“What should I do?” I asked my husband. “This feels like a test about choosing between courage and cowardice. Or is it between my noble and selfish selves?” We were talking about a relationship issue that was brought to my attention by a timely and bizarre synchronicity. The odds against this coincidence occurring must have been millions to one. Because of the wild improbability I knew there was a lesson in it for me. But what was it?
Which part of me should I act on: the part that could see this objectively, laugh it off and let it go, or the part that took it personally, felt betrayed, and wanted to let the other know? I couldn’t tell. My habit of suppressing my truths to avoid conflicts or hurting people was still too strong. As a child and young woman, I’d seen this as a noble trait, but I was learning that keeping my mouth shut wasn’t always the right choice. Sometimes it was merely ‘settling.’ Sometimes it was not believing enough in my basic worth to draw firm boundaries and stand up for myself. At the very least it was a lack of authenticity.
Over the years a recurring dream has addressed this issue: I’m in a social situation with a mouth full of sticky mush that I have to remove and dispose of so I can talk. No matter how much I take out, there’s always more. Having people around me is uncomfortable and embarrassing. When I finally understood this was a metaphor for being afraid to use my own voice, I became determined to heal this wound that has its roots in my earliest childhood.
I grew up believing I must protect my mother from agitation or conflict. Something told me she’d had too much pain in her life and I shouldn’t add to it; for example, by arguing with her, or expressing my disappointment that she didn’t attend my theatrical and musical performances, or begging her to drive me anywhere, or expecting special attention or praise from her. It was too risky. I realize now that this is symptomatic of a mother complex.
The part of me that wanted to reclaim my voice believed that expressing my truths in the current situation was the right response. But knowing it could be hurtful to the other party held me back and caused me to question my true motivation. Was there something in me that wanted to hurt this person? The thought that there probably was made me deeply uncomfortable. So what was I to do? Suppress my truths yet again or take the risk of exposing my secret thoughts? Beneath this was a bigger question: Which side of my dilemma represented my shadow and which the Self?
I asked my husband to help me clarify this issue, then made my decision. But we both still had misgivings. So I asked my daughter. I should tell you she’s a level-headed person with a doctorate in marriage and family counseling. I trusted her response to be truthful and objective. After describing the situation and how I’d decided to handle it, I immediately sensed her hesitation. “What?” I asked. “Is this bogus? Am I being childish?”
“Yes,” she said smiling gently. “I think it’s coming from your mother complex. Your wounded child feels neglected and wants attention and revenge.” The undeniable truth of this resonated, a dark cavern in my unconscious was flooded with light, and a weight I didn’t know I was carrying vanished. It explained so much about parts of my shadow I’d been struggling so long to understand. A few nights later a vivid dream confirmed the truth. In it, an intelligent and accomplished young Asian woman went to her hotel room after making an important presentation, and I heard her screaming for her absent mother in anguish and anger. The youthful, ambitious, perfectionistic achiever in me still wanted her mother’s affirmation.
“In each of us there is another whom we do not know. [S]He speaks to us in dreams.” `Carl Jung
Carl Jung believed complexes are perfectly normal. As I recall, he once said he had 13. No matter how hard we try to think and act wisely, everyone has clusters of attitudes, feelings and beliefs that can impersonate wisdom and shadow our judgment. And when our ego is swamped by a shadow complex, it’s very good at justifying its self-serving motives. So how can we discern the truth and make the best choice?
We can bring the True Self into the picture by asking it to observe our conflict as we follow this 7-step process:
(1) Name both sides of the conflict.
(2) Listen carefully as each side expresses itself fully.
(3) Examine the beliefs, emotions and motives of both sides with objectivity and compassion.
(4) Forgive both sides for being human.
(5) Grieve our hurt fully.
(6) Create an original work wherein our ego, shadow and Self invent their own meaningful sacred dance.
(7) Ask for help if we’re still in the dark.
Then we can choose to step toward the light. Life is too precious to waste in the shadows.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.