ERP 093: How The “Shadow” Influences Our Growth In Life And In Relationship With Dr. Keith Witt [Transcript]


ERP 093: How The “Shadow” Influences Our Growth In Life And In Relationship With Dr. Keith Witt [Transcript]

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins: Hi, thank you for tuning in. Today’s podcast episode is episode 93, How The Shadow Influences Our Growth In Life And In Relationship, with Dr. Keith Witt. If you’re new to this show, just wanna hold the intention for what we talk about here on this show – it’s about improving the quality of our relationship, our connection and the intimacy, and cultivating happy, healthy, lasting relationship. Sometimes that does mean how we navigate challenges, conflict, and we’re trying to increase our skillfulness and our effectiveness for that ultimate goal of  really cultivating a relationship that we are proud of and we feel fulfilled in.

A couple ways that you can engage in this conversation is by commenting on the show notes, and that can be found on my website, which is, click on Podcast, and you can find the most recent episode there at the top. You can also submit a question to me via e-mail. My e-mail is You can also request to be on the show to receive live, laser coaching and you can find the details about that, again, on my website; click on Contact and you can find more information there.

If you are interested in deepening your practice with some of these principles, you can reach out to me to explore the option of coaching, or to enroll in one of the programs that I’m offering.

Let’s get started with today’s episode. Again, this is episode 93, How The Shadow Influences Our Growth In Life And In Relationship, with Dr. Keith Witt. Dr. Keith Witt is a Licensed Psychologist, teacher, and author who has lived and worked in Santa Barbara, California for over 40 years. Dr. Witt is the founder of The School of Love, at, where he offers six books, his six-hour audio class Loving Completely, and the School of Love Lecture Series, blogs, the Therapist In The Wild web series, and Integral Conversations audios and videos on topics like health, love, relationship, sexuality, spirituality, development and psychotherapy. He’s also given three Ted talks, all available on his website, which is

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Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you for being a guest today, I’m so excited to have you on the show.

Dr. Keith Witt: I’m happy to be here, as usual. It’s fun talking with you.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, and we were just giggling that you were a guest last year and it was almost a year to the date, it’s remarkable. Unplanned.

Dr. Keith Witt: Unplanned.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, so you have a new book out, and it’s titled Shadow Light.

Dr. Keith Witt: Yes, Shadow Light: Illuminations At The Edge Of Darkness. It’s a reunderstanding of the concept of shadow, something that all therapists work with and all people understand, either directly on indirectly. There’s been a lot of research and discovery and data generated in the last 15-20 years, and particularly the neuroscience caused me to re-examine my understanding of shadow, and I find it enormously useful in my psychotherapy practice and in my understanding on the world and in my personal practices and in almost every area… So I decided to write Shadow Light and share that with everybody.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I love that. I’ve had a chance to read the first chapter or so, and I really like your philosophy; we’re gonna get into your definition of shadow… Some of my audience is familiar with the concept; I believe in episode 78, titled How To Honor The Darkness, I was talking about the shadow and how useful it can be to inform us, in that it actually offers the path for transformation and strengthening, and I like that you’re really encouraging the integration and just the process – how complex it is, first of all, but also just the richness that’s available.

Dr. Keith Witt: Absolutely. Being a human is the most complicated enterprise in the known universe as far as I know, and we are influenced constantly by non-conscious forces, and those non-conscious forces are the shadow.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Those that might not know non-conscious forces, can you define that?

Dr. Keith Witt: Yes, I can. We have a self, the self that’s listening right now to our conversation, that is aware of the present moment and aware of us, and paying attention, and having feelings and sensations and all that stuff. Our self is influenced constantly by non-conscious forces, a multitude of conscious forces. We’re influenced by all our instincts; all the instincts of all life is included and transcended in the instincts of being a human being. We’re influenced by our inner understanding of what’s wonderful and what’s right, and what’s beautiful and true and good, and that’s influenced in us all the time. And all the stuff that we don’t know, that we’re not aware of consciously, that’s shadow, and it’s always influencing us from our nervous system’s interaction with our own body and our own memory and our own imagination and with the world.

The way that happens is as we go about the world, we have an experience of some sort and our nervous system processes that experience and sends us messages via feelings and thoughts and stories and impulses in about 60 milliseconds. Our conscious self, the person that we experience ourselves to be, our ego – some people call it the executive ego – is aware of that half a second or a second and a half later, and then manages that in some fashion.

That material that comes up out of our unconscious is either constructive, helping in us thrive, love, grow and be healthy, or to destruct it, based on primitive defenses; it causes us to separate or perhaps do self-destructive acts, or perhaps turn away from things. And we have habits that are informing how we process the world, and those habits are either positive habits – that we’re either aware of or not – or negative habits (that we’re aware of or not).

