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Transform Your Leadership By Resolving Your Shadow

by | Nov 9, 2022

Carl Jung famously said, ‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’ Mindfulness is how we ‘make the unconscious conscious’.

The impact our unconscious programming has on our behaviour cannot be overestimated. According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, 95 per cent of our thoughts, emotions and learning occur without our conscious awareness. Most cognitive neuroscientists concur. NeuroFocus founder A. K. Pradeep goes even further and puts the figure at 99.999 per cent. Our subconscious thoughts and assumptions are like algorithms, programmed by our past traumas, reinforcements, punishments and cultural influences. Without the deep work linked to mindfulness and shadow work, this programming will continue to shape our lives, holding us back from the growth we are trying to cultivate.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, concludes from years of empirical research that ‘we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend’. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine and author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, writes, ‘[C]onsciousness is the smallest player in the operations of the brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.’

Dealing with our subconscious fears, beliefs, and assumptions can require literally a lifetime of inner development work. The first step is to address the shadow that is holding us back from living our growth values. The challenge is to uncover our unconscious assumptions and beliefs so we can have greater agency over them.

Uncovering the shadow

During a course I was teaching, a participant told me, ‘I hate prejudiced people.’

‘That’s interesting,’ I said. ‘Do you see the issue with that statement?’

‘No,’ she replied.
‘Prejudiced people often engage in hatred of others,’ I explained. ‘And you’re engaging in the same. You are hating the haters. The result is that your opportunity to influence prejudiced people is greatly diminished.’

This is a simple illustration of how unconscious we can be as human beings. Not intentionally, and not because we’re bad in any way, but simply because we’re blind to what we’re doing. We are blind to our shadow.

Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern western psychology, spoke of ‘the shadow’ in relation to our capacity to hide from ourselves and deny our own behaviours, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. We keep them in the shadow of our mind through defence mechanisms such as numbing, denying, blaming and justifying, instead of bringing them into the light of our awareness. Yet literally everything we are subject to is held in the unconscious, which is why Jung was so insistent that we work on the shadow element of our unconscious in order to grow and rediscover wholeness.

Our psychological shadow represents the parts of ourselves that we disown and repress because we are subconsciously afraid to admit the parts of ourselves that we find inferior or unacceptable. Psychologist Stephen Diamond explains that our shadow is dark ‘both because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative, socially or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger, fear or rage, and due to its unenlightened nature, completely obscured from consciousness’.

Our shadow explains why we often behave in ways that are contrary to our values, while being in denial about it. As Jung said, ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.’

Our shadow is the brain’s way of protecting an identity that served us at one point in our lives. For example, a colleague of mine worked with a client who received a lot of reinforcement for perfect grades when she was young. If she went home with a 95 per cent score for her exam, her father would ask what she had missed that prevented her from getting 100 per cent. She was sent the well-intended message, ‘If you do something, do it well.’ Unfortunately, she internalised the idea that perfection was necessary to get validation and love.

This unconscious conditioning led her to seek out perfection in every aspect of her life. In meetings she would always seek out what went wrong and identify missing details, which led to disengagement from her team and colleagues. She was very hard on herself too, always seeking out additional data points to validate her decisions, postponing decisions to ensure everything was perfect, revisiting the past and anticipating the future to reinforce her ego’s unconscious drive for perfection, and hence self-preservation.

Recent research suggests that such conditioned responses protect our ego structure through our brain’s default mode network (DMN). This neurological structure is responsible not only for protecting our physical wellbeing by scanning the environment and sending information to our limbic system (fast brain), but also for protecting our emotional wellbeing. This automatic reaction seeks not expansion or innovation, but protection.

As leaders, when not self-aware, we are thus driven by what appears to be the right thing to do based on what once served us well. Without self-awareness, we are therefore not in a position to see objectively if our behaviours are adapted to the context, or whether they are a relic of our past that no longer serves us. In short, our shadow is the source of all our self-sabotaging behaviours. And the less we see it, the greater its destructive influence on our lives.

Ironically, others tend to see our shadow more easily than we do. When we’re operating out of our shadow, it’s often for grand display, and the only person being fooled is us. In our leadership development programs we help leaders to come clean with their team by openly discussing the shadow they have been leading from and asking their team to help them with compassionate feedback when it’s happening, so they can recover credibility, trust and psychological safety. It’s no surprise that leader after leader has told us that these sessions were completely life-changing for them. They were tough, but the most important development moments of their career.

To mitigate the intensity of the emotional pain of admitting the shadow, leaders can all too quickly revert to fast-brain protective habits like justification and blame. It might be, for example, ‘I know I micromanage, but I just love attention to detail,’ or, ‘I just insist on excellence.’ We always have a good story to explain our darker side. Of course, we also don’t ever reach deep shadow exploration if we flip into self-criticism and blame ourselves. Inner psychological safety disappears, and with it the curiosity and compassion needed for exploring the shadow.

This kind of growth work is not easy, which is why the more advanced stages of personal growth are rare and remarkable. As Jung taught, ‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.’

Interestingly, Jung wasn’t interested in organisational development or team and leadership performance. He was interested in personal and transpersonal psychology, the process of helping people find happiness and wellbeing. He studied the shadow because it plays an integral role in our mental health. It runs on autopilot beneath the surface of what we think are conscious choices, constantly eroding our health and wellbeing and causing incongruence and stress in our lives. When we’re not conscious of it, it creates constant internal conflict. We’re in denial of some of our urges and behaviours. For our happiness alone, dealing with the shadow is a good idea.

Initially, when we begin exploring and owning our shadow, it can be extremely painful. However, exposing and understanding our whole selves, warts and all, is the best long-term path to happiness and fulfilment. It enables a profoundly mature and relaxed mind, free of defence and denial. Those who have done deep shadow work have also done deep compassion work. They are indivisible.

In today’s turbulent organisational context where human suffering is on the rise, the deeper practices found in clinical psychology are increasingly needed to help people discover the psychological wellbeing to support healthy organisational performance.

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