Why Leaders Can’t Ignore Their Shadows

Trauma, being “triggered” and shadow are all popular terms these days (thankfully), but what do they actually mean and how to they relate to our day day lives as leaders? As leaders, we have a longing to grow and change-to become the biggest and most capable version of ourselves. And yet, what holds us back? Why are we snagged again and again into the same habitual patterns that don’t serve us? Why do our shadows come to haunt us and demand our attention? We feel stuck in patterns of behavior, learned at different stages of development, which we can’t seem to let go of and which sabotage our ability to upshift into greater capacity. The paradox is that while we don’t want to succumb to these patterns, if we ignore them, they won’t go away.

It’s a different story for all of us, but the way our brains and neural pathways learn and remember behavior is the same for all of us. For the first seven years of our lives we are literally in an alpha/theta brain state downloading information into our subconscious, which will later become our operating system on how to live and behave (although I don’t love the analogy of humans to computers, it’s pretty useful). We slowly take on these habits of being that keep us stuck in the same patterns of reactivity and shutting down. These patterns become the imprint of our personality as our brains and body create familiar pathways which dictate how we live in the world. 

Trauma is used to describe the inner-regulation system of our nervous systems when going through a potentially life-threatening situation. In response to this threat, our nervous systems engage in ancient, evolutionary mechanisms of fight, flight, befriend, or freeze. When we experience trauma we must be given time and resources to adequately work through what’s happened. If we don’t have this, the trauma remains as unprocessed shadow energy in the biological and psychological systems and shows up as reactionary and compulsive behavior, anxiety, difficulty regulating emotions, difficulty in coping with challenges, addictions, and even personality and mood disorders. This shadow energy gets continually triggered, or activated by life circumstances and relationships, sometimes in an awe-inspiring effort to be resolved, and we find ourselves emotionally overreacting to situations in a disproportionate way.

Being a leader means facing our own trauma and shadows with compassion and courage. We need compassion because it’s not about condeming ourselves or becoming someone we’re not, and we need courage because it’s not always easy to face these parts of ourselves. Indeed we’ve spent much of our lives trying to bypass this stuff through hiding from ourselves (and others) or trying to become “perfect”. Facing our shadows requires radical self-honesty coupled with incredible gentleness. In this way, we become leaders who are more integrated and less afraid. We don’t project our shadow material on to others and by bringing this stuff into the full light of awareness, we release the energy of the shadow and become more invigorated and awake. 

Clearly its beyond the scope of this short article to give a comprehensive overview of trauma, shadow, and how this all effects the brain and our behaviors There is so much being discovered about these topics, especially about collective and generational trauma, that it’s worth seeking out more to read if you’re interested. And most people are becoming more and more aware of how trauma affects our everyday lives.

To bring it back to leadership, how do leaders incorporate the knowledge of trauma into their lives and work and why is that important? As leaders we must be aware of our own way of being in the world. Our behavior affects others, especially if we hold a leadership role, people are looking to us to set the tone of culture and for authenticity. To be authentic means to be aware of and integrate the different parts of ourselves, especially our shadow. It means we are not hiding from ourselves. For example, if we are speaking to someone we feel is challenging our authority, and this is an issue for us due to a hidden trauma of our power never being validated as a child, we will come across as overly aggressive and defensive. When we are unaware of our hidden shadows they usurp our ability to have healthy relationships, both with ourselves and others and can affect the whole tone of our lives. 

To work with shadow material takes diligence and incredible kindness. We must be woke to our latent tendencies and habitual patterns and bring them into the light of awareness with love and compassion, not judgment and criticism. Counseling and having others to mirror us can be very helpful in working with shadow. Also, giving these parts of ourselves a voice and literally talking to them can also be helpful.

You don’t have to be in a leadership role to be a leader. Being a leader means having a willingness to grow and integrate the parts of ourselves we’ve normally ignored, our shadows. Ken Wilbur calls this “transcend and include” and it means both responding to the call of our potential and including the parts of ourselves that are wounded. In this way, we model for others what it truly means to be a leader-someone who can live in full light with their beautiful shadow illuminated in length behind them.

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