What Is Shadow Work?

Shadow work is a psychological practice developed by Carl Jung that teaches you techniques to work with your shadow self to reduce the negative effects that are plaguing your life and to separate and integrate parts of yourself into a single whole. It’s meant to promote emotional healing and help you find peace with yourself.

(And let’s be honest, couldn’t we all use some of that?)

What Does Carl Jung Say About The “Shadow Self”?

Jung describes the “shadow” as the disowned and unconscious parts of a person’s personality that their ego fails to accept, acknowledge, or see. In some cases, it’s the stuff we’ve buried so deep, our conscious minds aren’t even aware of them anymore. Essentially, it is the parts of ourselves that we like to lock away and hide from.

Carl Jung believed that understanding your personal shadow can assist with creating a more balanced life and promote feelings of harmony and contentment within “the self”.

Demons. Shadows. Skeletons in the closet. We all have them. And you can’t just get rid of your shadow, no matter how far you run. When the sun shines even brighter, the shadow is often more apparent.

Everyone carries a dark side, even if we don’t like to admit it. Shadow work can sound scary, and some parts of it may be rather uncomfortable, but it is necessary work to uncover true joy and peace in life. It’s sort of like Star Wars – if we let our “dark side” run rampant and uncontrolled, our lives will feel chaotic. This can manifest as issues with mental health, diseases, feelings of low self-worth, addictions, scarcity mindset, and other mind/body health issues that can affect overall quality of life. Our shadow self often harms our life, in ways that are unconscious to us at the time, as a habitual reaction to particular places, people or things. Our shadow self blocks us from acting for our own greatest good and can prevent us from reaching our true potential in life.

The idea of the shadow self was first conceived by Carl Jung, a 20th-century psychologist from Switzerland. In his field of psychology, often referred to as Jungian psychology, the word ‘shadow’ refers to hidden parts of our being. This may be parts of ourselves we try to repress because they make us feel sad or wounded. This is the side that we don’t show society, such as when we are at work or school. It can also indicate how we internally perceive ourselves as being weak or in pain – that we feel the need to hide these parts of ourselves. Carl Jung believed in the integration of the shadow side so that our full self is acknowledged, and we can live in a balanced way.

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

– Carl Jung

We often go through life attempting to hide our shadows. That’s what society tells us to do, right? At some point in our lives, we discovered what pain was and started to repress that feeling. Most likely this happened as a child, sometime when growing up. Then we begin to tell ourselves the story that it’s not okay for anyone to know our struggles and battles, that we have to be “good” all the time and that any negative emotions we feel are not “right”. In hindsight, we will see those internal battles as what helped us further our lives and our vision of success. The truth is that we wouldn’t know our greatest success or potential if we didn’t fight our greatest battles.

This means the shadow must be acknowledged. This is the basis of shadow work.

What Is The Purpose Of Shadow Work?

Shadow work allows you to feel a much greater sense of personal agency and power in the world. It’s a kind of personal development that helps you accept yourself more fully, warts and all. 

Shadow work also allows you to do some important deep healing. It shines a light on the good, bad, and ugly bits.

This is helpful because acknowledging the less-than-beautiful parts of ourselves allows us to express these characteristics in a healthier way, instead of suppressing or bottling them up until these feelings and emotions manifest in uncontrollable, unhealthy, and in some cases, even dangerous behaviors.

Some of these classic examples include lashing out, angrily blaming others, creating toxic inner dialogue, or developing a negative or distorted body image. Basically, all the things that make you say, “Why did I do that?”

Confront Your Shadow

The pain and suffering we see in the world around us are often mirrored by our internal pain and suffering. We all have these aspects within us in one way or another. Let’s say, for example, the road you take to work each day is littered. You can either take action to work with your town to face the issue, inform people not to litter, and enforce a solution, or it can continue to be sullied and get worse.

The same goes for our internal dialogue. If our minds and emotions become polluted, then we may not be able to think clearly. Our emotions may lead us astray and cause us to act out unknowingly. An internal clean-up must happen, as well as a re-wiring of your internal dialogue just like in the situation with the road. If we ignore the problems all around us in everyday life, the pain and suffering will continue. It is only in facing our difficulties that true change can be made, and the hope of peace can prevail, inside and out.

Shadow work may seem counterintuitive on the outside because you will have to face your pain instead of running away from it. The process works by allowing yourself to feel and understand the painful aspects of yourself, so they become fully integrated, instead of treated like a castaway. It takes courage and an open heart, which are valuable tools to learn along the way.

How Will You Know When You Need Shadow Work?

If you feel like something is a bit off, it might be worth exploring shadow work. Here are some of the tell-tale signs that your “shadow” is ruling your life:

– Things are not going your way

– You are stuck in a highly cyclical pattern

– You don’t feel like you’re adding value to the world

– You are experiencing an increase in negative self-talk

– You are experiencing difficult emotions or strange flashes like anger or lust at unpredictable or inappropriate times

– You forgive too easily

– You are denying your reality

– You have changed who you are are to suit another person or other people

– You deny your needs and wants

– You are working hard towards something, but you fail to get results

Letting Your Personal Shadow Run Wild

When your shadow self is running the show, you might start to feel like you’re stuck in a Jekyll and Hyde cycle. We get to a point where we don’t feel in control of our emotional reactions.

We start projecting our own insecurities and shadow aspects onto others. This can lead to defensiveness and creating distorted realities. We become blind to the positive aspects of ourselves and others. This kind of thing takes its toll after a while. 

Shadow work is one of the best ways to truly experience transformation and inner healing, and all that is involved is “self-awareness“. It’s something you can on independently or with a trained medical professional.

You can start by exploring different exercises and getting to know your shadow self and the parts of yourself you may not like so much. 

