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How the Shadow takes control of group behavior

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on March 25, 2012 at 7:00 AM

This series on the Shadow is long and complex precisely because the Shadow has so many subtle ways of influencing our lives and can be very difficult to recognize and manage. But when the Shadow is activated and begins to gain power over our behavior in groups, the damage that results can be extensive.

I once observed a community project that was destroyed by the unchecked presence of the Shadow. Two groups from different perspectives had come together to try to collaborate on a new initiative that would benefit the entire community. Negotiations had been proceeding slowly and delicately because of the large philosophical gap that existed between the groups, but an eventual compromise seemed quite possible to achieve.

However, one of the group leaders possessed a Shadow wound that caused her to see herself always in the role of a victim. Because of this wound she often perceived others as trying to gain power over her and felt threatened in many relationships. In reality though, her Shadow impulse caused her to victimize other people in subtle ways, even though she could only see that she herself was the one being mistreated.

During the negotiation process this woman held a private meeting with the leader of the other group, in order to clarify the agenda for future meetings. When she encountered this man, who had a wound of insecurity in his Shadow that caused him to be outwardly controlling, her Shadow was activated and she immediately felt threatened by him.

Because she didn’t understand why she was reacting that way she assumed that there was something wrong with the man and that he was literally trying to gain control over her. She disliked him intensely and was unable to carry on further negotiations because her Shadow spiraled out of control. Over the next few weeks this hidden behavior of the Shadow took control of the entire group process, undermined all efforts at collaboration and eventually derailed the project.

Here is a list of Shadow tendencies that can destroy relationships if they are not detected: •

  • Exaggeration: recalling a negative encounter from the past to be far worse than it was in actuality 
  • Distortion: perceiving all behaviors of the other person as negative 
  • Filtering: being unable to receive any new information about the other person unless it supports the original negative perception 
  • Generalization: attributing the negative traits of one person to the entire group to which he/she belongs 
  • Recruitment: influencing group members to view the other person negatively by providing them with exaggerated and distorted information 
  • Perseveration: becoming fixated on the negative behavior of the other person and constantly repeating the story 
  • Escalation: intensifying the attack against the other person by finding new negative information, especially as a means of recruiting others to dislike that person

In the example mentioned above, the woman who experienced a Shadow reaction toward the male leader of the other group had an exaggerated negative memory of the encounter that had taken place between them. During subsequent meetings her view of the man became increasingly distorted and she was unable to perceive any of his actions as positive because that information was being filtered out from her conscious awareness. She began to generalize her negative perception of his behavior toward the entire group of which he was a member, seeing all of them as somehow untrustworthy. Next the woman recruited the members of her own group to mistrust the other group by perseverating on the story of the negative encounter and escalating the level of perceived threat posed by the other group.

Further complicating this situation was the fact that the man’s own Shadow wound of insecurity was triggered when he was accused of negative behavior, causing him to become even more controlling and defensive. This lead to a similar cascade of events in his group that caused the other members to experience their own anger and mistrust.

When the Shadow is operative in relationships and goes unrecognized, total havoc can ensue and many times the people involved will be left feeling confused and wondering how this happened. In group settings the disruption caused by the Shadow can interfere with negotiations and prevent compromise from occurring unless strong leaders are in charge who can maintain clarity of perception and resist being recruited by Shadow-driven members. Future posts will discuss how to recognize when you are being manipulated by the Shadow of another person, how to get control over your own Shadow and how to repair the damage caused by Shadow behavior.

Categories: Psychology, Relationships

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Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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