Shadow Figures

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

“Shadow figure” is a term that occurs in A Course in Miracles nine times, in four different Text sections. It is a little-known Course concept, but a very important one. We can readily see the truth in this concept, yet the Course takes it to depths that are challenging and quite disturbing. Here is my glossary definition for shadow figures:

Dark mental images/memories of particular people from our past who did not fulfill the roles we assigned to them, who did not give us the special love that we wanted from them. We try to replay our past with them in the present and this time turn the tables—take vengeance on them and get from them the love we wanted. We do this by forming special relationships with people who remind us of our shadow figures. We try to extract from these new people what the shadow figures did not give us, what we think they stole from us. In the present, then, we are really interacting with memories, not with our current partners.

The notion begins with a painful past, which we see as taking place at the hands of particular people. In our eyes, these people hurt us, they deprived us of the love we wanted. They ruined our dreams. We assigned them the role of making us feel special, and they blew it. Now we want to rectify that, and this desire gets carried into all of our relationships.

Imagined slights, remembered pain, past disappointments, perceived injustices and deprivations all enter into the special relationship, which becomes a way in which you seek to restore your wounded self-esteem. (T-16.VII.1:3)

So we carry our mental picture of these people around in our mind, the people who denied us happiness. They, in our eyes, are the ones who are responsible for our miserable lot, for us not getting the love we want. In each of our minds, there is an attic filled with these ghosts. And we are still interacting with them, and doing so all the time. We are in conversation with them, and they in turn are forced to witness the new unfoldments in our lives, especially our new triumphs, which show them just how wrong they were.

Exercise

Take a minute and write down the main shadow figures that come to mind, the main people that deprived you of what you wanted either by omission or by commission. Either they just didn’t give you the love you wanted, or they actively hurt and wounded you.

Name of shadow figure What didn’t they give you?

We shared our observations about this list in class. Someone said that “worth” kept showing up in the right-hand column. Someone else said “They’re all clones.” Someone else said, “In the end, it’s everyone from my past.” I was asked if institutions like school and church could be shadow figures, and I said yes, but even then, there will be people who for us are the face of those institutions. But, definitely, yes, there are group shadow figures.

Once these shadow figures are in our minds, we now embark on what I call “vengeance theater.” Both words there are important. “Vengeance” because the whole thing is about taking vengeance on the shadow figures. “Theater” because we do it by staging a reenactment of our past with them. Vengeance theater has three steps:

  1. Casting

We basically play the role of casting director, looking for people who in some way remind us of our shadow figures, and are thus suitable to play the role of them in our vengeance theater.

For they see only those who remind them of these images, and it is to them that they relate. (T-13.V.3)

Notice what this says. The only people we really see and really relate to are those who remind us of our shadow figures. We ignore everyone else. I have heard that if you put a woman who’s been abused by her romantic partners in a crowded room, she will inevitably find the man in the room who is an abuser. We all wonder why we, or perhaps people we know, are attracted to the wrong people. It’s as if we have a radar for it. That radar is the unconscious drive to find those who remind us of our shadow figures.

This also explains the clone effect—picking the same sorts of people as partners, one after another, even though the relationships turn out to be disastrous.

Whatever reminds you of your past grievances attracts you, and seems to go by the name of love, no matter how distorted the associations by which you arrive at the connection may be. (T-17.III.2)

This really is the Course’s theory of attraction. This, in its view, is what attracts us to romantic partners, friends, coworkers, whatever: The person reminds us of our shadow figures, of the people we resent because they didn’t give us what we wanted. The association between the past figure and the current person may be very distorted. It may exist only in our mind. But it will still be there.

Exercise

Think of someone significant in your life right now. Then ask yourself who he or she is playing, what shadow figure from the past? You may pick more than one shadow figure (which is why I have multiple rows in the table below). Then ask yourself, what is the association? Why do you associate this person with that shadow figure?

