(Part 1) Shadow, Trauma or Attachment Wound?
What is the difference between a shadow, a trauma and an attachment issue? And how can you direct your psychotherapist to serve you best? Think of this exploration as a dart board. You may show up in a counseling relationship unsure of what you are working on but you’d like to throw a dart. And a good counselor helps you find the board. But over time you want to take more responsibility for your healing, you’d like to take it a step further. Perhaps after throwing a few darts, you see that the board has many different areas and you’d appreciate a bit more precision or to throw darts more skillfully.
Here’s a good way to look at 3 areas of the dart board:
Shadows are psychological issues and resolved by thinking and insight.
Traumas are biological issues and resolved by sensing and resourcing the body.
Attachment wounds are ultimately spiritual issues and resolved by being.
Shadows are psychological, can occur at any level of development, and are unconscious by definition. Shadows are parts of your psyche which are disowned and they’re often projected on to other people. They’re parts of personality which have been pushed out of awareness. So you might already see humor that when you’re disclosing issues to a counselor, you’re only throwing darts at the part of the board you can see!
Uncovering shadows requires direct insight. Eureka! You suddenly see a part of yourself you didn’t before. Because shadows are unconscious, it’s often helpful when a counselor challenges you directly, showing you what you do not want to see. Initially you may feel sick or disgusted with a shadow emerging into awareness- which is evidence something has been suppressed- but over time you begin to feel more whole as you include its perspective. Counselors who are good shadow workers challenge your belief systems, press the edges of your comfort zone and point out your incongruence in order to help you see yourself from a more insightful perspective.
Here’s a brief example. Someone in the business world finds herself generally successful but she gets the feedback from her boss that she’s not a team player. At first she reflects, “Who needs this team, especially when they’re such a group of slackers and I’m responsible for 80% of our revenue intake”. But luckily her counselor points out that she’s defensive, angry and a bit burned out from working so hard. Over time she discovers that the part of her personality in conscious awareness is the “achiever” and she becomes curious what she is projecting on the “underachievers” while making sure to work her tail off to keep her “achiever” alive. She’s unconscious of the part of herself who is insecure, underachieving, and who resents criticism and she’s paying the price by not feeling connected with her team and feeling exhausted from overachieving. Perhaps there is part of her that would really like to “slack” and by integrating this shadow part over time, her relationships might improve and she may even be able to “achieve” at higher, more meaningful levels.
Traumas are a different part of the dart board. Rather than psychological, think of traumas as biological. Current research on the brain shows that traumatic experiences register in the levels of the reptilian brain where the main purpose of functioning is to “fight or flight”. Traumas impact the nervous system in the body by “freezing” these biological impulses to move the body. It was not safe physically, emotionally or socially to fully express the intense instinctual energies of fight or flight. Basically, traumatic experience freezes - from shock, boundary violation or even small instances of overwhelm over time- the physical body far below the psychology, much closer to the survival level of experience.
Healing traumatic material, since it reveals the vulnerability of some our most primitive levels of functioning, is better addressed gently while learning to titrate intense body sensations. Good trauma counselors work with energy and movement more than focusing on the level of thinking. Releasing traumas does not actually require insight but responds well to sensing contracted areas in the body directly, while simultaneously noticing and cultivating positive experiences (“resourcing”) in the present moment. This allows the nervous system to relax and lets areas of frozen biological impulses (to fight or flight) to release slowly over time.
Working with trauma often requires coming to terms with experiencing the dissociation that accompanies a freeze response. Think of it this way: If the biological organism feels so overwhelmed by an experience and has the sense that it might just die, a natural response would be to override the fight or flight instinct and shut down, freeze, prepare for death and numb out. When working with trauma, the numbness or dissociation is often the gateway to re-associate with the traumatic experience and reprocess it slowly.
So to continue our example: After working through the disowned psychological material of the woman’s insecurity of feeling her own “underachiever”, she’s noticed more times when her underachiever arises out of shadow and into awareness. She feels an uncomfortable contraction in her belly and becomes curious about this, noticing it not only at work but when she’s feeling insecure with her partner at home. And then she notices it at the supermarket when they’re out of the ingredients she needs for her dinner party. When she further investigates the frozen knot in her belly, she starts to discover fuzzy memories of being harshly criticized and spanked by her father for not performing well enough throughout school. Her counselor assists her to track her sensations more slowly and as the freeze in her gut moves up to her chest area she notices she becomes very angry (fight response). The frozen energy in her body slowly moves and she begins to tremble, releasing the energy she had repressed. Over time and through integration she discovers that the frozen energy in her body (trauma) has fueled the “achiever” persona so she would not have to feel the “underachiever” (shadow) which arose from her father’s emotional and physical abuse.
One important note. I’ve given an example above where a trauma response in the body served as a fuel for a shadow in the psychology. In doing the shadow work first, the trauma pattern did not initially clear. But in my experience, the reverse can be true too and by releasing the frozen trauma energy, shadow material does not always clear up on its own even though the trauma was “deeper” than the shadow. The main point is that they are interrelated, but for thorough resolution, usually require separate views, techniques, and skill sets from a counselor. As we will see in Part 2, the same holds true for attachment issues as we add a third layer of complexity to our example.