The Dark Side of the Shadow: When the Clinician’s Shadow Self Projects onto the Pained Other

The Dark Side of the Shadow

     The inherent and overt manifestation of a spiritual emergency and psychotic break are almost synonymous with each other. Both need immediate treatment to keep themselves and others safe (Grof, et. al., 1989; Lucas, 2011; Perry, 1974). Yet, the choice of treatment provided is based on the perceiver’s interface with her or his own shadow self and the integration of a unified self. The level of the practitioner’s empowerment dictates if the pained other is to be respected and nurtured or dismissed, mistreated, and overly medicated.   An inpatient case  illustrates this concept:

Henry comes into the involuntary psychiatric unit after neighbors complained to the super and the police of his loud solitary rants. Once the police arrives to his place, they witness that Henry’s apartment is full of old magazines, newspapers, garbage, and debris. In Henry’s mind he is a collector, in the police’s mind he is a hoarder and a danger to himself. He is brought in to the ER and committed as being a danger to himself and for medication stabilization. While in the unit, Henry walks around with stacks of papers, the contents are unknown, but, nonetheless very important to him.

Inpatient Nursing Station-1
Henry just wanted to have a conversation, be included in the group. But, no one had time, the staff was too busy to listen to his narratives.

Henry and I know each other for quite a while and always have good conversations. He is knowledgable in many topics, however, staff find him annoying, claiming he is needy and they have no time for his narratives. One day Henry politely and calmly asks for his wallet. Patients are allowed to have their property.  However, not on this day. A loud argument ensues between Henry, the unit manager, and the nurses. The unit manager, also a social worker, was standing behind the nurse’s station and  vehemently states that Henry cannot have it. No reason offered, just a loud NO. Henry becomes loud, demanding, and argumentative; the unit manager becomes louder, power-driven, and threatening to Henry. Witnessing this exchange is difficult, I can feel Henry’s frustration to be heard and validated. I know what he feels, for I have felt those feelings many times in my life.

I can relate with Henry, I know what it feels to be frustrated, unheard, and not validated. The reason being is that throughout a great portion of my early and mid educational life, I struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. Misunderstood and many times unheard proved to be a very dark time for me. It was my own dark night of my soul, when my parents and teachers called me lazy, and peers ridiculed me for my academic mishaps. I knew something was wrong and yes, it was a difficult time. It was not until before I was accepted into a private university in Buenos Aires, that a personality and an intelligence test were acceptance requirements along with the entrance exam, that the dyslexia was diagnosed.

Under the medical model criteria, my prognosis to achieve a higher level of education would have been poor. At the time, I did not allow the diagnosis to stop me. I was accepted to the Universidad de San Salvador and when I came to the United States to other universities as well. Throughout college, my challenge was how to make the dyslexia work to my benefit.  It was not until I took a course on Holistic modalities that the instructor, to whom I am forever grateful, taught me the power of meditation and self-hypnosis. Practicing these techniques allowed me to slowly start emerging from that deep despair and depression. De-stressing, accepting, and integrating were the key concepts  to manage and work with the dyslexia. Self-reflection, self-healing, self-compassion allowed me to acknowledge that I am not my label, I am not learning disabled…that,  I am just wired differently and use it for my empowerment!

Knowing that the despair and depression of not being heard, or validated, allowed me to understand Henry’s plight. And just as my college professor assisted me, it was my turn to “pay it” forward and be Henry’s advocate.

    Empathically understanding Henry’s situation I needed to intervene between both arguers, knowing that the unit manager would use his authority to call a “Dr. Strong” on Henry.  I decided to get his wallet against the unit’s (unrealistic) decision. Feeling heard and validated with such a simple request, Henry is able to self regulate and find equanimity. He takes his wallet, counts his money and gives it back to me to return to patient valuables. Peace is restored in the unit with just a simple gesture of being present, aware of my shadow side and finding our common humanity.

      As it can be seen with the Unit Manager, not all mental health workers choose to look within before connecting and to connect with the pained other. I know of other

Jung reminds us to integrate the shadow self.  Self contemplation, integration self care, and healing deters judgement, labeling, and projecting.

social workers, mental health workers, nurses, even, psychiatrists who misuse their power as a shield against coming in contact with their shadow selves. Campbell (1971) expounds on Jung’s wisdom by stating:

The development of Western philosophy during the last two centuries has succeeded in isolating the mind in its own sphere and in severing it from its primordial oneness with the universe (pp 481).

Thus, by redefining mental illness and nonconformity to an individualistic biological disorder deters the clinician in finding oneness with the pained, thus, projecting the unintegrated shadow self onto the pained person. In his book, The Power of Myth, Campbell (1971) explains Jung’s shadow self concept:

On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one behaves more or less like a primitive, who is not only a passive victim of his affects but also singularly incapable of moral judgement…Although with insight and good will, the shadow can to some extent be assimilated into the conscious personality, experience shows that there are certain features which offer the most obstinate resistance to moral control and prove almost impossible to influence. These resistances are usually bound up with projections, which are not recognized as such, and their recognition is a moral achievement beyond the ordinary. While some traits peculiar to the shadow can be recognized without too much difficult as one’s own personal qualities, in this case both insight and good will are unavailing because the cause of the emotion appears to lie, beyond all possibility of doubt, in the other person (pp. 146).

