Are you exposed??? I’ll bet your shadow knows…
(Please note the following contains some sexual content; please read no further if that might be offensive.)
Every February, many of us playfully anticipate the news out of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day (February 2nd). According to legend, if Phil – a gopher – sees his shadow, we’re in for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, it means the end of winter is just weeks away, which usually delights us at that point in the winter season. Ah, the power and the mystery of the shadow…
A few years back, I attended the worldwide launch event of the The Shadow Effect, written by Debbie Ford (rest in peace), Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson (which incidentally prompted me to attend The Shadow Process Workshop a few months later). A fascinating exploration of the duality that lies at the center of our human experience, the book examines the shadow and the effect it has on our lives, both individually and collectively as a society. The shadow is the part of us that we try to hide, feel is unacceptable, are ashamed of, ignore, run away from – like a groundhog running back into his hole – hoping it will disappear so we can feel safe to come out again.
Born out of ideology or societal standards that set rules of right and wrong, good and evil, the shadow causes us to separate our behaviors into light and darkness – what we will allow others to see and what we will work desperately to ignore or keep secret. Yet, the more we try to hide or ignore our shadow, the more power it has over us. This is the shadow effect. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball under water. Impossible for very long.
This shadow effect keeps us from taking responsibility for our actions and making a conscious decision to shine the light on our dark secrets. Only by embracing our shadow in the light can we make peace with this part of ourselves, find the courage to be who we are, free from fear and shame, able to live a rich and authentic life. And if we choose not to embrace it….well, some real life examples that follow show us the devastating effect of allowing the shadow’s fog of illusion to continue unabated.
The Shadow can be very alluring…
After many years working as a public relations and strategic counsel expert representing clients and their products around the world, I found myself for the first time in many years with the overwhelming desire to find and communicate with my own voice, my own messages, to authentically be a whole person able to express myself as a smart and sensual woman (a story for another newsletter…smile). In many ways, this journey led me to become a Certified Coach. But back to the shadow…
This desire for self-expression led me to my first foray into personal social networking and it was at Myspace that I met Harvey (his persona, not his real name). Harvey sent me a friend request and very quickly launched into a game of seduction and truth or dare. As a gal who media-trained CEOs during corporate crises and clearly knew the value of reputation management, I became very concerned early on in our cyber-friendship as the details of Harvey’s situation emerged.
Insisting on transparency, I soon learned that Harvey was a professor at a respected university in the United Kingdom, a leader in his department and field, a published author, a spokesperson for his university, and an international speaker at conferences around the world. He was also very married with a teenage daughter, very involved in his political party, and, by all appearances, had a brilliant life and career ahead of him. Enter the shadow…
In fact, Harvey had a shadow about as big as Texas. After a two-year affair with a student assigned to him at his previous university job, Harvey’s wife had discovered the relationship, sending his marriage into total turmoil. All the secrets were discovered – the emails, texts, calls, secret liaisons in Hong Kong – and they were loaded with sex. Given a second chance – a last chance – by his wife, who loved him, Harvey changed jobs, moving to his current position, appearing to all who knew him as being a caring and reformed family man who had made one mistake and was committed to not making the same mistake twice.
In truth, Harvey had only just gotten started. For the next three years, he pursued numerous cyber sexual relationships with women around the world using multiple personas on Myspace. He began sexting daily from work through instant messaging portals and fake email accounts. He began to use phone cards so the calls wouldn’t appear on his personal or work mobile phone bills. Then, he delved deeper, performing nude on webcam and cybersexing for multiple women while working from home or from hotel rooms taken for that purpose, away from his wife. He sent pictures of his private parts upon request and created audio files of his voice telling women what he wanted to do to them. Then he had another affair, arranging to meet the woman at an international conference at which he was presenting. His obsession, much of which he conducted at work, took a serious toll on his time, causing him to bring assignments home to catch up, in turn causing more stress in his marriage and on the job.
Harvey’s shadow, given more and more free reign, was working hard to become the dominant force in his life. And the danger of exposure was increasing as the shadow worked harder to be acknowledged – like a beach ball being held under water. Harvey’s desire for power and attention was escalating, leading him to reveal his real identity to some of his cybersex playmates. And he was leaving a huge traceable trail of evidence, including homemade pornography, much of which he distributed from work or on work time using work resources.
The PR expert in me could not help but point out to him how his activities were putting his happiness and livelihood in danger. The Certified Coach in me, filled with compassion, suggested he might want to acknowledge his recurring and escalating behaviors, examine their purpose, shine light on the effect it was having on his personal and professional life, and ask himself if there might be a way to integrate it in a healthy manner into his life. Yet, still he continued as before, refusing to acknowledge that anything might be amiss, diligently working to establish an intimate and ongoing sexual relationship with a woman who would give him what he craved – attention and a sense of mastery – but said he could not get within his marriage.
