Shifting Our Shadow Stories

A few weeks ago I was struggling with negative thoughts about my website designer. I say struggling because a) they were making me feel powerless and victimized and b) I was afraid these thoughts might be contributing to the problem. I believe in the power of intention — that thoughts have energy and can actually create reality. But you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the impact that negative thoughts can have on your life.

When I was two.

When I was two.

Negative thoughts and the shadow stories that fuel them, create a lens through which we filter our experience of the world. Take for example, the story of the neglected child. It is one of my childhood stories and very likely it was feeding my negative thoughts about my website designer. The neglected child is about not getting enough love, attention and support. I call them shadow stories, because it blocks the light, and leads to dark thoughts. Many of us have this particular story, as it is hard for parents to get child rearing right. Either they are neglectful or too over-bearing. Since I grew up with five other siblings, I fell on the neglect side of the continuum.

A shadow stories are like the neglected child becoming a problem when it colors our perception of what is happening, when it infuses a situation with more anguish or anger than is warranted by the situation and robs us of objectivity and peace.

At my mom’s memorial service, my sister Susi put up poster sized blow-ups of family photos taken by my mother –an exceptional portrait photographer. I searched through the crowded rooms of the funeral home before and after the service, but could find no photo of myself. Feeling raw at the loss of my mother and somewhat estranged from my siblings because of living on the opposite coast, my neglected child was activated. Beside myself with grief and loss, I confronted my sister about her oversight, the following day. “Why was there no photo of me?” I asked in a voice both accusatory and wounded. “But there was one of you,” she countered with justifiable indignation. “One of you and your new partner (now my husband).” It was one of the last photos she took! Because of my story, I had failed to see it. I had expected to be neglected and this blinded my eyes.

Sad stories often cause us to take actions that maintain them, as was the case with my friend Marianne, another neglected child. Marianne often complained that because she was so competent, others failed to see her need for support. One of the benefits and sometimes curses of being a neglected child is that you develop many skills of self-sufficiency. It’s a matter of survival. What Marianne did not recognize was how her own attachment to self-sufficiency prevented her from receiving the support she craved.

In her final months of life, as a pernicious cancer took over her body, there were many emergency trips to the hospital. Never once did she call on me, one of her best friends, to drive her. She had this notion about not using anyone up. She carefully selected whom she would call based on when she had last asked them for help. Sometimes she would just call a cab. She could not believe that I (and many of her other friends) would willingly drop everything to rush to her aid. I can recall several times when my husband George persisted against her protestations of being fine and drove all the way to Sausalito to make her dinner. In the end, she came a long way in expanding her capacity to receive and I was grateful to be a player in her journey. It taught me a lot about giving and receiving — both of which can be challenges for the neglected child.

Our sad stories can also cause us to select or attract people and situations that confirm it. When my friend Sara had a mild bout of food poisoning she telephoned the woman she was scheduled to meet for lunch and asked if she could instead drive her to the hospital. The woman declined her request saying she had something better to do. Did Sara call anyone else? Of course not! Who would want to risk more rejection? Certainly not the neglected child! When I queried her about this friend who had callously declined her plea for aid, Sara admitted that the woman was exactly the sort of self-centered person who would turn down a sick friend. We often choose the very person who will fulfill our expectations thus validating our story.

We become used to our shadow stories and could easily spend our whole life nurturing and confirming the wounds of our past. Life, however, has a way of pushing our story issues in our face and upping the ante until we finally get the lesson or die trying to learn.

It is time to change your story if it is making you miserable or interfering with getting what you want. You may truly believe it because of the other guy, which to some extent it might be, but it’s also your story.

Clearly I needed to change my story about my website designer. It was almost six months and the site was still not finished.

How do you shift shadow stories? First you need to recognize the story for what it is–just a story. That is harder than it sounds. Shadow stories come with an emotional charge which can be difficult to shift–like a stubborn child holding on to hurt feelings or anger.

Sometimes physical movement or exercise can dispel that emotional grip. Meditation can also work. But when the negative thoughts persist, it might be necessary to give the angry child some space to rant. My Sufi teacher calls it, “Giving the dog a bone.” Writing it all down is a very effective method. It gives the thoughts expression thereby releases them from the mind. Eventually the child runs out of steam and we can move into a more detached stance regarding the story.

I do not recommend sharing your inner child’s rants with others (unless the other is your coach or counselor) because we tend to confirm each other’s misery and this can add fuel to the flames of emotion rather then dissipate them.

Once the emotions have been released, we are in a better position to examine the situation dispassionately. We might ask ourselves if our story is really true? Do we know for sure that it is true? (A question from Byron Katie’s work.) Did my website designer, for example, really take more time than was reasonable? Is there another viewpoint? Can I look at the situation from the other person’s perspective? For example: my designer might counter that the site was complicated and her staff spent gobs more time on it than she wanted or felt paid to do. Another question — how might I have contributed to the problem? Could my hypercritical stance regarding my designer’s work have soured our relationship and created communication problems. Did my secret fears about the website being too esoteric and self-disclosing of the wild and mystical me unintentionally delay the process? Finally, do I recognize a familiar pattern here? Have I had difficulties with other contracted professional? Might I, like my friend Marianne, be too attached to my self-sufficiency?

This kind of self-investigation can be very rich and informing. It may be that like Marianne, I need to change my behavior and attitudes around receiving help. Or maybe I simply need to change my designer. Or maybe there is no problem at all and the website has being launched in perfect timing. Ultimately, I get to choose, not from an emotionally charged disempowered place, but from a place of clarity and knowledge. I get to decide what serves me best. The shadow stories loses their grip.

Does this mean that my childhood story of neglect is forever vanquished? No . . . but I will be able to recognize it a lot sooner the next time it shows up.

Meanwhile . . . my website is up and I am full of gratitude. It’s still being tweaked. Comments  are appreciated.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at


  1. Linda Frank says:

    Michelle, Thanks for sharing your shadow story about your neglected child and how it fed into a challenge you were experiencing and how, it wasnt until you were willing to take responsibility for it and really look at it with different eyes that you could see more clearly . It is true that we do make up these stories and then, looking thru the filter of that story gather evidence to support what we believe. I know that is the case for me with both of my parents and it is also an opportunity to look deeper into how I am being that might be the answer to resolving something that keeps coming up for me to look at. Its funny how when I am willing to be responsible for what I have created that I get to see myself more clearly and to embrace all of me and accept my dark side that my heart can open more , not just to myself but to others.

    • Michelle Peticolas says:

      Linda, Pleased to hear you got so much out of my post. What you say is so true. When we take responsibility for our creation of the story we take back our power, we move into our higher self and are no longer in conflict with anyone. It’s easy to love, to have compassion especially for ourselves.

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