For instance, the positive of smiling at someone and saying ‘hi’, or a negative habit of turning away from someone if we’re feeling a little bit threatened. To the extent that we’re not aware of any of this, that stuff is in shadow. So the interface between our conscious self and this shadow material is in a live interface happening all the time, and the only reason why we’re not overwhelmed by the torrents of information and sensation and experience that’s constantly coming through us into our awareness and then guiding us into the world is because we’ve normalized it over a lifetime of being alive; it’s just saying, “Oh, that’s just me walking through the world. It’s not me walking through the world constantly managing hundreds of thousands of inputs, being influenced by evolutionary forces that go back to the beginning of time, and being influenced by transcendent forces that identify with all life and spirit.

We’re not consciously aware of those things, but those things are influencing us all the time, and to the extent that we can learn about how those influences show up, we can manage them and make them more coherent. As we do this, we grow our non-conscious self, we grow our shadow. And we never do it all by ourselves, we always do it in relationship with other people and with the world.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: And that’s where we’re gonna gear our conversation and start to turn towards, and more specifically how this shows up in intimacy. But before we do, Keith, I can hear you… I’ve had a few listener’s questions — I actually had somebody that was on the show that got some live coaching… I know a lot of my listeners struggle with the discernment of “What’s my partner and what’s me?” There’s so much happening that’s complex…

That’s just in the way of intimacy, but even when they’re talking, I’m reminded of an instance – I think I was in a masters program at the time, and I was practicing I think a mindfulness exercise, and I was out on the stoop of the steps; it was a sunny day, I was in Portland, Oregon, and I was just trying to be aware of as much as I could possibly be aware of — this is just my senses, my five senses that we’re familiar with. I was looking at the pavement and I was watching this ant, and I was feeling the sun rays on my skin and the subtle breeze of the wind, and there were so many things… I’m like, “It’s impossible to consciously pay attention to everything externally, as well as internally.”

That’s the example that’s coming to my mind when I’m listening to you, because I would love to just bring this into an example for people to get the non-conscious — all the things you’re naming. Do you have another example, or is that a good enough example?

Dr. Keith Witt: That’s a wonderful example, and we can all do it at this moment by just being aware of our breath going in and out of our bodies. As you’re aware of your breath going in and out of your body, what are the sensations that you’re feeling? I’m feeling kind of a tingling sensation talking with you myself, and I feel the breath going in and out of my abdomen. Maybe someone else feels their breath [unintelligible 00:11:56.11] in and out of their solar plexus, or their chest.

We can be aware of the sounds that we’re hearing. I’m in Santa Barbara and it looks like we’re having a huge rain, so I can hear rain pattering. That’s a beautiful sound for us in Santa Barbara, of course, because we’ve had a drought for six years. And I feel the pleasure of that sound.

We can be aware of the thoughts that go in and out of our mind, we can be aware of our breath, we can be aware of our sensation and emotion. And we can be aware of our judgments, about whether I’m judging myself to be good or bad or happy or sad, or whether I’m judging you, or if you’re listening, whether you’re judging Keith as being interesting or not interesting, or Jessica as being someone I have affection for listening to her show, and so on. These are all judgments.

So we can be aware of those things, and as we’re aware of those things with acceptance and caring intent, what we’re doing is we’re creating an interface between what’s not known and what’s known. In nature, that’s called a fractal boundary. In complexity theory there’s an understanding of how the universe is biased to continue to evolve, to grow, and it grows on boundaries between chaos and order, and also between any barrier that both separates and divides.

There’s a barrier that both separates and divides in us, and that’s the barrier of our conscious awareness and our unconscious forces and impulses and feelings and so on. When we send our attention to that boundary with acceptance and caring intent, what happens is we help that boundary organize towards greater complexity, we help ourselves grow.

This is what all good psychotherapy and change work does, it helps us grow our non-conscious selves. We actually mark our own development when we look at how our emotions and feelings and impulses and judgments change as we grow throughout our lives. They first change on a conscious level, but then they work their way into our unconscious level.

Bringing this awareness with acceptance and caring intent to that interface between you and me, between what’s known and not known, that accelerates development. It accelerates intimacy if we do it between each other, and it accelerates my own intimacy with myself and my own development if I do it internally.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, I can just feel my passion increasing as you’re talking, and knowing that I think a large part of what I’m doing in the initial stages with people is trying to create safety to approach or to confront the awareness or the focus on some of the inner conversation, or inner dialogue, or inner workings. I think that’s what you’re talking about – bringing focus or awareness, just like we did to our senses, but to our internal world.

