When I was younger I dated a man who was very out of touch with his emotions. Some months into the relationship, I realized I was always crying around him. I certainly cry from time to time – but never had I cried like this. And it wasn’t just when we fought, it was about anything and everything. But only when around him.So, I decided to ask him about his relationship to crying.It turned out he never cried. And hadn’t in years. In fact, he only remembered crying once outside of childhood.It was fairly obvious to me then, what was going on…I was feeling his emotions for him. It seemed he also had unconsciously projected his disowned feeling feminine self onto me. And with it, his grief, his compassion, his melancholy, his broken heartedness. And I had unconsciously taken it on.Realizing how unsustainable this dynamic would be, not only for me, but also for us, I told him I could not carry this for him. That if we were going to make it, he had some work to do here, in getting in touch with this part of himself.But this was not about blame. In an adult relationship, it takes two to shadow dance, and I had my work to do as well. Seeing as this was not the first time I carried the unconscious of another, part of my work was learning to say no to what was not energetically mine. Which first required learning to better discern and become more aware of where I ended and another began. And since I had chosen a partner who never cried, it showed me I needed to get more in touch with my cool and stoic, more masculine side
. Lastly, I knew I needed to work on my tendency to introject – that is, to unconsciously take on or act out the projections others placed on me. A defense mechanism many learn to rely on in childhood, when we are helpless to the projections of others.But the story doesn’t end there. The night after I confronted this dynamic, an amazing thing happened. I dreamt I was being exorcised. And all this dark cloudy energy was being drawn right from out of me. When I woke, I felt a great burden had lifted. Not only did my incessant crying cease immediately after, but in a matter of weeks he cried for the first time in all those years.To some degree, this is an inescapable aspect of every relationship. We all carry the shadow and the unconscious of our partner in different ways at different times, just as our partner does for us – though we aren’t aware of it. It certainly isn’t a fun job. In fact, it is rather thankless and goes mostly unacknowledged in our relationships. (What would it be like to thank our partner for carrying this burden for us?) But it is a profoundly important job. That is, as long as these dynamics are eventually made conscious. And as long as *both* parties are willing to do their fair share of the work in giving back what is not theirs and taking back what is.Because ultimately, if we are willing and able, this difficult dance can be where powerful healing occurs. While all this projecting and carrying certainly causes us much strife, if we dare look deeper – we realize these things are actually showing us what wants our attention. Without projections and the hooks in which they hang on, without conflict and tension, these aspects of ourselves would forever remain hidden in the unconscious. When they show up in front of us, we have the opportunity to confront them with honesty and fierce compassion. And this is when shadow turns to gold.It is also important to note that some people are prone to feel the unconscious of others more acutely or more often. Sometimes this is simply because we are sensitive and empathic and live with an ear turned towards the unconscious. But there is a shadow side to this as well, that usually needs to be reckoned with before it really is that simple. This might mean we have too porous of boundaries. Or are empathetic in an unintentional and enmeshed way. Or that we lose ourselves in others. Often, too, it connects to having been the one in the family that carried too much of the parent’s shadow and therefore use introjection as a coping mechanism.
It isn’t surprising that those in that role tend to be the sensitive and empathic ones, those keyed into the invisible goings-on around them.We also see that sometimes the more pressing the unconscious material is – the more strongly it will show up in whomever that person is relating to. In an extreme example, one unfortunately sees this in many survivors of sexual assault – where the survivors feel the shame that the perpetrator should have felt but did not. Because if the perpetrator had felt healthy shame, they would not have done what they did.To add one more nuance to the matter, it is also true that, as Marion Woodman says, “A conscious person in the presence of an unconscious person’s pain may suffer more than the unconscious person.”While we could easily use this idea to delude ourselves and skip any honest shadow inquiry, there is truth to it. The difference here, however, is that the person Woodman describes is not unconsciously feeling or acting out the pain of others, but instead they are feeling it with clarity and consciousness, boundaries and compassion. The more conscious we become, the more we will know what is ours, what is not and what is the grey area in between. And we will know if we are meant to help hold another’s unconscious for them if they are not yet able to. But doing so in a way that harms neither but only helps heal, and gives it back when the other is ready. We will also know if instead we are to let it go, and not take it on at all. Or how much we can take, and how much we cannot.It is no easy task knowing what is ours and what is another’s or what is a mix of both. It is not easy knowing where our shadow is dancing with theirs or not or what must be done about it. The nuances are endless. Each individual, each interaction will be different and discernment and rigorous self-scrutiny are key. But the pay off is worth it. Not only will we become more and more ourselves, but in becoming more ourselves, we might just help another do the same.
Leda de Zwaan is coach/healer/regressiontherapist and journalist.
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