Hosting Shadow

According to Jungian psychology, shadow is a part of the unconscious mind – and I would expand that to say it is part of the unconsciousness in a group’s field (team,organization, network, community).  Shadow consists of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts.  Everyone carries shadow to one degree or another.  It is part of who we are as human beings and it is part of what we collectively bring as we are in relationship with each other. It is often the underbelly of the things we love about ourselves, others, the work we do, the organizations we work in and the communities we support.  We don’t want to talk about it because we want to focus on the light and the things we love.  We want to pretend it isn’t there and in so doing we actually give it energy and life of its own.

Jung wrote, “the less shadow is embodied in an individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”  And the less we embody it and acknowledge it in our groups, the more it impacts.

Jung also said, “shadow is instinctive and irrational and thus is prone to projection onto others.”  We don’t so easily see it in ourselves but we do see it in others and in our group dynamics.  Because we instinctively project it out and onto others, it becomes difficult to speak about or to own and it seems simply easier to try to ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, believe we are better than it.  The more we try to ignore it, the greater the likelihood it will take root in us and in our group dynamics, ironically doing exactly what we have been trying to avoid: slowing down work, getting in the way of successful results, harming interpersonal relationships, feeding judgment and frustration and just generally wearing us down til we decide anywhere else is a better place to be than here.  We become dismayed and discouraged when we leave and shadow follows us to the next group or situation we find ourselves in.  Or when someone else, whom we are sure is responsible for the shadow,  leaves but shadow doesn’t leave with them.

What if we just knew that shadow exists and acknowledged it, making it normal for people to name, explore and be curious about?  And, what if, in our curiosity, we could throw ourselves open to what can be learned from shadow as it shows up and, in the process, disempower shadow’s potential to derail us, our work and our relationships?  What would it take to open up to this exploration?

These are beautiful questions for many of us who host and co-host facilitation, consulting, change or training processes.  In the Art of Hosting field, one of the mental models we use is the four fold practice.  The first of these is to be present or to host oneself.  When we do this well, we grow our capacity to host others and to host group processes where difficult conversations often show up or want to show up.  We shift the shape of our experience and the experiences of others.

Asking questions like: “Where am I willing to go? or not willing to go?” and “What are my parameters that may or may not get in the way of this group?” can be important to opening up a pathway to clearing some of our own shadow as we hold space for group process.  It is difficult to take a group where the host and/or hosting team is not willing or able to go.

When hosting teams try to hold back a conversation because of their own fear of going there one of two things often happens.  Either the group conforms to the will of the hosts and shadow builds in the conformity or we have mutiny over the host team if the group doesn’t conform.  Both of these situations create potentially explosive interpersonal dynamics in a group.  Often we feel we don’t have time to diverge to the conversations that are wanting to happen because we believe they just get in the way of reaching our goals or outcomes or just plain actions.

Sometimes we just need to clear the agenda to enter into the unspoken conversation and to do that we need to do to be present with it, create the opportunity for things to be spoken, experiences to be validated and clearing to take place.  What if, instead of fearing shadow, we  normalized it?  The real breakthroughs in our work and relationships come from the tough conversations.  Being able to navigate our way through these conversations is what makes a  group tight – the group learns to trust itself when it comes through the fire.

Jung believed that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this,the shadow is the seat of creativity.”

There is a rich reservoir of learning for hosts and host teams on the topic and experience of shadow and how to shine the light of our individual and collective humanity on it in a way that illuminates strength, compassion, creativity and potential for all, creating a depth of connection much more likely to move mountains and shift the shape of the world we live and work in.

(My thanks to my good friends and Art of Hosting colleagues: Christina Baldwin [co-author of The Circle Way with Ann Linnea], Martin Siesta and Nancy Eagan for stimulating conversations on the topic of shadow that have inspired this writing.)

28 thoughts on “Hosting Shadow

  1. Breakthroughs do occur in the tough conversations when we risk being all of who we are; amazing what happens in family, work and relationships when we feel safe enough to risk that.
    With gratitude for your writings…Anne

    • It is a little sad, and the journey of this generation perhaps, that it feels so risky to be all of who we are and yet that is what is wanting to burst forth for so many of us. And miraculous things do happen as we risk and often discover the risk was not as great as we imagined.

  2. Kathy,
    A wonderful piece that really gets to the heart of leadership’s most fertile opportunities. As I reading I was thinking of the the work of Robert Kegan and that of David Bohm. In the latter case, Bohm proposed a model of communication called “Generative Dialogue” as a way to surface and integrate a group’s shadow areas.

    This is important work and I look forward to sharing more with you on this. ~d

    • David,

      Thank you for both a wonderful reflection on the shadow posting and the references to both Kegan and Bohm’s work. Hosting shadow and helping others learn to host it well is work I’m committed to so I’m sure I’ll be writing more on the topic and I look forward to the sharing here or elsewhere, Kathy

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  9. “Sometimes we just need to clear the agenda to enter into the unspoken conversation and to do that we need to do to be present with it, create the opportunity for things to be spoken, experiences to be validated and clearing to take place.”

    • Thank you Joseph, for reminding me of my own writing from a couple of years ago as I prepare to enter work this coming week where this is for sure one of the things that needs to happen. And the topic of shadow seems to be showing itself a fair bit in my awareness these last few days.

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    • Thank you Ted. Very aware, and appreciative, of Parker Palmer’s work. Shadow is such a common occurrence that gains strength when not addressed. Working with it a lot and hope to write more about it before too long.

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