“I am a survivor of emotional neglect,” says Catherine Liggett, a shadow work practitioner and mentor. Catherine focuses on helping others love and nurture their inner child so that they can live as their authentic self. “There was pain and fear in my childhood, and it took me a long time to recognize it, and even longer to heal from it.”
While parenting her 17-month-old daughter, Catherine uncovered more of herself. “In order to parent my daughter, I realized that I must first reparent myself - those inner parts of my childhood that I suppressed as a defense mechanism. Becoming a mother held this intimate and intense mirror to all parts of myself, and it brought my shadows to light.”
The shadow is a psychological term popularized by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung in the first half of the 20th century. He referred to it as the dark (meaning unconscious) aspects of the human psyche that is repressed in childhood to ensure love and approval from caregivers. These collective traits, emotions, and/or experiences are the parts of us that we’d like to keep hidden, or of which we’re entirely unaware. When we bring those aspects of ourselves to the light (make conscious), we begin to heal, becoming more whole and authentic.
“The more healing I do,” says Catherine, “the more I recognize how brilliant my child-self was at making the best of the limitations of her upbringing. Like many, I was raised by two very well-intentioned parents who, themselves, were raised in environments that denied and punished displays of emotion. As such, everyone in my household walked around in pain, and no one was talking about it. The anger and fear were palpable. It was like a pressure cooker that could explode at any moment, and I felt terribly alone and scared. In response, I developed a pattern in my body and mind of bracing myself against the disaster that felt inevitable to me.”
Catherine began putting defense mechanisms in place. “I was born an extremely sensitive child who felt things very intensely. But because I grew up in a household where difficult emotions were neither shown nor discussed, I came to think there was something wrong with me for feeling the way I did. I started to censor and deny my needs to become what I thought others wanted, and the way I expressed myself became much more limited.”
Through her work, Catherine recognized that one of her shadows with deepest roots tied to her childhood stemmed from fear. “I felt out of control, like I had none growing up, so I clung to it as an adult. My psyche birthed the manager aspect of myself that wanted to organize and govern those people and situations around me. I found myself in patterned loops of wanting to perfect and perform, and this showed up in all of my future relationships, including parenting.”
Shadows In Motherhood
Trauma therapist Peter Levine says, “trauma is not what happens to us, but rather what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Catherine speaks to this: “When we endure pain that remains unwitnessed, the vulnerable part of us from that time and place retreats into shadow. Every time that vulnerable aspect feels threatened by something in the present day, we experience a trigger.”
Triggers are the portals that reveal the places within us that require healing. “The cascade of body sensations, emotions, and behaviors that we experience when we are triggered has nothing to do with the present-day person or situation that appears to be the cause. But because something in the present reminds our bodies of unseen pain in our past, it certainly feels like it. We always react exactly proportionately to what our lived experience has taught us about the world. But, we can befriend triggers, for they provide an opportunity to help us understand what in our past we are actually reacting to.”
Catherine experienced this intensely through her own initiation as a mother. “Before becoming a mom, I considered myself to be a calm, wise, accomplished person who pretty much had things figured out in my life. Shortly after the birth of my daughter, however, I found myself with postpartum anxiety that became chronic acute insomnia, and PTSD symptoms triggered by her crying. The identity I knew before becoming a mother had vanished, and had given way to a desperate, often sobbing, terrified woman in pure survival mode, overwhelmed with shame for not being able to show up as the balanced, present, wise mother I’d imagined myself to be.”
A parenting trigger for Catherine has been in her daughter’s whining and crying. “When my 17-month-old daughter whines and cries, my chest and throat tighten, I stop taking full breaths, and I feel an urgent impulse to make the noises stop. I know she is communicating a need, and at the same time, it feels overwhelming to me.”
Bringing The Shadows To Light
Noticing and honoring what she feels in these moments, Catherine followed the thread to uncover their origin. “When I’ve done shadow work on these incidents and follow the sensations of the trigger back to their source, I discover a terrified version of my child-self whose needs were ignored. My daughter expressing her needs, when my child-self could not, instigates the cascade of defensive responses in my body because I’ve learned to protect myself against being vulnerable in this way (having needs) in order to survive.”
Understanding the source has helped Catherine develop self-compassion and be with her triggers in a responsive way. “Now, when this aspect of myself makes herself known, I can see her, respond to her with compassion for the wounded child she is, and hold her as I act as my whole adult-self in the present. It’s not that the pain or the challenge disappears, it’s that I now have the capacity to hold it all with love.”
Shadow work has birthed a sense of freedom. “Discovering the right attribution of the trigger in my own past means I’m free to be the parent I want to be for my daughter. If I believed that she was really the reason for my trigger, then I would continue to perpetuate the cycle of wounding down the generational line. By committing myself to do shadow work, I end that cycle.”
“Motherhood transformed me into my deepest shadow - my worst nightmare. My persona of radical self-sufficiency transfigured into someone who desperately needed help. It was the most humbling experience of my life because it showed me the depth of my wounding, and exactly which aspect most required healing for me to become the mother that my daughter needs me to be - someone who is able to ask for help, to let go, and to be imperfectly human,” says Catherine.
“For the parent who embarks on this journey with eyes wide open, willing to learn about themselves, I’d say that parenting is shadow work. In fact, it’s the deepest kind there is.”
** To help parents through this process, Catherine is now offering a meditation, “Shadow Work for Parents,” to guide them through healing the part of themselves that is triggered by a specific behavior in their children, so that they can see, hear, and accept them for who they truly are, instead of reacting from a place of their own wounding.