Honoring Our Shadows in Order to Find the Light

Sep 25, 2021

After my eldest daughter was born, I consumed every how-to, why-to, and when-to book there was on parenting. And when she was six months, I stumbled upon a book titled Photographing Your Baby.

Now, in what feels like a lifetime later, I don’t remember much of the book, except for one key idea:

Turn off the lights.

The author explained that bright flashes wash out the infinitely complex subject, making the baby seem two-dimensional. Relying instead on the surrounding natural light produces what the author claimed is the essential feature of good photos: shadows.

Without an artificial glare, the many folds and creases of the baby’s skin deepen. The contrast between foreground and shadow conveys a richer portrait of reality: the intricate complexity of a multifaceted life.

And the reason this has stuck with me, while complex in execution, is simple at its core: Embracing shadow is the only way to embrace light.

When emerging from a crucible or crisis experience, as we discussed in last week’s newsletter, we often hope to be out of the dark so passionately that we forget the darkness - the healing - comes in unpredictable ways. After a moment in the light, we’re shocked when we’re sucked back into the cave of our despair.

Instead of retreat, however, we have the new opportunity to explore the darkness, and allow ourselves to be in it without being consumed by it.

In doing so, we open ourselves up to what we really need, how we may have changed (for better or for worse), and heal at a deeper level.

In order to explore the shadow sides of our personality or situation without fear or judgment, we need to demystify what we think is hiding in the darkness. Looking honestly at our shadow selves requires examining the less admirable roles we may have played (the victim, the whiner, the rogue, the hustler, the bully).

But this only works when we let our guard down - no excuses or defensiveness (Remember the Deadly Ds of survival mind traps—denial, dismissal, or discounting?). Not helpful. Nor can we be crushed by self-loathing and blame.

We have to hold steady.

We have to breathe.

We have to take the hand next to ours, squeeze with gratitude that we are not alone and lean on those around us to regain our balance when we falter.

That is how we emerge transformed.

You are allowing your shadow side to receive oxygen, not to glorify it, but to acknowledge it. We don’t want to condone our unhealthy impulses, but we need gentle curiosity about what deeper unmet need is driving those behaviors.

A crucible can withstand all we have to offer, including our darkest shadows. The alchemy of transformation requires both light and dark for an integrated whole to emerge from the heat.


This is a modified re-telling of a few pages from Chapter 11 of my book Never Waste a Crisis. The rest of that chapter dives deeper into how embracing shadow is the only way to embrace light -- that that’s how we can emerge from crisis transformed for the better.

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