The shadow self is the part of our psyche that contains all of our repressed and ignored emotions, habits, tendencies and desires. The shadow is often described as the negative side of ourselves that we hide, however it can also contain positive aspects that we aren’t confident enough to own and express.
This is an aspect of ourselves that we would rather pretend didn’t exist. However if we ignore our shadow side completely, we end up living lives rules by unconscious compulsions, never really making consistent progress.
We all have a shadow or unconscious side, so we all have to encounter the shadow at some point.
Sometimes the shadow is more relevant in our lives, and other times our focus should be on the lighter aspects. There doesn’t have to be a constant focus on the dark or unconscious, instead it’s all about balance.
In this post I’m going to go over some key signs that it’s time to start focusing on shadow work and how to go about it.
What is shadow work?
To put it simply, shadow work is a process of making the unconscious conscious. It’s about confronting that hidden side to our psyche/personality, addressing our negative habits and traits, but also learning to embrace the unappreciated gifts we have.
Practices like meditation, mindfulness and journaling all represent a type of shadow work (even if we don’t use that language) because they involve becoming familiar with our unconscious tendencies. So you might already be doing some shadow work!
Most of us have some awareness of our negative traits and habits, we are aware that there is this side of ourselves that is uncomfortable to face. We might feel shame or fear in relation to this aspect of ourselves – it’s not easy to own up to our flaws.
However, positive traits can also become part of the shadow when we experience criticism towards them and internalize this on a deeper level. This is what Carl Jung called the Golden Shadow.
Take someone who is naturally skilled at art as an example. They might experience criticism of their abilities, or internalize the idea that art is a frivolous pursuit.
They take on other people’s doubts and fears, and put their art tools down. Instead of nurturing this ability, pursuing more academic or profitable skill-sets.
A big sign that you need shadow work right now is that specific lessons are repeating over and over, or your relationships are becoming cyclical. This is when the unconscious mind is ruling over our lives, and we struggle to make healthy conscious decisions.⠀
If you would like to learn more about the nuances of shadow work, check out my guidebook.
8 benefits of shadow work
So you know what shadow work is, but you might be wondering what the point of it all is? Why should we face this unconscious or hidden side of ourselves, what are the practical benefits?
- Deeper self awareness
- Improved relational awareness
- More confidence
- Less fear, shame and uncertainty
- Ability to make clearer decisions
- Development of self-responsibility
- A deeper connection with your intuition
- Renewed enthusiasm and embracing of your gifts
When we do shadow work it’s like lifting a dense fog; we can think, feel and act in a clearer manner. We can’t eliminate the shadow completely (that’s not the goal) but we can become more comfortable with it, and feel more secure when facing it. It can be a positive exploration.
5 signs you need to practice shadow work
1. Cyclical relationships
Our relationship reveal our shadow side clearly because in relationships there is nowhere to hide. It’s difficult to ignore the shadow or your negative traits when you have another person to consider. Therefore relationships can be a great way to bring the shadow to light.
Cyclical relationships are one of the more obvious signs that your shadow needs integrating. Relationships that seem to go in endless circles, have unhealthy back-and-forth dynamics, that feel more like a battlefield than love.
This can also apply to friendships and familial relations. You may notice that you are constantly arguing with the people in your life, and that clear communication is impossible. This is the shadow obscuring clarity, and projecting outward onto the people around you.
2. Unhealthy escapism
I make the distinction here of unhealthy escapism, because we are able to healthily escape into hobbies, television shows or video games, so long as we are able to come back to our center afterwards.
The problem begins when we are use escapism as a tool to avoid our responsibilities, negative emotions and unhealthy habits. Escapism is a way to keep our conscious mind preoccupied, and keep the unconscious shadow at bay.
We might escape in more subtle ways like procrastinating, ignoring self care, but also in more obvious ways like addiction or complete isolation. We have to identify the patterns and emotions we are trying to avoid in order to understand why we might retreat.
3. Emotional outbursts
We’ve all experienced moments where our emotions bubble to the surface in the moment and erupt in someone else’s face. This is a natural dynamic in relationships, especially ones where there is little independence or alone time.
However when we observe this happening to us often, it’s a good sign that our shadow needs some work. It’s common to feel as if these emotional outbursts weren’t us or were out of character, but they actually reveal an aspect of ourselves that we weren’t aware of.
Start to take notice of your triggers, as these are a goldmine for unconscious needs and unexamined emotions. Once you have identified the unconscious need, you can begin working on it consciously and bring it to light.
4. A lack of direction
When our shadow is unattended it can be as if an actual shadow is looming over our lives. We find it hard to maintain a consistent job or interest in anything specific, and instead entertain ourselves with whatever is in front of us.
If it feels like your life is currently going in circles then this is a good sign you need shadow work. With shadow work you’ll be able to identify the unhealthy patterns that are holding you back, but also uncover your repressed gifts.
When we push our positive talents, gifts and attributes down into the shadow due to guilt, unworthiness or shame, we are stuck doing things that don’t fulfill us on a deeper level. Bringing these gifts to the light allows for ease moving forward, and embracing our passions.
5. Aversion to the negative
Shadow work is all about confronting the not-so positive aspects of our psyche, along with the aspects that make us feel uncomfortable or bring us shame, even if they could be considered positive.
An aversion to the negative is a clear sign you could do with shadow work. It’s common to see this mindset perpetuated by law of attraction teachings, where the main focus is always the positive.
This can cause people to become avoidant of the negative, in an effort to keep their vibration high or stay away from negative vibes. While keeping a positive mindset is helpful, being conscious of the negative without letting it overwhelm you is an overall positive.
How to start shadow work
The simplified process I use to do shadow work is observe, validate and shift.
Start by observing your triggers, the unconscious traits you project outward, and the aspects of yourself you feel guilt or shame about. Resist putting a positive or negative label on them, and instead see with a neutral eye.
Validate these shadow aspects. Refrain from judging yourself as you observe these behaviors and instead see that they have a root cause; they arise as defence mechanisms you had to adopt in the past.
Shift these aspects out of the unconscious shadow and into conscious awareness. Start with small steps. Bring your energy back inward when you notice yourself projecting. Observe your triggers, and give yourself space when you are responding unfairly to others. Bring the positive aspects you haven’t embraced in yourself to the forefront.
Light work & shadow work
The term ‘lightworker’ was a term first introduced by spiritual teacher Michael Mirdad.
This describes someone who develops themselves spiritually (feels particularly drawn to do so) in order to help others do the same. They tend to feel connected to other celestial bodies, be highly intuitive and skilled at translating spiritual information in an understandable way.
To be a light worker is also to be a shadow worker, because these two polarities are so delicately interconnected. In order to know our light we have to get in touch with our darkness.
I sometimes use the term ‘light work’ to refer to periods where we might not want to delve deeply into our shadow, or might not need to. Instead we are ready to focus on some lighter aspects of our being, and incorporate positive affirmations.
Looking to the shadow allows us to see what unconscious aspects need our awareness, so that we can break the cycle of returning to what is comfortable but ultimately holds us back.
It’s with shadow work that we can move into a more intuitive space – where we make decisions that push us forward with ease. We manifest and operate from our heart space rather than the shadow.⠀
Go deeper with my shadow work guide that comes with 30 printable journal prompts.