That might feel scary if we’re not used to that or we don’t have a lot of experience with it. That can feel pretty scary. We’re trying to create support that there’s actually growth and goodness in that process.

Dr. Keith Witt: Absolutely, and you notice… You instinctively are referring to rhythms. Everything is waves, everything is fields, and fields are in harmony with each other more or less. Just as you and I are in harmony with each other, there is rhythms, and contact, withdrawal, and so on.

What we do in psychotherapy and in intimate relationships is you create an inner subjectivity with each other where there’s the felt sense of safety, where your nervous system is judging me as a safe and engaging person, and my nervous system is evaluating you in a similar way. So we create an inner subjectivity between us that you and I can feel, and it’s unqualifiable to anybody else. In integral psychology we call this the lower left quadrant.

In that inner subjectivity you have safety. Now, in psychotherapy what you do is from there you go to areas where you client might not feel safe, and we explore a little bit. Then maybe they start feeling a little bit less safe, so you bring it back into the present moment of safety, and there’s a rhythm to this. There’s a whole treatment towards trauma developed by Peter Levine on this which he calls “pendulating”, where he has people find an area of their body that’s strong, like their legs, and then they anchor in that; then they go back to a trauma of some sort – a big trauma or a little trauma, and they stay in that trauma from that strong place until they begin to feel a little overwhelmed and then they come back to the strength in their legs, and then they go back to the trauma, and so on.

We do this in psychotherapy, and also couples do this, and there’s a reason that couples that use a lot of positives and use a lot of endearments and use a lot of soothing when they’re having an argument do enormously better than couples that don’t. Why is that? Because they’re pendulating back and forth between feeling a sense of shared affection and safety, and then going into an area of conflict and irritation and distress, and they’re coming back into that sense of shared safety and affection, and then moving into that area.

That pendulating process maximizes de-escalating conflicts, maximizing turning the straw of distress and projection and defensive states into the gold of inner subjective intimacy and love.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I love that. I’m thinking John Gottman and his ratio of positives to negatives, or even Susan Johnson’s attachment work, that secure base… It sounds like this is another description, but possibly in the neighborhood of creating that safety. Like you’re saying, there’s a duality, there’s an interplay there that’s happening to also grow and maybe address an area of difference or conflict, but also to not lose ground of that safety.

Dr. Keith Witt: Exactly. And what a lot of people don’t recognize — there’s a famous finding that John Gottman had… When he was studying couples, he would film them over a weekend of hanging out together. In a conflict conversation, if there was a ratio of six positives to one negative, that couple did well. But that’s in a conflict situation… Most people go, “Well, you wanna have six positives to every negative” – that’s widely understood, but actually that’s not the finding. The finding was when you’re talking about something that bothers you, it during that conflict caught six positives to one negative.

That’s how much positive is required, because our nervous systems are just exquisitely tuned to approval and disapproval, and exquisitely tuned to feeling accepted and not accepted. This is an evolutionary mandate. There’s persuasive evidence that the human brain expanded dramatically a couple million years ago in response to social demands. A hundred and fifty is a natural number of human groupings, it’s called the Dunbar number.

The social demands were so much in those groups that people’s brains had to expand to be able to deal with the social demands of being in those groups. Most of our brain is designed to be relational, and a lot of our instincts are designed to help us stay in position in social frameworks. When there’s a distressing situation with another person, we initially try to deal with it through social engagement, person-to-person, but if that’s not working and we enter defensive states, then we also have instincts to either bully or become a victim. That created social cohesion in our ancestral tribes, but it creates great suffering in modern society, because if you and I are married and you disapprove of how I drive, and I don’t feel like we’re being able to resolve that and I feel that’s threatening when you do that and I get mad at you and then I unconsciously try to bully you for being mad (“Don’t criticize my driving!”) and then you feel threatened by me and you try to push back (“Wait a minute, I’m just trying to be safe”), we have an escalating conflict until one of us surrenders. If it continues, then we feel victimized by the other person, the other person feels like they prevailed, but love has not been served.

Now, these are instincts. You can’t deny instincts. What you have to do with instincts is give them a more progressive form of expression. You can’t push them down; we’ve tried with the “just say no” campaigns with almost everything. “Just say no” never works with instincts, it just causes lots of problems.

With couples, when you feel one of those primitive instincts coming up and you can be aware of it, if it’s not in shadow and unknown, if you can bring it into the light of awareness, then you can give yourself and your partner a better option. Noticing those instincts and giving ourselves a better option is one of the ways that we establish and maintain intimacy in intimate relationships. Certainly not the only way, but it’s an important one, because there’s a lot of other instincts that we have too that we have to manage to be able to have successful relationships.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay, so I’m imagining a listener… So we’re talking about shadow, which we’re saying that if we’re not aware of these defensive patterns or these instincts of being exquisitely sensitive to disapproval or lack of acceptance, that we might be reacting, but if we’re not aware of it, then that’s going to be in the shadow.

