How Voicing Shadow is Stilled

How is it we find it so hard to speak the things that lend themselves to shadow – within ourselves and within all of our interactions with others – at work, at home, elsewhere?  How is it that voicing shadow has been stilled instead of us stilling shadow by voicing it?

If we all carry shadow – and I do mean everyone of us – and if it shows up in every conceivable situation or context – relationships, teams, projects, organizations – anywhere and everywhere human beings show up, how is it we have fallen into patterns of colluding with it so that it gains a foothold and sometimes a stranglehold on us and our relationships, getting in the way of us getting things done?

I know personally I have found my voice stilled in the face of shadow in situations too numerous to recount.  I have felt without voice, shut down by self and others, judged and judging and I have often wondered how I could ever find my way to clarity that could be voiced in a way that served well instead of feeding the emotional and energetic vortex that often forms around shadow.  Fear felt in each heart palpitation, stomach in my throat and head pounding as words sometimes eeked their way out and sometimes didn’t – not knowing how to name things in the groups and teams I was part of and particularly when it felt like I had a lot at risk.

It is probably these many experiences with shadow (beginning long before I knew what shadow was) that has sparked my enduring interest and curiousity in this topic – that and the freedom that learning has brought in those times when I found the voice to speak from the place of my own shadow. I grew and released bits of shadow every time I found my voice.  Sometimes it was messy and inelegant and other times for more graceful than I would have given myself credit for.

I also discovered I could help others – individuals and groups – begin to name and voice their shadow in order to elevate it to a place of visibility and learning which disempowered the negative influences of shadow.

Then, knowing that I actually have the capacity to voice it, deal with it, disempower it, I have judged myself harshly in those times when I knew I wasn’t voicing the shadow I was aware of.

Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, in their work in PeerSpirit, define shadow as that which cannot be voiced  – and, if it is voiced, is done at great peril, real and perceived, to the speaker.  I wrote about it in this blog on the Gift of Shadow. In a recent conversation with Art of Hosting friends and colleagues:  Christina, Nancy Eagan and Martin Siesta, we identified at least two traps we often fall into that still the voice that would expose shadow.

The first of these is the time trap.  In pursuit of our work and objectives we feel we do not have time to “derail” the trajectories, grand design or process flow in favour of pausing to check in around shadow that begins to show up.  We know it’s there but we want to work around it to keep to a time target.  Sometimes it’s a conscious choice.  Other times we are just blundering our way through.

Related to this is another situation I’m familiar with – shadow on hosting or facilitation teams that is not addressed.  When shadow shows up in hosting teams (and it usually does to some degree or other) and isn’t addressed, it impacts the relationships on the hosting team and it can influence the dynamics of the larger group we are working with, whether we intend it or not.  The degree to which this happens depends on the level of self-mastery of the individual hosts (the degree to which I can own and sit with my own shadow or to which I am projecting it onto others),  the larger context of relationships within the hosting team and whether this is something new that is beginning to emerge or something that has been brewing for a long time.  I’ve experienced all of these scenarios and more.  Because dealing with shadow is usually not a lunch time conversation, as a hosting team we often make a non-verbalized choice to function on behalf of the client or the group rather than trying to deal with shadow on the client’s time.  Sometimes this is  a necessary choice.  The problem with this is we often do not make the time to deal with shadow outside of client or training time.  One often used excuse is our schedules are too busy.  And our tendency is to want to avoid these conversations because we have all had experiences where this had gone badly.  We are scarred by these experiences.   When the relationships are really important though, when we want to deepen the experience and continue to work with people in the most authentic ways possible, we do make the time.  We stay in it for the long haul.  It is where some of our greatest learning and growth takes place and our deepest relationships emerge.

A second thing that stills us from voicing shadow is people’s goodness.  People generally are trying hard and if we bring up shadow it seems to imply they – or we – are a bad person.  Whatever shadow shows up gets generalized to the whole person rather than to the specifics of this particular shadow or context.  If it is named, the response is often defensiveness – “I’m doing all I can”; “I’m doing the best I can”.  People’s goodness and the tendency to  generalize become a barrier to talking about hard and difficult things.  It comes back to not wanting to hurt another person and also our lack of skill in addressing difficult topics. We are afraid for their reputation and for ours.

These are just a couple of traps.  There are more.  What are some traps you’ve experienced that still the voicing of  shadow?  What are your experiences in finding your voice?  How can we develop our skill in surfacing the undercurrents of shadow so we can shift the shape of our experience and our world in a way that embraces all that is there?

10 thoughts on “How Voicing Shadow is Stilled

  1. Hi Kathy,

    I wanted to express thanks for this article and let you know how on the mark it is with my own experience. I am an administrator for a mid-sized non-profit social service provider where I help to oversee about 50 staff. The work is detailed, complex, often ambiguous, and very fast-paced. Lots of stress and tight hierarchies. Under the guise of “we-just-don’t-have-time-to-get-into-all-this-navel-gazing”, the most critical issues (priorities, relationships, power, communication, mistakes) are all undiscussable. Buried deep in shadowland, so I am far too familiar with the clutch of silence you write about. That thing that grabs ahold of your throat and says DO NOT SPEAK! or–what’s worse–decimates your thoughts and words when you do try to speak.

    Here’s the wonderful irony: when I’m not at work I am a PhD student in organizational psychodyamics (!!). As if this matters, I know a lot about organizational shadow, the interpersonal dynamics that fuel it, and the conversational strategies one can use to address such matters. And I know one day–hopefully soon, when I am working as a consultant–I’ll be able to courageously put this knowledge to use and directly address such issues. But in my current position I often feel as powerless as the next person to take constructive action.

    At first I was alarmed by my inaction and judged myself as globally incapable of addressing such issues in any setting. But recently I realized this was not the case; I’m just too deeply entrenched (and too outnumbered!) in the current setting to be able to effectively respond to the situation. It’s like being a psychotherapist and trying to do therapy on one’s family. Big no-no.

    Once more, thank you. Your article helped clarify and validate my own experience.

    Best, David

    • Hey David,

      I completely resonate with what you have written here. I have learned to be gentle with myself where I would previously have considered myself a failing grade on my inability to deal with the stuff I knew was there but didn’t voice. I am also aware this is a skill set we build with practice.

      I remember a long time ago as an Executive Director of a not-for-profit organization at times stepping boldly into naming and surfacing shadow with remarkable results. Not sure how I did it then except what I cared about became stronger than being wafted about by the strands of shadow that grew stronger with each passing day.

      And then at other times in the same organization failing to deal with the shadow to the extent that it completely overwhelmed me. The difference was partly due to how focused I was on the work and where I was in my personal journey. If I had too much other stuff to deal with, shadow flourished – usually in me as much as in the organization – small wonder really.

      Now, as a consultant and host (for the last 10 years or so), sometimes I’m really good at naming and surfacing shadow and sometimes I’m not even aware of it hovering. Like you, the closer it is to home, the harder it is – which is why it is always good to work with mates – to know where our collaborators and supporters are. Supporters are not the people who will tell me everything is fine when it really isn’t but they will share what I need to know with compassion and grace.

      I have at times been in a deep tremble as I speak the unspeakable things and have learned how freeing that can be. My greatest optimism comes from knowing that I will continue to grow this skill on this journey and I will continue to open these conversations as often as I can. And there will still be moments when maybe I could have done more and that will be okay too.

      Thank you for sharing in this storytelling around shadow with me. Kathy

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