Shadow vs. Sin

I grew up in a Christian community, that by most standards was/is considered strict or rigid. To an adolescent, going to bed before it’s dark is rigid. My mother had a loose relationship with rules except when it came to religion. My grandparents were strict about everything and religion was an extension of their rigidity.

The 60’s were the bedrock for my adolescent training and the early 70’s provided my high school education. My long hair was a rebellion and my grandfather regularly introduced me as his granddaughter to friends and business associates. My long hair was a sin, or so I was taught. Heck, just about everything I did or wanted to do was a sin. Throwing water balloons at cars and toilet papering houses was an extension of my sinful life.

My religious training, including my high school and university education (bachelor’s degree), was heavy on what’s right and what’s wrong, categorizing what’s wrong as a sin. Heaven was for the good and the righteous, and hell was for sinners and I was a sinner. Sometimes my behavior was so bad, my mom explained that my sins were black marks the size of a spoon relative to a piece of paper. Sometimes I could blacken out a ream of paper with what I consider pretty normal behavior for a teenager.

In my senior year at the university, my religion professor berated the entire class for not performing to his level of expectation on our midterm. He was teaching a different way of studying, that I use to this day, but we were slow on the uptake. My professor was a brilliant man and over time I’ve correlated high IQ with low EQ (emotional intelligence). After our beat down, I spoke with some of my fellow students and we all felt like purgatory lie just behind the exit door. We were sinners.

It’s possible that you are finding some degree of similarity with experiences in your life. The long-held parenting trick of guilt-leveraging is actually a shame-based intimidation tactic that highlights your sin while hiding the parent’s shadow. So, what’s the difference between a sin and a shadow?

Sin is an immoral act considered a violation against divine law. It is typically culturally driven. Sins can be considered any actions, thoughts, words, or behavior that are immoral, selfish, shameful, harmful, or alienating from the divine.

Shadow is any false narrative one holds onto. False narratives drive behavior and are the result of unprocessed trauma and experiences from conception through youth.

When I started working in the addiction recovery field, shame was a common theme with an overzealous focus on their sins. Even the 12-Step process was laced with shame and sins. I felt a strong unrest in my soul as I wrestled with the rigidity of society and the ubiquitous judging associated with sin. Sinners are constantly being judged by, well, other sinners.

It seemed like a never-ending circle of insanity. It finally dawned on me that I’m missing a big piece to the craziness. When I observed people who were obese, for example, I wondered the cause of their situation. One might answer, that’s easy, they eat too much. But if one knows that over eating is harmful, why can’t they stop the habit? There must be something stronger, deeper, and more vicious that is causing the harmful behavior.

At the time of my discovery, I was facilitating an addiction-recovery class for my church. It was a 12-Step program with a Christian overlay. The participants were some of the best people I have ever met. Each one had a challenge they were fighting. The classes were held in such a manner as to hide the identity of the participants. That bothered me. Some participants discontinued attending because they knew me and were embarrassed. That bothered me. I was told that I wouldn’t be accepted as a facilitator because I wasn’t one of them (an addict). That bothered me. Nothing about this situation met the litmus test of a principle-based life. In fact, it was non-Christian in every aspect.

After some research I came up with a working definition of addiction. Addition is a way to meet your needs and wants in a misapplied or dysfunctional way. It is any activity that you cannot control and that gets worse over time. It is the use of a substance or behavior for the purpose of removing pain or gaining pleasure. It is a forfeiture of agency.

According to this definition everyone, that is, every human I meet, is an addict. It’s not important that they accept it or believe it. By definition it is any activity that one cannot control, including behavior. So, criticism, sarcasm, judging, relating, controlling, nagging, taking offense and holding a grudge, to name the tip of the iceberg, are addictions.

Each one of these behaviors would be considered a sin under the definition of sin. Nagging moves you further from others and God. So does criticism and judging. It took one week to explain this concept and I became part of them, an addict, a sinner, and someone who wants to move from 1st half of life to 2nd half of life. We each want to connect with others and with God and we bonded over the simplicity of our life’s quest.

However, the question of causation continued to haunt me. Why were we acting out? Why did we seemingly and intentionally drive away our loved ones? Why were we embarrassed, shamed, and cast out because of our sins (addictions)?

The answer came in the study of shadows. All behavior is a function of internal, subconscious beliefs (narratives). All narratives are the result of past experiences. If our behavior is adaptive or functional, our self-beliefs are healthy, we have high self-regard, we like ourselves and we know how to protect our boundaries.

Therefore, if our upbringing, experiences, and relationships were healthy or when bad things happened to us, our parents or those within our environment taught us how to process the trauma so the painful memory of the event is released and only the memory without the pain is remembered. Your subconscious remembers everything, but it can release negative energy (pain).

What if our past experiences were traumatic, harmful, negative, or abusive? If so and left unprocessed, we develop a false narrative (shadow) over time. Our false beliefs compound with dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of similar experiences and we eventually learn to seek out trouble, cause problems, and create compromising situations to justify our false beliefs. We call this self-sabotaging.

Without exception, every person in my addiction recovery class had multiple false narratives. And each person there was the by-product of an environment that conditioned them in their addiction. The nature vs. nurture question can be answered with an understanding that we are each pre-disposed to specific kinds of behaviors that are ignited or kept in check by our environment (nurture).

In other words, some are predisposed to alcohol or pornography, while others experience codependence, bullying, criticizing, smoking, nagging, playing the role of a victim, or rescuer, etc. Our childhood environment is a predictor of whether our predisposition to addiction is activated or covered and kept under control.

We are not responsible for our early environment and we are not responsible for our maladaptive behaviors (addictions). However, and this is important, we are responsible to escape the gravity of our addictions so they do not pass onto the next generation. If we don’t, as the saying goes, “the sin be upon the heads of the parents.”