When we talk about the shadow we are usually referring to parts of ourselves that have been cut off, repressed, or denied. These shadow parts can influence us in difficult and confusing ways because they are so deeply hidden and out of our awareness. There are many different experiences that can cause us to put aspects of ourselves away in to shadow. Perhaps one of the most extreme and dramatic is when we experience trauma. Here I am defining a traumatic situation as a situation where we perceive that there is a threat to our survival, or the survival of someone close to us. During such a traumatic situation, if we are unable to act to protect ourselves or to protect others – either by fleeing to safety or fighting – then the terror of the situation can get stuck.
The moment and all the powerful emotions associated with it become frozen in time inside us.
This extreme response is actually a highly successful survival mechanism. It serves two purposes. One, it protects us from overwhelming emotion. If we are to die, or to witness something terrible, and there’s nothing we can do about it, then it’s better for us to be numb, to feel nothing physically or emotionally. Secondly, this freeze response stems from times when we were at threat from being eaten by predators. If we ‘played dead’ the predator may not bother with us. Many predators don’t eat animals that are already dead, they only eat meat they have killed themselves. Predators also often enjoy the chase – think of a cat playing with a mouse. If we freeze then the predator may simply lose interest in the game. Finally, of course, another advantage in freezing is that we keep very still, and this may help us to stay out of sight of the creature who is chasing us.
Once the life threatening situation is over it is now our emotional survival that is at stake. If we take in the terrible event and all its implications, without the necessary time and support required to integrate it, our psyche may not be able to cope. So, for most of us, the only option is to put the event, along with all the powerful emotions we never felt, in to shadow. This is usually an automatic, utterly unconscious decision. Some people completely blank out terrifying events, especially when they happened in childhood. Other people experience these events as memories of frozen moments in time, disconnected from their other memories, or they may experience these events as if they were watching them from a distance, or from above. Some people avoid persons or places that are associated with that event without knowing why they’re avoiding them, or they may feel overwhelming fear or depression in situations reminiscent of the event, yet have no knowledge of where these feelings have come from. It is possible for a person to be highly functioning and successful in many areas of their life, yet in certain specific situations they become overwhelmed with emotion and find it hard to control their behaviour and responses. This can be very distressing and confusing, and it is one of the signs that something powerful is in shadow, hidden completely out of awareness.
From our understanding of the shadow we believe it isn’t actually possible to ‘get rid’ of parts of ourselves, or of experiences or memories. So then what does happen to them when we cut them off? One option in situations of trauma is that the memories can get stored in our bodies. This is a way of allowing us to continue with our lives until we find the resources we need to fully integrate the experience. It keeps it largely out of our consciousness, but it is certainly not gone.
Trauma held in the body can show up in many ways – eating disorders, drug addiction, weight problems, self harming, menstrual problems, backache, hip pain, digestive difficulties or more serious illness. Our being is holding these memories in the best way it can in order to protect us from experiencing these overwhelming feelings directly. As well as this we may cut off all emotion, as a way of avoiding the risk of going anywhere near the pain we carry. Alternatively we may actually be someone who feels a LOT of emotion. However, these emotional ups and downs, however much of a rollercoaster they may be, are actually serving to mask the REAL pain, which is much deeper and more terrifying. Processing these everyday emotions does not necessarily heal the deeper trauma – but it may get us a step closer, as we learn to get more comfortable with feeling difficult emotions and having them heard and held. Meanwhile the deeper pain is still hidden in our bodies.
If a time comes in our life when our body and being feels safe enough we may begin to ‘unfreeze’ and experience some of this terror held in our body, along with the other powerful feelings, including rage and grief, that may be associated with the event. This is a challenging time. The sudden experiencing of these feelings can be overwhelming, and at its most extreme can result in debilitating fear, emotional breakdown, suicide or violence. It’s as though when we unfreeze we are still in that moment. We feel the feelings we couldn’t feel at the time and we take the action we couldn’t take at the time. We may lash out in extreme rage, or try to run and hide, even though the original event is long gone. We will be confused because our body is telling us we are in danger, when rationally we can see we are perfectly safe. People around us may find our behaviour difficult to understand, as it doesn’t relate to what is going on in the present moment. This process can happen at different rates and with different severities. It can happen in shorter bursts over many years, or at it’s most extreme it can appear as Post traumatic stress disorder and we may be completely unable to function in the world as we process what is going on for us.
We can’t always choose where and when this unfreezing will happen. However, if we are lucky, trauma can be unfrozen over time, in a safely held therapeutic environment where these emotions, although still frightening and intense, have the best chance of being held and processed and released from the body in to our conscious experience. We can stop being too terrified to feel, and we can start getting to know and understand these parts of ourselves when they come up. We can allow ourselves to feel the powerful emotion, and also understand that it belongs in the past. We can explain our strong reactions to others and therefore we can take greater responsibility for ourselves and our actions.
With time the powerful emotions begin to subside, but we will probably live with some form of these for the rest of our lives. Bringing things out of shadow isn’t about getting rid of them, it’s about bringing them in to consciousness where we have some control and understanding of ourselves, and we can say ‘This is me’ without fear or shame. Understanding and knowing ourselves better we now have the self knowledge to form loving relationships with people willing to support us in the difficulties we experience, and who love and respect ALL of who we are – including the gifts and woundings that remain from our traumatic experiences.
This blog has given a brief overview of some of the current views about trauma and is also informed by my experience working with clients who have experienced traumatic events in their lives, and by my own life path and healing journey. However, if you are reading this as someone who has experienced trauma, or who thinks they might have experienced trauma, it’s important to let your own experience be your guide. Everybody heals differently, and beneath our traumatic responses we all have a deep knowing of what will move us towards healing and wholeness, and whether or not this is the right time to take a particular step. It’s important to get advice – but I recommend that you yourself make the final decision about how to proceed and who you choose to do such work with.
There are many different types of trauma and everyone’s experience is different. Shadow Work isn’t suitable for everyone, but many people find it helpful at certain stages of their journey. Shiatsu can also support people working with traumatic memories by working directly with the body and the information held there. For further information about Shadow Work and shiatsu visit http://www.shiatsuandshadowworkbristol.co.uk
or call 01373 300749 if you’d like to talk to me directly.
Trauma held in the body is related to the ‘Lover’ archetype in Shadow Work. To watch a talk about the Lover archetype follow this link:
For further reading about trauma and the body…
Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork Paperback – 1 Apr 2003
by Deane Juhan
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma – The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences Paperback – 29 Sep 1997
by Peter Levine