This is a classical immanenttranscendent illustration of how the amalgamation of the unresolved shadow self in concomitance with the cultural definition of schizophrenia or mental illness projects and extends onto the patient. Just as in Henry’s case where the supervisor’s unresolved shadow self projected and carried over by abusing his power over Henry by not giving him what was rightfully his–his wallet. As it can be seen, it is not an integrating or a healing paradigm. The medical model’s secular cartician mentality can be for many clinicians the appropriate medium to deny  their self-healing and responsibility; thus, abuse the subject/object relationship by withholding assistance (until the pained other’s behavior changes), use coercive treatment (such as more medication, isolating in the quiet room, taking away privileges, due to a display of social unacceptable behavior), pity (by the mental health worker understanding the pained other patient as is too sick, too disadvantaged, too victimized, too mentally ill), and many times,  avoidance of the pained other’s requests (by being too busy doing notes or other unit requirements).   As the mother of a young patient said to me once, “It’s atrocious and scary that bullies work with the vulnerable.”

Finding the Wellness in the Illness Through the Clinician’s Empowerment

     As discussed, on one hand we saw how the Unit Manager’s unresolved shadow self created Henry’s distention and agitation, to  enhance the manager’s sense of self. On the other hand, my own diagnosis (condition) integration allowed me to empathize with Henry and be able to de-escalate the situation.

     Thus,  if schizophrenia and psychopathology can be conceptualized as a spiritual crisis or emergency, the only way to understand the pained other is through the system’s and practitioner’s own expansion, self-healing, and shadow self integration. By all means, do I  want to refute the medical significance in acute suffering. It is known that childhood chronic stress (Fricchione, 2014), life stress (O’Conner, 2014) are contributors to illness and disease.  Working in an allopathic hospital, I can attest that in acute mental health emergencies anxiolytics and even psychotropic medication assist the pained person to regain composure and self-control.

      The spoken word is multilayered with the sender’s own’s humanness, unresolved self, and intentionality.  However, as a diagnosis assists in having a common language to therapeutically treat the presenting behavior and cognition, for many patients it defines who they are. Giving a diagnosis, with its inherent etiology is like communicating to the pained other who they are. Indoctrinated in understanding human pain and behavior through a sterile diagnosis, in conjunction with own’s unresolved self can, in transience, limit in seeing the pained other as a whole person.  This limitation may restrict in understanding the metaphysical and transcendental aspects of being.

     Furthermore, Emma Bragdon (1993) explains the importance of  being self-aware of one’s shadow self, but, also being aware of one’s own vulnerability and not being emotionally available for the pained other, by stating:

A Helper who has a deep familiarity with his or her own unconscious is less likely to become destabilized by the eruptions that may come from the unconscious of a client. In helping someone in spiritual emergency, an ability to work with the dark, or shadow side of the transpersonal experiences is just as important as the ability to accept and work with the transpersonal or higher aspects of the unconscious (pp. 160).

Bragdon (1993) continues stressing that for the clinician to assist the pained person with Travel-Words-Acatalepsy-512x1024visions, voices, and any other non-ordinary states of consciousness, she needs to possess an open mind about archetypes, mind-body integration, perhaps even, had her own spiritual crisis or dark night of the soul.  Additionally, have a connection to universal energies which are larger than the ego as to understand and assist the procession of the pained other’s cognitions, behaviors, and plight.

     Perhaps, the human mind and being is not as axiomatic as the biomedical model attests and we need to be open and humble of the state of acatalepsy we humans possess in matters of the human kind and the universe. Open mindedness, modesty, healing, and mindfulness, which is congruent with the social work ethos ( Garland, 2013) lead to a deeper understanding of the self and the pained other though another lens.

     With this in mind, perhaps we will be able to understand the pained other who hears voices and sees visions is more alike ourselves then the conformist mind would like to admit.  Instead of marginalizing and banishing the pained other, we can incorporate the commonalities and learn how to be more compassionate and integrated through their manifestation of the collective unconscious, archetypes, and universal energies.




Bragdon, E. (1990). The Call of spiritual emergency: from personal crisis to personal transformation. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Bragdon, E. (1993). A sourcebook for helping people with spiritual problems. Aptos, CA: Lightening Up Press.

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth / Joseph Campbell. New York: Doubleday.

Deacon, B. (2013, April). The biomedical model of mental disorder: A critical … Retrieved February 16, 2017, from,5084.1

Fricchionne, G.L. (2014) The sience of the mind body medicine and the public health challeges of of today. South African Journal of Psychology, 44(4), 404-415. doi: 10.1177/00081246314541025

Garland, E. (2013). mindfulness research in social work:conceptual and methodological recommendation. Social Work Research, 37(4), 440-448.

