The Character Movement

Be Aware of Your Shadow

A friend of mine told me a story about the time she and her husband went to France with their 11-year-old daughter. The daughter had been taking French lessons and the parents were very proud of her accomplishments. They were so proud of her, in fact, that they had their daughter act as an informal translator on the trip. For the most part the daughter did great, but one day the family was running late for a train. In the bustle and confusion at the station, the daughter got overwhelmed and couldn’t figure out how to use the automatic ticket kiosk. She broke down crying and the parents realized that they had put too much responsibility on her shoulders. A well-intentioned idea had an unfortunate impact.

Every good quality you have has an unintended negative side. If you’re really smart, then you may unwittingly make your kids feel not so smart. If you’re levelheaded, then your kids may see you as disengaged. If you’re incredibly loving, your children might feel smothered. Every bit of light comes with a bit of darkness. That’s what I (in Carl Jung’s words) call one’s shadow.

As a leader of an organization, I have to be aware of my shadow. I tend to have a lot of energy and a lot of ideas, which is great when we need to innovate, but not so great when we need to execute. The “shadow” of my energetic side can throw our organization into confusion by deluging our employees with more ideas than they can possibly execute.

We have shadows as parents as well. For my friend and her husband, their pride in their daughter’s accomplishments put pressure on her to perform beyond her abilities. No matter how good she was at speaking French — and no matter how right they were to be proud of her abilities — an eleven-year-old probably shouldn’t be put completely in charge of a family’s international travel day.

My shadow at home can often mimic my shadow at work. I have 15 new and innovative ideas every day of things I want to do with Tess and Jane, including ways we can make our relationships better or ways I can be a better parent. Jane has learned how to ask me clarifying questions as to whether my suggestions are just eccentric ideas or if they’re things that I truly want our family to do.

As reflective parents, we can’t always be in charge of our shadow. These can be dark, powerful and often invisible forces. But we can be more aware of how even our most positive trait has a downside. This critical self-awareness can make a difference in all of our relationships, especially with our kids.

Exercise: Examine the shadow sides of some of your positive traits.

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