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By David Waters

My hat is off to Marlene Watson for presenting her interesting concept of the black shadow in this case study, which involves a number of powerful issues, both sociological and psychological. Beyond that, it poses questions about a range of therapeutic issues and theories, and allows us to debate what works best, with some excellent particulars in hand.

The case begins not just with the huge challenge of racism and its effects, but sexism as well, as Joe’s race and his view of women—and even the race of the women he has feelings for—are sources of confusion and shame. That nasty double jeopardy has disabled Joe in terms of feeling successful and legitimate in the world, being capable of intimacy, and even knowing what he desires. In fact, he starts out struggling with the two most basic (and intertwined) issues of therapy: acceptance of one’s self and the capacity for intimacy with others.

As Watson steps into this fierce mix, her own legitimacy as a helper for Joe is potentially undermined by her gender and his projections about how black women see black men, especially around racial choices. Yet she succeeds at bringing Joe into a new relationship with himself and (we can hope) women. Along the way, she introduces and seems to make good use of a wide variety of therapeutic approaches: cognitive-behavioral therapy, internal family systems work, narrative therapy, systems therapy, and a family-of-origin focus, supported by a healing trip back to the site of an early and formative trauma. But more importantly, I see Watson’s case study as an excellent example of undoing shame through an attachment-oriented approach, which is characterized by the kind of strong relationship between therapist and client that makes much greater emotional depth in the client’s self-inquiry possible.

Shame is a difficult issue to treat and requires extraordinary trust in the therapist. From the start—even in the wake of the failed premarital therapy—Watson conveyed her acceptance of Joe and her belief in him as a person of value and potential, allowing him to open up to her about his deeply felt sense of inadequacy. In fact, she conveyed her acceptance of him so genuinely that, with her support, he was able to confront his self-disgust and the humiliating early experiences that had shaped his view of himself. No amount of cognitive therapy in the world can accomplish what Watson did through the healing relationship she established with Joe, allowing him to feel like she “got” him and his experiences.

Although I’d like to understand Watson’s ideas more fully, addressing the black shadow in therapy appears to have been enormously helpful in supporting her sympathetic understanding of Joe. It gave Joe a wider context for understanding the choices he made in his life and enabled him to move beyond a focus on the “wrongness” of those choices to a broader grasp of the challenges imposed by the black shadow—challenges that, rather than isolating him, now connected him to a much larger narrative than the story of his own life.

Marlene Watson, PhD, LMFT, is an associate professor in the Couple & Family Therapy Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of the e-book Facing the Black Shadow. Contact:

David Waters, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was a professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School for 37 years. He retired in 2008. Contact:

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