Grof, S. (1985). Beyond the brain: birth, death, and transcendence in psychotherapy. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.

Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual Emergency When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Jung, C. (2009) The red book: liber novus, Sonu Shamdasani (ed.) WW Norten & Co.


Lucas, C. G. (2011). In case of spiritual emergency: moving successfully through your awakening. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press.

O’Conner, S. (2014). the healer, Prevention 00328006, Jan (2014), Vol. 66, Issue 1

Perry, J. W. (1974). The far side of madness. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.


Whitaker, R. (2002). Mad in America bad science, bad medicine, and the enduring mistreatment of the mentally ill. New York: Basic Books

5 comments on “The Dark Side of the Shadow: When the Clinician’s Shadow Self Projects onto the Pained Other

  1. For healing to begin, one has to let go of their self-illusionary “truth,” and be willing to use their shadow self to intersect with the pained other. Quite powerful.


  2. Yes, I agree, for it is the unrecognized, repressed shadow that fuels the “self-illusionary truth” . If truth is subjective, it is up to the bearer to choose how to shift or transmute the shadow self to allow healing to begin. Thank you for your powerful statement!


  3. Is the medical model determining who the person is or what a person has? i feel as a profession we identify others with diagnosis, which then decided upon norms identifies this person as the disorder instead of the person his self. If everyone has a shadow self do we need to experience similar dilemmas to connect fully with the person we are working with or just try to experience what they are experiencing?

    Thank you for such a interesting post, it has me thinking about client care and the pitfalls in a different way.


  4. Thank you for your interesting comment and question.

    In terms of the first question, “Is the medical model determining who the person is or what a person has?” Diagnosis (labeling), along with its etiology create semantics and a way of understanding a person through the lens of disease, dysfunction, and nonconformity which for many mental health clinicians engenders either sympathy or disrespect delivered in the form of covert sanism. Even though the anti stigma movement is rampant and proud, just by defining an individual with a diagnosis and its inherent and ingrained social stigma distorts the understanding of the whole person and strengths. Laing states that individuals who display nonconformist or “bizarre” behavior do so to cope with the insane world around them. So, is survival pathological?

    If the ethical and empowered clinician focuses on the pained person’s strength with compassion, and empathy then a trusting allegiance can be formed with the pained person. However, due to the materialistic and reductionist system the psychiatric system is based upon, the opposite is offered to the pained person, that is, to numb the pain with medication and throw in some coping skills education so they are not bothersome to mainstream society. In sum, once that we use a diagnosis to understand a pained person we are perceiving them with the limitations the diagnosis offers along with shaming not only for the choices they made, but, also towards their caretakers who indoctrinated them into these behaviors.

    In terms of your second question, “If everyone has a shadow self do we need to experience similar dilemmas to connect fully with the person we are working with or just try to experience what they are experiencing?”. There are many times I cannot identify with the pained person’s plight, however, through intuitive presence, I feel the underlying emotion that fuels the overt behavior. Often times just listening with an open mind and heart the deep rooted emotion is felt (usually through the solar plexus- the gut). Since many pained persons are in the system either due to nonconformity or placed by others, the felt pain is raw and powerful, thus, desperately seeking relief other then just medication. It is union, validation, and understanding that the pained person is seeking, not just a pill. Hence, the empowered clinician who is in contact with his or her shadow self is there with the pained other through respect, dignity, and unity, allowing the interventions and techniques to intercede and assist the pained person when he or she is ready. At least the empowerment seed is planted. Yet, not many mental health clinicians are in contact with the shadow self.

    Those mental health workers who are not integrated, empowered, or self reflective would behave by teasing, provoking , isolating, shaming, overmedicating the pained person or are overcompensating, enabling, and/or attempt to rescue the pained person due to their own unresolved past. This is an unfortunate state of affairs and treatment when the pained person comes to a psychiatric facility for relief, solace, and have this treatment behind closed doors. This treatment does not give the sense of safety and security conducive to healing.

    It is of my personal opinion that even if the clinician and pained person went through similar plights, the two felt, understood, and perceived experiences would be experientially and phenomenologically dissimilar. I highly recommend the book “The Politics of Experience” by R.D. Laing where he meticulously details this distinction. I feel that an empowered clinician, can momentarily feel what the pained person is feeling. With this transitory feeling state the clinician can understand what the pained other is undergoing without getting lost in his or her pain. If the clinician does get emitted or lost in the pained person’s pain, the clinician would become dis-empowered leading to burn out, compassion fatigue, and illness. To deter the aforementioned clinician self care through self healing, integration (or acknowledgment and acceptance) of shadow self, to hobbies, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, healthy outside relationships, rest,,and a healthy diet are necessary to stay balanced.
    To have a visual of what intuitive presence with the pained other looks like (to me) please refer to:

    For clinician self care please refer to:

    Hope this explanation did justice to your important questions!


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