August 2014, by Asha Goldstein, LCSW
As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Shadow Work® Coach, I am dedicated to practicing empowerment-focused and experiential models of psychotherapy that have a keen eye towards healing shame. I call my work radical acceptance, and the two main modalities I work with are Shadow Work® Coaching and mindfulness.
Mindfulness is currently one of the most highly researched therapeutic approaches for a wide range of uses including anxiety, depression, struggles with eating and body image, relationship difficulties, addictions, and much more. Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”
Both Shadow Work® and mindfulness are embodied approaches to psychological healing because they work with direct experience of the body and emotional states. There is also a quality of non-hierarchy in both approaches as they regard the participant as having wisdom, insight, and authority over their own healing. In Shadow Work® we might ask, “What needs to happen between these two conflicting aspects of yourself in order for you to have what you want?” With mindfulness we ask, “What do you feel in your body right now? Can you describe it as sensation? Now can you fully experience that sensation just as it is, without turning away from it?” These questions are empowering as they draw out a person’s own capacity to guide their healing process.
Below is an outline of some of the major traits as they are shared, or slightly differentiated between the two approaches:
- Cultivates attention and awareness of present-moment experience.
- Encourages non-judgmental response to emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations.
- Supports principles of curiosity, openness, and “beginner’s mind” for responding to internal experience.
- Usually practiced while sitting, though can also be used while standing, lying down, walking, or in the midst of daily activities.
- Intentionally non-goal-oriented. Emphasis is on meeting present-moment experience with openness on ongoing basis.
SHADOW WORK® APPROACHES
- Cultivates awareness and experience of different aspects of the self.
- Encourages understanding and honoring of all parts of the self, including those parts that have been most challenging (i.e., Risk Manager).
- Facilitator models open, non-judgmental inquiry when engaging with participant’s different “parts.”
- Usually practiced by having participant take different positions throughout a room to represent different parts of themselves, though can also be done via Skype by having participant shift positions with laptop.
- While there may be a goal of having participant complete full Shadow Work® process and connect with qualities they were wanting, there is also a great openness to meeting the participant and their experience exactly where they are at.
As I deepen my practice of both Shadow Work® Coaching and mindfulness-based approaches, I come to recognize more and more how mutually supportive they are. Mindfulness is a powerful way to help a person be more in touch with their body and their emotions. In this way it supports connection with the Lover, Inner Child, and Warrior archetypes of Shadow Work®. Mindfulness can also be used to cultivate a sense of spaciousness, perspective, and distance in the midst of overwhelming emotions. By focusing on the breath and witnessing thoughts without being absorbed in them, a person gains greater access to the objectivity of the Magician and the wisdom of the Sovereign archetypes.
Shadow Work® and mindfulness offer both theoretical frameworks and specific therapeutic practices. Some people are more comfortable sitting and exploring their internal landscape of emotions and sensations with mindfulness practices. Yet in these instances I may still be considering the Shadow Work® archetypes and the different parts that are active in someone’s inner world. On the other hand, some people are more comfortable actively embodying different parts of themselves, speaking as those parts, and dialoguing between them. Even in this Shadow Work® practice, however, I may still bring in mindfulness practices of moving closer to their emotions and bodies or using mindful attention to create more objectivity.
I recently worked with a client who was a wonderful model for how these two approaches can be used together.
A CASE STUDY
Deborah was a 57-year-old woman who contacted me for Skype sessions after discovering my website in an online search. While she lived in a large city in the South, she hadn’t found anyone locally whose work really matched what she was looking for. Deborah was struggling with both depression and anxiety. She worked as an executive in a large company and was also caring for her mother who was in early stages of dementia.
We met over Skype, and Deborah was ready to dive in right away. She shared that she wanted to feel more present and grateful in her life rather than feeling stuck in resentment about caring for her mother and fear about not maintaining her performance at work. Through our work together, Deborah became more aware of a part of herself that was hyper-responsible and thought it needed to take charge of any situation. She came to understand and honor how these qualities had been her best attempt to feel safe in a family that was unstable due to her father’s drinking. The more that she was able to accept these qualities in herself, the more she was also able to recognize how much she yearned to be able to relax and trust life more.
I found that Deborah had easy access to the Warrior and Sovereign archetypes but struggled to connect with her body and her more vulnerable emotions. Mindfulness practices helped Deborah attend to the tension in her body and the emotions that accompanied it. When she reached her threshold and didn’t feel comfortable going further, we used Shadow Work® practices to explore the risks associated with feeling emotions like sadness and hurt. We also used mindfulness to help Deborah feel a sense of presence that allowed her to feel safe in the midst of strong emotions.
With time, Deborah found that connecting with her grief about her mother’s declining health helped her feel a great sense of relief. The more she trusted herself to be able to tolerate a wide range of emotions in her life, the less she needed to try so hard to be in control. Deborah learned that she could recognize and check-in with the different parts of herself in the midst of her busy life. She developed the capacity to pause in the midst of her busy schedule to recognize and respond to her emotional needs in a way that left her feeling strong, adaptable, and relaxed. She reported that our work had indeed allowed her to feel far more present and focused on all that was good in her life.
Through my work with Deborah and many other clients I have come to feel that weaving Shadow Work® and mindfulness together is the most effective way I can help people heal. These two approaches are fraternal twins, similar in many ways, but not identical. I continue to learn so much from the mindfulness perspective of releasing agendas and expectations in favor of embracing the realities of life. Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach defines radical acceptance as “the willingness to accept ourselves and our lives as they are.” It seems that there is a very deep wisdom in this teaching, with many layers to peel as I come to understand more fully what this really means.
I am so grateful for all the ways that Shadow Work® was designed to mirror this perspective. Whichever approach I utilize in a given moment, it is so rewarding to help a person come to understand and honor aspects of themselves with which they have been at war. A person who is willing to meet any part of themselves is truly a liberated person.
Asha Goldstein, LCSW, is a Certified Shadow Work® Coach and psychotherapist in Ashland, Oregon. She offers classes, workshops, and individual counseling and coaching in person and via Skype. More information is available on her website at AshaGoldstein.com. Please note that any identifying information in the case study portion of this article has been removed. Read more about Asha.
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