – especially when it’s your pile your being asked to turn and churn and you’re the one who is itching to run at a break-neck pace from it (whatever “it” is for you). But to encourage you to stand your ground and begin to break the cycle of denial and resistance, here are some relatively simple and effective techniques to help you peer into your darkness and perhaps get a some rich soil in return.
Simply put, that without a name is capable of looming larger than it ought. If you can attach a name to it – anxiety, jealousy, whining, insecurity, self-doubt… - it becomes much more manageable and can be dealt with accordingly. Start with, “what is it I’m feeling?” or “what is this behavior I’m doing called?”. Once you can categorize it, you can make a choice about what you want to do with it.
This is a fabulous technique I learned at The Coaches Training Institute. It’s similar to naming it, but in a much more get-on-with-it-already fashion. In this technique you simply call it like you see it – sometimes hitting the nail squarely on the head. You might say, “okay, so I’m controlling” or “Yup. I’m a perfectionist”. This simple statement reminds you of your imperfect humanness, and invites yourself to not take yourself so seriously as you step over it and get on with your life.
One of my wonderful clients has this phrase I love. As she rallies herself to have a particularly challenging or confrontational conversation, she’ll say, “let’s have this conversation.” Directed at yourself, do you see how that firmly pins the topic against the wall? Who is the fugitive there? This technique invites you to come out from behind yourself and into the conversation – in an honest, direct and committed fashion. A couple of great resources to support this technique are Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (just apply the principles in her book to yourself.) and the Morning Pages exercise in Julie Cameron's book The Artist's Way.
So the next time you are feeling the darkness descend upon you and the lightness fade, grab a flashlight and a shovel and go out to your compost pile. If you stop playing the fugitive role long enough to churn up your cast off pieces, you might just uncover something waiting to be born that will enable you to be more whole.