Absorb your shadow

Creepy image of a woman and her shadow
Image courtesy Inextremiss

We can embrace our monstrosity while cultivating our human nobility. We can allow each to transform the other, so we become cheerful, kind, useful monsters who are also overpowering, unpredictable, and dangerous heroes.


In “Eating the shadow,” I suggested five phases: hunting, chewing, swallowing, digesting, and burning. My previous essay explained how to hunt the shadow—how to find the tracks of aspects of being you have exiled and forgotten. Passions, for example, that you do not know you have:

Listen for the slightest, momentary flickers of velleity. A “velleity” is a wish so weak that it does not occur to you to act on it. These are desires you instantly dismiss because they do not match your picture of what you think you want. They seem nonsensical, unexpected, and do not fit into your plans. But they are shadow-tracks of passions you do not know you have. Pursuing them, you will capture your desire.

This page explains chewing and swallowing.

  • Chewing shadow is getting extremely intimate with a rejected bit of reality and thoroughly experiencing it, without holding it away at all.
  • Swallowing shadow takes it “inside,” so it is no longer “not me.” You may have to regurgitate it sometimes and chew it again, like a cow.


Velleities must be nurtured with attention. Allow them to persist. Most important, when feasible, act on them.

This is an expensive practice: it demands time, attention, and energy you would otherwise put into something “sensible.” Often it will make you feel silly. (You might even look silly—horror of horrors!)

You have to set aside the dogged pursuit of what you think you want. Robert Bly’s Little Book on the Human Shadow recommends “making holes in habits,” which are the mindless pursuit of mediocre goals.

He writes:

Eating our shadow is a very slow process. It doesn’t happen once, but hundreds of times. Churchill said, “I have had to eat many of my own words, and I found the diet very nourishing.”

Listening to velleity is time-consuming, because suppressed feelings develop slowly. However, as you feed shadow desires, they grow strong and emerge into the light. And, feeding the shadow makes it less resentful and less likely to burst out and eat everyone.

An example. On holiday, my girlfriend and I stayed in an apartment that had an electronic lock. There was a keypad with a numeric code you had to punch in to enter. Every time we got back to the apartment, my girlfriend strode up to the door and pushed the buttons, and there was a satisfying KLUNK, and we could go in.

She is a confident, take-charge person, and I love that about her… but after a half-dozen times, I found myself wondering what it would feel like to enter the code myself. I found myself increasingly resenting her selfishness. She was having ALL THE FUN of pushing the buttons, and I never got a chance.

In my twenties, I might have accused her of misbehavior, and we would have had an angry scene. In my thirties, I might have choked back my desire, which obviously was remarkably juvenile. I would have considered that suppression a mature response—but it would leave some undercurrent of resentment; of judgement.

In my forties… The next time we came to door, I ran ahead, and announced “I does it!” in my best three-year-old voice, and punched in the code before she had a chance.

Pushing the buttons was a lot of fun, that time!

She cracked up laughing…

But one is not always so lucky. Doing what you discover you want and like and enjoy is dangerous. You could end up uncool, a misfit weirdo, an outcaste—a monster.

On the other hand, you are freed from a lot of socially appropriate junk you didn’t know you didn’t like.

Doing what you want, right then, just because you want it—not pursuing a distant goal, not substituting a second best, not doing what “makes sense” or what you “ought to be doing”—may radically transform your experience. You may be astonished to find how rare that is, and how liberating.

Monsters, drama, and evil

Creepy shadow figure

In this essay and the last, I have suggested eating the shadow by going on nature walks, visiting art museums, and acting like a kid. These are safe, bland things nice people do. Normal people go to clubs and get drunk and kiss strangers and throw up. Monsters go to clubs (meadhalls, for instance), tear people to bits, and eat them.

This gave me rhetorical trouble. Much of the process of shadow eating does not fit a system of metaphors based on horror fiction. It is too subtle; it lacks drama. Monster novels love violence, madness, and the romance of evil. (Likewise, indeed, the tantric scriptures.)

But, speaking practically, as a businessman, I think you are better off without that stuff. It is risky and unprofitable. Leaving distorted emotional energies in the bag is dangerous—but letting them out is also dangerous. Romantics want to tear the bag to bits, all at once, and let the imprisoned monsters romp where they may—but I think eating the shadow is better done slowly and carefully.

Eating the shadow does mean embracing your own monstrosity. But it’s safer to start with small stuff—and that’s also more likely to work.

