The “shadow” is a Jungian term that means the hidden aspects of our psyche that motivate us but that we are unaware of. For instance, we may experience an anger that comes out of nowhere, an inexplicable attraction or aversion to other people, a depression that descends in times of stress.

Photo by Taylor Marie McCormick

Photo by Taylor Marie McCormick

In this month’s installment of The Shrink and the Pundit, Dr. Keith Witt, integral psychotherapist extraordinaire, approaches the subject of psychological shadow from an unusual angle: neurobiology.

As good integralists we’re aware that for every interior state of mind (upper left quadrant) there is an exterior neurological corollary in the brain (upper right quadrant). Whatever you’ve repressed or negated, projected or idolized, it’s likely the function of a neural network that served you at one time, but is not necessarily serving you now.

This explains why psychological problems can usually be dealt with more effectively when a body-based therapy is included. “When people talk about somatic psychotherapy, to me that’s a redundancy,” says Dr. Keith. “All psychotherapy is somatic.”

We’re always working with a set of values (upper left quadrant) that are neurologically programmed (upper right quadrant). “I don’t decide to get excited or angry … I discover myself in the midst of that and then have to decide what to do with it.” Keith explains.

Your autonomic nervous system can be rewired by a traumatic event and stay that way until you do the necessary healing work of reintegrating that memory so it has less and less trauma associated with it. For instance, let’s say somebody insults or threatens you. Your nervous system may constellate a defensive reaction instantaneously. If your pulse goes above 100 you’re in a diffuse physiological arousal and have passed a threshold where you may lose the capacity for self-reflection and empathy. A therapist who is aware of this will help you decide how best to respond: when it’s important to stay in relation to the conflict and when it’s best to take a walk. The coping mechanisms you learn in a relaxed state are not necessarily accessible in a defensive state.

All shadow work requires taking parts of yourself that have become dissociated and re-connecting to them in a safe environment with positive intent. This is the basis of many of the new and very effective therapies for trauma recovery, including PTSD.

“Add compassion and let it happen,” Keith says.

As always, Dr. Keith is a fascinating conversation partner. Have a listen.

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