Person in your life now Shadow figure they are playing What associates the two in your mind?
  1. Re-enacting

Once we have cast the actors, we re-enact the past. This begins by us projecting our image of the shadow figure onto this person. Then we restage the same essential situation from the past. In this restaged situation, we relate to the current person, the actor, as if they actually are the shadow figure. When we talk to the current partner, we are really talking to the shadow figure. And when the current person answers us, we hear that answer as being from the shadow figure. Thus, physically we are interacting with our current partner. But mentally and emotionally we are interacting with our shadow figure. We are speaking to, giving to, and doing to the shadow figure. And we are hearing, receiving from, and being done to by the shadow figure. This, of course, explains a lot of communication problems. The Course even says, “And you will receive messages from [your brother] out of your own past.”

Exercise

Have you ever realized that you had completely misinterpreted someone’s words or actions simply because you saw those words or actions in light of what previous people in your life had done? Be specific.

  1. New ending

From something I have written previously:

We re-enact the scene of our humiliation and plan to turn the tables. This time we hope to receive the love, recognition, and adulation—in short, the specialness—that we were so unfairly denied the first time around. In our scripted new ending, Dad (played by our spouse) would rather spend time with us than go fishing; teacher (played by our employer) cannot imagine how anyone could overlook our amazing abilities; first husband (played by third husband) deeply appreciates our tireless self-sacrifice and natural beauty.

The whole idea, in other words, is to get the new person to give you what the shadow figure refused to give. This will mean that, in your emotional experience, you will be receiving it from the shadow figure. Even though consciously you realize that it’s your wife giving you all that praise and affirmation, unconsciously you will experience it as your mother praising and affirming you. Thus, in your mind, you will have finally received from her what you never got as a child.

Unfortunately, the ego is just holding out the carrot of the new ending. In fact, while promising us the new ending, it is going for the old ending. It is engaging in repetition compulsion.

Exercise

What is the new ending you are hoping for with the person you used in the previous table (the one which precedes point #2: Re-enacting)?

This whole theory may sound simply bizarre, but marriage expert Harville Hendrix, author (along with Helen LaKelly Hunt) of Getting the Love You Want, has formed virtually the same theory, based on clinically observing thousands of couples:

I have discovered from years of theoretical research and clinical observation that we are each looking for someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us. Our old brain is…trying to re-create the environment of childhood….From my observations of [what] thousands of couples have stated they want from their partners, I have concluded that it is a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.

The ultimate reason you fell in love with your mate is not that he or she was young and attractive, had an impressive job, had a “point value” equal to yours, or had a kind disposition. You fell in love because your old brain had your partner confused with your parents! Your old brain believed that it had finally found the ideal candidate to make up for the psychological and emotional damage you experienced in childhood….

If we chose mates on a logical basis, we would look for partners who compensated for our parents’ inadequacies, rather than duplicated them. The part of your brain that directed your search for a mate, however, was not your logical, orderly new brain; it was the time-locked, myopic old brain. And what the old brain was trying to do was re-create the conditions of our upbringing, in order to correct them. It can achieve this only with a person similar to the person with whom the wounds occurred. It is trying to repair the damage done in childhood as a result of unmet needs, and the way it does that is to find a partner similar to the parents from whom it attempts to get what our caretakers failed to provide.

The parallels with the Course’s concept are stunning. As a child, you felt you didn’t receive the love you wanted from a particular significant person (or people). So now you look for someone who reminds you of the one who didn’t give you what you wanted. This similarity, unbeknownst to you, is what actually attracts you to a partner. You then get with this partner, in an attempt to re-create the conditions of your childhood. While you are with this partner, on some level you actually confuse him or her with the person from the past. Your whole goal is to get from this new person what the past person failed to provide. This entire scenario is in the Course and in the work of Harville Hendrix, who says he got the scenario from observing countless real-life couples.

The Dark Side of Shadow Figures

This already probably sounds a little sick, but perhaps not sick enough that you aren’t still drooling after that new ending. Surely, we think, that is what will make me happy. So in the remaining part of the class, I want to cover the dark side of shadow figures, the dark side of spending your life interacting with ghosts—for ghosts, after all, is what the term “shadow figure” is meant to call to mind.

