My passion for shadow work is a direct result of my spiritual journey. About six years ago I had arrived at the point where I could see I wasn’t living from a sense of my own wholeness or worthiness.
While I had come to accept intellectually that I was worthy and that I was whole unto myself, I consistently and repeatedly fell short of living that truth. I didn’t like how I showed up as a mom and a wife and I felt somehow unable to interrupt my bouts of bad behavior. Discovering shadow work was the beginning of a profound shift that has created ever-greater alignment between the spiritual principles I value and my day-to-day behavioral expressions.
In the years since making that discovery I have learned a great deal about myself and about the shadow in general. I co-created a 21-day cognitive shadow work practice called The Q process and co-authored two books to accompany that process. I even learned that my shadow could be found not only in my psyche, but it lived in my nervous system as well. Most importantly, I learned how to integrate shadow material from both my biography and my biology and live a more content and intentional life.
What is the Shadow?
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all accounts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions. – Carl Jung
The shadow concept has its roots in the work of Sigmund Freud, later developed and enhanced by Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. In 1912, Jung used the term “shadow side of the psyche” to describe the hidden side of the human psyche—energy patterns or sub-personalities that emerged as a consequence of fragmented, incomplete or arrested development in critical and pivotal stages of early childhood and adolescence. It includes “not recognized desires” as well as “repressed portions of the personality.”
Representing the personal unconscious, the shadow aspect of an individual’s psyche is the psychological material that is repressed, denied, disassociated or disowned – both “negative” traits (Don’t be selfish – share your toys) and “positive” traits (Don’t show up your little sister – throw soft). The shadow is an aggregate of myths, messages, and beliefs that keep us separated from our sense of wholeness and innate worth. Robert Bly calls this a “long bag we drag behind us.” If it remains hidden it can become the source of painful neurotic symptoms, obsessions, phobias, and anxieties.
It can also be the source of behavioral patterns that keep us stuck in unhealthy ways of relating to ourselves and others. When we are triggered by something we see or hear we can quickly find ourselves in judgment. What we think, say, and do as a means of coping with a challenging situation arises from a compelling need to protect ourselves, to be right, to save face, to not feel diminished. Yet that defensive impulse comes from more that our psyche. It comes from our body as well (more on this later).
In early childhood at some precognitive level, we all experienced moments when we didn’t get the love and protection we needed to manage developmental stresses. In childhood (especially before the age of nine) our cognitive development has not yet reached the point where we can fully differentiate ourselves from our world. Consequently, we personalized the pain of not having our needs met – on some level we believe the bad things that are happening to us and around us are always about us. It is at this time we are learning about our place in the world, how we fit in, whether we are safe and wanted, and feel “felt,” or seen, or loved. Moments that came up short get internalized into beliefs about ourselves and the world such as: I am not loveable (I am a bad boy/girl, I am lonely) and I am not safe (It’s better to retreat and hide than to speak up, It’s not okay to be me). These become the stories we live by – our biography – that can have a powerful and unconscious impact on our attitudes and actions.
Over a period of innumerable impressionable moments, the brain develops a neural architecture for a sophisticated “default operating system” or habits of thought, feeling and action, to manage discomforts reminiscent of past hurts. Unfortunately almost no one escapes childhood without a long black bag of shadows and issues that may take years to become heavy enough to warrant unpacking. It’s just that most of us aren’t aware of this unconscious story running, like an unseen computer program, in the background of our life. This default way of relating to challenging moments gets reinforced over the years by dynamics of perception and meaning making that lead us to believe that the source of our discomfort “out there” and if the people or circumstances in our lives would just shape up, everything would be alright. This is part of the grand illusion of life that leads to the dynamics of blame, powerlessness, and victimization.
Waking up to the Shadow
When one first sees the shadow clearly, one is more or less aghast. – John A. Stanford
Becoming aware of the dark places within can be quite painful. As part of our default operating system falls apart we can experience a sense of temporary depression or confusion. Jung likened the process of integrating the shadow to alchemy and discussed the importance of the time in the process when all seems black. But Jung was convinced one could not get stuck in the darkness because any “genuine insight into shadow” would also evoke “the Self, or the creative center.” This brings forth the changes necessary for more of the real Self or personality to come forward.
