Shadow vs. Sin

Having talked about sin in two posts in a row, I thought I’d highlight an important distinction. This is prompted by my reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards, which I mentioned in a post the other day. In the book, Rohr talks about our shadow.

The term “shadow” is familiar to many of us. Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, what we try to hide from both ourselves and others.

What struck me most in Rohr’s discussion was his comment that it would help many Christians to understand the distinction between shadow and sin. “Sin and shadow are not the same. We were so encouraged to avoid sin that many of us instead avoided facing our shadow, and then we ended up ‘sinning’ even worse – while unaware besides!”

What he means by that is that our failure to recognize and get in touch with our shadow ends up tricking us since our shadow is always disguised as good. Rohr explains

The shadow self invariably presents itself as something like prudence, common sense, justice, of “I am doing this for your good” when it is actually manifesting fear, control, manipulation, or even vengeance.

Thus we need to learn to be alert to the exposure of our shadow self. Rohr gives one good hint for recognizing such moments: look for situations where you have a strong emotional reaction that seems to be out of proportion to the situation at hand. That is a good signal of your shadow self. Such moments offer good opportunities for reflection.


Looking at Our Shadows

The Enneagram, which I mentioned briefly in a post the other day, is a tool of self-understanding that identifies nine fundamental personality types. Although it is not linked to any particular spiritual tradition, many people involved in spiritual counseling of one sort or another have some familiarity with the system and find it a useful aid in their ministry.

For me, one of the most useful aspects of the Enneagram is how it helps me identify when I am falling into patterns that are unhelpful for myself and others. By that I mean that each of the nine types is characterized by certain behavioral tendencies, which manifestly differently depending on whether someone is operating in a healthy range, an average range or an unhealthy range.

Thus, for example, a 7 on the Enneagram (sometimes referred to as the Adventurer or the Enthusiast), at his or her best is fun-loving, spontaneous, charming and, imaginative. When the 7 veers into an unhealthy range, he or she tends to be narcissistic, unfocused, undisciplined and self-destructive. Or, a 1 on the Enneagram (sometimes called the Perfectionist or the Reformer), at his or her best is ethical, reliable, productive, wise, and self-disciplined. In the unhealthy range, a 1 tends toward being judgmental, inflexible, dogmatic, controlling and anxious. As these examples, suggest, a lot of the unhealthy behavior of a particular type tends to be an imbalanced or perhaps inside-out version of the strengths of the type.

Understanding these tendencies can be very useful. The reality is that none of us is always at our best. Various external and internal triggers affect the range within which we operate. There is value in beating ourselves up when we behave less “perfectly” than we’d like. There is, however, tremendous value in understanding what are the shadow sides of our strengths. What are the directions we tend when we are not operating in a balanced mode.

Whatever the value of the Enneagram in my work with others, for me, this has been very helpful. An Intimate 2 with a strong 1 wing, when I observe myself behaving in a certain way, I can recognize when I’m moving in a negative direction. The recognition of the behavior serves as a wake-up call to check up and see what is going on that is creating the imbalance.

The Enneagram may not be your tool of choice, and I’m not suggesting it needs to be. But the approach does suggest the value of establishing some means of looking not only at the positive side of our strengths, but where those strengths get out of balance, allowing their shadow side to emerge. This self-observation and self-awareness is extremely helpful to our growth.