My representative was in full effect when Kate and I first started dating. One night I spent more than an hour cooking fresh vegetables and tofu in a homemade peanut sauce. She was impressed. Then I told her the truth: “If you weren’t here tonight, I’d be eating frozen pizza.” She was even more impressed with my honesty.
It’s biologically natural to lead with what we think are the best versions of ourselves.
It’s not just romantic relationships that begin with our representatives. When I meet potential friends at a dinner party I’m going to tell them my best stories. When I’m asked during a job interview what’s my biggest weakness as an employee, I’m not going to tell the interviewer my biggest weakness.
In the best relationships, romantic, friendships, or otherwise, all parts of us need to be welcome in that relationship. That includes the self-destructive beliefs, shame, anger, fear, and all the rest of messiness that is part and parcel of being alive.
Tara Brach, a friend and wonderful meditation teacher, regularly shares a passage from Robert Johnson’s book Owning Your Own Shadow, about a couple that found a clever way to welcome the shadow parts of their personalities into relationship:
“The night before their wedding they made a ritual where they shared their “shadow vows.” The groom said, “I will give you an identity and make the world see you as an extension of myself.” The bride replied, “I will be compliant and sweet, but underneath I will have the real control. If anything goes wrong, I will take your money and your house.” Then they drank champagne and laughed heartily at their foibles, knowing that in the course of marriage, these shadow figures would inevitably come out.” (Owning your own Shadow, 64–65)
Partially inspired by this story, Kate and I have developed the practice of shadow business cards. Here’s how it works: whenever one of us reveals an aspect of our shadow side, we can point that out as something for the business card.
The purpose of the traditional business card is to put our best foot forward. Shadow business cards turn this concept on its head. Going back to the example of Chris Rock’s “representative,” here’s how a traditional business card would read in the context of the aforementioned date with Kate:
Healthy Eater, Excellent Cook
But the shadow business card flips it:
This Meal Is a Lie
The shadow business cards can go far deeper than that. They reveal the parts of ourselves we’re usually desperate to hide.
I’ve ruined everything.
I just want everyone to love me forever.
The universe would collapse without me.
When one of us points out something for the shadow business cards, it’s not said with judgment. It’s not a way to criticize one another, or point out each other’s flaws. It’s simply a way of bringing awareness to our most difficult parts, and holding them lightly and playfully. It’s a loving acknowledgement of the parts of ourselves that our culture pressures us to hide. Shadow business cards allow us to see those energies in each other, without judgment.
Shadow business cards are also a safeguard against resentment. Kate has said that naming the “Jared Gottlieb: The universe would collapse without me” energy allows her to meet me with compassion, rather than irritation, when that shadow side emerges. It’s also reinforcement for both of us that it’s not personal.
Clearly, a belief like “The universe would collapse without me,” is not something that we want to positively reinforce. But beliefs like this do arise in the mind. The point of this practice is not to encourage the unwholesome beliefs within us, but to recognize them when they are present without buying into them.
Sharing the shadow sides of ourselves with each other is an act of great intimacy. I keep Kate’s shadow business cards, and she keeps mine. There’s a great freedom in trusting each other with the parts of our being that we once thought no one could ever accept. In sharing our shadow sides with each other, we bring the whole of our relationship into the light. This practice need not be confined to romantic partners—I’ve also found it deepens the intimacy of friendships. I’ve even begun to bring the practice into the workplace (initial results have been very positive).