Thinking “maybe I am a psychopathic axe murderer, really” could be highly entertaining; and you might think this effort confirms your daring freedom from conventional taboos. However, it is unlikely to accomplish anything useful, because statistically you almost certainly aren’t one. It’s also the most banal, conventional interpretation of “the shadow” possible, straight off a television crime show. You might create billowy emotional dramas considering the possibility, and they would be useless at best and probably actively harmful.

It’s also an attempt at a lazy shortcut. “If I can just find my One Big Issue, like childhood sexual abuse or something, then I can confront that, and get it dealt with, and then everything else in my life will sort itself out.” Psychotherapists and personal growth entrepreneurs have encouraged this fantasy for decades; but the shadow mostly doesn’t work that way.

You have to spend years hunting the shadow before eating it—and that takes years more. At the start, the quarry is not yet even in sight. We are just looking for traces in the dark wood that show where the shadow has passed.

There may be monstrous drama later—with giants and witches, perhaps—but most shadow eating is not confrontation and combat. It’s noticing and accepting. You discover, over and over, that you are already reluctantly willing to be another type of monster—even though it nauseates you.

Robert Bly makes a related point. Eating the shadow implies making major changes in your life—but “sensational events, catastrophes, turmoil: divorce, throwing away children, abandoning responsibilities” are unhelpful distractions. He says the change is “more subtle”—but that he does not understand it. In a later post, I’ll suggest we can find an explanation in adult developmental theory.

The shadow is not one’s “evil side.” Western culture has inherited from the Middle Eastern religions a practice of view: seeing the self as split between good and evil parts, which wage eternal war. This is not how selves work.

The practice can be helpful in restraining bad behavior on the part of people at an early stage of moral development. It’s actively harmful for most people.

There’s an outstanding discussion of the problems with “good self” / “bad self” splitting in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. (I have a brief review, plus many excerpts, here.) The book gives considerable insight into the dynamics of the shadow, although it never uses that term.

It’s true and important that everyone has impulses to harm others, for selfish gain, or just because hurting people is fun. That is wrong, you should not do it, and calling it “evil” is not always a mistake. Further, these impulses are among those typically consigned to the shadow.

The shadow lands are not all benign, and exploring them is risky. Still, I think it’s better to know what lurks there than to maintain comfortable ignorance by un-seeing it. There are savage beasts, but also gentle giants and white witches.

Men, women, and monsters

“Swallowing the shadow” means recognizing that there is nothing that is not me. Letting go of a rigid gender identity is one part of that.

Swallowing the shadow requires other practices of view. You can heal the bogus human/monster split by seeing yourself as a monster, and by seeing the world as a monster sees it.

One way we reject unacceptable ways of being is to attribute them to the opposite sex. Then one can say “men are domineering bastards” or “women are greedy bitches”—and thereby cast out, into the shadow, one’s own dominance or grasping.

Bly recommends this practice of view:

A woman might try being a patriarch at odd times of the day, to see how she likes it, but it has to be playful. A man might try being a witch at odd times of the day, but it has to be done playfully. He might develop a witch laugh and tell fairy stories, as the woman might develop a giant laugh and tell fairy stories.

For some women, a “patriarch” is the worst kind of monster. To see herself as a patriarch could be horrifying. But, through that practice of view, such a woman can reclaim personal power of sorts she threw away as a teenager because “nice girls aren’t bossy.” Seeing the world as a patriarch sees it might suddenly make sense of social dynamics that had just seemed inscrutably evil.

A giant is typically male and big and strong and stupid, crude and loud and violent. Women may find that repellent or sexually attractive or both at once. For a woman to see herself that way would mean abandoning conditioned concepts of femininity. Seeing the world as a giant sees it can be a way of reclaiming the power of brute force and direct action.

A witch, says Bly, is a woman who knows what she wants. A witch doesn’t say “Oh… well… I don’t know, what do you want to do?” A witch says “I am going to eat you up!”

For some men, that is extremely threatening. That could be due to attachment to rigid gender roles in which men make all decisions. More often nowadays it comes of being a “nice boy,” particularly in relationship to women. Women who know what they want can chew up nice boys and spit them out. Trying on witchiness may help nice boys cut through their webs.

For men, seeing the world as a witch sees it can be a way to reclaim the power of obscure action: of getting what one wants by channeling others’ unconscious energies.

But it has to be done playfully—or you are liable to become a self-loathing, spiteful monster, which is hardly different from being human.

Related resources

The next page in this series explains monsters at play.