Conflict Resolution through Shadow Integration

     Based on interviews I’ve been listening to and all the reading that I have done about leadership and conflict, there appears to be little recognition of the important role that Psychological Shadow plays in shaping a person’s beliefs and their behaviour, and therefor, their conflicts. I’ve heard it mentioned that the same person can be both kind and cruel, that certain behaviours can trigger their neurological defences, but I’ve yet to come across any other comprehensive thesis on the mechanics of how these dynamics operate, or their application to the prevention and resolution of conflict.
Philip Be'er
This is my thesis:

1. Introduction

Psychological Shadow: To shield us from social isolation, our caregivers encouraged socially acceptable traits, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs while discouraging those deemed unacceptable. Traits deemed unacceptable became part of our Shadow, while those encouraged became non-Shadow. (I’ve worked with clients whose Shadows have contained: inaccuracy, dishonesty, inability to control their cravings, sexual promiscuity, emotional expressiveness, and quick-wittedness). These examples show how arbitrary the traits associated with a person’s Shadow can be.

For reasons that I go on to explain, whenever someone's Shadow is exposed, their nervous system triggers the identical Fight, Flight, or Freeze response that occurs when a person is in grave danger and this involuntary/reflex response has a gigantic impact on how they’re relating to others at any given moment.

It also impacts the person’s ability to function in the workplace and is consistent with troubling data that we’re reading about low levels of worker engagement, deficits in psychological safety, concerning levels of stress and mental health challenges.

2. The Implications of Shadow Exposure

Our nervous systems are telling us, in no uncertain terms, that exposure of our Shadow is dangerous enough to be considered life-threatening.
When any part of our Shadow is revealed, one of the following survival responses automatically initiates:
Fight: Attacking the person, physically, verbally, or otherwise, to make them stop.
Flight: Escaping or running away to limit exposure to the dangerous Shadow.
Freeze: Inducing a partially comatose state to limit the pain resulting from exposure.

3. The Impact on Parent-Child Relationships

Based on observations that can be traced as far back in history as the Yin Yang Symbol, every healthy person possesses the innate ability to express every conceivable human character trait, behavior, attitude and belief.
This raises some thought-provoking questions:
What happens when aspects of a parent's concealed Shadow are reflected in their newborn's character or behavior (e.g., vulnerability, neediness, ethnicity)?

  1.  Could the parent react similarly to the way they would if triggered by the reflection of their Shadow in an adult?
  2. Does the parent's nervous system initiate a fight, flight, or freeze response when they see their Shadow mirrored in their infant? It does.
  3. How does the parent's reaction impact the immediate and long-term emotional and physical well-being of the infant?

4. Physiological Changes During Fight, Flight, or Freeze

When a person is in a state of fight, flight, or freeze, several physiological changes occur to maximize survival. Two key changes include:

  • Amygdala Hijack: The amygdala hijacks the cerebral cortex, compromising a person's ability to think, reason, store new memories, or reliably retrieve existing ones (Goleman, 1995).
  • Not Present: A person temporarily loses their ability to be emotionally present for others.

5. Historical Context: The Still Face Experiment

During the 1970s, a series of experiments began exploring the relationship between children and their parents. The ‘Still Face' experiment revealed that when engaged connection between a young child and their parent is disrupted (i.e. the child receives no physical or other feedback from their parent), an emotionally healthy child responds with distress almost immediately (Tronick, 1975). In under two minutes, the child who had been playfully engaging with the parent seated beside them would show severe signs of emotional distress (crying, squealing, screeching, turning away, contorting their body, collapsing), even though the parent's location had not changed. Once the parent re-engaged, the child's distress would diminish, and the child would typically resume engaging.

6. Impact of an Emotionally Activated Parent’s Lost Capacity for Emotional Presence

Under normal scenarios, a child may not receive immediate attention from a caregiver every single time a need arises because outside of the laboratory environment parents have many obligations apart from parenting, such as taking care of their own physical, emotional, economic, and relational needs.

But what happens when the parent is rendered unavailable due to their nervous system being triggered into a state of fight, flight, or freeze by exposure to an aspect of their Shadow mirrored in their infant’s personality, attitude, or behavior?

When caregivers temporarily lose their ability to be emotionally present, it makes sense that a baby, in need of connection at that moment, experiences similar distress every time this happens, to distress observed in the Still Face experiment.