Dr. Keith Witt: That’s right. When we’re not aware of it, then it influences us and then what we do… What human beings instinctively do with material that comes up is they make sense of it. If I have a positive feeling towards you, that positive feeling involves a story about you, which is a positive story, and it involves impulses to engage with you that are positive social impulses. If I feel threatened by you, I have a negative story about you and I have negative impulses to withdraw, or to attack or to demand – if I’m not aware of that, then I start feeding that negative story. Those negative stories tend to be distorted. Our positive stories are not that distorted usually. Our negative stories routinely are distorted. If we’re aware of that, just awareness regulates.

That’s why being aware of all the shadow material that comes up – both positive or negative – is so valuable. And it’s not just negative… Human consciousness is vast, so there’s parts of us — and you can see this when people see an inspirational talker, say Obama’s last speech. So someone talks about unity, and they talk about love, and they talk about protecting children, and they talk about respecting partners, and they talk about all that stuff and we feel good, we resonate. Well, the part of us that feels good and resonates is that part of us that is deep and wise and transcendent and feels one with everything; that’s always influencing us, that’s constructive shadow, those are the angels in us.

Just like the part of us that is egocentric and violent and selfish, and “I want what’s mine now”, or defensive… Those are like the devils in us. Our ego, our aware self is a relatively new evolutionary achievement – probably just the last couple hundred years, even the last fifty thousand years –  that’s just trying to balance all these angels and devils all the time, in the process of a life where we’re serving our own individual evolution in relationship with other people who we’re serving their individual evolution and they’re serving ours intersubjectively and particularly in our intimacy. The more that we’re aware of this and choose the constructive messages and then [unintelligible 00:25:56.09], challenge those destructive messages and look for the deeper yearning and the deeper forces below the surface and throw them in the construct – the more we do that, the more we accelerate not just our individual evolution, but the evolution of our relationships. I find that beautiful and fascinating beyond belief.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Me too! [laughter] Me too, for sure. So for someone listening that’s hearing you and resonating with, “Oh my gosh, yes, I know there’s goodness”, and when we talk about unity and love and connection, like “I feel that in me, and I agree, and all of those parts in me activate”, and yet the other part’s also there, the part that goes in a negative story or has maybe distorted based on old patterns or whatever… We get into these defensive, negative places, and our nervous system, like you’re saying, is reacting. And what you’re saying it’s part of our challenge as human beings is to be bringing awareness and that both of those are always gonna be at play; the more we expand our awareness, then we can begin to, like you said, crave — I forgot your language here, but… We’re evolving but we’re also integrating and we’re expanding our sense of wholeness, I guess, is my understanding of it.

Dr. Keith Witt: Absolutely.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay, and then if we’re in relationship, this is where it gets extremely complex; what you’re saying is fascinating and exciting and I’m agreeing that it’s so dynamic, that you have this almost microcosm of one partner, and then you have the microcosm of the other partner, and the way they’re interplaying, and it’s that much more to work with.

Dr. Keith Witt: You know, when you write a book – and I’ve felt this way with all six of the books that I’ve published so far – you have something that you feel is so important that you wanna share it. There are so many people that write about crucial aspects of relationships, but you get seduced by whatever it is that you’re excited by and you tend to not pay a lot of attention to other variables that are equally important.

For instance, the Sue Johnsons are fascinated by attachment. Okay, attachment is very important and central and necessary. The David  Schnarches and Esther Perels, they’re fascinated by individuality in relationship, a differentiation in the relationship, particularly as it feeds eroticism – okay, that’s very important also.

The John Gottmans and his friends, they really focus in on the behavioral characteristics of successful relationships versus unsuccessful relationships and actually reduced an awful lot of the principles in the happy versus unhappy couples into mathematical algorithms that actually work quite well.

But also there’s the spiritual aspects, that people existentially and spiritually need to be in harmony with each other and suffer if they’re not in harmony with each other. Then there’s also the evolutionary people…
For instance jealousy… Let’s talk about the marital love affair just for a moment. So there’s lots of different kinds of intersubjectivity in a couple, and the most demanding relationship in the world is the modern relationship between a married couple in the West – equal power in a variety of areas and so on, and there’s a lot of intersubjectivities that have to work. Your intersubjectivity as friends has to work; if it doesn’t, you begin to lose each other.

Your intersubjectivity which is related with [unintelligible 00:30:19.05] as lovers has to work; your intersubjectivity as parents if you have kids has to work. Your intersubjectivity around money and resources and around self-care has to work. These are all related, but separate.

