Apr 13 2013

Victories of the Heart Shadow Weekend: Not Recommended as Currently Advertised

Writer’s disclosure: I was part of the VOH leadership team, staffed one of the original Shadow weekends and had a terrible experience. The VOH Wisdom Years  and Breakthrough weekends are recommended and have the potential to be life changing. I really liked both of these programs and struggled to support the Shadow weekend, despite my own negative experiences.

I have had some new information which suggests the Shadow weekend had been redesigned and is a helpful, positive experience for participants. Should I be able to obtain more detailed information about this program, I would be able to more clearly evaluate the experience and recommend it.

Right now, I can say the men involved as leaders are sincere, bright, caring men and I can only assume knowing them and hearing about the program that is a good experience. I wish there was more transparency, so I might be more enthusiastic.

The Board and leaders of Victories are tied to the past when these types of programs (LGATs) required secrecy as a way of managing the overall experience for participants. It’s a bad idea now for tow important reasons. First, it discourages potential particpants and referral sources who may be wary of the secrecy. Second, it prevents a public evaluation of the program.

For now, I express my First Amendment right to publish my thoughts and opinions about this experience in the spirit of frank and open discussion of disagreements and conflicts is in the public good. In this case, my opinions expressed here offer some limited perspective on why the Shadow weekend never took off and became a popular program in the community. Also, my publishing these opinions has come several years after my efforts to express my thoughts and opinions internally.

As I have said privately in correspondence never answered, it’s been a cruel joke played against me that I should be considered doing something harmful to Victories. To expect to be treated with respect, acknowledged for my good work, and have others be accountable to me is something we all expect. To witness or experience bad behavior in an organization, try to address it privately, see the more powerful people ignore me, then organize to degrade my complaints as those of a person experiencing an emotional breakdown publically is unacceptable. I warned them all I would write about it as I could see them circle the wagons and project blame on me, just as is often common for people in power when confronted. It wasn’t them, it was me would be their mantra.

The lack of transparency and frequent phone call deals made which went against the spirit and letter of the 2004 Strategic plan were just too much. Many of the post 2004 Board members like myself were all contributing at least $1,000 per year and probably some much more. To me, the original leaders with their Wisdom years and the Shadow weekend leaders were allowed to operate as usual, as if their respective programs were their own private business. I’m sure their other people with a very different view and I would really welcome their comments, writing or any way to make this a public discussion so it can finally be resolved.

I looked around and just could see I was pretty much alone in wanting more transparency and change. I have been accused of abandoning the group, not staying to fight it out. I just didn’t think the men involved had the insight to make the leap to the new reality that Victories was no longer a private business, but rather an organization struggling to become a functioning non-profit. I felt like it was a cruel joke on me I was trying to work diligently and openly to build something bigger and better, while others were scheming behind the scenes to get what they wanted.

The Shadow Weekend claims to help men shine the light on their shadow, or unconscious selves. However, the program itself is shrouded in secrecy making it a leap of faith for participants and potential referral sources to support the program. An organizational crisis occurred about 2007 when excessive and confusing nudity and silence on the Shadow weekend was discovered after the fact by organizational leaders. What I learned about the weekend was shocking to me and unacceptable. It mirrored my own experience of the mid-1990’s Shadow weekend. This was the weekend that involved the threatened pot smoking, rat killing, random nudity and a confusing sweat lodge. If this was an attempt at competing with the Warrior weekend, it failed.How successful is the weekend? The organization is not transparent enough to publish evaluations of programs. I was the first leader who initiated formal evaluations given to the organization for accountability purposes. I know people like the Shadow weekend and find it useful to them. To all of them I say, if it’s such a good program write about it and tell the success stories. Otherwise the website descriptions remain unchanged after many years and are not scientific or even plain speaking so ordinary guys would understand what might happen. There is the suggestion that other men who have done other programs, such as the Warrior weekend are eligible to participate. I assume this means they would have the requisite experience to manage the challenges of the Shadow weekend. My guess any Warrior guys who did the Shadow weekend might have a good time, but would rate their Warrior experience much higher.

The rigidity, defensiveness and blowback I experienced when trying to create change in this program constructively was one of the reasons for my resignation from the organization in about 2008.

While I have been assured men have not been asked to be nude since about 2008, I still do not recommend this experience.The VOH website’s attempt to describe the experience is more “hype” than substance. No research citations are offered, and Jung’s writing about the “persona and shadow” are presented as if they are widely accepted and research proven concepts. They are not.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Shadow weekend had evolved with available neuroscience research and helped participants understand the powerful way life experiences, especially trauma, are stored implicitly and are constantly operating like a software program influencing our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Implicit memory has often been described as procedural memory, things we learn to do something later. It’s stored below our level of awareness, yet has a powerful impact on our lives. Learning to ride a bike is an example of implicit memory.

Explicit memory, the other type of long-term memory refers to the information we store consciously. Examples of this are the date of our birthday, upcoming doctor’s appointments, the times tables, information we study for school, and so on.

My discussion of memory here is very important. Jim Hopper, PhD, a Harvard professor, researcher and clinician, has an educational website devoted to the research about trauma. It’s wonderful and highly recommended. Click here to take a look.

One key point made by the research so nicely summarized by Dr. Hopper is a large number of women and men who are abused, especially sexually abused, have no conscious awareness of the abuse. So, to put this simply, men who go to a Shadow weekend who have no conscious memory of being abused and those who do have an awareness, can possibly be re-traumatized. I know I was re-traumatized by my participation as a staff person at this weekend. I could say more.

I will not go into detail here about my own negative experience as a staff person and the negative experiences of other men. I’ve written about it before and every word I wrote was true.

In using more contemporary science, the Shadow weekend could be an empowering experience where men could begin to better understand themselves. Without more information, I have to assume the bear bones structure of the program remains the same, lots of self-disclosure.

At best, the Shadow weekend is not a memorable, life changing experience. At its worst, it may be possibly retraumatizing for men who are trauma survivors.

Certainly, the program has received enough organizational support over the years and the original leaders had plenty of opportunity to build something that could last without their popularity and charisma. It has not succeeded.

Time to let it go. It’s not really the “next step” for Wisdom Years and Breakthrough weekend graduates. It’s a step, but a precarious one.

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