7. Involuntary Isolation and Emotional/Psychological Pain/Trauma

When a baby is crying, they’re signaling discomfort, pain, or distress. If no physical source of discomfort is evident and the crying ceases once connection is re-established, then the pain was probably emotional/psychological/relational. The intensity of a child’s crying corresponds to their level of distress or pain.

8. Connecting the Dots

When a child experiences disconnection from their parent or caregiver and is unable to restore that connection, an emotionally healthy child will experience distress along with discomfort and/or pain. This pain/distress/discomfort will recede when connection is restored. The duration and frequency of the disconnection, and the quality of emotional repair following reconnection, determines how much pain-memory/trauma-memory gets retained.

9. The pain associated with involuntary isolation sculpts a person’s personality and their future behaviour.

When we observe a child in the Still Face Experiment using every ounce of agency to re-engage their parent, we can infer that even at such a young age, the infant is acutely sensitive to distinctions between behaviors and ‘presentations’ that the parent experiences as appealing, pleasurable, or 'good,' and those that are likely to 'antagonize' or to be perceived as threatening by the parent/caregiver’s nervous system.

10. Parental Influence on Child Development

The child’s evolving personality is a reflection of an intimate dance between infant and caregivers, where the child is preoccupied with their need to avoid emotional pain by maximizing connection and attachment with their caregivers.

  • So, a child who receives connection when they accomplish or achieve something will put focus and energy into developing that specific aspect of their personality.
  • Children who repeatedly experience disconnection and are discouraged from being boisterous, emotionally expressive, or gentle, often learn to drive these aspects of their personality underground.

Parents, meanwhile, are preparing their child for the next stage in this drama, by coaching the child to present themselves in a way that ensures social inclusion. They understand that the child needs to conform to societal norms to avoid the pain associated with involuntary isolation. Children receive a stream of guidance from caregivers, shaping how much and how they eat, how they appear to others, what they’re permitted to say and do in public and private, who they are permitted to interact with, and how all these interactions need to be perceived to avoid social ostracization and protracted, involuntary isolation.

11. Shifting Attachment

(Although it is possible for a person to emancipate themselves from the need to experience connectedness from a ‘love-reference’/’connection-reference’ outside of themself, this can only be accomplished through the mastery of unconditional self-acceptance and love, and few people achieve this.)

As a person matures, we observe shifts from one source of connection and validation (‘love-reference’/’connection-reference’) to another: When the child enters the education system, they begin seeking connection from educators and peers. Later, they seek connection and validation from friends and romantic partners, and eventually from co-workers, colleagues, their own children, grandchildren, and family members.

When unsuccessful in connecting effectively with others, this need for a love-reference/connection-reference can be fulfilled by a beloved animal, a deity, an inanimate object, a belief system or a group.

12. What is Shadow

In an effort to shield us from social isolation, our caregivers encouraged socially acceptable character traits, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs, while strongly discouraging those deemed socially unacceptable. Character traits, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that were strongly discouraged became our Shadow, while those encouraged became non-Shadow.

When someone’s Shadow is exposed, traits, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that members of their family and their community find disgusting (e.g. cruelty, self-obsession, indifference, laziness, dishonesty) are rendered visible, and the person’s fear of rejection and social isolation is well founded. This existential fear triggers a fight, flight or freeze survival response.

When a parent identifies some aspect of their own Shadow in their child’s character traits, behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs and they discourage this in their child, the discouragements tend to be conveyed quite harshly, because the parent is responding from a state of Fight Flight or Freeze.

So, the child receives a harsh message, reinforced by a Still Face style isolation (since the triggered parent is emotionally inaccessible (not present) while in Fight, Flight or Freeze).

This reinforces the relationship between:
a) Shadow exposure,
b) Threat of rejection/involuntary isolation
c) Emotional pain.

When Shadow exposure occurs, one of the dominant emotions is Shame. The feeling of Shame correlates to the following beliefs: “I am unworthy of connectedness”; ‘I am unlovable”; “There is something inherently wrong with me”.

Note on the transfer of intergenerational traits and traumas: Subconscious family and cultural norms, expectations and trauma are transferred from one generation to the next through a combination of Shadow exposure, threat of rejection/involuntary isolation and emotional pain.

13. Visualizing the Complete Cycle

Shadow comprises character traits, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs associated with an elevated risk of social rejection and isolation.

Humans are profoundly sensitive to rejection, disconnection, and involuntary isolation due to the resultant emotional/psychological pain.

Human behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and personalities are shaped by a desire to minimize the pain of involuntary isolation and by a person's conscious and unconscious efforts to cultivate conditions that are conducive to the experience of secure and persistent connection.

