I was introduced to the writings of Father Brennan Manning during a difficult period of my life. While reading, I often found myself feeling with both panic and relief, “He gets me! He gets me!” His writings gave me a language to understand myself, a language I was able to embrace as my own.
Fr Manning speaks of the imposter self, the false self, or the shadow self. He describes it as “… the classic co-dependent. To gain acceptance and approval, the false self suppresses or camouflages feelings making emotional honesty impossible. Living out of the false self creates a compulsive desire to present a perfect image to the public so that everybody admires us and nobody will know us. The imposter’s life becomes a perpetual rollercoaster ride of elation and depression.”
Thomas Merton says, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person, a false self…” My sense is that the false self in each one of us has been called out during this lockdown. The impact of more than 40 days of a national lockdown has been felt without and within. I don’t mean just inside the home. I mean within one’s self. Our relentless daily routines have stripped us of the awareness of being disintegrated, sinful creatures. Our imposter or ‘shadow self’ dealt with our anxieties and inadequacies by keeping us knotted up in lesser loves to avoid looking deep within.
A week before the lockdown, I was supposed to fly to New York City, a hotbed of Covid-19. I had spent months in rehearsals and planning for the performances we were to present at New York University. Suddenly, everything came to a grinding halt. From days that packed in more than the hours could handle, I was now looking at an empty calendar and aimless hours. I felt disappointed, helpless, angry and terrified at the stripping away of this familiar construct of life.
This sliver of my life only represented the larger mechanisms by which I managed life, that of making sure that I avoided experiencing those parts of me that I did not want to face. So I made sure I worked hard enough to feel important and useful, socialised enough to feel popular and not face my FOMO (fear-of-missing-out), blended in enough to not be rejected, did enough ‘family time’ to feel responsible and belonging to some unit, exercised enough to ensure that physical pain replaced emotional pain.
The eminent psychiatrist James F Masterson summed up this approach well: “The false self plays its deceptive role, ostensibly protecting us but doing so in a way that is programmed to keep us fearful of being abandoned, losing support, not being able to cope on our own, not being able to be alone.”
I hid my fears of rejection and abandonment behind the masks I put on and the roles I took up. Perhaps you do, too. Work is good. So is socialising, ministry, exercise and family. Morphine is good too. In monitored settings, it is a pain reliever. However, it can become an addiction and make one lose control. The employments of our shadow self are a bit like morphine going wild. What the lockdown has done is to make our personal ‘morphines’ inaccessible to us.
Like me, deprived of your personal ‘morphines’ in this lockdown, you may discover that in all your years of running away, you did not invest in the internal resources needed to face your true self fraught with brokenness. Your energies were instead invested in building the armour that your shadow self told you was needed to get through life. Now, stripped of that armour, you may find yourself quite naked.
With much of my armour stripped away, both the functional and dysfunctional kind, I’ve tried to stop running away from myself, something I have been aware of doing for the last two decades. Facing my ‘naked’ true self wasn’t pleasant. All I wanted was to hide again, behind unhealthy relationships, hollow affirmations, and empty confidences. I had survived all these years without confronting my shadow self. Urgent whispers of “Slay the shadow!” offered easy ways out. But doing so would be tantamount to killing a part of me.
I am now getting to know my shadow self. I am allowing room for expansion within myself. It makes that gentle yet needed confrontation with myself possible. The natural outflow of this inner expansion would be the gradual integration of my shadow self with my true self. Butexploring such intimacy with myselfis overwhelming and scary because a loss of intimacy with myself was the price I paid to avoid seeing myself as I am— afraid, vulnerable, weak—and to avoid feeling rejected. Divorced from the awareness of my needs, feelings, and beliefs, my shadow self could neither be intimate with me nor with another. And, I suspect, not with God either.
As a ‘Brennan-inspired’ part of that process, I wrote a letter to my shadow self. I share some excerpts from it.
Dear Shadow Self,
I have been trying to disown you from the time I became aware of you. I am truly sorry for this. In disowning you, I disconnected from a part of myself.
You taught me how to survive—thank you! You also taught me to hide myself away, shush my memories, my feelings, my opinions and fit into society like I was expected to. But you’ve outlived your role. Satisfying your needs surpassed my other allegiances, fidelities and responsibilities. I never confronted you. I just didn’t know how to.
But let’s slow down now, shall we? Stop running. Let me take you to Jesus. I want us both to coexist in His Presence. To be unknown to Jesus, in Merton’s words, is ‘altogether too much privacy.’
I know you will start acting out again. You’ll resist change. But I’d rather that you and I fight it out in the presence of Jesus where that demanding, hungry, gaping hole within me will quieten down. Here your unbridled needs will be transformed into a passion for intimacy with Him. You will discover that He is enough. You will feel compassion for yourself and others. You will be able to love others and not use or abuse them. And in His ‘risen ever-present-ness’, you will discover what it means to live ‘free’ and for His affirmation alone.”
The shadow, the unacceptable part of us, and the good acceptable part coexist in every one of us. If we make room only for the acceptable part of our selves, where is the ‘unacceptable’ part to go? Fr Brennan uses the example of the response of Peter and Judas to their shadow selves. Both had failed. Both had let the imposter in them win. But, confronted by it, Judas could not face his shadow. Peter could. The latter befriended the impostor within. The former was shamed by the impostor and took his life. What about you? Will you befriend your imposter, the shadow self, take it to Jesus, and be made whole?