For instance, in the sexual intersubjectivity we all have instincts to be monogamous, and we all have instincts to cheat. These are evolutionarily mandated; it doesn’t mean we have to do it, but we all have instincts to be with one special person and fall in love with him and go into intimate bonding, and then we have instincts to flirt with other people, and when we’re attracted, to talk ourselves into getting involved with other people.

We also have instincts if we see our partner flirting with another person, or another person flirting with our partner, we have instincts to go into mate protection and to feel jealousy, which involves anger and possessiveness and aggressive impulses. How do we manage all this stuff? How do we integrate it? Well, we have to grow.

Say, with jealousy, the husband comes home and she says, “How was your day?” and he says, “It was a pretty good day. This woman in the department next door, she smiled at me and said ‘Hey Keith, how are you doing?’, and she was obviously flirting with me.” Now, the wife feels a little throb of jealousy and this little sense of threat, a little bit of anger. Say she’s aware of that drive, and say she’s aware that that happens, and say she’s aware that he’s a safe guy and he’s telling her this because he’s deconstructing the distracting attraction that he naturally had to an attractive woman coming on to him.

Then she says, “Wow, I’m feeling a little shaft of jealousy… How did you deal with it?” and then he says, “Well, you know, I was polite, but somewhat distant. I need to kind of be careful for it in the future”, and she said, “Thanks. I don’t like the idea of women hitting on you at work”, because perhaps she knows that most love affairs happen at work these days. But she feels safe and secure with him, because she’s aware of her drive and normalizes it to be jealous; she’s aware of his drive to be attracted to other people and to have to manage that erotic clarity and trust him. They’re being able to discuss it, so they become a little bit more intimate as a result of this exchange.

He becomes a little bit clearer about how to set boundaries at work, she feels a little safer with him than she did before, because when he has a distracted attraction he doesn’t keep it to himself, but talks to her about it.

But let’s say she doesn’t know this stuff and he doesn’t know this stuff. Say he indulged the flirtation, but pretended like he wasn’t. “Oh, she seems like a nice person”, but always manages to make it by her department when he’s going to work and going back. Then all of a sudden the departments have some project and he says, “Well, let’s you and I talk about that project over coffee”, and he finds himself super attracted. And this other woman says, “We should do this more often”, and then he comes home and he looks guilty.

His wife says, “You look guilty.” “Oh, it’s nothing.” She presses, “No, I know it’s something.” “Well, I have this thing…”, and she isn’t aware of it and she says, “You asshole, how dare you do this?!” and she’s relating to him having coffee with her as if he’s already cheated on her. Then he gets defensive, “I haven’t done anything, we’re just working.” So all of a sudden they’re having an escalating conflict; she’s trusting him less, he’s more repulsed by her, she’s more repulsed by him, even though she’s feeling possessive. He’s less likely to talk about this, he’s more likely to go to his new friend and talk about his problems, and we have a big mess that’s just about ready to break.

Numerous times over the last 43 years a man or a woman has come in and talked to me about some friend they have. “Yeah, I have a good friend, he’s really a nice guy. We take walks on the beach.” In Santa Barbara, when you’re talking walks on the beach with an opposite sex person, that’s like a siren going off; it might go, “Uh-oh! It’s the walk the beach.” And I go, “You know, I think that you and that person are developing a distracting attraction; have you talked to your husband about it?” “No, he wouldn’t understand. I think it would just make him jealous.”

I’ll go, look, I think you should 1) not take walks on the beach with this guy, 2) recognize that you’re attracted to him and he’s attracted to you and 3) go talk to your husband about it and say, “Look, I wanna discuss that this thing was happening, and I went and talked to Keith and Keith said I should talk to you about it, and we need to kind of understand that when something like this happens we need to get grounded with each other.”

The last time I did this, she said, “No, I’m not gonna do that”, and I said, “Well, you know, you’re probably gonna have a secret affair, it’s probably gonna blow up in your face, and then you and your husband will have a big crisis, and then you’ll be back by yourself through with him, and you guys will have to go through a long and painful process of working your way through this.” “Nah, I don’t think so”, she said. Well, sure enough, six months later… “Keith, can I have an appointment?” and all that stuff had happened. I referred them to a couples person because under those circumstances you should have separate couples people.

They went through the long, painful process and it went exactly as I predicted. That suffering could have been prevented if she would have been more aware of the shadow material influencing her and her friend who said “we’re just friends”, and her husband who was being a little bit dissociated, not quite aware of the fact that she and he were being distant.

