Mar 28 2013

Chasing the Illusive Shadow: Reflections on Personal Growth Weekends

Published by at 11:44 am under Counseling & Psychotherapy

When you read the advertisements for personal growth programs, the concept of the shadow is a common theme.

If advertisements are to be believed, participants emerge from these programs smarter, more aware and even more mature as they have discovered, tamed and integrated the parts of themselves which heretofore they have hidden from themselves.


A University of Connecticut study of participants from the Landmark Forum, “Evaluating a Large Group Awareness Training: A Longitudinal Study of Psychosocial Effects”, found no long-term benefits.

This does not mean there are not many people who will report major benefits from their experiences in these programs. There is just no body of scientific research supporting the grandiose claims.

The Landmark Forum is an international program, commonly named a large group awareness training program or LGAT by social scientists. My wife actually did the initial Landmark Forum weekend and encouraged me to attend.

I was not impressed with the program, especially the overly simplistic psychological explanations of what happens at the weekend by a 20’s something volunteer.

Shadow weekends and similar programs have their origins in these large group awareness training programs, like Landmark Forum.

I was a leader of a psychodrama weekend and always had high evaluation marks from the participants right after the weekend was over. However, there was never a systematic attempt to evaluate these participants over time. This suggests that the enthusiasm during and right after the weekend might provide results that might skew more positive than they would over time.

Certainly, many participants benefited and spouses often report how such experiences “saved their marriages.” Pretty good, but anecdotal only, so limited in being able to generalize in some meaningful way.

Many adults involved in leading personal growth programs in the Chicago area have attended many of the programs and have been influenced in the work they do in their respective programs.

The Mankind Project’s (MKP) New Warrior Training Adventure has probably influenced most other personal growth programs across the country. As I have written before, MKP’s Warrior weekend does the best job in helping participants understand the difference between their persona (the image they hope to project in the world) and their shadow (the aspects of themselves that are hidden consciously and unconsciously).

Any program using the term “shadow” has probably been influenced greatly by their leaders’ participation in MKP’s programs.

As a co-leader in the Breakthrough weekend, I was greatly influenced by MKP leader’s training in psychodrama (they call it Guts Training).

I took what I learned at MKP, integrated it with my extensive family therapy training and experience, worked out some ideas with my leader partner and leadership team, then created a training program for that organization. To even the uncritical eye, the resemblence to the MKP psychodrama training would be very clear. I am transparent in giving MKP credit for teaching me a basic foundation in psychodrama.

It was also most helpful that Kurt Schultz and I did one of the trainings (I did several) together and were able to collaborate in the development of the psychodrama training for Victories, which remains a very successful program, even offering CEU credits to participants.

These training experiences led to the development of a new group of effective leaders for the first time in the history of the organization.

It’s safe to say the successful psychodrama program would not have been possible without MKP.

My extensive training, consultation and teaching (curriculum development) was helpful and the enthusiasm of the younger guys who wanted to learn made it all come together.

So, one might say, the older leaders were in denial of their fears of someone else doing better than them, so they left everyone in the dark about methods. It’s also possible they simply didn’t understand what they were doing and therefore couldn’t explain or teach it.

Carl Jung is the writer/teacher who popularized the concept of the shadow. For Jung, the shadow referred mostly to the unconscious. His theory was that people were most unaware of their negative characteristics and as a defense against these negatives, projected them onto others.

A glaring and disturbing example is Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a seriously disturbed person who projected his pathology onto Jews and other minority groups, rather than accept, explore and deal with his own pathology. The impact of Hitler’s projections include WWII and the murder of millions of innocent people.

While Hitler is an extreme example, Jung’s teaching of the shadow really calls upon therapists, other clinicians and developers of “shadow weekend programs to understand that this is a very complicated psychological process people may have a hard time learning about in an intensive weekend. In particular, this process involves important brain processes easily explained by readily available neuroscience research.

MKP actually does a pretty good job in the simple way they approach teaching the shadow. First, they help participants identify their ideal selves and then later identify how their less aware or non-conscious selves sabotage their ability to live fully in their ideal version of themselves.  I think this is one of the strengths of this experience and kudos for the simple way they teach this. It works and diligent participants leave the weekend with an action plan they can follow.

The other shadow program I am am familiar with is the shadow weekend offered by the Victories for men program, formerly Victories of the Heart and the Men’s Room. The creators of this program were men who loved the Warrior weekend and other intense personal growth experiences. The earliest Shadow program they designed was similar to the Warrior program in some ways, but not as effective or impactful. If someone were to do one or the other, I always suggested they do the Warrior weekend as it was a better overall experience.

Over time, these originators of this shadow program benefited from the secrecy about program methods. They could experiment with what they thought might work and not worry about being held accountable for any poor choices they made. It also helped that I and others like me idolized these men, perhaps more so than the founders of the Victories program. These shadow leaders exhibited an energy of power, vulnerability and compassion in their work which made them extremely popular, but also placed them in competition with the founders.

The four original leaders were all imbued with qualities which led us “guys” to think of them as sort of wizards or gurus with magical healing powers. No doubt these men thought of themselves as at the heart of the healing power in their work. They believed in themselves and never fully acknowledged the influence of their Warrior experiences. How could it not change them and how could they not admit this to the larger community. These men did not write much, Mark and Portugal more than Kachoris and Fitzpatrick. What is written is about their own special powers, not any recognition of the Warrior program or other men who may have really made a contribution.

Believing or pretending you are the wizard, of course, is the historical trick of shamans and the original leader teams for Victories played this role very well.

