Embracing Shadow Work Within the Patriarchy

by Cayce Tiedemann

Through my work in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, I’ve made vast connections within the structures of hierarchal oppression. Two of the course readings in particular contributed greatly to these revelations. Understanding Patriarchy by bell hooks illustrates the foundation of society’s most important problem— the patriarchy, while Taking Risks by CARA offers logical solutions for a deeply perplexing aspect of that problem— sexual violence.

In Understanding Patriarchy, hooks declares the patriarchy to be “the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation.” Before this reading, I wasn’t aware that the patriarchy even affected men other than for their benefit. I certainly didn’t know that the patriarchy poisons women and men equally. hooks reflects on how she was raised and examines the cyclical nature of the patriarchy.

“At church they had learned that God created man to rule the world and everything in it and that it was the work of women to help men perform these tasks, to obey, and to always assume a subordinate role in relation to a powerful man. They were taught that God was male…These teachings were reinforced in every institution they encountered… Embracing patriarchal thinking, like everyone else around them, they taught it to their children because it seemed like a ‘natural’ way to organize life.”

This experience is a common one, and older generations normalized “beatings” in an effort to assert dominance, like the one hooks received from her father for trying to play marbles with her brother. Conversely, upon observing the double standards inflicted by her parents upon her brother, she found in order “to indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings.” And thus, the inception of the othering of women, and of the feminine, begins its lifelong infestation.

“Passive male absorption of sexist ideology enables men to falsely interpret this disturbed behavior positively. As long as men are brainwashed to equate violent domination and abuse of women with privilege, they will have no understanding of the damage done to themselves or to others, and no motivation to change.”

Of the people I polled regarding the patriarchy and white privilege, the few who denied its existence all together were middle-aged and senior cis-hetero-white-men. The reasons they gave me were immediately defensive, as though acknowledging that the playing field isn’t equal absolutely undermines their personal successes. For them, entertaining the notion of white privilege would mean that their personal struggles their whole lives must not have been that bad after all. They expressed anger with marginalized communities “victimizing themselves” and seeking handouts; from their POV, racism is sustained predominantly through POC rehashing “things that happened a long time ago.”

As a man, you cannot know a woman’s experience; as a white man, you cannot know a Black man’s experience. Truly it’s best not to assume anyone’s experience and to give folks the benefit of the doubt. But that’s the thing about othering— its boundaries are typically formed steadfast in one’s upbringing, and its limitations are perceived as rigid, hard truths devoid of empathy due to the persistent dehumanization of the others. I first discovered othering while reading about Islamaphobia and ethnocentrism. In the article The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging, othering is defined as a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities. Our current administration, as well as almost every historical period before, has thrived from “stoking anxiety, resentment, or fear of the ‘other.’” During the evolution of mankind, classification schemes were necessary for our survival. We are hardwired to make categorical distinctions to thrive as a species, but this does not entirely explain othering, which derives from the societal hierarchy. This article argues “although human beings have a natural tendency to make these distinctions, the categories themselves and meanings associated with those categories are socially constructed rather than natural.” In order to explore how and why we participate in othering, we must analyze our shadows.

As Carl Jung said of the shadow side,

“It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him… Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict of which he is so painfully aware.”

In the article Why Doing Shadow Work Liberates Your Story And Heals Your Spirit, shadow work is described as acknowledging “a part (or parts) of yourself that you’ve ignored, and which you’ve kept alive in secrecy. As with anything in darkness that has been festering for some time, it has grown comfortable there, and shining light on it may likely be excruciating.” Reflecting on these heavy facets can illuminate your patterns of response, tendencies of harsh judgement, and why it’s easier to hide behind an addiction— be it substance, behavioral, or violent rage.

“The goal is not to eradicate the shadow self; but, to integrate it in healthy ways into your whole being. This is done by acknowledging the shadow, healing the stories it kept alive on your behalf and your survival (since it served a purpose at a given time in your life), and integrating it into your whole self, resulting in… greater compassion for yourself and others.”

Not only should we acknowledge our shadow selves, but we should honor their places in our lives in order to release the residual negative fragments that persist in holding us back.

Researcher-storyteller Brené Brown is known for her viral TEDxHouston talk regarding vulnerability and courage. From her decades of work, she notes that healing shame directly affects our self-worth. Courage is something I once discounted as a non-applicable ideal, a sort of heroic bravery, the way many things are polarized due to stereotypes and inaccurate classification. Brown reminds us that the original definition of courage comes from the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart”— to tell your story whole-heartedly. She explains that the courageous people in her field studies were distinguished from the rest by their willingness to embrace vulnerability. “They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary.” Brown, a mother of two, discusses how our self-worth is often immediately challenged upon our birth with parental expectations of perfection. She proclaims that as parents, “our job is to say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’” Imagine if bell hooks and millions of other “normally traumatized” folks had experienced this level of individualized, unconditional support and acceptance throughout their childhoods. How do we expect a person to be whole-hearted if an entire side of their psyche has been denied, suppressed, and badgered?

