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.)

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The Gift of Shadow

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.