In myths and fairy tales, the banished characters are shadow aspects who represent the inner characters we would like to sequester away in a cloistral tower or banish to the middle of the forest: the virginal maiden representing forbidden chastity, the unattractive witch representing the split-off wild feminine, the evil stepmother representing the dark side of motherhood. Like dreams, when we read myths and fairy tales through the lens of symbolism, we train our minds to see our inner worlds through fractal eyes instead of literals ones, where we can then welcome in the darkness as much as the light.
For the evil step-mother is our own envy and the cloistered maiden is our own forbidden desire and the witch is our own wild longing, and if we were taught to read myths, dreams, and fairy tales through the lens of metaphor, we would have an easier time naming our darker emotions and inviting them into the castle of psyche when they arise. Two of these emotions in particular – longing and envy – are rarely discussed, which leaves them to fester in the silence of shame. For what we don’t name publicly withers without light, and slithers away like another of our most reviled creatures: the snake.
My work is predicated on the mindset that our anxiety and intrusive thoughts are distress flares inviting us to turn inward and attend to the lost and banished parts of ourselves. When we listen to the messages embedded inside of anxiety, we learn that one of the strongest realms that needs attention is our emotional realm. Unexpressed emotion bottles up and manifests as anxiety or pops out the top as panic. As such, one of the primary messages of anxiety is to learn to reopen those blocked emotional passageways so you can flow in the river of your emotional life.
Let’s go more deeply into two of these banished emotions: Longing and Envy.
I feel the ache of longing at least once a day. I take a walk in my neighborhood and see grandparents taking care of their grandchildren, and I long not only for my parents’ once intact marriage but also for my own departed grandparents. When I bring intense focus to the longing and cradle it in my breath – literally breathing around the sensation of longing that arrives like a winged creature and lands with a thud in my heart – it picks itself up and flies along its invisible channels. Longing is connected to grief, but it’s not quite grief: it’s grief tinged with desire.
If we take the desire literally, we often land in a meadow that doesn’t serve us: the young part that thinks it can repair a parents’ broken marriage with just the right words or move back to the hometown to try to retrieve or recreate the lost childhood. In short, taking the desire element of longing at face value activates the need to do something. But longing, like all emotions, usually only needs to be seen, breathed, and known. Most times, there is nothing to be done. There is only the places to be felt.
There are times, however, when the grief the wisps off longing leads to inspiration. When we lived in Los Angeles, every time I would see the smallest body of water – a trickle of a creek, a small pond – my entire being would fill with longing. I would look up at the sky and long for big sky, and see the small ridge of mountain the line the horizon of Los Angeles and long for majestic mountains. This longing-tinged-grief fueled the inspiration that would eventually land us in Colorado with a creek running through our backyard and the Rocky Mountains jutting up around us.
How do you discern between these two wings of longing – the longing that simply needs attention and unfurls into grief and the one that guides us along the pathways of inspiration? As always, the key is discernment, which is one of the qualities of the loving inner father (I wrote about this in last week’s blog post and in depth in my book, The Wisdom of Anxiety.) For those of you struggling with relationship anxiety, I can hear your anxious voice piping up: How do I know that my longing for a different partner or different life isn’t a true need? I encourage you to breathe into that anxious voice and see if you can call on everything you’ve learned about relationship anxiety so that you can meet this part of you at the root.
Ah, envy. It the evil stepmother part of us that feels threatened by another’s light, the part that wants to cover Cinderella in soot so that nobody sees her beauty. While envy is natural and human, it’s also instigated and inflamed by a patriarchal mindset that pits all of us against each other. Competition is a primary motivator in our culture, yet what we know is that we are more naturally wired for cooperation.
Envy is an offshoot of comparison. As I’ve entered the world of social media this year with Instagram, I’ve exposed myself to the unavoidable tendency to compare, which is endemic to that culture. Oh, the shadowy envy that is unleashed when I see another therapist with one million followers! There is a part of me that wishes I was “above” this emotion and could purely celebrate her success, but then I remember that even venerated spiritual teachers like Pema Chodron aren’t above the very human emotion of envy (she has talked about feeling envious of other author’s bestseller rank after her book came out). So there it is: my own desire to banish this very un-pretty emotion, and even to name it as un-pretty at all. Envy is just envy. It’s an energy. It’s human. It’s natural.
The Antidote to Envy is Twofold:
1. Remind yourself that we’re all in this together, and that when one light shines we all shine. When envy is unleashed by this particular therapist that I mentioned above, I breathe into the natural envy and then remind myself that she’s raising consciousness for one million people, and god knows we need consciousness-raising in this world. She’s bringing healing, awareness, and tangible tools, and the truth underneath the envy is that I’m deeply impressed by what she’s creating and by the generosity with which she offers it. As soon as I connect to the partnership mindset as opposed to the competition mindset, everything inside me softens and I truly celebrate her success. Her success is all of our success. We are not separate.
That said, I do believe that the followers/likes/hearts system stems from an antiquated and dangerous model rooted in competition – why not let information that we share speak for itself and stand on its own? – but since this is the system we’re in, we can choose to compete with one another or support one another. I let in the envy, then I choose support.
2. The second antidote is to reconnect with your original intention for showing up however you’re showing up. For me, my intention with this blog, for example, is first and foremost to share information. If my articles reach and touch one person and help someone make more sense of their inner world, I have succeeded. A secondary intention is to commit each week to writing as a creative practice, which means that even when I don’t “feel” like writing, I do it anyway. It’s one way that I work with resistance, and over the ten years of writing this blog weekly, I have honed a level of discipline around writing that I never knew was possible. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Sometimes longing and envy collide, as happened one evening as I was walking through our neighborhood and I saw the aforementioned grandparents taking care of their three grandkids. The third child in this family is a girl, and seeing her little one-year old adorable self sitting on the grass activated my longing for a girl. I, too, am the third child with two older brothers, and I’m aware that part of my longing for a girl is my misguided attempt to retrieve my young self and tend to her wounds. Of course, this is work that I do for myself every day, but when this longing hits it transcends rational mind.
I feel it, send my breath to weave a cradle, and come back to the present moment and the immense gratitude my current life, which is as full and abundant as I could ever imagine. (And, truth be told, I think I would be a wreck of exhaustion with a third child.) Returning to gratitude isn’t about bypassing the longing; we must name and breathe into it first. But once it receives the initial dose of loving attention, we can re-channel it to higher currents, of which gratitude is at the top.
The Way Out is Through
On the other side of longing is grief and inspiration, for when we allow the grief to penetrate it can soften us into another layer of grief and/or move us in the direction of creative manifestation.
On the other side of envy is celebration of others, for when we walk through the portal of envy, we emerge in the field of awareness that remembers that we’re all in this together.
These are not opposites but are doorways into each other other. As always with difficult emotions, we cannot go around or over or under the feelings that we would like to banish. Rather, we have to invite them into the castle and make a place for them at the royal banquet table of psyche. And then, like the beast who needs love before it reveals its true beauty, these banished emotions soften into their true nature, which is always, in some sense, an offshoot of love.