We all have a shadow side: the parts of ourselves that we’d rather pretend didn’t exist. The negative habits, tendencies, desires. We also all have positive traits which we push down, out of shame or the need to fit.
The shadow represents the side of us that is covered in darkness (unconsciousness) which appears to be hidden but inevitably influences our life in subtle ways.
Shadow work is the process of getting to know this ‘dark side’ of our being, and bringing it into consciousness. Through acknowledging our negative traits and embracing our repressed gifts, able to live a life with more clarity.
In this post I want to explore 7 key benefits of shadow work, as well as guidance on how to get started.
What is the shadow self?
The shadow self is a concept popularized by psychologist Carl Jung, which refers to the dark (unconscious) side of our psyche. The side that is hidden from conscious view because it brings fear or shame.
We all have a hidden shadow side or shadow self, the part of ourselves which we keep locked away due to fear of what other people think or how we might view ourselves. Even when we have awareness of the shadow, it can be difficult to see it all and be honest with ourselves.
The ‘negative’ side of the shadow self includes traits like envy, jealousy, greed, anger, sadness, lust etc. In religion we might call this side of ourselves ‘sinful’, in spirituality we might refer to these characteristics as low-vibrational.
Generally speaking, even if we accept these emotions there can still be fear around how we might express them.
These labels can bring a lot of shame and guilt which makes working with the shadow uncomfortable or taboo in some instances.
On the other hand, Carl Jung also referred to a ‘Golden Shadow’ this was the positive side to our shadow. This golden shadow includes all of the traits and characteristics that are helpful but underappreciated.
A common example of the golden shadow is the creative child who naturally gravitates towards artistic pursuits. Often this child is encouraged to pursuit more academic pursuits, or to see art as something that doesn’t need to be practiced openly.
Although artistic ability is a positive trait, it can be viewed as frivolous or secondary to other activities. This can cause the artistic child to push down and repress their artistic flair, creating the golden shadow.
Shadow work is the deep acknowledgement and acceptance of these aspects of our being. Rather than seeing the shadow as something that is separate from us, claiming it as part of the whole.
Further reading: What is shadow work
How the shadow self influences us
It should be obvious now how being completely unaware of the shadow can wreak havoc in our lives. Here are some obvious ways the shadow influences us:
- Low self-esteem
- Easily influenced by others
- Lack of direction and clarity
- Manipulative tendencies
- An inflated ego
The shadow self casts a metaphorical shadow over our lives, we are always living the past and projecting that onto the present.
When we are aware that we have these shadow aspects but avoid facing them, we exert far more energy suppressing the shadow than it would take to simply be with the shadow. In a sense we live a double life, aware of this hidden aspect of ourselves but living a life that ignores it.
Benefits of shadow work
Through bringing this unconscious aspect of our psyche into consciousness there are many benefits which I detail below.
1. Deeper clarity and peace
The shadow side or shadow self casts darkness over certain aspects of our life. We are unaware of our unconscious motivations, and consequently feel as if we have no real control over our lives.
When the shadow is thick we will experience emotional outbursts, we feel disconnected from ourselves and others and feel a cyclical pattern in our day to day lives. Shadow work shines light in these areas and allow us to progress with a clear idea of what we want and what we are doing.
2. Less fear, shame and uncertainty
We all carry fear, guilt, shame and other negative emotions – this is part of being human. The difference is made in how we approach these emotions and what effect we allow them to have on our lives, if we choose to ignore them or face them and make a change.
3. Clearer intuition
Getting to know the shadow awakens us to our intuition because we gain a clearer idea of who we are, and connecting with the intuition is essentially connecting with ourselves.
A lot of the critical and self-depreciating thought patterns we experience do not come from us, but from some external source like an adult or parental figure. We internalize these voices and carry them with us throughout life.
Shadow work allows us to identify what is ours and what isn’t, in doing so we can hear ourselves more clearly – the voice of our intuition.
4. Increased creativity
One of the unexpected benefits of exploring the shadow is an increase in creativity (even if we do not consider ourselves creative). All of that blocked, repressed energy wants to be expressed in some way. We can either ignore it and allow it to cause unintended negative effects in our lives, or we can channel it consciously through the actions we take.
All negative emotions (as we might refer to them) can be utilized in a positive way. Anger shows us where we might be lacking boundaries, sadness shows us where there are draining patterns in our life, greed highlights our true needs.
When we do shadow work we aren’t trying to get rid of negative emotion, but instead to sit with them and see what they are feeding on. This can provide endless inspiration for what we might want to create and the action we’d like to take.
5. Deeper self-awareness
The key benefit of shadow work is to become more self-aware so that we are less likely to unconsciously project our shadow or hurt others unintentionally. Everyone has a shadow and we cannot get rid of the shadow, however we can work to uncover the shadow, become more conscious of it and make it less heavy.
We develop a unified perspective on ourselves and our actions. Rather than seeing ourselves as either good or bad, negative or positive, able to get in-between and see the whole picture.
6. Better relationships
How we interact with ourselves sets the foundation for all other relationships. However it can be difficult to interact with others in the way we would like, when we aren’t even aware of the blindspots and wounds that we might have.
7. Discovering new gifts
Shadow work inspired renewed enthusiasm in all areas of our lives, it’s like getting to know ourselves all over again. In the process we’ll uncover negative traits that we weren’t aware of, but also positive traits which we can finally develop and embrace.
Go deeper with my shadow work guide that comes with 30 printable journal prompts.
How to get started with shadow work
To get started with shadow work is simple, to actually put in the work and shift certain patterns is where things can difficult.
My simple process for shadow work is awareness, validate & shift. Become aware of where your shadow is making its presence known in your life, validate the wounds/pain that might be associated, and consciously shift those behaviors.
Notice your triggers: When do you feel most unseen, unheard or unsafe? How do you respond when you feel judged? What causes your strongest emotional outbursts?
These are all areas in which the shadow is present and taking control. When we experience something in the present through the lens of the past, we react with a heightened emotional response.
Validate them: Understand that these patterns/reactions arise from somewhere. Our shadow is formed when we are at our most vulnerable (childhood) and continues to morph and change in more intricate ways throughout adulthood.
When we are understanding of our shadow and face it without heavy judgement we can more easily shift these reactions in the future. When we add judgement to shadow it blossoms in size, when we are neutral towards shadow it shrinks.
Shift accordingly: Practice the pause. When you want to react in the same old ways take a deep breath. Leave more space between stimulus and response. When we react we are doing so out of habit, but when we respond we are doing so from wisdom.
Shadow work can easily become a trap of its own kind. Where we are on a hunt for all of the hidden/negative aspects of ourselves and how we can fix them.
Shadow work is about striking a balance. At some points in our lives we’ll want to do deeper shadow work and at other points a lighter focus is more beneficial.
If you want to dive deeper into shadow work, check out my guidebook Touching Darkness.