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r. Keith and Corey explore how shadow practices can help couples resolve conflict and deepen their intimacy.
Text by Dr. Keith Witt
What is Shadow work and why is it relevant to couples work?
The three universal functions of psychotherapy are attuning to create an alliance, supporting more healthy behavior in every dimension, and dealing with resistances to change. Resistances to change, and impulses to be better and different both heavily involve Shadow work.
I define Shadow, then Shadow work, and then how it is central and universal to therapy and couples work.
What are some specific examples of Shadow work in couples therapy?
- Noticing rising arousal levels and encouraging both partners to breathe deeply, relax into their bodies, and reduce their arousal levels — teaching them to do it individually and in concert with each other.
- Offering individuals and couples archetypal forms harvested from their cosmologies or from my intuition to guide them when they are angry, anxious, afraid, ashamed, conflicted, or confused. Examples are the Man or Woman of Wisdom, the Joyful Love, the Love Warrior, or the Divine Father or Mother.
- Feeling couples and individuals tighten up and become more rigid and resistant to change and receiving influence, and then reassuring their Shadow selves that they are safe. Therapists do this mostly Shadow to Shadow — unconscious to unconscious — until clients loosen up enough to trust the therapist enough to receive caring influence. When this happens, the other partner’s destructive Shadow can get activated and intrude on the process, which then calls for working with his or her destructive Shadow for first awareness and then regulation in the present of the threatening spouse.
Themes of Shadow work with couples are:
- Teaching constructive/destructive Shadow and helping partners pendulate back and forth to learn how to regulate to constructive.
- Teaching how to recognize, dialysize, and transform destructive Shadow material. This is an intensely embodied experience which monitors and adjusts arousal levels in states where people typically ignore arousal levels and resist self-soothing.
- Once physiological arousal has been soothed (making social engagement much more possible), people can begin to deconstruct the distorted perspectives (stories) that maintain and amplify defensive states.
- To do all this, people need to become more aware of states/stories, and regulation of self, as well as co-regulating with each other. Mindfulness practices give the neurological support to improve in this. Integral mindfulness (as discussed extensively in my book Integral Mindfulness: from clueless to dialed-in) is especially useful in this, since it begins with mindfulness and then expands into right action in the present moment.
Shadow work often begins by dropping into the body, breath, and connecting with feelings, thoughts, judgments, and desires.
Shadow work runs off of attunements with clients. This is often feeling couple/individuals tighten up and get rigid, and reassuring their Shadow selves they are safe until they loosen up, trust me more, and can receive caring influence. Most therapists do this, Shadow to Shadow (nonverbal to nonverbal, energy to energy), until clients loosen up enough to trust the therapist enough to receive caring influence. When this happens, the partner’s Shadow can get activated and intrude on the process, which then calls for working with his or her destructive Shadow for first awareness and then regulation in the presence of the other.
I support them identifying and dialysizing destructive Shadow, and identifying, trusting, and acting on constructive Shadow — both in self and partner. This goes in stages, depending on the levels of awareness of couples.
- I teach the unconscious tendencies/patterns at the obvious behavioral level.
- I encourage them to drop into deeper shared values and more loving thoughts.
- I point out their conflicting levels of moral response (we have multiple moral systems), and teach the include and transcend levels of moral developments. The direction of the work is always towards deeper shared values and more loving thoughts being associated with attunement and generous actions at the advancing edge of their moral systems.
I work with an individual in the presence of his or her partner to help them learn how to do the same at home with themselves and their partner.
I teach them the importance of receiving the other’s positive efforts with pleasure and gratitude. Partners in defensive states tend to focus on the negative aspects of the other’s feelings, thoughts, and actions, and not notice the positive feelings, thoughts, and actions that are also happening.
- If you and your partner are distressed and your partner makes any efforts to compassionately understand you and reach out in a caring way, you want to praise, support, and encourage them.
- A mission of couples therapy is to help couples grow their capacities to self-regulate to compassionate understanding and prosocial actions to shift from distress to warmth and love.
- This means learning how we enter defensive states when threatened–states of amplified or numbed emotions, distorted perspectives, destructive impulses, and diminished capacities for empathy and self-reflection.
- Especially potent are the negative stories (distorted perspectives) which support amplified emotions and destructive impulses. Feeding a negative story–elaborating on it and enhancing it–keeps people distressed, separated, and left with nothing but attacks to try solve problems. Attacks never solve problems. Even worse, such negative stories create resentment at what is missing in relationships and negative comparisons–both associated with betrayal and dissolution.
- Monitoring and regulating (and co-regulating with your partner) arousal levels is crucial, and involves increasing awareness of Shadow material constantly flowing up from the unconscious. If someone can’t perceive amplified emotions as amplified, distorted perspectives as distorted, destructive impulses as destructive, and compromised capacities for empathy and self-reflection as dangerous and needing immediate attention, he or she will tend to self-amplify the defensive state and cause more damage.
- Once you notice a defensive state, you need to remember what to do about it. This usually involves soothing arousal levels, deconstructing negative stories with compassionate understanding, reaching for empathy and self-reflection, and remembering that the mission is to get back to love. We have unconscious (Shadow) resistances to doing this, since our nervous systems when threatened are primitive and resist becoming vulnerable.
- Two people struggling for kindness and compassion are shifting into shared strengths, shared resources, shared love and mutual appreciation belief systems that heal injuries and deepen intimacy.
We have choice: Hardly anyone consciously chooses the more contemptuous, dismissive, and pessimistic stories over the more compassionate and accurate understanding of both constructive and destructive Shadow forces, if they believe they have a choice!
- To avoid change, you need to believe there isn’t a better choice ,or that you can’t enact a better choice.
- If you remember you have a better choice when distressed, and have been helped to enact it, it becomes progressively harder to keep indulging defensive states.
- In couples counseling, as clients snap in and out of defensive states with reciprocating triggers (destructive Shadow intruding into the session), couples counselors help them pendulate back and forth between states of healthy response and defensive states. Such pendulation is central to most trauma treatments for individuals, and is tricky helping couples do it, since each one is being triggered by the other in relational defensive patterns as the therapist is working alternately with the partners.
Sometimes I teach Shadow awareness, sometimes teach about unconscious processes, and sometimes not. I look for the language and perspectives they find most soothing and persuasive in their current states of consciousness.
Previous Episodes of Witt & Wisdom
Mastery, Collaboration, and Finding Your Unique Healing Style
What Makes Us Happy? Growing Toward Anti-Fragility
How Self-Hatred Can Lead to Self Transformation
How Attachment Theory Can Improve Your Relationships
Escaping the Comfort Zone: Motivation, Shame, and the Will to Transform
About Keith Witt
Dr. Keith Witt is a Licensed Psychologist, teacher, and author who has lived and worked in Santa Barbara, CA. for over forty years. Dr. Witt is also the founder of The School of Love.
About Corey deVos
Corey W. deVos is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996. Corey is also a professional woodworker, and many of his artworks can be found in his VisionLogix art gallery.