Shadow Days

“Kathy,” she said to me, “You think your emotions make you weak.”

“Yeah,” that seemed self evident.

“You’re wrong,” she said.  “Learning to live into your emotional experience, be in it and learn from it will make you stronger and more powerful.”

I was highly skeptical.  She, by the way, was/is Sarita Chawla, a beautiful, elegant, graceful, powerful woman I met at ALIA in 2008 who offered to coach me.  I was skeptical but prepared to be proven wrong.  She nudged me, coaxed me and provoked me.  She made me angry and frustrated. She helped me discover the voice of my internal judge and find strategies to disempower its impact. She guided my journey from one of walking through my experience to one of living into it, learning to enquire into my emotional response to see, sense and understand what is there for me to learn.

She was right.  I am stronger, more compassionate and more powerful.  It’s been quite the journey, of course.  I am usually more serene, centered, present and calm.  Joy, delight and love are usually the emotions that dominant my day-to-day experience.

But not everyday is like that. I also have shadow days.  I can’t help but think that everyone does. That we all have days – or parts of days – where we go to deep, dark places.  The days when we are overwhelmed, when the internal judge is speaking nonsense to us about who we are or aren’t and we tending to believe it, when we are off our center, discombobulated, sad, feeling pulled in many directions or just want to let the tears flow – or perhaps we can’t stop them from flowing.

In 2009, a friend and I spent a day on the land at Gold Lake, Colorado.  Our dear friends Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea helped in the preparation for that day.  One of the things they suggested was that the sites we chose be far enough away from each other that we couldn’t see or hear each other – in the event that we wanted to cry out or wail.  At the time, there were so many other experiences that were alive for me, wailing was not one of them.

Recently, I went for a run in my neighbourhood in Bedford which took me down to the park on the water.  I needed the physicality of the run and the touch into nature, taking the time to sit on the grass, meditate and reflect while looking out over the water.  The sadness that was in me, triggered interestingly enough by the offer of a gift that I do not yet know if I will accept, was so intense that tears did flow and I had the feeling that I wanted to wail.  The intensity of emotion alive in me.  The vibrancy of experience.  Convention kept the wail in.  I wasn’t sure how other park users would respond if I gave way to such a depth of sadness and grief in a place one wouldn’t expect to encounter it. Not the tears though, I let them flow.

I’ve witnessed a lot of people cry.  One-on-one. In small and large groups.  Through processes where people are able to access their own emotional experience.   There aren’t many who can let the tears flow without apologizing for them.  One of my dreams is that we can live in a world where we no longer feel the need to apologize for our tears – such a beautiful expression of release.  I no longer apologize for mine – even when they show up in a large group experience.  I no longer try to diminish my experience but want to honour it and my passage through it.

Of course, I don’t want to be stuck in my experience either.  I want to understand the story that is alive in me that leads to the tears or the anger or the frustration or whatever else it is that is showing up.  When I understand the story I can release it, shift it or rewrite it – and I often do.  It is part of hosting myself to deeper places in my life and growing my capacity to host deeper space for others. It is part of my journey to open heartedness.

More and more, I am understanding my experience in relation to me, to own it in relation to my journey, to not project it onto others  - or blame others – who may have triggered something in me.  The people around me are a beautiful reflection of where I am in the journey – the ones who trigger things and the ones who simply mirror back the beauty of the journey and the beauty of me as I show up – usually, often, in the depth of who I have been able to access since I began the journey of understanding that my emotions are my ally and that by acknowledging them, living into them and learning from them I grow my capacity to host deep space, to host another human being, to host myself.  I am deeply grateful for the wide array of friends who reflect back to me the depth of my journey.

I am not afraid anymore.  I know vulnerability is not weakness and that strength grows when we are willing to know what is rising up in us, willing to meet ourselves in the many ways we show up, allowing ourselves to be in our power, strength and beauty, also without apology but always with compassion, humility, delight and joy.

And it is okay for some days to be shadow days.  It is part of the journey.  We all have them.  They do not make us weak.  They show us the path to strength and beauty.  I no longer feel the need to wail in this moment, but who knows what the next will show up.  I am exactly where I need to be.

Not every day is full of light.  Not every day is a shadow day either.  But facing the shadow brings light to even the darkness of those days and by becoming aware of the story that is alive in me, I can shift the shape of the story, of the day and of my life – which I have been doing story by story, day by day.

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?

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.)

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.