This post is the fourth in a series, prompted by the book Calling the Circle by Christina Baldwin:
Studying the circle is an imperative aspect of circle work. We can’t keep shadow out of circles in business, or circles in church, or circles in the family; the shadow is not isolatable. When we come into circle and sit down in contained space, pretty soon we see the contents of our shadow reflected back to us around the rim. If we are in a circle that does not acknowledge, respect, and ritualize the existence of shadow in the group, the projections of our ‘not-I’ material accumulate and accumulate until everybody’s closet explodes.
What causes the collapse of circles full of well-intentioned human beings is not the presence of shadow but the repression and denial of shadow, the insistence that it is not among us. Denial of shadow eventually fills the interpersonal field with so much unrecognized and unresolved energy that it is released through explosion or through gradual erosion and undermining of healthy norms.
Most people do not enter the circle thinking about shadow. We enter the circle hoping for light, for shelter, for more efficiency, for a humane way to get things done. But if we do not look at shadow, we create a repeating scenario. Time after time, there is a circle of ‘good’ people who come together with the best intentions and dedication to accomplish a good thing. We are nice to each other. We are often polite and unconsciously conforming. Sometimes one or two people commandeer more leadership, attention, or time in the group than others want, but we don’t know what to do and so we let them. If we are irritated, our dissatisfaction goes underground, covered up with more niceness, or we begin withdrawing our hopes that this will be the circle that really nurtures and protects our fragility or accomplishes our goals. If we are invested in the group, we get angry in our disappointment and begin trying to make others behave. If we aren’t invested, we drift off, showing up less and less often, looking for another, better situation. Sometimes we end up talking with others about a ‘problem person,’ usually not feeling good about our behind-the-scenes behavior but not knowing what else to do.
Personalities polarize between those who seem oblivious to what ‘they’ are doing to the cohesion of the circle and those who are intensely responsive to this discomfort and keep trying to manage ‘the other(s)’ In many of these instances, the concept of the shadow is never introduced into the group, and people do not have the opportunity to live out healthier alternatives for dealing with conflicting energies…our perception needs to shift from polarities of innocence and guilt—‘Look what he/she/they did to me’—to consider what is happening to us, the collective, interconnected body of the circle, and how we continually learn from each other.
Later in the book, Baldwin address the fear involved with healthy participation in a circle and how people may unknowingly act to sabotage it:
- Someone may obsessively blame the form, coming up with explanation after explanation for why the circle won’t work… [Note: in women’s circles, I see this expressed in a related form of, “women are so hard to work with” and complaints about backstabbing, etc., etc.]
- Someone may declare that other members of the circles are not safe or trustworthy and refuse to contribute fully until a number of conditions are met. These terms, however, are highly subjective and constantly shifting. No group can prove itself ‘safe’ by the definition of one member; it can only prove itself healthy and responsive to the needs of different people over time.
- Someone may consistently undermine the self-esteem of others—being hypercritical, reframing other people’s statements, competing verbally, or being overly helpful in a condescending manner.
- Someone may demand emotional attention that doesn’t fit in the context of the circle; for example, crying until the entire group has stopped to comfort him/her, or raging until the entire group has stopped to placate him/her, or insisting on excessive processing interaction after interaction.
- Someone may declare him/herself so ‘different’ that s/he can’t identify with the rest of the group–or s/he removes him/herself from peer collegiality through feeling superior or inferior.
- The entire group may stay locked in the honeymoon phase for a year or more, avoiding the usual breakouts into differentiation. Nope…no shadow here…only incomplete engagement.
She goes on to explain that ALL of us are “guilty” of exhibiting some or many of these behaviors over the years…
“I believe that the thought that women together can change the world is emerging into the minds and hearts of many of us, and that the vessel for personal and planetary evolution is the circle with a spiritual center.” ~Jean Shinoda Bolen