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Hug Your Dragon

My priest friend John had good advice for those of us struggling with self-acceptance: “Learn to hug your dragon.” For John, the dragon symbolized the parts of ourselves that we deny, ignore or repress – trying to pretend they don’t exist.

I have parts of myself that I don’t like. I’d like to wish them away – or at least keep them hidden. As both priest and therapist, John knew that the parts of ourselves we deny become even more powerful. The rejected parts of ourselves grow angry and become disruptive. He saw them as taking on the characteristics of a fire-breathing dragon – lurking somewhere inside of us, larger than life.

Dragons are huge, legendary creatures – four-legged beasts with wings to fly and the ability to breathe fire. They are usually depicted with ravenous appetites and destructive natures. Dragons often live in caves protecting treasures of gold, silver and jewels. The task of taming or vanquishing a dragon falls to a hero or a saint. Mere mortals attempt it at their peril.

Dragons are not the sort of creatures you want to join you for an evening with your friends, to accompany you on a job interview, or to include in a dinner with your fiancé’s parents. Such sensitive occasions require tact and politeness, and most of us try to keep our inner dragons locked up and as far away as possible.

John knew what most of us have experienced: our inner dragon tends to show up without an invitation at the most awkward and inconvenient times. The dragon’s entrance is usually an intrusion – such as erupting with fire-breathing anger or revealing some other aspect of ourselves that we try to keep hidden.

Discovering the redemptive dimension of the dragon legend requires remembering that the dragon guards a treasure. To grasp the significance of that, we need to turn to another saint or hero – Richard Rohr. Although Father Richard doesn’t speak of dragons, he knows a great deal about hidden treasure.1 He views the attempt to ignore the shadow and project an idealized self as an inner split that creates and reinforces the false self. By contrast, he describes the true self as the immortal diamond. It is the treasure hidden within us, the one guarded by our inner dragon. Claiming the immortal diamond – discovering our true selves – requires taming the dragon.

So Father John’s advice to “hug your dragon” comes together with Father Richard’s invitation to discover the immortal diamond of the true self. Both lead us to the same challenge: taming the dragon within.

The taming process begins with having the self-awareness to acknowledge the inner dragon – the existence of our shadow side. We can’t tame what we don’t acknowledge. Taming the dragon unfolds as a lifelong process that begins with accepting the full scope of who we are – gifted yet flawed, strong yet vulnerable, caring yet self-centered. It requires facing the ongoing challenge to confront our ego-centric tendencies with self-honesty. As taming continues, we slowly learn to befriend the parts of ourselves that we have denied and repressed. Gradually, we come to reconcile the split within us and integrate more of our shadow into the full measure of who we are.

As the taming process deepens into a lifestyle, our false self begins to lose its power and fall away. As that happens, our true self emerges – shining like a diamond. We slowly come to accept our full selves, to view our humanness with compassion rather than self-judgment, to forgive ourselves for not being perfect, and to love ourselves as the person we truly are.

The legends tell us that taming the dragon is the work of heroes and saints. The process requires heroic qualities of personal maturity: honesty, courage and strength. It also requires saintly qualities of spiritual maturity: compassion, forgiveness and love.

My friend John – one of my personal heroes and saints – has now gone home to God. Our friend Kathy was with him during his final hours. As a critical care nurse, she’s held the hand of many as they have passed over. She described John’s passing as the most peaceful she had ever witnessed.

Perhaps the fruit of learning to hug our dragons is finding peace in this life and passing gently over to begin our next adventure. Perhaps the lifelong process of taming is only completed in death – our ultimate reconciliation and final act of surrender. Until then, I still have inner homework to do, a dragon to tame, and an immortal diamond to discover. My hunch is that you do too.

Questions to Ponder

As you reflect on the dynamics of hugging your inner dragon:

  • What do you see as your inner dragon, the parts of yourself that you don’t like and try to keep hidden?
  • What steps can you take to begin taming your inner dragon?
  • In what ways can you begin to let your true self shine like a diamond?


1Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 29. Father Richard identifies four major splits from reality that contribute to the creation of the false self: the split of the shadow from the idealized self, the split of the mind from the body and soul, the split of life from death, and the split of the self from others.