Integrating the Shadow
Bringing the shadow into the light begins with bringing compassion and gratitude to those aspects of ourselves that were disowned and repressed. It begins with acknowledging that we have had difficult experiences, but the myths, messages, and beliefs that got created are not the truth of us. We may have the belief, I am unworthy, but we are not the belief. Getting some distance from the shadow aspects of ourselves is an important step in healing. It allows us to place our focus on our Self while at the same time not shrinking from the shadow we have discovered.
The Toltec tradition describes a key part of its spiritual practice as “hunting power,” not power over others but the power that fuels the spiritual journey. Power is captured when we find an edge within ourselves, a fear, habit or aspect that needs to be released (or a piece of the shadow awaiting integration) and we lean into the work of moving through it. Perhaps you have experienced the sense of empowerment you feel when you accomplish something that required you to move through fear. This is the effect of regaining some of the power that had been stuck in shadow.
The work of integrating the shadow includes a conscious embrace of the shadow dynamic, in other words, the ability to see it as a gift. When one arrives at the point where there is no longer a desire to be rid of the shadow, a new level of integration has occurred. Further, we can begin to understand that shadow integration is the “master plan” of life, and therefore we are unconsciously looking for and even creating the exact experiences or triggers we need to become aware of and integrate our shadow. It’s not easy and it can certainly be frustrating when we see ourselves once again leaving shadow trails all over the place. But shaming ourselves because we are human and have a shadow isn’t helpful. We should count ourselves ahead just by the virtue of knowing we have shadow material and recognizing when it is on display. Roberto Assagioli, a renowned Italian psychiatrist and contemporary of Abraham Maslow, suggests we explore the shadow with the cold curiosity and scientific eye of an archeologist unearthing artifacts of some far off culture. A good dose of self-compassion is critical to integration as well.
It is impossible to perceive the shadow directly, there for we can only see it when we project it outward on to others.
According to psychologist William Miller there are five effective pathways for traveling inward to “gain insight into the composition of the shadow.”
Soliciting feedback from others as to how they perceive us
Uncovering the content of our projections
Examining our “slips” of tongue and behavior, and investigating what is really occurring when we are perceived other than we intended to be perceived
Considering our humor and our identifications
Studying our dreams, daydreams and fantasies
By using these techniques or a shadow work practice like The Q Process to help increase self-awareness, we can interrupt the stories of our biography and begin to consciously choose a more intentional self-expression.
The Dual Nature of the Shadow – The Stories of Our Biography & Biology
In addition to having the psyche’s shadow stories that stem from our unconscious biographical stories about ourselves and the world, there is emerging science that points to the need to uncover the stories lodged in our bodies as well. Recent research by psychologist Peter Levine, Robert Scaer M.D., among others, is revealing that the shadow concept is not only found in the psyche as described by Freud and Young. The shadow concept can, and I argue, must, be seen as present in the physiology of the body itself. It is most apparent in PTSD patients whose bodies involuntarily respond to stimulus that mimics past moments of trauma. Growing up, we may not all experience catastrophic trauma, but we all experience trauma of some sort – as evidenced by our imperfect care-giving environment. Whether that trauma is adequately processed on a physical level determines if it becomes shadow material for the body.
This was all news to me when I was first introduced to this body of work though one of my doctoral courses at Holos University Graduate Seminary where I am pursuing a Th.D. with an emphasis in Tranformational Psychology. At the time I didn’t have a two-way relationship with my body-instrument and didn’t understand how to hear it despite the fact it continuously talks to me. As a result of practicing the techniques I learned, I am no longer blind to what is happening with me physiologically. I am able to take the cues from my body sensations to help me track what I might be feeling – even before there are words for it. This can help me interrupt stress responses that can cause me to either shut down or overreact.