The figures are your own biased caricatures of people; they do not capture the actual people

Yet the figures that he sees were never real, for they are made up only of his reactions to his brothers, and do not include their reactions to him. (T-13.V.2)

Let’s face it—the mental images you carry of people from your past are just that—your mental images, your subjective renderings. They are not accurate reflections of that person. How do we know this? Because they only include your reactions to them, not their reactions to you. Put differently, the images only include how they impacted you, not how you impacted them. Thus, not only are they not an accurate reflection of that person’s true Identity, they are not even an accurate reflection of that person as a personality in this world. They are caricatures—creative drawings that emphasize that person’s unattractive features.

Again, look back at your beginning table, the list of your main shadow figures, and realize that the names you’ve written down are not names of actual people. They are names of mental images in your mind, names of the damning caricatures you’ve drawn of those people.

The current loved one is assigned to pay for a past he or she was never part of

What basis would you have for choosing a special partner without the past? Every such choice is made because of something “evil” in the past to which you cling, and for which must someone else atone. (T-16.VII.1)

Think about it—the new person’s job is to atone for the shadow figure’s crimes. How fair is that? To begin with, the new person is meant to compensate you for what the shadow figure deprived you of. That doesn’t sound very fair. Even worse, though, is the fact that the new person is meant to receive the punishment for the shadow figure’s transgressions. That is even more unfair. Remember, you experience the new person as the shadow figure. And your goal with the shadow figure is to extract the love they withheld and to punish them for withholding it. And so that’s what you do to the new partner. You are in a sense fining them and jailing them for someone else’s crime.

You carry the shadow figures with you as justifications to attack in the present

They carry the spots of pain in your mind, directing you to attack in the present in retaliation for a past that is no more. (T-13.IV.6)

The shadow figures may merely be mental images, but they seem to come to life in our mind, and take an active role. First, they “carry the spots of pain in your mind.” Second, they direct you “to attack in the present in retaliation” for the past.

Be willing to forgive the Son of God for what he did not do. The shadow figures are the witnesses you bring with you to demonstrate he did what he did not. Because you bring them, you will hear them. And you who keep them by your own selection do not understand how they came into your mind, and what their purpose is. They represent the evil that you think was done to you. You bring them with you only that you may return evil for evil, hoping that their witness will enable you to think guiltily of another and not harm yourself. (T-17.III.1)

This passage reveals our investment in holding onto the shadow figures. They grant us the license to attack and to take from others. Shadow figures are the proof that we have been victimized, that we have been given a raw deal by life. And whenever we tell a story of being victimized, we are basically claiming the right to victimize in turn. When you say, “Love was denied me,” you are really saying “Love is owed me.” When you say “I was attacked,” you are really saying, “I have the right to attack.” That’s the whole value of a good story of victimization—it grants you the right to victimize, to take back what is rightfully yours.

Go back, then, and look at the first table you filled out, the table of your main shadow figures. Try to get in touch with your attachment to that table. See if you can’t feel the following fact: This is your IOU. It says, “The world owes me.” It is the evidence you present to the court of the world, proving to all the judges that you should be compensated for the injustices done to you. And it is why you are innocent when you attack. You’re just doing unto others as they have already done unto you. Now ponder this: Without this list, you would have no justification for attacking.

But you are attacking only a figure in your mind, and thus attacking yourself

Again and again have you attacked your brother, because you saw in him a shadow figure in your private world. And thus it is you must attack yourself first, for what you attack is not in others. Its only reality is in your own mind, and by attacking others you are literally attacking what is not there. (T-13.V.3)

If, on a mental/emotional level, you are interacting with the shadow figure, not the current partner, then by attacking the current person, you are really attacking shadow figure. And if you are just attacking an image in your mind, then you are a) attacking what is not there, and b) attacking yourself (since you’re attacking something inside your own mind). Does this make any sense?

You are actually giving in to the ego’s plan to take vengeance on you

Do not underestimate the intensity of the ego’s drive for vengeance on the past. It is completely savage and completely insane. For the ego remembers everything you have done that has offended it, and seeks retribution of you. The fantasies it brings to its chosen relationships in which to act out its hate are fantasies of your destruction. (T-16.VII.3)

The previous category said that, by attacking the people in our lives, we are really attacking the shadow figures and really attacking ourselves. This passage takes it a step further. It says that the ego is using our vengeance on the shadow figures for their crimes against us to take vengeance on us for our crimes against it. Every time we stepped outside the ego, every time we ignored its counsel, every time we reached for the Holy Spirit’s hand, the ego got angry and carried a grievance against us. Now, it wants to take its revenge on us for our temerity. And it does so by goading us to take revenge on our shadow figures. Just think about this. When you score your little triumph and mentally gloat in front of your private collection of shadow figures, then you are really cooperating in the ego’s agenda of getting revenge on yourself.