And when he wasn’t playing online, his entire focus was on doing everything he could to ensure he didn’t get caught again, not working to find out what led him to this path in the first place. So, ultimately, the friendship became like watching someone you care about self-destruct and I had to let it go, sensing impending doom for him. Indeed, I found out later that his wife and family did indeed find out about his activities and affairs, as did his employer, leading to the end of his marriage and a serious blow to an otherwise brilliant career.
The Shadow means Business…
Strangely enough, just two years ago, WikiLeaks was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the struggle for human rights, democracy and freedom of speech. Specifically, WikiLeaks was put forth for exposing the shadow of governments around the world, bringing light to their secrets and corruption. While most of the information leaked by WikiLeaks came from United States diplomatic cables, much was also exposed about big banks and corporations, along with their CEOs. Now, we are bombarded by the news that the Unites States government is breeching privacy protections in a secretive twist in the name of national security. What does all this have to do with you? Nothing? Or everything?
The shadow is busily at work in society, in business, in our institutions and government. We see it exhibited in Islamic extremism and the volatile unrest in the Middle East. We see it on Wall Street as greed and corruption run rampant within financial institutions. We see it exhibited through governments whose laws are based on a religion that believes women should have lesser freedoms than men. We see it in the Catholic Church’s priesthood where sexuality had no healthy outlet and became a haven for pedophiles. We see it in gangs ruling the streets of the inner cities, selling drugs and taking human lives as if it were nothing. We see it in corporate environments that sanction sexism and sexual harassment. And we see it exhibited in the two-faced lying evidenced in the numerous cables released by WikiLeaks.
The fact is that the collective shadow is everywhere, whether we acknowledge it or not. It especially thrives where temptation coexists with permissiveness, where checks on power are missing, and where decision making remains obscure. Its corruption hurts everyone, with a devastating impact, because it undermines people’s trust – in the political system, our safety, business, institutions and leadership. Yet, in every one of the examples noted above, the prevailing attitude by those involved was never “Are we hurting anyone?” or “Are we being unethical?” Instead, in all these cases, the shadow collectively – among many, many people who knew the secrets – focused on “How can we keep our secrets?” and “How can we keep from getting caught?”
On the heels of the release of State Department secrets, WikiLeaks vowed that business was next, starting with the release of internal documents revealing an “ecosystem of corruption” in one of the nation’s largest banks. While most companies aren’t engaging in immoral or illegal activity, CEOs are being warned that everything from the slightest breach of their competitive secrets to a simple email conversation could explode into a public relations fiasco. Because the fact is that secrets weaken any person or organization, be it an individual, business, government or organization. Those who know our secrets have power.
But, while you were busy working hard to hide all of your own personal and professional secrets, did you notice what was clearly so remarkable about the WikiLeaks release? Shining a big, bright light on the government’s secrets ended up not being that big a deal after all. No one suffered or died as a result of all that light on the shadow. So, the clear message here – whether it be personal or business – is that the best defense against damage from secrets is transparency – a simple shift in power from darkness into light, hiding into openness. And freedom from fear. (Note to current administration in Washington…)
Deal with the Shadow before the Shadow deals with you.
When media training CEOs and C-level leadership around corporate crises or serious negative brand issues with multimillion dollar implications, my counsel was always “Be transparent. When possible, you break the news before somebody else does. Take responsibility, when warranted, and outline the steps you are going to take to address the situation appropriately. Then do what it takes.” In other words, acknowledge the shadow, shine light all over it, and then embrace it by taking steps to use it as a powerful and positive tool for what you truly want to make happen. Any other decision is sure to result in less than desired results.
The same strategy holds true for personal issues. Utilizing the coaching process, I work with clients to create the changes they desire and identify obstacles that may be standing in their way. Often, these obstacles include their shadow selves, those aspects of themselves that they work hard to hide, are ashamed of, or unwilling to face. Working together in a compassionate and non-judgmental environment, we bring these issues to light, illuminating the shadows, and dispelling their negative power. What a relief! Then we outline strategies, identify new skills, and create a plan to make desired changes happen, all while embracing and utilizing the positive power of their shadows.
Instead of proactively taking the pathway of openness and light, getting good strategic counsel or entering into a beneficial and enlightening coaching relationship, many governments, companies, organizations and individuals are playing the gopher, still determined to follow the “I’ve gotta secret” model, rife with danger and stress, never knowing who, when and where their secrets might come to light. While I hope these people will become aware, get help and embrace their shadow before falling into the abyss, many will continue on their shadow path until they walk right off the cliff into the dark abysmal depths. I pray for them to stay awake when they fall, to be cushioned by the light, and willingly learn from that light about their mistakes or flaws without embarrassment or shame. For, in the words of Elizabeth Lesser in Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, “We are chunks of dense matter that need to be cracked open. Our errors and failings are chinks in the heart’s armor through which our true colors can shine.” Whether we are near the edge or already in the abyss, I promise you – it will be alright. If we simply embrace our light.
So, do you want to be a gopher or do you want to let the light of your shadow shine? I’m here if you choose the light.
© Can You Imagine Life Coaching™ LLC February 2011