The rationale that women most commonly give for an affair is that “I can’t be psychologically/emotionally intimate with my husband the way that I want.” The rationale that men most commonly give for an affair is they want sexual variety. And actually, neither one of those hold up in research. 70% of people having affairs will say “I feel pretty satisfied sexually with my partner and I care about my partner, I love my partner”, but people wanna explain the experience, so those are the explanations they reach for, even though they’re not particularly accurate. It’s a fascinating thing about how we kid ourselves about stuff like this.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right, which goes back to your point about negative stories, of the distortion?

Dr. Keith Witt: Exactly. Those stories come out of destructive shadow. Now, if I can be aware — if I’m rationalizing the behavior that hurts somebody… You know, if I’m mean to you — this used to happen in the ’70s. there were a lot of confronting therapies coming out of the Gestalt tradition, where therapists would give a rant at somebody about how fucked up they were in the interest of waking them up, and so on; people felt injured, and the rationales that the therapists were coming up with, like “This is tough love, and this is me telling it like it is” and all this other stuff… But actually they were indulging aggressive impulses and giving themselves stories to support indulging, aggressive impulses – just like Fritz Perls did in some of his work, even though he was a genius – and that cause a lot of suffering.

Finally, we began to wake up to the fact that you don’t do that to people. Therapists began to be aware, if you have an aggressive impulse, if I’m getting angry at something that my client’s doing or saying, I need to examine that inside myself, which is a fractal interface, which is working with my own shadow until I can talk to them with compassion and care. And if I can talk to them with the subjective sense of compassion and care, then I can tell them about stuff that I think is destructive. Then I can tell them about mistakes that I think that they’re making.

Why? Because we pay a lot more attention to the music of our relationship than we do to the words, and the music is [unintelligible 00:38:27.21] the music is expression in our faces towards each other, and we want that music to be accepting and caring.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right, the non-verbals, and all the other stuff that people are getting from each other that are not the words.

Dr. Keith Witt: That’s right. And if you’re not aware of that it’s just coming from shadow, it’s coming from the unknown into the present moment. If you are aware of that, you can make the adjustment… Particularly facial expression and tone. Being aware of your facial expression and your tone is an incredibly powerful yoga.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, yes.

Dr. Keith Witt: So if you just focused on your breath and your facial expression and tone, just with an awareness, with an understanding of “I want all those things to be coherent in terms of serving the world, rather than getting in the way of the world”, just that one practice would transform your entire life, and that’s the practice of opening yourself up to insight, those interfaces between the known and the unknown, between shadow and conscious awareness.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I love it. Keith, I’m imagining that people listening that have some exposure or familiarity with this practice of being willing to look at aspects of ourselves that have been previously hidden or unaware, and expanding that awareness, that they get how important that is, right? You’re talking about just even the yoga of your non-verbal, your facial expression and your breath, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s so beautifully put! I’ve never heard it like that”, but it’s so true; it’s a practice and the benefit of that is, I imagine, amazing.
You’re giving a lot of description about how to practice, and I’m just thinking about the people that perhaps identify with the negative nervous system response that don’t necessarily know how to have connection to that positive base.

Dr. Keith Witt: You’re bringing up one of the most fundamental problems, one of the most fundamental challenges of being a human being. This is huge beyond belief. I discovered early in my career in the ’70s when I was doing therapy that if somebody didn’t experience themselves as beautiful, that we hadn’t gone deep enough into their self; that always if we kept going deeper, at some point we find them experiencing themselves as beautiful. And if we keep going deeper, we find that little place, that little intersection between the self and spirit, between the self and the infinite, where we all know that on some level we are all an expression of God all the time.

Now,  why don’t we just feel that all the time? How come since it’s there, that interface is there, how come that’s not everybody’s primary identification with themselves and with the world? Well, the reason for that is because we are mammals just like all the other mammals, and all mammals, when they’re young or about the same age as human toddlers (10, 11, 12 months), all mammals start social learning with their young. And social learning runs off of approvals and disapprovals, and when the young are approved of, they feel good, and when they’re disapproved off, they go into fear reactions and shame reactions. Those shame reactions are going into parasympathetic collapse, and if you get disapproved of by your parents — say you’re 14 months old and you’re about to pick up a pile of horse manure and your mom says, “No, don’t do that!”, and you feel that disapproval, and she looks like a stranger, and you freeze, and you blush, and you lose the muscle tone in your neck and you look down… Well, you feel really bad. That freezing stops you from doing something; then mom picks you up and says, “You’re fine, it’s just that I don’t want you picking up horse pooh.” You feel approved of again if you’re secure kid in about ten seconds, but a little bit of social learning has taken place.

