The Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, has recently been embattled in a blackface scandal. That’s bad news for anyone, but especially a Democratic Governor from a purple state. While Gov. Northam has asked for more time to sort things out, people on both sides of the aisle are calling for his resignation. All of this raises the question, who is Gov. Northam really?
For that matter, who are any of us? It is easy to criticize politicians for their secrets or past mistakes, but don’t we all have parts of ourselves that we hide from the public? Moreover, aren’t there portions of our being that we’ve even hidden from ourselves?
The answer to these questions is emphatically “yes”! And these hidden portions of our being are sometimes called our shadow self. We all have one. Our shadow self holds our truest intentions. We learn to tuck it away because it doesn’t align with who we want to be or who our culture says we need to be.
I definitely have a shadow self, and the tricky thing about hiding my truest intentions or desires is that once they’re buried, I forget they’re there. It usually takes an uncomfortable situation and the perspective of someone I trust to reveal what I’ve hidden or ignored.
A couple years ago, I had a disagreement with a chaplain about how to complete my end-of-shift reports. He wanted me to add more detail, and I felt like I was doing things exactly as I’d been trained to. This was actually round two of a discussion we’d had the previous day, and it was not going particularly well. Minute by minute, our discussion became more tense until the other chaplain finally looked at me and said:
“YOU ARE NOT MY EQUAL!”
The words reverberated through my mind like an echo in an empty cave. No one had ever dared to say something so demeaning to me before. Despite my shock and disbelief, I kept my composure until he called me arrogant. Then I lost my cool, but just a little. 🙂 Our interaction ended with me telling him that he was going to keep getting my arrogance and him storming away. (Fun fact: Chaplains are people too).
I was incredulous that this middle-aged white man would dare to look me in my face and say I wasn’t his equal. For the next several days questions swirled. Did he understand the racial undertones? What did I say that triggered him? What made me unequal in his mind? Was it because I was a seminary student?
No answer calmed the swell of anger that coursed through me. No justification diffused the intense energy I was holding. No amount of rehashing the situation with friends or coworkers made me feel better. I still felt disrespected and indignant. Relief didn’t come until I asked my friend for her opinion on the situation. She first acknowledged that my fellow chaplain was out of line then she spoke a simple, yet important truth that showed me what I’d been hiding.
“You come off as calm, cool and collected, so people don’t notice that you really want control. You’re bothered when things don’t go the way you think they should.”
A soon as her words hit me, I instinctively knew they were true. I felt a sense of raw vulnerability wash over me as I let my shadow self be seen. With this vulnerability came a sense of freedom. It took energy to hide my intentions, so once they were acknowledged, that burden was lifted.
I recognized how my attempts at control had influenced my relationship with this chaplain. I felt like he was micromanaging me, and I reacted because my autonomy felt threatened. It seemed like he was trying to take control. Does that justify his actions? NO! Not at all. He was still dead wrong, but as I looked past what he’d done, and began to focus on my role in the conflict, I saw I had something to learn.
Once I realized all of this, I was able to let go. I let go of my desire to change him. I let go of my need for a response from my supervisor. I let go of my righteous indignation because it did me no good. Instead I focused on the one thing I could influence, myself.
It isn’t easy to name that I like being in control. The word control has such a negative connotation in my mind that I feel a sense of shame that it would even be part of my personality. I want control because it gives me a false sense of safety. If no one else can control me, then no one else can hurt me right? I’ve felt powerless before, and I seek control to ensure it never happens again. It is an embedded response to life. I’m usually not even conscious of it.
Honestly though, the desire for control isn’t inherently bad. It just is. The trouble comes when I actively try to exercise control over external people or situations. Then I end up limiting myself or hurting someone else. Control is at best an illusion and at worst an unhealthy obsession.
My desire for control doesn’t just kick in when I’m being micromanaged by the way. I know you’re all shocked :). Once I saw it in this conflict, I started seeing it in my marriage, my friendships and with my family. Turns out, it is activated in both large an small ways daily.
While Gov. Northam continues to answer questions about who he used to be and who he is today, give yourself space for some self-reflection. Our shadow selves may or may not reveal deep-seeded racism, but the others intentions or desires we’ve buried are still important.
Ask people you trust to help you reflect if you need to. Our friends and family often see what we’ve hidden much better than we think they do. As you do the hard work of naming your hidden intentions, desires and motivations this week, I’ll leave you with this question.
What part of your personality do you need permission to love
and accept today?
P.S. You have permission!