Bob Mark, PhD. even wrote a book about spirituality which is essentially a series of personal and professional revelations where he would like us to believe he could read palms, make predictions by throwing stones, and communicate with dolphins miles away through meditation. My review of Dr. Marks’s book can be read here.

It’s true that imitation is a type of flattery and the original shadow weekends developed by Victories leaders resembled the Warrior weekend but had very little of the Warrior weekend’s value. I have had some threats of legal action through my requests for transparency in this program and my critical writing about elements of the program I believed were harmful in the original weekend I helped to staff.

I had previously kept secret the most harmful experience I had at this program to protect the leaders of the program from rebuke. On the Thursday night before the weekend was to begin, the leaders took me to an already built campfire where they told me, and I quote, “…we’re going to smoke pot and then kill a pet rat we bought at a pet store.”

It was outlandish and shocking, but I knew they were deadly serious. This was not a joke, nor some shadow crazy check in. This was a plan set in motion well before I arrived as a volunteer to help these leaders.

I told them I would not do so and if they insisted on doing this themselves, I would leave the weekend and inform the Board of directors. They agreed they would not follow through. I never saw the rat and I am not sure we discussed this matter again during the weekend. While biased by this pot/rat incident, I did not like this program from start to finish. I thought it was terrible.

At the end of the weekend, I informed these two men I would no longer volunteer with them on their weekends for various reasons. about a week after the experience, I received an unrequested check for $500.

I remember coming back from this experience and telling a close friend, my wife, and 10 years later, a prominent Board person. It was easy to dismiss this inappropriate behavior as a mistake or the crazy things men do at men’s weekends.

However, after I began to get treatment for brain issues in 2007-08, including medication, I began to see and understand my relationships more clearly. I had been easily manipulated for a long time and grossly misjudged the closeness in my relationships with Victories leaders. No doubt I felt used, used up and thrown away when I began to openly file complaints against the four original leaders.

Their response? They stonewalled me, refused to meet with me to address any of my legitimate concerns and further degraded me personally and my complaints by accusing me of having an emotional breakdown. In one of the most authentic efforts to address and resolve some of my concerns, one member of this foursome wrote me a lengthy email confiding in me he tried to defend me, but the others blew off my concerns, falsely claiming I was having an emotional breakdown.

These men felt criticized by me and were probably surprised I was so insistent there be some type of professional mediation. They had a pejorative style, as I mentioned and an “ad hominem” (degrade the person making a complaint) attack was their pattern. They had done the same thing, all four of them, before when they blamed the former administrator of causing problems in about 2003-2004. The consultants who reviewed this matter stated clearly they believed there was something dysfunctional in the system not the personality of the person being blamed.

So, the unaddressed dynamics in the organization repeated themselves and no one felt powerful enough to hold the four leaders accountable, even though I had 30 minutes of what I considered offensive voicemails from one of them and ample evidence of each of these men ignoring and deviating from the 2004 Strategic plan.

The leaders held in esteem and experts in “shadow work” and the unconscious aspects of male development were unable to find any reason to hear, process and address valid complaints I had about the organizational dysfunction I wrote to them about or hold another leader accountable privately to explore why he would choose to offend someone as cooperative, positive and supportive of each of them and the organization as me. The person I refer to was a principal leader and he died a short time after this crisis. I wrote that I wanted him to agree to some type of therapy, as I understood what he did to be both a pattern (it happened at least 3 other times) and worrisome about him and his own mental/physical health.

The fact he died was significant to me. All the men who judged me to be inappropriate by confronting him before it was known he was sick will have to live with the fact they neglected him and his welfare. Would he be alive now? I’m not sure, but as I understand he died of a stroke and stroke’s can be avoided with timely healthcare. Portugal’s friends, associates and clients did not help him by allowing him to avoid his responsibility to be accountable to me and the organization.

As a result, the non-scientific methods of leaders and their role as experts, seemed to be reinforced. Related to shadow work, I was most concerned about the prior nudity, inappropriate sweat lodge which did not conform to the spiritual experience of Native people (men were encouraged to yell out obscenities at other men in the sweat lodge), and the use of knives, handcuffs as shadow objects. I assumed there would be no more smoking pot and killing pet rats at weekends, but then again, I was naive and vulnerable.


It’s really questionable whether these so called shadow programs are helpful and at a deeper level even safe for participants, especially trauma survivors who can be easily re-traumatized.

The deep shame and guilt work that might arise at such weekends should be left for the privacy and safety of individual therapy in my opinion, not for the consumption of curious strangers in a group context.


Certainly, it’s debatable if these types of experiences have any longer term benefits. For example, if  shadow weekend really was effective, there would be a body of research and evaluations from the experience to help these organizations market such programs.


It sounds good on paper and when the leaders are charismatic enough and supported by other sources of legitimacy, like other programs and/or claims that programs are completely supported by scientific research, participants can be easily recruited and possibly injured.


The key problem with these programs is they fail to understand the complex way the human brain stores memory, especially traumatic memory.

People who attend these programs are often dealing with traumatic lives filled with depression and a lack of understanding as to why they feel the way they do.

Scientific research has proven that a percentage of all trauma survivors never remember their trauma experience. This significant memory problem makes them especially vulnerable to pseudo-scientific programs led by ‘wanna-be gurus” who take them on memory stimulating and potentially retraumatizing exercises.

The potential participants of Shadow programs are warned to look before you leap.

Or maybe, the name Shadow program really refers to the leaders themselves.

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