Dispatches from The Wilds

Welcome Your Shadow Parts with Compassion

Published over 1 year ago • 5 min read

Dear Reader,

If you're receiving this letter, I'm willing to bet that one of the things we have in common is compassion as a guiding principle. I'm sure that, like me, you believe in the inherent value of all living beings and that everyone deserves love and kindness.

And yet, one of the hardest things to do is extend compassion to ourselves.

I think part of the reason is that even though individuals value compassion, most societies don't model it. In fact, we get the opposite: shame.

Shame underpins morality in many world religions. Institutions use it as a method of social control. Collectively, we see shame as an acceptable form of punishment. Spend even just a little time on Twitter to see this in action.

Of course, we'd wield shame against ourselves. Our inner critics use it to keep us in line. Other parts employ shame to avoid vulnerability or cover up feelings we've come to believe unacceptable.

Years ago, when I was first introduced to metta (loving-kindness) practice, the teacher told us not to be surprised if we find extending loving-kindness to ourselves a big challenge. "A lot of people get stuck there," she said, "because many of us believe we don't deserve it."


Sociologist Brené Brown defines shame as

"the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection." (Atlas of the Heart)

It's heartbreaking to know that most of us are walking around with this belief, even if it's tucked away in an exiled part of us that rarely sees any light. One of my IFS instructors described shame as the root of all burdens. If you do enough inner work, you'll eventually find it. I see it in even my most accomplished clients and know it in my own system.

Unfortunately, many self-help strategies out there, tools ostensibly designed to release shame, actually use shame as the primary tactic.

Back to Brené. In "Daring Greatly," she writes:

"If you put shame in a petri dish and cover it with judgment, silence, and secrecy, you've created the perfect environment for shame to grow until it makes its way into every corner and crevice of your life."

Any growth practice that uses judgment, silence, or secrecy – however stealthily – will have the opposite of the desired effect. The so-called undesirable parts of us don't go away; they bide their time until they show up again with fresh energy. So many of my clients tell me that they have already done work on this and don't understand why it keeps returning. It comes back because we keep trying to push it away.

I know this doesn't make logical sense, but keep reading.

If we want to make peace with our shadow, we must befriend Mara (the Buddhist avatar for our inner demons). When Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath the bodhi tree in the lead-up to his enlightenment, Mara "attacked" him with sensual temptations, offerings of power, and then with shame. Siddhartha "won" and became the Buddha not by successfully beating back Mara but by staying with him.

Mara returns to the Buddha repeatedly throughout his life in the same way that our shadow Parts stick around.

Mara is not just "in" us, as that would imply we could cast him out. In fact, Mara is a part of us. A normal, healthy person shows up skillfully sometimes and unskillfully sometimes. We can be so loving and judgemental and everything in between. We'll experience high highs and face very low lows.

Accepting ourselves, warts and all, is real growth. This idea is summed up in the unofficial IFS motto: "all parts are welcome." And, even though she doesn't talk specifically about IFS, I love this TEDx talk by Karen Faith, who calls this practice "Unconditional Welcome."

For those that like the science, let's go back to Brené's research on shame and vulnerability; she offers this antidote:

"If, on the other hand, you put shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, shame loses its power and begins to wither. Empathy creates a hostile environment for shame—an environment it can't survive in, because shame needs you to believe you're alone and it's just you."

Before I share an approach to dousing your Parts with compassion, I want to point out that welcoming Parts doesn't mean we endorse their behaviors or tactics. This isn't an invitation to let your unskillful habits flourish and cause harm.

Instead, we're accepting all the shame, fear, longing, sadness, grief, doubt, and disappointment that fuel our unskillful behaviors. It isn't easy to be with these feelings (especially when culture derides them). I get that.

But... What the Buddha discovered, what Brene Brown's research shows, and what I've seen in my own work and with my clients is that if you don't try to push these feelings away, they really do lose their fierceness.

Mara wasn't banished by the Buddha; he just kinda gave up and left. And every time Mara returned and the Buddha received him with loving-kindness, Mara would go again. Brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's research on the chemicals involved in emotions sheds light on why Mara leaves.

And now for the practice...

Whenever you notice Mara (vulnerability, hard feelings, inner critics, perfectionists, etc.) around, try this:

Step 1: Pause
Slow down and get quiet. Our brains are wired to respond quickly to stress, but most situations don't require an instantaneous response unless we're in real physical danger. Stretch out the moment so you can be with yourself.

Step 2: Soften
Instead of contracting around your negative inner chatter, open up space for it. Feel your body and see if you can relax around the edges. Deliberately slow your breath down. I usually put my hand over my heart to remember my compassionate intent. Note: this isn't about turning off the feelings; it's about creating a little calm so you can fully connect with what's happening.

Step 3: Connect with Empathy
Acknowledge the Part that's around. Depending on the situation, one or more of the following phrases may be helpful to transmit to your upset Part: I see you. I know you show up when you're feeling vulnerable. I can see that something is wrong. This is painful; I get it. Wow, this really sucks; no wonder you're having a hard time.

Step 4: Stay with Compassion
Compassion is empathy in action. It's taking an extra step to ease the suffering of the hurting Part. BUT (and this is a big one), this is not about eradicating, dissolving, or fixing the Part that's in pain. In these situations, the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself is to be a loving witness. Let your vulnerable Part know you're there to witness whatever it wants you to know about why it feels this way.

Updates from Skillful Means Podcast

My time with Covid knocked us off schedule. But Annie and I are back with some shiny new episodes coming your way, plus a very special guest later this spring.

First up, it's my turn to lead you through a series of guided practices. Available now is the first of five explorations of Mindfulness of the Body. Pulled from teachings in the Buddha's Four Foundations of Mindfulness, I hope the series will help you to find grounded stability and continuity in your connection to the present moment.

We start with Mindfulness of Body Posture as experienced in Half Butterfly. The Buddha taught that mindfulness could be experienced while sitting, standing, walking, lying down, or however the body is disposed. Naturally, I find yin postures especially accessible and potent for this exploration. In particular, notice the toggling between discreet areas of the body and the experience of the body as a whole.

Make sure you're subscribed to the show on your favorite app to get the latest episodes when they drop every fortnight on Friday.

Resolution Refresh: In-Person Workshop

Reimagine your aspirations and plans for the year with this anti-hustle and grounded approach to planning.
Working with gentle, grounding yoga, mindfulness meditation, and IFS Parts work, we'll shape our near-term aspirations and dreams with more internal buy-in.

March 18, 2 - 4pm
@ Sun & Moon Yoga Studio, Arlington, VA

Visit the studio website to sign up.

Practice With Me

Yoga & IFS Inquiry 8-week Spring Series
In-Person, Saturdays, April 15 - June 10, 2023
Embodied Presence & Deep Listening, hosted by Heartswell in Arlington, Va

Yin Yoga & Mindfulness
Online, Mondays 6-7pm EST (NYC)
Sweet and simple Yin practice with mindfulness woven throughout.
Pay What You Can.

Until next time, may you find peace within and peace all around.

Dispatches from The Wilds

Jennifer O'Sullivan, Certified IFS Practitioner & Yoga Educator

I guide seekers, space holders, healers, and social change-makers through their inner terrain with shame-free embodied practices rooted in timeless wisdom and science. Let's connect - sign up for my free Monthly Letter below and check out my other free resources.

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