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  • Brittany Quagan

Stepping Into the Shadow

I’m going to tell you a story. My challenge for you to is to pay close attention to how you feel as you read this story—what the story evokes for you energetically, physically, emotionally, and most importantly, what thoughts you have as you read the story. It may even be helpful for you to keep a notepad next to you and write your thoughts down as you have them if it’s difficult to keep track of your thoughts.


You may even start by paying attending to how you feel right in this very moment so that it is easier for you to know what you carried into reading this story versus what comes up for you as new.


If you asked her as an adult, X would tell you that she was born with anxiety. In fact, most that have known her throughout her life could validate this is true. She spent most of her life worrying about a variety of things—from the health and safety of herself and her family to the state of the world. Perhaps this is why she was so timid growing up, as that anxiety crept into her fears of what others may think of her. X was no stranger to bullying because of this. As she grew into a teenager, it seemed as though there were no light at the end of the tunnel of angst and sadness she was so accustomed to living in. It’s no surprise that she eventually faced deep states of depression with suicidal thoughts. With no guidance from family or adults in her life, X turned to drugs and alcohol to keep herself feeling stable. It started as only a few sips of alcohol here and there. But soon she felt she couldn’t function without being under the influence. Marijuana and alcohol were not enough after a while. College time came around and her new friends felt the same as she did; together they used cocaine, pills, and other hard drugs she didn’t even know would be mixed with what she thought she was using. Over time, X channeled the inner rage and frustrations she felt and masked with substance outward toward others—consistently getting into physical fights and lashing out on anyone who looked at her the wrong way or told her something she didn’t like (whether that be to do something or to behave in a certain way). Her negative attitude was known, and felt, by many. X broke the law on numerous occasions, mainly going uncaught and feeling as though she were unstoppable; from driving recklessly, also under the influence, to stealing. She would often steal from department stores and return the items hours later only to leave with hundreds of dollars. She stole money from a jug of money her father kept at home, and she stole items out of dorm rooms at her college and would pawn them at a local pawn shop. Many of her old friends stopped hanging out with her because of her behavior and her attitude. X was kicked off of her college campus due to her behaviors and she eventually left school to get a full time job. At 22, X was arrested for the first time for a DUI. When others found out, they were more surprised that it hadn’t happened earlier and hoped that this would be a wake-up call for X to make some changes as she had been going down the wrong path for quite some time.


Now take a break for a second and write down the thoughts that you might have had about X if you haven’t already. I’m going to share another story with you and I want you to do the same thing—noticing how you feel, noticing the thoughts that come up with you about the person in this story.


Y also struggled quite a bit with mental health throughout her life, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. As a teenager, she often had to play the role of “mom” at home because her mother also struggled with her own depression and life experiences and Y was constantly worried about her mother. Y maintained some of her wellness through humor and lightheartedness, always being the goofy person to try and lighten the mood. Most people didn’t know the truth about what Y experienced internally or at home.

Together, Y and her mother experienced many hardships together. Many nights, Y and her mother would eat green beans out of a can for dinner because there wasn’t enough money for food, and with very little money for food, Y often couldn’t get to her private school outside of town because her mom couldn’t afford the gas money to get her there. They would have to sleep in the same bed at night, layered in sweatshirts, and had to shower together because they didn’t have money for oil to heat the house or the hot water. They moved around a good handful of times because of money, but eventually Y was able to go to college and stay in a dorm on a full scholarship. However, her anxiety was sky high and the thought of her mom potentially being on her own scared her. After a year of being at school, Y decided she wanted to get a job and go to school part time so she could make money and hopefully find some stability. It took her years with going to school part time, but eventually Y graduated with her bachelors in psychology. During that time, Y found peace in spirituality and therapy—gaining tools to feel well and to overcome her struggles with mental health. Y was in an abusive relationship at the time and with her new skills and the healing she experienced, Y was able to leave that relationship behind. Eventually Y opened her own wellness center to help others because the tools she had gained were so effective she found it to be part of her mission to help as many to heal as she could. She also got her masters degree during that time period. Y is now working at an elite Ivy League university as a clinical therapist and researcher, while still running her wellness center.


Stop for a moment.


What are your thoughts on this particular story?


Did you feel differently than you did reading Y’s story vs. X’s? How would you compare the two? Do you compare the two?


What if I told you that X and Y were the same person?


What if I told you that X and Y are both me?


Both of those stories are 100% true and are a deeply personal peek into my life.


