The Emotionally Healthy Leader: Face Your Shadow

Cloister Shadow; Downtown Azusa, California. By Thomas Robinson. See

In The Farthest Shore, the third book of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Ged makes a key life change when he turns and faces his own shadow, and goes in pursuit of what had to that point been pursuing him.

How well do you know your “shadow”? How have you faced your own shadow? Peter Scazzero, in The Emotionally Healthy Leader defines our shadow as “the accumulation of untamed, emotions, less-than-pure motives and thoughts that, while largely unconscious, strongly influence and shape your behaviors. It [our shadow] is the damaged but mostly hidden version of who you are.” (55)

I began meeting in June 2020 with a cohort of other ordained ministers, to read and discuss in community Peter Scazzero’s book The Emotionally Healthy Leader. One of the truths expressed in this book is the need we have for safe, loving, accountability among other fellow believers who will help us do such hard work as facing our shadow.

Here are a few manifestations of our shadow, found in many forms, as described by Scazzero:

  • An insatiable need for affirmation.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Over zealousness for right doctrine.
  • Unsustainable pace for work.
  • Desperate need to receive praise from others.
  • Protecting myself from getting close to others.
  • Refusal to acknowledge the sadness I feel.
  • Judgmental spirit towards others.
  • Outbursts of anger.
  • Need to rescue others.
  • Need to be liked by others.
  • Need to be noticed by others.
  • Need to be in control all the time.
  • Inability to stop working and simply rest.
  • Tendency toward isolation from accountability.
  • Excessive effort to protect myself from feeling vulnerable or exposed.

According to Scazzero, “Facing the shadow is a formidable task. The self-protective part of us can be very creative in finding what appear to be legitimate and justifiable ways to avoid it.” Scazzero offers the following pathways for facing your shadow:

  1. Tame Your Feelings by Naming Your Feelings
  2. Use a Genogram to Explore the Impact of Your Past
  3. Identify the Negative Scripts Handed down to You
  4. Seek Feedback from Trustworthy Sources

Scazzero offers a helpful assessment called “How Healthy is Your Approach to your Shadow?” Consider these statements and make your own self-assessment of how true these are in your life:

  • I take time regularly to experience and process my anger, fear, and sadness with God and others.
  • I have a healthy awareness of my shadow – my wounds, self-protectiveness, and weaknesses – and how I am tempted to sin against other people in my unguarded moments.
  • When I have an overreaction, rather than blame others, I settle myself down and ask, “What from my past might be causing me to react so strongly to this situation or person?”
  • I am honest with myself and a few significant others about the struggles, doubts, and hurts deep beneath the surface of my life.
  • I routinely seek out and embrace feedback from trusted people about how they experience my flaws.
  • I take time to ask hard questions of myself even when I am fearful of where the answers might lead.
  • I am able to identify the roots of my weaknesses and failures (mixed motives, fear of what others think, anxiety, anger, etc) In my family of origin or in my personal history.

Paul wrestled with his own shortcomings and weaknesses throughout his ministry. Consider, for example Romans 7, and hear Paul’s turmoil about his inner life.

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

I love Paul’s grace approach to this struggle with his inner life, as witnessed in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The entry for June 12 in Cloud Devotion offers encouragement for facing our shadows. “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given” (John 1:16). There is no turning back, but only pressing forward, even when you are overcome with a fear of failing. May God give you grace to overcome the pain of failures, as mentioned earlier, as well as grace upon grace from Christ’s fullness to strengthen you along the way. May God’s grace be present in your life even through fierce storms of temptations, weariness of loss, and darkness from shadows of the past. Though ever present along the way, these troubles shall have little power to afflict you as long as you journey together with Jesus, filled with God’s grace. How have you received God’s grace upon grace?

May you also find God’s grace at work within your life, giving you courage to turn and face your shadow, and turn to Jesus Christ and find freedom from a life that is too often dominated by “sin and death.” Thank God! “The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord!”