You use the shadow figures to hang onto the past and blind you to the present

“Now” has no meaning to the ego. The present merely reminds it of past hurts, and it reacts to the present as if it were the past. The ego cannot tolerate release from the past, and although the past is over, the ego tries to preserve its image by responding as if it were present. It dictates your reactions to those you meet in the present from a past reference point, obscuring their present reality. In effect, if you follow the ego’s dictates you will react to your brother as though he were someone else, and this will surely prevent you from recognizing him as he is. And you will receive messages from him out of your own past because, by making it real in the present, you are forbidding yourself to let it go. You thus deny yourself the message of release that every brother offers you now. (T-13.IV.5)

Here again we see the ego’s real motive. The ego is afraid of the present, afraid of truly encountering your brother in the present and joining with him in love. And that is why it sees him through a veritable cloud of past ghosts. That is why all it can hear when he talks to you is your father. It wants to hang onto the past, to live in the past. And, as the Course says, “He who lives in memories alone is unaware of where he is” (T-26.V.5:7).

You are not interacting with your current partner, but trying to keep him out of the relationship

The “ideal” of the unholy relationship thus becomes one in which the reality of the other does not enter at all to “spoil” the dream. And the less the other really brings to the relationship, the “better” it becomes. Thus, the attempt at union becomes a way of excluding even the one with whom the union was sought. For it was formed to get him out of it, and join with fantasies in uninterrupted “bliss.” (T-17.III.4)

What we actually fall in love with, in the early parts of a relationship, is a shadow figure. What we see before us is a reformed shadow figure. We see before us, for example, a contrite mom, now willing to give us all the love and warmth she wouldn’t give us the first time around. And that’s what we fall in love with. The role of the current partner is to be a useful projection screen for this reformed shadow figure. And sometimes the more blank this screen is, the better. You have to wonder, for instance, when men choose those demure, quiet Asian brides, who barely speak a word of English. Maybe all they want is an attractive, safely blank projection screen to project their shadow figures onto. The point is, that’s what we fall in love with; that’s what we are trying to join with—the shadow figure. The actual person in front of us is not really welcome in this relationship. Indeed, “it was formed to get him out of it.”

Sex is an attempt to unite with the shadow figures; it is “ghost sex”

In the unholy relationship, it is not the body of the other with which union is attempted, but the bodies of those who are not there. For even the body of the other, already a severely limited perception of him, is not the central focus as it is, or in entirety. What can be used for fantasies of vengeance, and what can be most readily associated with those on whom vengeance is really sought, is centered on and separated off as being the only parts of value. (T-17.III.3)

I realize this is really creepy and uncomfortable, but the Course is not mincing words here. When we are attempting union with the body of the other—having sex with our current partner—we are really trying to join with “the bodies of those who are not there”—we are really trying to have sex with our shadow figures (while at the same time trying to gain vengeance on them—talk about a love/hate relationship!). There is no other way to read that opening sentence. And it follows directly from what we’ve already said, that when we relate to the current partner, we are unconsciously relating to the shadow figure. Sometimes it’s not so unconscious. After all, don’t people often consciously fantasize that they are having sex with someone else?

And that’s why we focus on particular body parts on our partner’s body—because those parts “can be most readily associated with those on whom vengeance is really sought.” Now I’m not going to take you through an exercise of identifying your favorite parts on your current partner’s body, and then have you try to identify what the association is with the appropriate shadow figure’s body parts. But you might want to do that on your own anyway.

You have gone insane; you are hearing voices and seeing people who aren’t there

It is through these strange and shadowy figures that the insane relate to their insane world. For they see only those who remind them of these images, and it is to them that they relate. Thus do they communicate with those who are not there, and it is they who answer them. And no one hears their answer save him who called upon them, and he alone believes they answered him….

