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LOOKING INTO THE SHADOWS: How Turning On The Light Can Nurture Psychological Safety

“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine. There is nothing more confining than the prison we don’t know we are in.”  – William Shakespeare
An executive I am coaching recently shared his 360 data where his direct reports expressed that they didn’t feel safe around him; that his unpredictable volatility and insensitivity created an environment that was not conducive to engagement and high performance. He believed that their response was an excuse for poor performance, and they lacked a solid work ethic, using the current remote working environment to “cop out.”
It’s not easy to hear tough feedback and see our blind spots, but it’s essential in personal and professional growth. We are in an era of daily change and uncertainty. This is a time for leaders to create and protect the space for everyone to feel psychologically safe. The first step in cultivating that environment is to reflect on ourselves as leaders – and that begins with understanding and accepting those uncomfortable truths, which I refer to as shadow work. Psychological safety around us begins with psychological safety within us.
While it’s often encouraged to focus on the light, it doesn’t make the dark go away.
The dark is just on the other side, waiting for a time to show its face. And if we don’t have the courage to bring it into the light of our awareness, we can inadvertently hurt ourselves or others. Shadow work, in its simplest form, is looking inward for what we had hidden earlier in our lives, and gradually healing those aspects of ourselves. Kimberly Fosu speaks about this in her blog, Shadow Work: A Simple Guide to Transcending The Darker Aspects of Yourself.
Let’s say that a girl is born with a strong sense of self. She knows who she is; she knows what she likes and doesn’t like; she asks for what she wants and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind! She is a strong little girl, but she is raised in a family that doesn’t know what to do with her spirit and constantly tells her to tone it down because it’s “too much.”
In order to survive, she rejects the parts of herself that are strong and confident. She grows up to be quiet, sweet, and obedient. Then, when she turns forty, she doesn’t understand why her life is so painful. The truth is, she suppressed important aspects of herself and thus feels divided. She won’t be able to feel psychologically safe – or fully create safety around her – until she does her shadow work to discover and embrace who she was meant to be.
Here’s a few things we know about shadow work:
1. It takes courage to meet with your shadow. 
When you start shadow work, you may feel the resistance you felt as a child, and the desire to keep suppressing these aspects of yourself. To become aware of something, you have to choose to see it. We are unaware of the shadow in the same way we can’t see in the darkness – we often even coach children to not be afraid of the dark. Once you turn on the light of awareness and embrace the hidden aspects of yourself that seem to be extremely uncomfortable, you open your eyes to a whole new side of yourself that you had no idea existed. If you are worried about what you might find, there is probably something important you don’t want to revisit. Instead of continuing to avoid it, you can see it as one more reason to do shadow work. This work is necessary if you want to be an authentic leader and fully realize your capacity to impact the world.
2. Become aware of your shadow. 
Ask yourself: “Was I completely accepted as a child? How did I feel most of the time? What was expected of me and what behaviors and emotions were judged by the people who raised me?” Your response to those behaviors that were judged created a shadow aspect within you. The answers to these questions will open the door to what is hidden. The shadow often finds roots in your childhood. The most important step in doing shadow work is to become aware of what is concealed. Shine a light on it to bring it out of the darkness. No matter how long you avoid looking at your shadow self, it will keep manifesting into your reality until you pay attention to it. The self that is fractured seeks to become unified, and we will be presented with opportunities to see the aspects of ourselves we have suppressed, rejected, denied, and disowned. The more you become aware of your shadow self and embrace it with some compassion, the freer you are to welcome your authentic self.
3. Shadow work is about making the unconscious conscious and the unacceptable acceptable. 
We become adults and feel we should be able to handle life better, yet we often keep falling into the same unhealthy patterns. That’s because the shadow operates outside of our conscious awareness, in the form of unconscious and limiting beliefs. The goal of shadow work is integration and appreciation – fully seeing and embracing all the aspects of yourself that make you who you are. Within your wounds lie some of your greatest and most important gifts that have yet to be unearthed.
4. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.  
Acceptance is a requirement. The minute you say something about you is “bad,” you have a reason to suppress, ignore, and deny it. Once you become aware of your shadow self, don’t shame it or blame it. Instead, give it your full acceptance. Your shadow was born from non-acceptance and rejection in the first place. It was created the moment you began to push it away. Antagonizing the shadow even more only adds fuel to the fire. The shadow is part of who you are, so look at it from a place of appreciation. Everyone has gone through a difficult time in their life that created shadows within them. Make peace with your shadow so you can find peace. Shadow work is a great way to experience inner healing and transformation through self-awareness and self-acceptance.
5. Recognize – and appreciate – triggers.
Have you ever met the most gentle, sweetest, and kind person, and in the blink of an eye something happens, and this person turns into someone else? They become mean and scary; they throw a huge tantrum or freak out. The shadow part took over when they got triggered. Triggers have the power to turn lives upside down and destroy the most cherished relationships. They spark a highly charged emotional reaction and are messengers from your shadow self. They are reflections of deep unresolved wounds that you have suppressed.  See your triggers as an invitation to delve deeper into things you are unaware of.
We are constantly evolving as leaders. Our awareness evolves as well as our ability to respond to that awareness. The authentic journey is just that – a journey into becoming more fully who we are. It’s not a destination. It’s a method of travel. While working with the shadow is about integration, you can never be completely integrated. It’s a life-long journey. Embrace it with awareness and self-compassion. Doing shadow-work means coming to know and accepting these hidden aspects of ourselves that, at some point down the road, will result in authentic self-acceptance and genuine compassion for others. In the words of Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”