Adverse life experiences can cast a shadow over people’s lives, yet I find myself drawn to my clients’ shadow side. What is the client’s shadow? It’s their dark side, the place inside they don’t want to look at, that’s often been suppressed for many years, unacknowledged but hanging over them and casting a shadow over their life. The shadow holds powerful emotions that are hard to live with, such as guilt, grief, shame and fear – is it any wonder that people don’t want to go there? And yet the unresolved shadow always follows them, holding them back from being their best self.
The shadow can be slow to reveal itself: it takes time for clients to develop sufficient trust in the coaching relationship to find the courage to be open to their dark side. Meeting my own shadow was the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced yet this experience gives me the confidence to hold my clients’ hand (metaphorically) and walk with them into their darkness to introduce them to their shadow. It’s my experience that this is where the learning and healing is to be found. As coaches, we don’t bring light to our clients’ darkness, we help them find the light in their darkness. This is elegantly expressed in a short poem:
Sometimes someone isn’t ready
to see the bright side.
Sometimes they need to sit
with the shadow first.
So be a friend and sit with them.
Make the darkness beautiful.
Victoria Erickson, Rhythms and Roads
The first time I read this poem, it reduced me to tears, in fact I wept. These words have such truth, such beauty and power for me because I’ve experienced the transformational power of embracing my own shadow and I’ve seen similar transformations in my clients.
This is not easy work. We need to know our own shadow before we can help others to meet theirs. Working with the client’s shadow is seen as an advanced skill by the ICF, albeit one that came naturally to me and I know comes naturally to many other coaches. The ICF competence of ‘Powerful Questioning’ includes in the definition at MCC (Master Certified Coach) level,
“The questions often require the client to find deeper contact with the client’s shadow and light sides and find hidden power in himself/herself.”
A concept I find helpful here is ‘holding space’ for the client. You won’t find this in a list of coaching competencies, yet it straddles several of the ICF competencies such as: Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client; Coaching Presence; Active Listening; and Creating Awareness. I love this description from Heather Plett's article on ‘Holding Space’ to create a container for complex emotions such as fear and trauma. The context for Heather Plett’s article is her experience of end-of-life nursing care for a relative.
“When people feel that they are held [metaphorically] in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and non-judgmental way. In the Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.”
When the shadow is about to reveal itself, the coaching space can become supercharged with energy. It sometimes feels as if I’m walking on my client’s sacred ground and the imperative to tread lightly forms silently in my mind. This feels like the greatest privilege: to be present and a part of the process when someone finally faces their own shadow. This can be the ultimate act of vulnerability, and it’s my experience that allowing oneself to be vulnerable is a gateway to transformation. Somehow in this sacred space we find the right words to say, the right question to ask, to unlock the learning and allow the healing to begin. Victoria Erickson again:
You’ve got to fall in love
with the shadow.
Everyone has it.
You cannot deny it,
or run from it, or empty it,
or attempt to rise above it.
Swim in it instead. Listen to it.
Respect it. Bow to it.
Breathe it. Honour it.
Be fully fascinated by it.
Connect to it.
It can be harsh and demanding.
Sometimes cold and cruel.
But ultimately it will teach you.
Guide you. Feed you.
Strengthen you. Mould you.
And it will free you.
Knowing your darkness
is what affords you the light.
We cannot feel the day
if we don’t touch the night.
This is harmony.
This is wholeness.
Victoria Erickson, Rhythms and Roads
Writing this reflection and re-reading these poems moves me afresh. This feels like important work, a big part of what I’m here to do and I am fulfilled when doing it. This coaching approach has a therapeutic quality to it without being therapy per se. One of my peers in the Cancer Coaching Community has co-authored a paper on Therapeutic Coaching, which resonates strongly with me. The essence of therapeutic coaching is a combination of deep presence, mindfulness, emotional intelligence and acknowledging whatever is present in the coaching session. There is no attempt to fix the client. In my view, the therapeutic effect comes from helping the client to develop self-awareness, including the shadow side. When the client can see her/himself, s/he knows what to do. Here is what one client said to me at the end of a coaching session exploring their shadow side:
"I do have it all in me. I just need to go into the dark side of my soul to come back to the light stronger."
A model that works well when coaching with the client’s shadow is ‘The Hero’s Journey’. The hero is anyone who goes on a quest for something precious and has to overcome demons and dragons along the way – think of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ searching for the Golden Fleece or Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ searching for a way home. In the moment of greatest vulnerability, when the hero appears least powerful, s/he faces ‘the supreme test’ and against all odds finds a way to overcome the challenge through a power that was previously hidden and unknown. In so doing s/he is transformed. It’s my belief that for some of my clients, facing their shadow is their supreme test and I’m honoured to be part of their heroic journey.
 S Jackson and AA Parsons, ‘Developing Principles for Therapeutic Coaching: A UK Perspective’, Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, October 2016, 80-98.