The passage I’m quoting isn’t done, but I want to pause here for a moment. This is the most chilling element of all, in my mind. What it means is this: To the extent I still have an ego, I am not actually interacting with real people out there. Maybe I am physically, but not mentally. In my mind, I am only interacting with my little collection of shadow figures. When I talk, I am talking to the shadow figures. When someone answers me, I am hearing the shadow figures answer. And I am the only one hearing them answer.

As you look with open eyes upon your world, it must occur to you that you have withdrawn into insanity. You see what is not there, and you hear what makes no sound. Your manifestations of emotions are the opposite of what the emotions are. You communicate with no one, and you are as isolated from reality as if you were alone in all the universe. In your madness you overlook reality completely, and you see only your own split mind everywhere you look. (T-13.V.3,6)

This final paragraph just comes out and says it: “You have withdrawn into insanity.” Isn’t the definition of insanity that you are living in a private world that is real only to you, that is not shared by others, and that does not match with reality? Well, if you buy the shadow figures idea, then this is true of you. We’d like to think that although we’ve withdrawn from higher, transcendental reality (and are insane in a sort of metaphysical sense), we are still quite in touch with this-world reality, we have a healthy relationship with our physical and social environment. Not so, this is saying. On the level of this world, in relation to your physical and social environment, you have withdrawn into insanity. You see people that aren’t there. You hear them speaking to you, when in fact they make no sound and no one else hears them. You love fear and fear love—which shows up in you being attracted to these shadow figures, in you loving figures of fear. You communicate with no one real, and so you are isolated, closed up in some dusty attic in your head with all your past ghosts. And everywhere you look, all you see is their projected images. Yuck.

Try saying to yourself, “For the most part, I am not interacting with actual people; I am interacting with shadow figures in my head. Therefore, I am alone. And I am insane.” Doesn’t this make you want to get out of it?

Rejoining the Living

The point behind looking at the dark side of shadow figures was to quite simply gross you out. We won’t leave these shadow figures behind until we see just how sick and how painful it all is. But what’s the positive side? I’ll be brief:

Forgive the past

The Course’s original dictation [the Urtext] contained a passage addressed to Bill, trying to get him to see that his parents never really hurt him. It used the resurrection as a way to get a handle on this. It likened Bill to Jesus and likened Bill’s parents to those who crucified Jesus. Then it said:

We said before that the purpose of the resurrection was to “demonstrate that no amount of misperception has any influence at all on a Son of God” [just as the Romans couldn’t really hurt Jesus, so Bill’s parents couldn’t really hurt Bill]. This demonstration exonerates those who misperceive [the Romans, Bill’s parents], by establishing beyond doubt that they have not hurt anyone. Your question, which you must ask yourself very honestly, is whether you are willing to demonstrate that your parents have not hurt you. Unless you are willing to do this, you have not forgiven them.

Stop assigning roles to people

What has gotten us into trouble is the whole cycle of assigning roles to people, roles that they must play in order to meet our needs. Instead of “Here’s what you can do for me,” we need to switch to “How can I help?” Instead of “Jump through these hoops,” we need to say, “I accept you as you are.”

How happy would your dreams become if you were not the one who gave the “proper” role to every figure which the dream contains. No one can fail but your idea of him, and there is no betrayal but of this….Perceptions are determined by their purpose, in that they seem to be what they are for. A shadow figure who attacks becomes a brother giving you a chance to help, if this [help] becomes the function of the dream. (T-29.IV.5)

Be willing to enter into holy encounters in the present

We need to be willing to stop talking to our shadow figures, and start really encountering the real people who stand beside us in the present.

Would you recognize a holy encounter if you are merely perceiving it as a meeting with your own past? For you would be meeting no one, and the sharing of salvation, which makes the encounter holy, would be excluded from your sight….Now is the closest approximation of eternity that this world offers. It is in the reality of “now,” without past or future, that the beginning of the appreciation of eternity lies. For only “now” is here, and only “now” presents the opportunities for the holy encounters in which salvation can be found. (T-13.IV.6-7)