According to Babette Rothschild, trauma researcher and author of The Body Remembers, we can experience trauma as “a psychophysical experience even when the traumatic event causes no physical harm.” But because there is often no physical harm, the body’s response to trauma and the physical component of trauma has been largely overlooked in traditional talk therapies used to help trauma sufferers. Rothschild’s work explores the importance of understanding the role of memory in patients’ ongoing experience of trauma and helps to illuminate how information can be found in “muscle memory.” The somatic nervous system can store information instantly. Rothschild says this can be easily seen in the simple experience of forgetting why one entered a room and gaining access to the memory once we have returned to the posture and location when one first had the impulse to head into the room. The body posture may not fully account for the accessed memory, but many people can access memories, sometimes quite surprisingly, when they find themselves in certain postures. This is a form of state dependent memory that can send someone into chaos if they are surprised by the activated emotions.
Conditioning is another way we develop “body memory.” For example in a time of danger the only concern of your body-mind is to “make safe.” This is a primal, instinctual response that happens automatically from the reptilian part of our brain without our directing it (I call this part of my brain my lizard lady). When a particular defense response is successful implemented, the body remembers this and is more likely to call on it again in the future. Similarly if a defense response is unsuccessful, the odds of it being used again go down. There are times when we are under attack that fleeing or fighting back is impossible (when being spanked by a parent or attacked by someone). In these cases our lizard self will go with a freeze response as a way of going numb and blocking out pain. This can be problematic as it can lead to habitual freezing at times when it’s healthy to stand up for ourselves or leave an unhealthy situation. Using body-based techniques to reset the nervous system can be very helpful. For example, taking self-defense classes can be very helpful in assisting rape victims in turning the fight response back on after it has been “overridden” by the system as an unsuccessful strategy. The need to be awakened from the freeze response is very real. Robert Scaer notes that in some cases, severe freeze response can kill instantly, as in cardiac arrest brought on by an extreme response in the dorsal vagal complex. He cites studies by psychologist Peter Levine in which PTSD patients experienced a dramatic clearing of many of their symptoms when they were allowed to complete motor discharge of the freeze response through Levine’s unique body-based therapeutic techniques.
Understanding how to settle ourselves when we have been triggered is essential because in states of high stress or perceived danger the instinctual reptilian part of the brain is in charge. The higher-level thinking capacities go off-line during these moments when instinct is in play. So, when I am upset, my lizard lady brain is all about trying to “make safe” and that can look like ripping someone’s head off, or running a mile away – both of which can have career limiting consequences, not to mention damaging our children and our spouses. What I need most in those times is my rational, thinking brain, the neo-cortex to come back online as soon as possible as this is where all of my creative potential for problem solving resides. In addition, I need to be able to access my capacity for empathy and understanding – none of which are of any consequence to my lizard lady.
The reality is that in today’s world we are far more likely to experience a stress response in times that aren’t really life threatening, like when our child is asking for a sugary snack in the checkout line for the hundredth time, when our spouse is late getting home in time for a special event, or when our boss cuts us down in a meeting in front of our peers. The lizard brain kicks when moments like these touch some shadow belief/body memory that reminds us of childhood moments when we experienced what felt like deeply threatening responses from our caregivers.
There are four simple “Trauma First Aide” techniques which I learned from trauma specialist Geneie Everett that help to interrupt the body’s trauma response, calming my lizard lady and bringing my thinking capacities back on line. They all help to shift the body’s focus to the peripheral nervous system and away from the central nervous system, which is where it is readying to fight or flee by pumping the heart faster, drawing in more air in the lungs, slowing digestion, readying the muscles to fight or flee, and pumping adrenaline and cortisol through the body. This shift in focus allows the body to naturally settle and then draw a natural deep breath as it rests and senses that the danger has passed. They can be used alone or together. Some will work better for you than others. It’s important to try them and see which one(s) reliably help you “make safe” and then employ them when you are upset.
Grounding – focus your attention on your feet, then hands, then back
Resourcing – think of something that makes you happy inside – your favorite vacation spot, your dream car, a speech that garnered a standing ovation
Tracking – noticing the sensations in your body and how they are changing
Somatic Release – jumping, pounding a pillow, going for a run, screaming
All of these allow the energy unleashed by the reptilian brain to be discharged in a safe and intentional manner. This is what animals do naturally when they need to recover from a dangerous episode.
