A rambling post about the shadow side

Here in Cable Bay the brilliant winter sunshine of the past few days has been replaced by blustery cloudy weather. It might be my fault for picking up my friend’s copy of a book called Meeting the Shadow.

FYI, the wikipdedia explanation of the shadow, as conceived by Jung, is here.

I feel pretty ambivalent writing a post about Shadow work, not least because hey, this is not what someone on holiday should be seen as doing is it? Also, because I think the whole notion of the shadow sometimes seems to lead to rather spooky and mystical new-age-at-its-worst conversations. On top of that, there’s only such much of the Jungian world view I can take before needing to go for a swim to get away from the headiness of it all.

(I wonder if it would be more helpful to think of the shade rather than the shadow, to get away from the polarities of light and shadow. That might create more space for embracing more of our experience.)

Some of the best essays in the book are the ones showing how many gurus and cults create darkness by apparently evangelising the light. The search for purity leads to the repression and denial of our less admirable qualities, so that they are become hidden and split off rather than dealt with. The book predates the War on Terror, but I’d cite that as pretty good example of the concept of a disowned shadow being projected out onto the world.

Anyway, the essay I’ve just read is by W Brugh Joy and tells of his experience at the Findhorn community. He gives a talk in which he voices some concerns and fears about what he sees there. This provokes a massive backlash which stigmatises him as some kind of power-obsessed American. It sounds like people just dumped a whole lot of rage on him, and he recounts how he managed to sit there and not defend himself but frame it as healthy vent for the community.

This struck a chord with me as I’ve occasionally found myself having to do the same in my day job as a facilitator. I remember one particular occasion where I tried to facilitate a discussion on branding in an organisation. It was one of those gigs where you realise you’ve walked into a minefield of suspicion and distrust. You make a few inadvertent remarks and realise that you’re no longer the facilitator of your imagination, but the blundering interfering consultant of the group’s. Your offhand remark is actually the last straw on the camel’s back. And as an outsider, you offer a much safer target for people’s wrath than the real powers that be in the organisation.

I remember taking a lunch break and realising that this was one of those days when my job was probably to go down in flames so the group could vent its anger and reunite – ostensibly on getting the task done despite my ineptitude. Which they did, quite satisfactorily I think. They got to be angry without having to challenge the authority of management. You could argue that this wasn’t very authentic or rational, but I’d say it got the job done and led to useful progress. For me, it was good practice at getting out of the way, but not the sort of thing that gets repeat business.

8 thoughts on “A rambling post about the shadow side

  1. Robert Paterson

    Oh Johnnie – I had the same moment – I was in a group where all sorts of power struggles were under the surface and I said something and bang – WWIII!

    The leader was a guru type as well and I now wonder if there is something about gurudom, the shadow, that suppresses feeling that then seek to vent?

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Welcome to the southern hemisphere again Mr J.

    Interesting that Jung chooses a visual metaphor here. It could as easily be Silence (audio) or a Soft Patch (tactile).

    Everyone has hit a group or individual “shadow”. My most memorable incident was not facilitating (altho I’ve come close) but at a champagne tasting where I accidently pushed the button of a woman dying from cancer. Messy. Very messy.

    So what about out own shadows. The point I love is where someone hits one of my buttons. And I react in a purely visceral way. And afterwards I think “why the hell did I do that?”

    And generally it triggers some illuminating & uncomfortable insight into myself. Rock on!


    Thanks for the comments, Rob and Matt. Sounds like we share similar experiences.

    I want to add that sometimes people talk about the shadow in a way that makes it sound like we all this dark, murky unconscious full of weird shit. All that Freudian id mullarkey. Sometimes, it’s just “stuff we’re not aware of” and we get confused.

    The sort of ventings (I could say dumpings) could be a case in point. The anger that’s vented is not an entire projection of an inner demon, just unexpressed feelings seeking the fire exit.

    The more interesting writing on Shadow seems to avoid pushing the point too far. Some nasty stuff I see in others may be, well, just nasty stuff. It’s not all an invention of my dark psyche projected onto an innocent.

