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Center for Action and Contemplation
Shadow Work
Shadow Work

The Grace of Aging

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Author Connie Zweig writes about shifting our emphasis from our “roles” to our “souls” as we age, and how shadow-work allows us to discover a deeper identity:  

The shadow is our personal unconscious, that part of our mind that is behind or beneath our conscious awareness.… The shadow holds the key to removing the inner obstacles that block us from finding the treasures of late life.…  

The shadow is like a darkroom in which our feelings, dreams, and images lie dormant. Shadow-work is like the process of development in which our feelings, dreams, and images come back to life.  

In the context of age, most of us learn that being independent, quick, productive, and strong are highly valued and result in rewards of approval and status. On the other hand, we learn that their opposite traits—dependent, slow, unproductive, and weak—are devalued and result in disapproval and shame. Naturally, we dread the loss of these socially acceptable traits as we age, slow down, do less, and need others more.  

If our images of and associations with aging remain outside of our awareness, dormant in the darkroom, then … we don’t even notice that we fail to notice them. Like my eighty-nine-year-old friend, who told me that he didn’t want to be with “old people” because he wasn’t like them, we deny our reality and reject a part of ourselves. Our physical, cognitive, and emotional changes carry a heavy burden of shame. But without that awareness, our opportunities are lost.  

When we learn how to establish a conscious relationship with those parts of ourselves that are outside of awareness, we can attune to our many inner voices and detect which can be guides for us now—and which can sabotage our dreams. We can learn to slow down, turn within with curiosity, and open to what’s calling to us without dismissing it—and without being taken over by it. That’s what I call “romancing” the shadow. [1] 

Father Richard acknowledges that the shadow work of moving beyond identification with our roles and personas takes a lifetime:  

I’m sorry to report that shadowboxing continues until the end of life, the only difference being that we’re no longer surprised by our surprises or so totally humiliated by our humiliations! As we age, we come to expect various forms of half-heartedness, deceit, vanity, or illusion from ourselves. But now we can see through them, which destroys most of their game and power.  

We all identify with our persona so strongly when we are young that we become experts at denial and learn to eliminate or deny anything that doesn’t support it. Our shadow self makes us all into hypocrites on some level, someone playing a role rather than being “real.” We’re all in one kind of closet or another and are even encouraged by society to play our roles. Usually everybody else can see our shadow, so it is crucial that we learn what everybody else knows about us—except us! [2] 


[1] Connie Zweig, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2021), 40, 41.  

[2] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life(San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 131–132. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—CAC Staff, Untitled. Izzy Spitz, Untitled. CAC Staff, Untitled. Watercolor. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Even if my shadow is out of my sight, it still will make itself known. 

Story from Our Community:  

I am widowed 6 years, and just ended a 10-month abusive relationship. I’ve always made time for daily prayer, and even through the difficult times I was able to “steal” quiet time. Throughout my life, I have hung onto to my deepest desire, to be one with love. Now when I close my eyes before sleep, I offer my gratitude for all the experiences I’ve had. I’ve embraced my shadow side, made it a friend. After all, it’s part of me. I’m beginning to feel a new joy bubbling up. I’m now not just swimming in the sea but have become a part of it. —Connie V. 

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