Shadow Work Exercise #1: Seeing Yourself in Others

Jung said, ” Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”. But not many of us have the time or opportunity to work through these emotions as they arise.

For this reason, it is a good idea to take 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day to go over your interactions or conversations with others, along with how you reacted to these interactions. 

When another person bothers or irritates you, it might indicate disowned parts of yourself. One activity you can do is to journal about negative interactions you have with others. 

What happened? Why don’t you like this person? What character traits do they possess that turn you off? 

Once you unpack some of these elements, you can then start examining ways that you express these same qualities. 

The more grace you have for the uglier parts of yourself, the more grace you’ll give to others.

Exercise #2: How To Identify Your Shadow Traits: the 3-2-1 Shadow Process

If you would like to follow a detailed guide on how to work on your shadow, it is highly recommended to look into the 3-2-1 Shadow Process, created by Ken Wilber in “Integral Life Practice”. 

Below is an introduction to these steps:

Step One:

First, choose a subject (a family member, friend, or your husband/wife) to think about. Pick someone that you struggle to get along with or have an emotionally charged relationship with. This is the easiest place to start for this activity. 

Step Two:

The next step involves imagining this person. Think about the qualities that upset you the most, or characteristics that attract you the most by using 3rd-person language such as it, she, and he. Use a journal to write what you are feeling. 

“He annoys me. He talks too much and never gets to the point.”

“She makes friends so easily. Everyone loves her right away and she makes it look so effortless.”

Step Three:

Now create a dialogue or conversation with the person using your imagination. Speak to the person using 2nd-person (use “you” language). Speak directly to the person and imagine they are there. Tell the person what irritates or bothers you when it comes to how they behave. 

This can be done out-loud or on paper.

You can ask these questions:

– Why do you do these things to me?

– What do you want from me?

– Are you trying to show or tell me something?

– Why do we keep having the same argument?

– Do you have something to show or teach me?

Think about how they will respond to each question. Speak these imaginary responses out loud. You can also record these conversations in a journal. 

Step Four:

Now become the person taking on any qualities that fascinate or annoy you. Now embody all the traits that you described in the 2nd step. Use 1st-person language (such as mine, me, and I). This might feel awkward and strange, which is perfectly normal. The traits that you take on, happen to be the traits that you deny in yourself. 

You can use statements like:

– I am jealous

– I am angry

– I feel insecure.

You can also fill in blanks with the qualities that you are currently working with: ” I am …”. 

Step Five:

Look at all the traits you’ve uncovered and start identifying how these aspects exist in you. These are your shadow traits. Sometimes these are things we need to work and other times, they are things we need to lovingly accept about ourselves. 

Exercise #3: Body Scans and Mindfulness

Another great strategy for connecting with the deeper parts of yourself is through mindfulness. In particular, body scan meditations are particularly good for achieving a stronger sense of wholeness.

Benefits of body scan meditation include:

  • Improved body awareness
  • Stress awareness
  • Relaxation

Part of connecting with your shadow self involves reconnecting with your body. How often do we go through our day physically and emotionally tense without even realizing it? We end our day with aching shoulders and clenched jaws.

Body scan meditations, when done consistently, can help us escape this cycle of zombie stress and become more in tune with our bodies.

How To Do a Body Scan Meditation

Lay down or sit comfortably in a chair. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Starting at the top of your head, begin to “scan” by focusing your attention on the crown of your head. Scan your attention down to the eyes, ears, nose, jaw, and lips. Feel the breath on the body. Notice any sensations or tensions.

Continue this scan down the neck and onto the shoulders. Is there tension? Breathe into it and allow your body to relax.

You’ll continue to slowly scan through the body in this manner until you reach your feet. The goal is to bring all your awareness onto your body – how it feels, where there is tension, discomfort, or stress, or where this is relaxation. Then use your breath to breathe into the discomfort and allow your body to work itself out.

How to Use Shadow Work in Your Life

To engage fully with the broad spectrum of life, there are a variety of techniques you can utilise to begin your shadow work journey.

Writing, or journaling, is one of the best tools to start with when engaging in shadow work. This is a way to record all of your thoughts and feelings so that you begin to become aware of your unconscious self. This could include journaling about specific ways you react to certain situations and people. You will begin to see if there is a recurrent emotional or behavioural pattern in your life.

Once you begin to recognise these patterns, you can increase your internal dialogue with yourself in the moment (like having a conversation with yourself, and no it doesn’t mean you’re crazy!) or through meditation-type exercises. These types of shadow work may include using particular archetypes to define shadow parts of yourself so that you can better understand them.

For example, you may feel conditioned to overwork yourself when it comes to your job – you bring problems home, don’t shut off, work when unnecessary, etc. What is the opposite of that? Allowing yourself to relax and let go of your problems. If you can define this side of yourself that you are repressing (your ability to relax), then you may become aware of moments that you need to take it easy to prevent burnout or any other kind of mental suffering or anguish related to your work life. In the end, you will find more peace with your job!

Through this work, you can decipher and decide which patterns and behaviours no longer serve you so that you can move forward with enhanced awareness. Instead of reacting to life all the time, you can play its game and respond to life instead. You don’t have to suppress hurt feelings or run away from painful experiences – they are simply tools that are begging for growth. Shadow work helps us to accept that which we’ve found unacceptable so that real change, healing, and transformation can occur.

One of the most important things to remember when engaging with shadow work is to be compassionate with yourself. Not all of the answers may come right away, so wherever you are at in the process, allow yourself to accept all parts of yourself, shadow and light alike. The transmutation of emotional pain and discomfort with conscious awareness is the alchemical nectar that precedes any transformation.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

– Rumi
References :
Images curated by Laurence BL

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