I have been intrigued by the notion of shadow ever since I came across Debbie Ford‘s book, The Secret of the Shadow, years ago as I began the more conscious part of my journey. The idea that it is everywhere, in everyone of us and in our group dynamics was a revelation at the time. The fact that there are real gifts in it when we develop enough courage to dive in was illuminating.
Shadow is not a bad thing. It just is. It exists. Where there is light there is also shadow. We can really live into the light when we are ready to acknowledge shadow.
For some reason, we have made that acknowledgment really difficult in the world we live and operate in today. We have made it “bad” through our fear of facing it, surfacing it or acknowledging it and so we try to pretend, individually and collectively, that it isn’t there. We tiptoe around it, we dance around it, we grow frustrated by it and still it often remains a challenge to name. We think it only exists in some places, but it actually can and does show up in all kinds of places and even in the groups and organizations that are doing amazing and, do I dare say, enlightened work.
My good friend Christina Baldwin, author of The Circle Way and Calling the Circle, and, along with her partner Ann Linnea, keeper and steward of circle practice for over twenty years (long before it became more fashionable as an effective and powerful meeting practice) defines shadow as: “the things that cannot be said or, if they are said, are said at great peril to the speaker”.
This great peril is often that the speaker is ostracized. As the speaker is shut down, so are others who will not now venture to name the unspoken things and then any avenues for the naming of shadow are also shut down. Unproductive group patterns and dynamics become entrenched in the group and members of the group pretend to each other that all is well. And yet in this scenario, it means that people no longer feel invited to show up as full human beings. They feel the need to leave a part of themselves parked at the door and this is often the part that would most wonderfully, fully and impactfully engage them in the work ahead.
Anytime things cannot be spoken, they surface in actions and interactions in a group. They show up as frustration with process or lack of progress and as blame: “if only that one person (or that group) would get their act together, we’d all be fine.” The impact of shadow shows up in lack of engagement by some members of the group and by side conversations that happen outside of meetings that do not serve the health and well being of the group.
It is not unusual that someone who has been perceived as the problem can leave the group and yet the actual problem persists. It is now acted out by someone else. The longer the patterns persist, the harder they are to surface and to break.
Aside from fear of being ostracized, the other reason people do not name shadow is because they are afraid of hurting other people in the group. They do not have language or process around how to do this well and it is a skill that can be developed.
One of the tenets of Circle Practice is understanding there is a centre to the circle – or the work or the group – and if we focus on the centre it enables us to transcend two way debate, personal attack and interpersonal dynamics and speak to the underlying patterns – that are often showing up in very overt ways. To be able to name tension in a group or situation is one very simple way of relieving the tension. “Yes, we’ve noticed and are aware that it is here. How will we choose to move through it now?”
The simple act of naming can, quite remarkably, diffuse a lot of tension and shadow. How would the shape of our world shift, the shape of our meetings and the shape of our relationships shift if we could honour the fact that shadow exists, it shows up – instead of pretending it’s not there? If we understand this, it frees us up to look for the gifts inherent in shadow and use those gifts to build our effectiveness, connection and cohesion as a group and as community.
Shadow is not something we deal with once and it is gone. It will show up again. But if we stay tuned to it, name it when it is present and work through it, more light will shine into our lives and the work we do.