Let’s apply this to a few people who are close to you:

  1. Do they brush their teeth every morning to avoid being socially ostracised due to foul breath?
  2. Do they send their children to school?
  3. To what extent do they pick their battles to avoid being seen as argumentative and disagreeable?
  4. Do they generally avoid the expression of behaviours, attitudes and traits having a potential to sabotage their aspirations for economic and social stability?
  5. To what extent do their parents feel disgusted by their chosen lifestyle, or comfortable with it?

We invest inordinate amounts of energy to ensure that the Shadow parts of us remain invisible to the world (and to ourselves). Whenever this fails, a fight, flight, or freeze defense is initiated.

The information contained in this paper can be applied to the design of psychologically safe environments where people use the training and resources available from Advantages Mediation to dismantle their Shadows and to tame (or to domesticate) their reflexive Shadow Reactions.

14. Power of Rejection and the Abuse of this Power

Our need for connection, and the pain we suffer when connection is disrupted, makes us particularly vulnerable to disconnection when someone unintentionally or intentionally rejects, or emotionally isolates, us.

The power of rejection/isolation can be exploited and abused.

I cannot emphasis enough the importance of rejection and the threat of rejection in power dynamics. This insight alone can transform the way that conflict professionals bring parties to resolution and the intention that leaders can bring to their leadership.

15. Why Does Any of This Matter?

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Archimedes

I‘ve been developing a suite of tools, used for hacking “Shadow exposure, threat of rejection/involuntary isolation, and emotional pain” and have been using these tools for the last decade to radically improve the lives of my B-Loops Counselling and Mediation Clients.

The perspective shared in this paper, can be used by anyone trained in this approach to:

  1.  Identify the origins of personal and interpersonal conflicts with surgical precision;
  2. Bring clients to a place where THEY’RE able to cultivate peace and psychological safety.
  3. Create a precise and easy-to-read map of each person’s personalities, their subconscious motivations and drivers, their subjective contexts, and their behaviour.

In a counseling context, my tools and maps are assisting people in their recovery from anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviours and addictions, interpersonal conflict and relational dysfunction.

In a conflict resolution and mediation context, they’re being used to cultivate Psychologically Safe environments where transformational and lasting conflict resolution takes place.

16. The Single-Minded Pursuit of RESPECT/Control

The information that I’ve shared can be used to explain the reason why, for example, any person, including the most powerful people on this planet, seeks power: They do so to situate themselves in a position where they can protect the most vulnerable parts of themselves, ostensibly, by maximising CONTROL over who has an opportunity to witness their exposed Shadow.

Like you and I, they’re motivated by an aversion to the excruciating pain associated with protracted, involuntary isolation. Paradoxically, no amount of power, is sufficient to prevent others from actually seeing their Shadow.

This provides the opportunity for people, who wish to create a healthier society, to engage these people with compassionate understanding of what is invisibly driving their destructive behaviours and attitudes.

A man like Donald Trump, for example (no matter what you think of his capabilities), climbed to one of the highest positions of power in the world, because he was taught to believe that the way to earn respect and adoration (to inoculate himself from the risk of rejection) was via the accrual of wealth and power. But, as we’ve seen, no amount of wealth or power has shielded Trump’s Shadow from exposure.

Trump is as good an example as he is an easy target, but one could as easily insert the names of top athletes, famous artists, esteemed statespersons and academic leaders in his place. Through the single-minded pursuit of RESPECT, they have been attempting to mitigate the risk of feeling pain associated with involuntary isolation. (If you catch yourself reacting strongly to any of these statements, congratulations are in order, because a part of your Shadow has just been revealed to you: Every time we react to something with a powerful aversion, that’s a sign that we’ve just tripped onto a Shadow landmine.)

17. Cultivating environments where a person has no need to hide their Shadow

If we’re to protect ourselves, we need to be aware of the overriding fear of protracted, involuntary isolation shared by almost every living person. We need to cultivate environments where a person has no need to hide their Shadow, because they feel safe to fully embrace every part of themselves, secure in the knowledge that they will be accepted and loved unconditionally.

18. References

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam Books.
Tronick, E. Z. (1975). Affect, Synchrony, and Development: Commentary on Cohn and Tronick. In Emde, R. N. & Harmon, R. J. (Eds.), The Development of Attachment and Affiliative Systems. Springer Science+Business Media.

If you’re interested in discussing any of the ideas in this paper or scheduling a conversation with the author, Philip Be’er can be reached at, or