Demystify The Shadow

Before the first humans figured out how to make a fire to have a hot meal, I am pretty sure they got scared by their own shadows. Being taken by surprise is always a bit alarming, even when it turns out it was just us. 

In therapy we strive to get free from symptoms and self-defeating patterns that keep us from living a good life.

One way to approach this is to do what is called Shadow Work. The first reference to this comes from the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who lived from 1875-1961. Jung was one of the first to use the term, “subconscious,” to describe the inner workings of the mind. Jung talked about The Shadow as the dark side of the personality. The idea was that beneath our conscious awareness lie rejected sides of our personality. This underworld includes thoughts, memories, feelings, impulses and judgments that our psyche has decided we need to hide, even from ourselves. 

Photo Credit: Frank McKenna

For 16 years I worked at an addiction treatment center for women that was called Residence XII. One of the founders was Marion Hutton-Schoen, who sang with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. She struggled with addiction,  found recovery and dedicated herself to create safe places for women to heal.

Marion’s approach had such a significant impact on my thinking and my work that I named my therapy practice Wise Woman Therapy.

Marion Hutton-Schoen studied Jung and developed the concept of working with The Addict and The Wise Woman. 

The Addict consists of thoughts, impulses and behaviors that are kept secret, like the rejected sides of The Shadow. Shedding light on these cravings, urges, schemes, lies, manipulations and other things that feed and maintain addiction is an important process. 

Women especially suffer from intense shame when they have alcohol or drug addictions. The common detrimental thinking is, “I keep doing these things and therefore I must just be a terrible person, awful mother etc.” It is critical to healing and recovery to start being honest. Calling out what The Addict is thinking and doing is an important part of this process. Knowing that these thoughts or substance-fueled mistakes are not your nature is critical. This doesn’t mean shying away from responsibility, it just means not staying stuck in the shame of it all.

                           The Addict is there but it is not who you really are.                                                                                   The Addict is the addiction itself.      
Who you are at your core is The Wise Woman.

Everyone, diagnosed with substance use disorder or not, has this undercurrent in some manner. Women in recovery from addiction quickly recognize that after the alcohol and drugs are removed, emotional sobriety is a lifetime of work.

The Work Of The Wise Woman

  • Learning and accepting that inside you there is a capacity to make positive changes.
  • Asking for and accepting help from safe people.
  • Finding new answers and trying new coping.
  • Gaining perspective to see the bigger picture and to be able include yourself in the equation.
  • Making decisions and good choices for yourself and the people you love.  

Important disclaimer here: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I firmly believe that addiction is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual condition. This process addresses the psychological part. All the other areas will still need to be addressed as well. 

Address the Unmet Needs

Whether the issues are substance-related or behavioral/process addictions, the Addict side is trying to address needs that have been left neglected and unaddressed. The Addict finds solutions that do work on some level for a certain amount of time. Figuring out what needs have been addressed by the Addict and finding a Wise Woman approach is very powerful.

The new ways to cope do not satisfy the needs the same way and there will be some grieving over this transition. The Addict takes care of things in a more immediate way and then leaves a trail of regret, remorse and other negative consequences.

For example, anxiety around social situations might be solved by alcohol or other drugs. It is a human need to have social interactions.

The work then is to figure out how the Wise Woman finds social connection and a sense of belonging. This takes time and patience and a lot of support.

When someone is completely exhausted and yet cannot rest, alcohol and drugs solve that problem immediately.

The work then is to figure out how the Wise Woman self-soothes,  decompresses somehow and begins to set better boundaries and asks for help. She has to learn to sit with other people’s disappointment with her. She cannot be all things to all people anymore. She learns to ask for help and let other people step up. These are not small tasks. Letting other people do a bit more work is an investment in the family or the workplace or the friendship circle.

Photo credit: Helena Lopes

The Addict solves problems in the short run but leaves behind a world of wreckage. Women have described this as a vicious cycle and a merry-go-round from Hell. The Wise Woman finds new ways to cope that will be beneficial long term, building a life that is sustainable. 

I don’t choose to call this work Shadow Work for several reasons. The connotations are full of mystery and fear. We don’t need to create extra drama. Women seeking help are already scared. I don’t need to paint myself as a brilliant healer who can help free you from The Shadow. Facing our fears and figuring out our inner world can be scary. The work I do with women is not dangerous. It is literally just talking. Sometimes women I work with write things. Some women explore their inner world by drawing or painting something. It’s rather mundane actually. Although it is simple and mundane, it is not easy. The process of finding safe coping is important work and it does provide relief. People may feel dramatic shifts but we need not do them dramatically. It’s just really hard work that will change your life for the better. Well worth it.

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