    It relates to the idea that we’re not rational beings but rationalising beings. Our minds tidy up mess and make patterns; very useful sometimes and very misleading at others. We sometimes see conspiracy where there’s only cockup, not because of some darkness in our soul but because conspiracy seems to fit and seems rational.

    On your point about gurudom, Rob, I pretty much share your view. I’m very wary of gurus as I think they often part of a system in which shades of meaning and doubt are suppressed. I tend to believe most forms of power corrupt for the same reason.

    Some shadow practitioners might argue that this reveals my own secret desire to be a guru myself. He he, the very idea! 🙂

  3. Matt Moore

    it sound like we all this dark, murky unconscious full of weird shit

    Well, writers do love the drama. But sometimes you’re right. There is no drama. There’s just stuff. But we’re not supposed to have “stuff”, we’re supposed to rational & cool & sorted. Which makes it so much harder to deal with. Like trying to juggle with mittens.

    “I wasn’t abused as a child, I just haven’t had any coffee this morning”

    Some shadow practitioners might argue that this reveals my own secret desire to be a guru myself

    The gourd, Mr J, the gourd…

  4. Chris Rodgers

    In the context of organizations, I feel that the idea of the shadow side usefully conveys the sense that any action by management will necessarily generate shadow-side activity, in the same way that shining a light on an object will always cast a shadow. You can’t have the light without the shadow. Nor can you have a management action without its shadow-side effects.

    There is an often-quoted story from the Nasrudin series, in which the Mulla has lost his keys inside his house but is found searching for them outside “because there is more light here”. Conventional wisdom similarly encourages managers to look for solutions in the ‘light’ provided by the formal, rational and visible aspects of their organizations, rather than in the hidden, messy and informal processes that characterize the underlying, ‘real world’ dynamics of organizational change and performance.

    However, much of the productive work in organizations (as well as the dysfunctional stuff) gets done through these shadow-side processes – the informal organization, social networks, political processes, cultural patterning of interactions and so on. So my own view is that, when facilitating, I have no choice but to help people engage with ‘the shadow’ as well as ‘the light’. On occasions that means getting out of the way and just ‘holding the space’. At other times it might require a dose or two of challenge as well as support. Either way, simply sticking with the light and ignoring – or, worse still, denying – the shadow is not an option.

  5. Johnnie Moore

    Chris: After I wrote that post I found myself thinking about the shadow of organisations in much the way you articulated. Dave Snowden makes the interesting point that it’s stories about failure that travel fastest in organisations; he makes this point as part of his wider critique of “best practice”.

    Like you, I think it’s the shadow that actually gets things done in organisations, for good or ill.

    The other way I sometimes put it is that the introduction of rules or best practices is simply a disturbance of the system, the consequences of which are not predictable. That’s because human beings are not like computers, where you simply get the program right and everyone then behaves “in alignment”.

  6. Chris Rodgers

    I agree completely, Johnnie. This is part of the “do it better and get it right” school of management, that distorts leadership practice and undermines rather than enhances organizational performance. The continuing obsession with so-called “best practice” is a particularly widespread example of this, seducing managers with the false promise of certainty, predictability and control.

    Those in leadership positions – throughout an organization – need to recognize that they are both in control and not in control at the same time. For example, a manager’s position power might give him/her control of a formal decision to close a particular plant or initiate a reorganization; but they would have no control at all over the ways in which these decisions were perceived, interpreted and responded to by people throughout the organization. ‘Doing it better and getting it right’ might help with formal decision-making and project planning but it cannot help at all with the wider implications and consequential actions that flow from them.

    Raising leaders’ awareness of their own managerial ‘mortality’ and lack of omnipotence is not always greeted with enthusiasm! But colluding with a view that sees the latest ‘paint by numbers’ approach to organizational leadership as a guarantee of success is not a credible stance for consultants to take – however popular that might be.

  7. Sean Howard

    Thanks so much for sharing your personal journey on this matters, Johnnie.

    I dream of learning to get out of the way. Of myself, let alone to be able to sit and take wrath so that another might prosper.

    And the concept of taking a week of solitude struck something in me. Gonna book it.


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