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How do we work with Shadow in coaching?

Shadow has become a very popular concept in psychology, coaching and spirituality. We might already have a good idea about what it is and how it works, but how do we work with shadow in coaching? This video offers an introduction into shadow and how we might start to bring it in coaching.

You can either watch the video or read the transcript below.

Shadow is a concept that comes from jungian psychology and refers to anything we repress, suppress or deny from our conscious position.

Any trait or feeling that we deem as unacceptable, we put in a bag as Robert Bly might say in his poem about Shadow, and we spend the first part of our lives putting a lot of things into this bag, and the second part of our lives taking everything back out.

“We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put in the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.” - Robert Bly

That’s a great metaphor for shadow because when we put those aspects of ourselves in the bag, things that are rejected or shameful, those traits take on a very primitive state.

Imagine if you abandon a child in a forest when they’re very young, and you see them again 20 years later. It’s very likely that this person will be a savage. They won’t necessarily have manners, or be able to speak English, or know how to talk about shadow.

Let’s say that when we were 5 years old we learned that it’s not appropriate to be loud. So we put loudness in the bag and we only nurture that other quality of being calm or peaceful, or whatever the opposite of “loud” might be for that person. And then this trait of “loud” takes on a primitive character.

But just because we’ve put it in the bag and we’ve suppressed it or repressed it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist anymore. In fact it becomes unconscious, and everything that is in the unconscious and isn’t brought up to the surface influences our behaviour.

In our attempts to be very calm and calculated, sometimes this primitive part might come out, especially under stress or when we’re triggered. When it does come out, it might do so in really forceful ways, that can have an impact on our own well-being, but it can also have an impact on our jobs, our relationships or other aspects of our lives.

This is why in jungian psychology and psychoanalysis the concept of shadow was of major importance, because Jung believed that in order to go through the process of individuation we need to own our shadow.

Jung has a famous quote:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

While it’s unconscious, you won’t realise there’s so much in your unconscious that is driving your behaviour and it results in repeating painful patterns in your life.

So how do we recognise shadow?

Any feeling, even anger, rage, or even desire to kill someone, they’re not bad things as such - bear with me for a moment - they’re not bad things as such, because we have the capacity to experience all sorts of emotions, including wanting to kill someone. But working with shadow comes with a big moral responsibility because we can’t just go around killing people on the street. But if we have these aspects that we consider shameful or inappropriate - it’s important that we don’t push them down.

When we see that we got so angry about a situation, and realise that the situation didn’t warrant our intense reaction, we instinctively put this reaction back into the bag, into the unconscious shadow. We avoid confronting this reaction because it’s shameful.

The purpose of shadow isn’t to act on it, but to become conscious of it. Having the ability to sit with both aspects, both ends of the spectrum. Sitting with the reality that - yes, I am a calm, kind, quiet, calculated person - AND I am also an angry, raging, loud person as well.

Edward Whitmont, jungian author, says that when we are experiencing a conflict between two sides of ourselves that seem opposed, the purpose isn’t to make a decision. It’s not about choosing a side to either be calm and calculated, or to become this angry, raging person. The purpose is for us to be able to hold both sides in our conscious awareness, and to sit with that discomfort and the conflict for long enough until a new solution emerges.

When we reflect in shadow in this way, it’s suddenly not about choosing a side. It’s not about being loud or being quiet. But it’s about “Can I live with this opposition inside myself?”

And guess what? This opposition exists inside us anyway. So the question is whether we allow ourselves to make it conscious and bring it to awareness - without putting it back into the bag - for long enough, until a new solution might emerge.

We might ask: “Why would we put ourselves through this painful experience of working with the shadow, or even holding these opposing ends of the spectrum in our awareness?”

In the shadow, there is a lot of material that might be shameful, or even illegal or immoral. But Jung recognised that shadow also has a huge creative potential.

When we cut ourselves from parts of ourselves that we don’t approve of, we cut ourselves off from our life force. So the more we put in the bag, the more we’re disconnected from our life force. And the bigger the bag becomes, the heavier that load becomes, the less authentic we are, and often this will manifest later in life through burnout, depression, mental or physical health. All these aspects of ourselves can manifest in different ways, and there are people like Gabor Mate in understanding but also explaining to the wider public how these repressed aspects of ourselves can, and do, influence our lives.

How can we see shadow in our day to day life? How do we know that something is a healthy behaviour?

Some situations might warrant us getting angry. They might warrant us getting loud. Advocating for a cause, or fighting against injustice.

So how do we separate that healthy kind of anger from anger that comes from shadow?

The answer there is in the intensity of the emotion, or the affect we experience, compared to the intensity of the stimulus.

To explain what I mean, for example, you get home and your husband has left his socks on the floor. You get so angry, you feel completely disrespected, frustrated. You might feel like your husband doesn’t care about you - you’ve told him so many times about those damn socks and he’s still doing it. That makes you very angry and you might start shouting and raising your voice. Then a couple of days later you might sit and think “I wonder what came over me that day?”

This is a great opportunity to explore if there is some shadow there.

But there are other situations where anger or rage might be an entirely appropriate reaction. If our partner cheats on us, anger and rage might be a totally appropriate reaction to that situation.

It’s important to take a moment of reflection and get really honest with ourselves.

Where did that emotion come from?

Did the intensity of the emotion commensurate with the strength of the stimuli?