While reading Taking Risks: implementing grassroots community accountability strategies written by a collective of women of color from Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA), a distinct feature I found unique was the importance placed on humanizing the aggressor. In every level of CARA’s program, a multi-efforted balance is concerted between victim and aggressor, between community and one-on-one correspondence. This is not to say that the aggressor is let off the hook but that both sides are considered with mindfulness and appropriate assistance. I believe that a thoughtful accountability program like the one that CARA proposes is the first major step for inclusive change that feminism has ever witnessed. Normalizing a dialogue that allows people, particularly men, to be self-reflective— and communicate what they uncover, will alleviate suffering and impact us all interconnectedly. In CARA’s vision, the victim has the ultimate say in how the program is conducted. This lifts the pressure and shame that is typically placed upon a survivor and fosters a safe, effective space to make amends. In collaborating with the community, as well as close friends and family of the aggressor, a dialogue is engaged and receptive offerings are made. The aggressor is given an opportunity to respond and seek help rather than be backed into a corner.

The humanization of all is the key to developing compassion and in turn transmuting pain into tenderness with ourselves and with others. The othering of the unknown has reinforced race, sex and class struggles. The demonization of emotions as weak has propelled cyclical oppressive structures since the rise of modern agriculture where women were deemed second-class property. Emotions are for women, and the feminine is weak. Rejection of the feminine is absolute strength and power. This othering of our emotional selves has enabled generations of men to not be held accountable, even rewarded for displays of dominance and aggression paired with unaffected demeanors. Since men are not permitted to tune into their own suffering, they can’t possibly be expected to tune into the suffering of others. Women are assumed at fault, often times aggressively, for their female form simply existing in a space with a man. A man’s credibility is protected above all, reinforcing that there will be no consequences for his actions. This systemic foundation of lies will need to be significantly challenged until society revolts, destroys, and recovers from this deteriorating facade of freedom.

In the meantime, as it pertains to sexual violence, we must bypass the legal system in order to help victims and aggressors alike in achieving breakthroughs and healing. Accountability is seldom found within the system which is interwoven with the patriarchy’s toxic web. In fact, we repeatedly hear of the biases in which justice was not served, discriminating against POC and women— case after case. With the implementation of strategic programs such as CARA, marginalized communities around the globe can finally have the opportunity for a seat at the table. It’s crucial for victims and their allies to emerge from the shadows of shame and set an example for as many men, women— people as possible. Even if a goal is not met, initiating the process would inevitably prompt a necessary conversation within a community. Who the message may coincidentally touch with its dialogue could be surprising.

Generations of children have endured trauma and then projected that trauma onto their children in the name of the patriarchy. In the name of This Is How My Father Did It. In the name of preserving traditions that hold an entire worldview together because there is “no other way.” Well, I’m proposing there is a way. First, we must acknowledge that the patriarchy oppresses everyone and pins the lower levels of the hierarchy against each other to distract from the fact that we all should be enraged at those running the show. Next, we should check our heads with how othering has manifested in our lives. Upon examining our personal processes and prejudices and healing those wounds, we can find liberation that will lighten a collective burden. As Chuck Palahniuk said, “Find what you’re afraid of most and go live there.” That is shadow work at its deepest roots. We must seek courage when diving into our shadows and be gentle while handling the neglected parts of our soul. This is how we can lean into vulnerability. Just as the patriarchy does not discriminate against gender, neither does shame. With accountability programs such as CARA’s, the rights for both sides to be vulnerable in finding their truth are defended, and courage is embraced and uplifted.

No matter where we are on the planet, our fundamental differences lie more in perception than in rigid truth. Most of us are living day to day with a common purpose: to be free from suffering, however that may be. If you get to the bottom of the pain or the void, you can alleviate that suffering little by little. The patriarchy is unforgiving, but if we learn to forgive ourselves and one another, we can effectively support a new generation that heavily leans on this accountability-healing dynamic going forward.

Works Cited:

Understanding Patriarchy by hooks, bell

The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging by Powell, John and Menendian, Stephen.

Why Doing Shadow Work Liberates Your Story And Heals Your Spirit by Alcantara, Margarita

The Power of Vulnerability by Brown, Brené

Taking Risks: Implementing Grassroots Community Accountability Strategies by CARA women: Alisa Bierria, Onion Carrillo, Eboni Colbert, Xandra Ibarra, Theryn Kigvamasud’Vashti, and Shale Maulana

Invisible Monsters by Palahniuk, Chuck (1999, W. W. Norton & Company)

Author: Cayce Tiedemann

Multidisciplinary artist and writer in Atlanta

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