“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Jung
If someone had asked me a year and a half ago what my heart’s desire was, I would have said, to write and publish a best-selling novel. I fervently believed that this was my primary goal in life, and yet I never seemed to make any progress toward achieving it. I’d write about ten thousand words of fiction, edit it to death, throw it away and start over, write another 10k words, edit it beyond recognition, start over … you get the idea.
Short stories, however, were my jam. I loved writing them, and I even got a few published — but I never pushed past the 5k mark. I likened novel-writing to attempting to fold a fitted sheet the size of Nebraska. There was a hurdle in between me and a completed manuscript that I couldn’t see and therefore didn’t know how to cross.
So I focused on my work as a freelance writer and editor for about three years, all the while feeling like I couldn’t get my career off the ground. I enjoyed my work but felt like I was betraying my art. I felt stuck.
Around that time I was subscribing to a lot of email lists and reading a lot of blogs, partly looking for work, partly trying to figure out my life. This included blogs written by women marketing to the burgeoning witchcraft/occult crowd. I’ve always been what I think of as an occult dabbler (playing with tarot, astrology, ouija boards, and simple spells since I was about 17). I enjoyed reading stories written by women who had moved past the dabbling phase into a more serious practice.
It was one such witchcraft blogger and teacher, Demelza Fox, who gave me my first exercise in shadow work. This particular exercise was a method called the Deepest Fear Inventory originally developed by another internet witch, Carolyn Elliott.
The gist of the Deepest Fear Inventory (DFI) is to identify something you desire, imagine that you already have it, then make a list of the things about having it that you’re afraid of.
In my case, the thing I desired most but hadn’t gotten was to write a successful novel—so I made a list of fears related to accomplishing that goal.
The results of this exercise were transformational for me.
I realized fears I never knew I had — fears of friends resenting me for my success, fears of being seen, then judged and misunderstood, fears of actually finishing the book and realizing it was terrible, fears of having to then write a second book — by the time I finished the exercise I had come up with twenty-five deep-seated fears related to writing a novel. These were not tiny baby fears. These were adrenalin-pumping, shallow-breathing, totally paralyzing fears. No wonder I was self-sabotaging my progress.
If you’d have asked me before I did the DFI exercise, I’d have told you that writing a successful novel was the thing I wanted most in the world, and I’d suddenly discovered that was completely untrue.
I also realized that I felt deeply resentful of the (self-imposed) pressure to write a novel. My reluctance to make any progress in my writing — my reluctance to write fiction AT ALL — was coming from inside myself; from my ego arguing with my shadow’s wants and needs.
In all my years of false starts when it came to writing, I never understood why or how I kept getting in my own way. But I’ve since learned exactly how this happens.
The part of me that was terrified of writing a book (my shadow) had needs that were just as valid as the part of me that wanted to write a book (my ego). Ignoring my fears had only caused them to become more deeply entrenched.
Fear, as it is expressed through your ego, is a powerful protector. The shadow self is entirely composed of the parts of yourself your ego decides are unworthy or shameful. Your ego works very hard to protect you from anything that might cause you pain, including the pain of disappointment or failure. The problem with this protective mechanism is that it can also actively block you from what you desire — because your desires often include things you’re afraid of (risks of failure, disappointment, or being misunderstood).
The last step of the Deepest Fear Inventory (DFI) exercise was to read my fears aloud to someone I trust, then to throw the list away or even burn it. I did so, and then I kept going. I did DFI several more times, on all kinds of topics — money, success, my identity, etc.
This was about a year and a half ago, and I still do DFI, along with regular journaling about my fears, at least once a week. The results have been profound.
Allowing myself to simply set aside my goal of writing a successful novel has freed me in ways I never thought possible. I still would like to write a novel someday. But there are lots of other things I want to write too, and lots of things totally unrelated to writing that I want to experience. I write here on Medium, I get to edit the occasional romance novel (SO much fun), I get to help clients from all kinds of backgrounds and industries. I rarely get bored, and I love it.
By channeling all of my energy into a goal that only my ego wanted (the successful novel), I was blinding myself to all the potentially joyful and satisfying experiences that were right at my fingertips all along.
And here’s the tricky part: it’s counterintuitive. By giving myself permission to recognize the shadow part of me (the part I was ashamed of) who didn’t want to write a successful novel, I put myself in better position to someday, perhaps, write a novel because all of me wants to, and not because my ego has strong-armed my shadow self into doing it no matter what. If I had stayed divided (shadow vs. ego), I likely would have continued repeating patterns of self-sabotage with no clue as to why all of my efforts were leading nowhere.
The point? Your fear is a direct pathway to your desire. Nothing else will get you there. It’s only by knowing and learning to love your fears that you can uncover your heart’s desire.
While the past year has been difficult and often scary, it has also been the most sustained period of rapid growth I’ve ever experienced. There are still days when I feel terrified. Sometimes the fear is rational (what if I have a medical emergency before I get my health insurance figured out?) and sometimes it’s irrational (what if I write from the heart and everyone thinks what I have to say is stupid?). But I also feel more satisfied, more centered, and more aware of who I am. I’ve gotten better at recognizing my boundaries, and I’m also more excited about the future than I have ever been. I’ve learned that my heart’s desire will always be a moving target, and that’s ok. The best thing I can do is move right along with it.
If someone asked you right now what your heart’s desire is, what would you say?
If you’re curious about shadow work, there are literally hundreds of resources on the internet. I highly recommend Carolyn Elliot’s work, or you can find a book or practitioner that feels like a good fit for you. One caveat — I don’t recommend doing shadow work unless you’ve already got a good therapist to help you process what you uncover. It can get scary and overwhelming, and it’s not something you should try without a support system in place.