The concept of shadow work has become more widely known over the last few years – a term originally coined and popularized by psychiatrist Carl Jung. It is something I have incorporated into my work and find extremely useful.
At it’s core, shadow work is a process of becoming consciously aware of our unconscious habits, limits and judgements. Shadow work asks us to explore what we might consider the ‘negative’ aspects of our psyche.
Beyond that, shadow work invites us to reclaim aspects of ourselves that we might consider negative but are actually gifts. This would include traits, skills and inclinations that we can develop to our favor, and help others with.
Shadow work invites us to see both the positive and negative aspects of ourselves as part of the whole. We all have a shadow self, and so rather than attempting to ignore this aspect of ourselves bringing it into focus.
Many spiritual teachers and writers (myself included) have noted how popular the idea of “positive vibes only” has become, and that only focusing on the positive can often be unhelpful. Sometimes we have to take a good look at the negative aspects in ourselves and in the world, so that we can come to greater balance.
Shadow work has come in as a reasonable alternative to only focusing on the positive. Shadow work allows us to examine our negative habits and traits, but also our wounds and traumas so that we do not express or project these outward in subtle ways.
Shadow work is also a way to work against ‘spiritual bypassing’. This is where we use our spiritual practices as an excuse to only focus on the positive things happening in the world at large. We use spirituality to ignore, dismiss or downplay the very real physical struggles other people face.
What I noticed was that often those who hold that any negativity is unspiritual or that focusing on negativity at times will inevitably attract more negativity, were often just afraid to confront negativity because they hadn’t come to peace with it in themselves. Rather than working from awareness, wanting to avoid discomfort.
On the flip side, it is very easy to venture into shadow work and unconsciously make the negative our entire focus. We start examining our limiting traits, but begin to only see ourselves as those.
It’s natural for this to happen somewhere along this journey with the shadow. Awareness is an amplifier, and so when we look at the negative the negative begins to expand in size. We examine one shadow, only to find a dozen more behind it.
When this happen it’s understandable to feel as if there is just too much shadow to deal with, too much to manage and heal while remaining optimistic about the process.
Healing and working with the shadow is an ongoing process, there will always be more shadow to deal with. However we can reach a balance where we aren’t hyper-focused on ‘healing’ or the shadow, but rather have an eye on it.
A large aspect of healing is to just be. To put the concept of healing aside for a moment, and just live. In doing so, bringing the shadow into our lives rather than seeing it as something separate. Confronting the shadow when/if it arises in day to day life.
As I have practiced shadow work myself it has become apparent that a lot of what we see as negative in ourselves or others doesn’t actually warrant the label.
While these labels are helpful to describe certain things, our negative aspects are also a part of us. The shadow is a part of us, it’s not a separate thing. These shadow aspects eventually becomes integrated as part of your whole.
Signs you are experiencing the ‘healing trap’
- Not being able to just be without becoming self-critical
- Fixating on your negative traits + negativity in the world
- Being constantly exhausted with the inner work
- Feeling completely powerless to change or improve things
The healing trap is something we might face while working with our shadow, as I described above. Always needing to heal something and not being able to relax for a moment. Seeing yourself as a self-improvement project, rather than a human with both positive and negative attributes. Not being able to funnel your healing into positive change.
Doing the shadow work is largely a beneficial practice. Having awareness of where we need to improve and grow is important. However if you are finding that the shadow is all you can focus on, it might be a good idea to take a step back for a moment.
Find grounding practices that work for you, take a break from the news or social media, socialize and make sure you are maintaining healing eating and sleeping habits. Focus on the traits, rituals and ideas that you want to expand on and bring into the world. Our shadow selves are not going anywhere.
The beauty of shadow work is that when we do it with awareness it doesn’t become an endless search for the ‘negativity’ in ourselves. With awareness, shadow work also strengthens the aspects of ourselves that we haven’t given ourselves a chance to appreciate.
Awareness is a medicine that will bring up what needs to be work on, but also draws us to the things that will uplift us. It is an alchemy.