I write this for two reasons.


The first?


Judgment.


If you were to meet or hear about X on any given day, you may raise an eyebrow or think negatively about X and what a terrible person she was for the decisions she made.

When you hear about Y, you may hear a story of resilience, of overcoming hard times and doing something to make your life better.


But when we find out that X and Y are the same person? What does that mean about where our judgments lie or how we automatically view or see a person just based on some surface details and characteristics?


Had you heard the whole story as one perhaps your opinion of X may have been a little different.


And that’s something I had to learn just in thinking about myself and about my life—something we all may struggle with to some degree.


When I used to talk about my past, I used to talk about it as if I were a completely different person. I focused solely on the negative things about myself—the drugs, the drinking, the fights, the stealing, and negative attitude I carried with me everywhere I went. I made some decisions I would never make today. I made some decisions based on where I was mentally and emotionally at the time and what I knew I could do to maintain some semblance of peace within myself, some security. This doesn’t mean that the things I did were okay, by any means. I used to be mortified at my “past self.” But the truth of the matter is—when I focused on all of the “negative” parts of my past experiences, I completely omitted the positive. It made me feel shameful of my past and where I came from. Rather than seeing how much I grew, and how much I learned from those experiences, I saw a shadow side, a stranger.


I ignored how much I truly overcame in my life and the level of resilience I truly have when faced with experiences (self-created or not) that aren’t the easiest to see in a positive light. I first realized this was a problem when I would talk about my past and how embarrassing it was or how “bad I was” and how I hated when people brought it up because they “just couldn’t get over how I used to be.”


And then my dear boyfriend looked at me and said, “you’re the only one who always brings it up.”


Whoa. What.


I realized that I’m the one who just couldn’t get over how I used to be. That “awful, horrible” person that I was.


So I decided to sit with this and really see who this person was that was so awful. And I came to this wild conclusion that aside from the decisions that I make now, the way I treat myself and the ways in which I choose to process my life experiences and to heal, I’m exactly the same person. I have always been a resilient, hard ass, stubborn, goofy, open hearted, compassionate and motivated person. That separation of “good” vs “bad” kept me from seeing myself in a whole light.


And I can’t help but wonder, how many of us do this?


How many of us isolate the good aspects of ourselves and focus only on the bad? How many of us struggle to see ourselves for who we are on all fronts, not just on how we have responded to certain experiences? How many of us feel shame for decisions we have made or judge our entire existence based on one (or some) period(s) of time in our life?


You are more than just the way you have responded to certain times in your life.


The attributes you view as “positive” do not go away when you behave, respond, or think in a way that you see as “negative.”


You are still an entirely whole human, living a human existence, having human responses to everything you experience each and every day. You are still a human who is growing and learning from everything you experience and if you didn’t respond to something in a way you would have liked, it doesn’t suddenly make you less than.


Is the work I do suddenly less helpful or less impactful in the world because I went through a really difficult time as a teenager/young adult and didn’t have the right tools to cope?


No.


It doesn’t.


At least not in my opinion.


Life is not about keeping score (“I did 15 bad things as a kid, so all the good I’m doing now doesn’t count because I have to make up for it.”) Life is about the conscious choice to grow from what we’ve experienced.


Those pieces of my life I have shared with you, no matter how much I tried to create another essence of myself to separate who I am now from it, they never go away. They happened. I participated in those behaviors and those actions. That’s reality.


I learned. I reflected on how I responded to things and gained better tools and coping mechanisms to deal with my shit. I made changes as I grew.


What came from that time of my life, I feel, has been such a magical blessing. Frankly, I wouldn’t be nearly as passionate about my work if I hadn’t come from that.


So today I have multiple lessons for you.


The first is in judgment. If you find yourself judging someone based on the little bits you know about their life, based on the likely event that you don’t truly know what is going on for them internally, or what their circumstances are, my challenge for you is to check your judgment at the door and remind yourself humbly that we can never truly know what’s going on for someone to be making the decisions they do. (Again, this is NOT the same as condoning, this is about judgment!)


My second lesson is for you to reflect on how often you hyper-focus on those aspects of yourself that you see as negative. Do you omit the parts of you that you see in a positive light? How can you start to see yourself wholly; recognizing all of you?


When we recognize those “shadow sides” of ourselves, and we accept them, a great shift happens within. We begin to walk this physical existence from a more empowered place, from a place of authenticity and truth, from a place of understanding.

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