Shadow Boxing

A follow on from the last post in which I discussed the way in which people who are elevated to the position of guru in groups of wounded people are often turned on, torn down and ridiculed.  I discussed this within the reality that many parents whose children have rejected them over the past decades will soon come of age and as they do they will grapple and wrestle with the dynamics that caused that rejection in the first place.  Whilst many hope for a magical reunion, in which the adult child finally sees the light and comes home for the fatted calf, arms outstretched and eyes wet with tears, the reality for some will be something far removed from this, something far more gritty and far less easy to anticipate.  For what happens to children when they become estranged from a parent after separation is pretty much like what happens when we cannot see our own shadow self.  All that is bad about ourselves and in ourselves, is pushed into the darkness outside of consciousness, glimpsed only in those moments when we see it projected, like shadow play on the wall of someone else’s behaviour.  Thus, one of the key things for rejected parents to learn is how to understand what has been split off in the child, so that shadow boxing, or the art of understanding projection, becomes second nature.

Shadow boxing is about dealing with projection, which is a powerful psychological phenomenon and one which is always, in my experience, massively at play in alienated families.  Splitting, which is the psychological defence mechanism of dividing experience into all one thing or the other, in the case of alienated children all good parent and all bad parent, is the perfect mechanism for using the shadow self to carry the unwanted feelings that arise during loyalty conflicts.  Loyalty conflict, caused by either, the pressure upon a child to reject a parent or the inability to please two parents in conflict with each other, is the most impossible psychological experience for a child.  When two halves of one’s internalised self are at war with each other in the external world, the easiest route to dealing with the sense of being torn in two is to not be and to ‘decide’ that one side of the whole makes a great deal more sense than the other.  The next step is to begin to see all the things in the parent earmarked for rejection through the eyes of the other parent. Finally, the dumping, into the shadow or unconscious self, of all that was once experienced as good and healthy about the targeted parent, seals off the experience beyond reach. Now the child is fully aligned with one against the other and all of the memories, experiences and feelings are well beyond reach, only to emerge as the child is either helped to confront them or when they spontaneously erupt into consciousness, driving the adult child towards reconnection.  However the shadows are disturbed, the process of unravelling that which has been split off and denied is not simple if it is not assisted and it is not easy if the rejected parent is not ready and prepared to deal with what comes out of the darkeness. Learning shadow boxing, the art of understanding and working with projection is a key skill for rejected parents everywhere.

I was reminded all over again about the importance of shadow boxing this week when I watched a little gang of folk who themselves were once wounded and suffering, turn on another suffering soul.  Goaded into this gang like behaviour by the appearance of the adult child of this person on social media, I watched open mouthed as people waded into the dirty water to attack, some seemingly without any notion whatsoever of the way in which their self righteousness betrayed their own shadow selves.  Not one for being slow to attack other people if I consider that they are harming a cause, other people, each other or me and mine, I understood the drive that propelled these people into the swamp, but I couldn’t help but wonder at the vehemence of it all, the enjoyment almost, the absolute satisfaction. What lies within those shadows that produced such projection, if it is not a suspicion, shared by so many people about the family courts, that there is no smoke without fire?

What really struck me was the way in which some of those very same people who call for radical change in the family court system because ‘all dads who are not seeing their children must, by definition, be alienated’, now trumpet the notion that this adult child’s very public attack on her father from whom she is estranged, is PROOF that this man IS the embodiment of evil. One commentator even said, in a comment worthy of any feminist academic that ‘if a dad has been prevented from seeing his children in more than one family setting, that HAS to mean he is abusive.’  Off with the analysis that the family courts are biased, away with the belief structure that says dads get a raw deal and straight on with the ‘truth’ that the child’s voice must always be believed without question…with shadows like this following wounded souls around, every fight is a fight to the death and projection, that defence mechanism in which the shadow self is in denial allowing one to only see faults in others, is very much in control.  Believe me, it is only going to get worse as more and more children who have lost their parent to psychological splitting come of age. Better get the boxing gloves on folks, the shadows get taller and darker the more you deny them.