Without a basic understanding of this physiological response, we may continue to believe that our shut downs and/or outbursts are happening because of our spouse, our boss, our children, the traffic, the stock market, etc. The reality is that our shadow is in play. We need to have compassion for ourselves and treat ourselves gently. These are hardware issues that have come up for healing. They are not signs of weakness. And it takes courage to face the work of re-patterning. But the effort is well worth it. Once we have negotiated the body’s shadow stories and the psyche’s shadow stories as we are back in our “right mind” we have a much greater chance of finding a true resolution to the trigger that set us off.
The Shadow in Intimate Relationship
We are all, every one of us, full of horror. If you are getting married to try to make yours go away, you will only succeed in marrying your horror to someone else’s horror, your two horrors will have the marriage, you will bleed and call it love. – Michael Ventura
Intimate relationships are often the most fertile ground for shadow work. This is so because of the inherent challenge in knowing which feelings, thoughts, wishes, etc. come from within the self and which belong to the intimate partner. In short, intimate relationships are one of the places where we have the greatest difficulty drawing personal boundaries. Further because we are in close proximity to our mates, we see them in countless body postures and facial expressions, increasing the chances they will convey a physical stance or facial expression that triggers past trauma.
Most mates embody, carry and express for the other “disavowed aspects of the other’s self—his or her own inner being.” When taken together, they make up “one fully integrated, adaptive being,” except one partner has to do all the breathing in while the other can only breathe out. Eventually, each can no longer tolerate the missing aspects of themselves in the other, nor can they tolerate not expressing those aspects themselves. However, rather than facing the internal conflict of integrating themselves, many mates avoid the work by making the conflict external, as in the problem is with the relationship. The “intrapsychic” problem becomes an interpersonal problem.
When pervasive enough, mates can actually convince each other that they the problems their spouse sees in them are really a part of who they are. This is how one can train a spouse to act in ways that allows one to “identify vicariously with his or her partners expression of the repudiated thoughts, feelings, and emotions.” This allows us to offload our shadow material. A spouse who has trouble owning their anger is usually adept at triggering an explosion of anger and hostility in his or her spouse. To make matters worse, the explosion is often criticized by the disowning spouse in the same way they have repudiated the anger within themselves. And then, in a strange turn of events, they feel justified to be angry.
Ideally, our mates are an agent of healing. If we know that our upsets are a sign that our biology and biography have been triggered, we can become curious about the upset and dive in to see what’s under it. When both partners are aware of their own behavioral patterns, as well as their patterns as a couple, each triggering episode offers a chance for deep healing. This can happen at the cognitive level, such as with The Q Process, or on a physical level using one of the techniques described above.
Our house is much different these days. My husband and I know our stuff inside and out (self-awareness) and we are gentler with ourselves – and each other. We know when we are stuck in story. We have implemented the “re-do” as a family practice so that if someone has said or done something reptilian style (fight, flight, freeze) they get the chance to say it or do it better. It’s amazing the therapeutic affect this has on both the reptile and the recipient of the reptile behavior. Sometimes when everyone seems grumpy and out of sorts we will do a family scream. Jumping is also one of our favorite techniques. And we do our best not to carry on lengthy discussions or make any decisions when someone is still “running hot.”
We are living proof, with practice it is possible to integrate biological and biographical shadow material and find greater peace and deeper connection.
About the Author
Rima E. Bonario is a dynamic spiritual leader, author, and speaker who is passionate about accelerating personal and planetary transformation. She is the co-author of The Art & Practice of Living with Nothing and No One Against You, a powerful workshop and workbook featuring the 21-day transformative practice called The Q ProcessTM. Rima is also co-author of Who Have You Come Here to Be? 101 Possibilities for Contemplation, part daily reader, part spiritual practicum. Drenched in gorgeous imagery, each powerful page invites readers to dance, to leap, to sit still, to stand tall as they ponder the question, “Who have I come here to be?” Rima is also a doctoral student in the field of transformational psychology at Holos University Graduate Seminary where she is conducting research on The Q Process and its potential as a tool to increase self-compassion and mindfulness. Read More About Rima.