Jung says that shadow always needs a hook. So whenever we experience an intense emotion towards a person, emotion, organisation… it’s not that there’s no truth there, and we’re just imagining that this person is this way. What’s important is if our reaction is more intense that the strength of the stimuli.

That is the hook: there is some truth in that situation, and this is where we hook our projection or our shadow onto.

“Not that these others are wholly without blame, for even the worst projection is at least hung on a hook, perhaps a very small one, but still a hook offered by the other person.” - Carl Jung

I just used the word projection. This is an important concept. It’s a defence mechanism - and if we understand projection, then we can understand how shadow works, and how we can work with shadow.

When there is a part of ourselves that is rejected from our conscious awareness, we might assign it to another person. Let’s say in my shadow there is anger and rage, but I don’t own that. I might project that anger onto someone else and say “Look at them. They’re so angry! They’re so raging!” In this process, we might be getting angry ourselves at their anger. We might say “They shouldn’t be so angry”.

In my language you might recognise some of Byron Katie’s work. She has a book called The Work and a lot of beautiful YouTube videos which are about shadow work, and about owning our projections and reclaiming our shadow.

When we talk about shadow, in most cases, we‘re referring to aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to accept in ourselves because we consider them to be negative.

But there is also something called the golden shadow. These are positive things we might project onto other people. Someone who’s smart or successful or sensitive - when we admire this person or feel intense jealousy, these aspects can represent positive, creative aspects that already exist in ourselves but we choose to reject them in ourselves so we only notice them in other people. But we don’t realise they already exist in us as well. This is the golden shadow.

How do we work with shadow in coaching?

This has been an introduction into shadow. There are different levels and layers to bring shadow to the coaching space, depending on how comfortable you are, but also the client’s awareness or readiness to work with shadow.

If you want to start working with shadow in coaching, you don’t even need to start explaining what shadow is, or “doing shadow work”. In many spiritual or psychological communities this “shadow work” is considered to be a 1-2-3 step process we go through and hey presto, we’ve owned our shadow.

But that’s not what shadow work is. It’s more of an awareness, or an ability to consciously hold two opposing perspectives that exist within ourselves.

As coaches we don’t need to introduce them to our clients, but it’s useful to know how the shadow functions and manifests. Shadow shows up as strong, intense emotions. So when we work in coaching with someone, they might be telling us about a person, and we might notice their reaction to that person is really intense.

Edward Whitmont talks about how offended we might be about certain things happening in the world, or about a person in our lives - we’re so offended by this person that we might spend half an hour every day offence-taking towards that person. We can start to look for our own shadow by looking at the things we give a lot of power to. What are the things or people we seem to talk about all the time?

As coaches we might help our clients to work “over there” - on the other person who’s affected them - when in fact we might need to turn the mirror back and look at what’s making them (the client) spend all their time talking about this person and their inappropriate behaviour. As coaches, when we recognise the intensity of these emotions, we can start ot bring it back to the client.

This next level of depth goes beyond how the client can interact with this other person. Of course, it can be really important to have some tools for our clients to interact with other people, to take action, set boundaries and protect their well-being.

But it’s also valuable to ask “What does that also say about me?”

This is where an intuitive coach can bring their own observations into the space. “Hmm, it’s really interesting that the last 4 coaching sessions you spent at least half of the session talking about this person. There’s something about their behaviour or personality that’s really bugging you.”

As long as we keep working on the client’s interaction with this person, we might be denying our client of useful insight for their own growth.

Let’s say the client might cut this person out of their lives (and this may well be the best decision for the client at the time), but if there’s something inside ourselves that’s contributing to even starting relationships with that kind of people, then we might move away from this one person or situation, but the pattern might continue to repeat itself.

So then it becomes important to look at what this situation represents in ourselves. We can start to tease out how we might be contributing to the situation, or how the situation might in fact reflect something in ourselves.

This is very sensitive work that requires a strong coaching alliance. It’s important to recognise that this is a process. As coaches, when we notice something, we often want to share it. We want the client to see it. But sometimes it’s valuable to allow the process to develop gradually, and not offer to our client more than they’re ready to integrate in that moment.

Being aware of the mechanism of shadow or projection in coaching is important because clients can project something on us (as coaches) as well. We can’t deny that in this space, in this relationship between us, we will bring things up for each other. I might remind you of someone. You might remind me of someone. This might enable projection to take place.

For example, a client might have a strong reaction to something we said. Or the words we use might take them back to childhood when someone in their lives used those exact words before and hurt them.

The coaching space, or the coaching relationship can be an echo of something else.

As coaches, we might instinctively want to apologise or reassure our client that we didn’t mean that. This type of intervention is valuable in terms of repairing a relationship or supporting the client to come back into the space or trust us again. But in the process of accepting the projection and apologising, we might be denying the client of a valuable insight for them.

In these situations, as coaches we might also sit with it and find out what this situation might be echoing for our client. “What’s going on for you right now?”

This next layer of depth allows us to help our client explore their internal experience in the moment, rather than feel we need to “make it better” for our client in that moment.

Shadow work is a fascinating world, there are lots of different layers and a lot more that can be explored, but perhaps this gives you a taster of how you might start to bring shadow into your coaching work.

I’d love to know in comments below if there’s any new insight for you in listening to this video.

If you’re interested in exploring shadow in coaching or exploring jungian psychology in coaching, I’m starting a group supervision for coaches with over 100+ hours of experience on the 28th of February for 6 months. If this resonates with you, send me a message and ask for more information.


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