Children who dump the good about a parent into their unconsciousness are very likely to ‘come out’ fighting when they reach their majority. And with the way social media is interwoven into our everyday experience, those fights are going to be on the increase very soon.  It is not the case that an alienated child moves from rejection to reconnection in one perfect curve, but more the case that unassisted reconnections are likely to look more like a rough flight on a battered third world 737, narrowly missing mountains and landing safely if you are lucky.  Alienated kids who are looking for reconnection are often angry first, so you had better buckle up your seatbelt tight in the early days as you get the past launched at you, because only in time will the shadow reality emerge.   Rejected parents need patience, strength and the understanding of the world around them not a free for all in which every tom dick and helping harriet marches onto social media to have their say.  I have seen some appalling statements this week which made me feel really concerned, not only for those directly involved but for those who were supposedly being helped by the pirahnas circling this particular fiasco.  Whether alienated, estranged, justifiably rejected or otherwise, knowing one’s own shadow self enough to stop projecting it and to know when to withdraw and leave the hurting people to sort out what is, after all, a private mess, is the sign of being capable of working well in this field.

Shadow boxing, make sure when you are lauching your missiles, they are not coming straight out of your own darkened places. Because what you don’t know you don’t know, will for sure, one day, come back and bite you.


  1. As always I bow to your wisdom, but if I didn’t tell the grandparents I support to hope, where would they be. As you know with your work, I also speak to grandparents daily who are suicidal, just a glimmer of hope may just allow them time to hang on for a moment longer. We also know that in cases where they are reunited that many years of building up trust has to begin, a trust that has been broken.
    I do hope the comments ect you are referring to are not the items with grandparents that were in the media last week.


    1. No Jane, I haven’t seen the news this week at all and this one is not about hope or grandparents is about something else entirely so don’t worry. K


  2. What a good word shadow boxing is for what you are describing, Karen.

    It chimes in with realising more recently how internet writing – email lists, Facebook, blogs etc – are both so closely intimate with readers, so easy to react off into the space provided, yet also very scary and blind in the absence of any other non-verbal clues about each other. Of course all those things are also miracles of communication, information and networking.

    But when it goes wrong, I think of emailing or blog-commenting etc as like being both blind and deaf, in a room in which you don’t know how empty or packed it is, and not knowing what kind of other people you may be with in there. Yet it’s as if the unwritten rules encourage you to behave as if you’re intelligent, fully sighted and hearing perfectly!

    A recipe for a perfect storm … even without adding in a profoundly complex thing like Alienation.


  3. Karen, having just read it for the first time, I’m seriously considering the possibility of forwarding this post (excl. replies) to my 22 year-old (2nd of 3) daughter who I’ve not seen since 2008 and, then, only briefly when she accompanied my ex and her siblings on an inspection visit of my home in relation to a shared residence order that had just been issued in respect of my son (4th child – then aged 9).

    Following divorce in 2001, and several breached contact orders later, contact finally broke down in 2003 and despite continued attempts to “leave the door open” all 3 daughters have, at worst, treated me with utter contempt and, at best, total indifference. Subsequent to further breaches, shared residence arrangements also broke down in 2009.

    Last year, this daughter graduated with a 2:1 in criminology & sociology having, throughout, lived away from home and my greatest hope was that her, particular, studies would provide a greater insight into the issues around PA than her elder/younger sister and brother might have.

    It was, thus, a massive shock when I received an unsolicited torrent of abuse and false allegations, shortly after her graduation ceremony, via a Facebook message. It ended wishing me well but also putting me on notice there would be no future place for me in her life. In my reply, I did not rebut the allegations but offered her the opportunity to “hear my side” at any time should she be interested but, in the meantime, encouraged her to base her opinion of me on what she knew and had seen of me rather than what she had heard. As previously, since then, I’ve continued a one-way communication via Facebook message (ie. without receiving replies) where I update all of them on family matters they have a right to know of.

    In summary, my “gut” is telling me that your post could plant a further seed and possibly act as a, sort of, WD-40 in greasing the lock that may, over the longer-term, lead to a key eventually opening the door their mother orchestrated the locking of all those years ago.

    What I’m asking is, “in your experience and opinion, is it unwise to forward a note like this in the hope it will help rather than hinder the situation?”. I’ll understand if you feel unable to comment either way


    1. Let me have a think EHFR, I have your email address, is it ok to communicate with you that way? K


      1. absolutely, karen – if anything, regardless of whether i follow-through, it’s been hugely beneficial to press the “pause button” for the time-being. something i’m certain wouldn’t have happened had i not sought your opinion


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