Well, with human beings, because we can observe ourselves and we can in our imagination go back to the beginning of time and the end of time — to contrast, chimpanzees, our close relatives, can go about a half hour into the future; we can go to the end of time.
At about two years old when we start observing ourselves, we have approvals and disapprovals of ourselves; the approvals and disapprovals of ourselves as two and three and four-year-olds are immature approvals and disapprovals, because we have immature nervous systems. They’re black and white, they’re big, they’re magical. “If I’m not smiling, I’m bad” – that’s a magical belief/moral system, but it could [unintelligible 00:43:49.04] Or “If I’m not perfect, I’m bad, so I need to be perfect.” “If mommy doesn’t like me, then I’m bad, then I’m wrong, then I’m gonna die”, because kids know that if they lose a parent – instinctively, children know that they risk death.

Well, these reflexes get programmed into our unconscious, into our shadow selves, and they keep coming up until we reprogram them. Often they take the form of feeling bad about ourselves, especially because, you know, when we’re eight or nine we begin to learn more mythical moral systems, that are based on, say, the Bible or the Quran, or whatever our cultural standards are, and nobody ever lives up to all the cultural moral standards, so we all walk around knowing that we’re screwing up on some level. This is the whole concept of original sin. The concept of original sin was very comforting to Catholics in the 14th century, because it explained to them why they’re feeling guilty all the time. [laughter] They didn’t know about neurobiology.

As we develop more rational moral systems, we can feel that guilt or that shame or even that fear, and we can go deeper: “Where is that coming from? Well, it’s because I’m not perfect, so I have to be perfect to feel a sense of affection for myself.” Well, probably not. And as I do that, as I consider that, I’m bringing that shadowy moral value into the light and I’m refining it. As I’m refining it, I begin to feel a little better about myself. 
Similarly, I can say if somebody disapproves of me, then they hate me. So I’m with my wife and she disapproves of me. You know, when I was a martial artist when I was 31, I remember coming home from sparring, I feel all tough and macho because I’d sparred with this really difficult fighter and I’d done a pretty good job, but I had some bruises and cuts… I walk in the house and my wife looked at me and she saw the bruises on my face and she says, “Well, who beat you up this time?” I felt so pissed off at her and so humiliated… And we had an argument, but what came out of that argument is she didn’t like me taking those kinds of risks. But she was right, at 31 I needed to back off from that; I live off of my brain, and I was risking it every time I stepped into a ring with somebody like that, and I stopped actually doing that kind of stuff.

But my initial reaction was I felt humiliated, and what human nervous systems do when they have humiliation is they generally regulate it into rage, and then that rage will turn into escalating conflicts with someone you love. I see this all the time in the couples I work with and in the individuals I work with. Until you’re aware of it, until you bring it out of shadow and you ask yourself, “What’s below the surface?” When I found that below the surface was her concern for me, and what was below the surface in me was the knowledge that at 31 I needed to stop doing this kind of stuff, and I needed to do a little bit more preservation of my body and less risking of my body, it lead me into a more mature attitude towards my martial arts.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: This is so rich. I feel so grateful to have you on this show. I am thinking that what you’re saying is that developing a practice or a priority for the inner inquiry, the willingness to look and build awareness of the destructive shadow and also the positive, the constructive shadow, and also having the warmth, or I think you’ve talked about acceptance and caring – that that will help navigate this process, as it can be very painful at times.

Dr. Keith Witt: Absolutely. You know, in modern society we’re safe pretty much all the time. We’re physically safe and we’re psychologically safe probably more than any group of human beings ever have been safe. And yet we feel unsafe so much. That lack of safety leads us into these defensive tangles.

Actually, being safe in the modern society – most safe – involves trusting compassion and understanding and being suspicious of any kind of understanding that isn’t compassionate and understanding. Now, if we practice that enough, that is programmed into our non-conscious self, and we don’t have to decide to be suspicious of non-compassionate understanding or hostile understanding or fearful understanding. We just naturally get suspicious when we get hostile. I get suspicious of what I’m thinking when I’m afraid or when I’m angry, and I just don’t trust it.

I’ll tell my wife, “I’m mad, I don’t even trust what I’m thinking right now and I’m trying to find a compassionate understanding.” Or I’ll say it to my children, or sometimes they’ll say it to me. Well actually, in the modern day, in the 21st century, that is the absolute safest that you can be in a social environment. That’s a developmental achievement/milestone in terms of your autogenic evolution. But if two people can do that with each other, they create a relationship where they’re unconsciously always regulating to compassionate understanding.
Now, in terms of your intersubjectivity as friends, this is what friends naturally do with each other, and couples have difficulty with it. This is one of the reasons why you’re 34% more likely to be happy if you’ve got a friend living next door, but only 8% more likely to be happy if you’re living with your spouse… Because in intimate relationships our more primitive defenses come up (in our marriage relationship) and we need more sophistication, we need more personal evolution to be able to relate with each other as good friends relate.

When couples do that, they do enormously well. But it requires effort, we have to grow, and I can’t do that while feeling like I’m a jerk. I have to have my own relationship with myself developed so I can understand, “Yes, I am an expression of spirit on Earth, and that is my primary identity”, [unintelligible 00:50:33.26] through all the Keith fixations  and drives and desires and all that other stuff, and I have to deal with the Keith fixations and drives, but my primary identity is I’m spirit coming through this incarnation, wanting to serve the world and have a joyful life.

That primary identity can feel bad, it can feel ashamed, it can feel guilty, but never doubts their essential worth, and this is part of what we as therapists always struggle to teach our clients, always struggle to help them discover in themselves, and with couples and families to help them discover below the surface these desires to thrive with each other and to love each other better, rather than worse.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I love it. Can you tell us a little bit about your book, so that this can something that people can, I’m sure, learn a little bit about how to begin some of this work?

Dr. Keith Witt: Well, you always gotta be careful asking an author to talk about his book. [laughs]

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, I mean, as we’re transitioning…

Dr. Keith Witt: I apologize…

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, I guess I just wanna give a plug; you really created a huge gift that is focused on this topic, and if people are having questions around how to start practicing some of these things and how it applies to different aspects of their life – I’m assuming your book helps with that. If you wanted to give a couple sentences about that…

Dr. Keith Witt: Absolutely. It is apparent to me that these dynamics exist everywhere, so what I wanted to do was to lay a foundation of being aware of shadow and listening to it, and constructive and destructive, and then developing practices of expanding that awareness and then applying it to everything, applying it to our own epic journey that we have in our life. If you’re a guy, applying it to your own understanding of yourself as the warrior and the man of wisdom. Or a woman, applying it to the archetypes of yourself as a woman of wisdom, or a [unintelligible 00:52:47.19] or a goddess.

I wanted to help people apply it to marriage, marital shadow and sexual shadow, and the shadow of parenting and of creativity and of violence and of spirituality. So in my book, the beauty for me, the pleasure of writing is I can immerse myself in spiritual shadow, which involves spiritual bypassing and other things, and give people an understanding of that and practices to grow in that area, just as I did with sexuality and parenting and marriage, and the hero’s journey, and the warrior, and the man of wisdom and so on. And then neurobiology of shadow, of course.

The pleasure was I could focus on those aspects of it in one chapter and then connect it to the others and then move on to another central aspect of human existence. That’s one of the reasons that I have a chapter on creativity and I have a chapter on violence, because we all have in us an instinct for self-transcendence; we all wanna create, and that’s evolution speaking through us, and when we’re aware of it, we can surrender more effectively and expertly to it. But also we have that capacity for violence when we feel threatened, and the more that we understand it and are aware of it, the more we can transmute that into assertive action, rather than aggressive action, into creating love rather than creating divisiveness.

So my pleasure was in presenting these concepts and offering people practices in all these areas in my book Shadow Light. And so far, the people that have read the book have gotten back to me and said, “Wow, this really helps me in these areas that are so important to me as a person and as a lover and as a parent and as a human being or as an artist.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: So people can find it on your website, or what would you recommend? I’ll put the link on the show notes for people.

Dr. Keith Witt: Sure, go to my website and you can get free excerpts from the book; you can go to Amazon and just google “Shadow Light” or google “Keith Witt” and you can find it and my other books and you can buy it. You can get an eBook copy of it, or you can get it in hardcover. It’s very available, just go to my website. And if you’re on my website, check out some of the other material on my website; check out my series and my lectures and my blogs and so on. There’s an awful lot of wonderful things about being a person and being in a relationship that have been so magical and so wonderful to me that I just couldn’t stand it, I had to share it with the world, so as much as possible I’ve put that stuff out in my books and my lectures and my classes and so on.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you so much!

Dr. Keith Witt: Thank you for having me, it’s always a pleasure talking with you.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins: I hope you have enjoyed this episode. Dr. Keith Witt brings such a perspective that’s multidisciplinary; it’s almost like getting a history lesson, and also what he’s describing is so knowledgeable, insightful and experienced, and we appreciate his expertise.

If you would like to comment on today’s show notes, please visit my website, which is, click on the most recent episode here, this is 93, and then you can scroll down to the bottom and comment below.

You’ll also find the links that have been mentioned today, being Shadow Light, Dr. Keith Witt’s book, as well as his website. Also, the last episode that he was on, and also I mentioned the shadow series that I published several months ago.

If you have anything you want to reach out to me around, you can e-mail me at I appreciate you and your listenership. Until next time, I hope you take great care!

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