You’ve probably heard the terms “shadow work” or “shadow self” before, but perhaps aren’t sure what they mean or how to go about practising it.
In this post I want to dive into what the shadow self is, how to become aware of it, and provide some exercizes to start working with and integrating it.
The concept of shadow work was first brought about by psychologist Carl Jung, who described the shadow self as an unconscious aspect of our psyche that contains all of the traits, emotions and impulses that we repress or deny in ourselves.
These can be traits such as rage, anger, jealousy, fear, shame and so on. This is the aspect of us that is prone to projection, which is where we identify a negative aspect of ourselves in another person.
On the other hand, the shadow self contains many positive traits and gifts that we have repressed too. Working with the shadow isn’t all doom and gloom, in fact it can be one of the most freeing practices we do.
Talking about the shadow is not popular (although becoming more so) because it’s not pleasant to address this side of us. However shadow work is an important part in becoming healed and whole beings, who aren’t afraid of the metaphorical monsters lurking in our closets.
What Is the Shadow Self?
Everyone has a shadow side – a side that they are unconscious of, a side that is hidden. This can contain our darkest fears, desires, inclinations, and so on it. It can also contain aspects of ourselves that we’ve disowned in order to fit in or please other people.
Think of all the different norms and rules that dictate how we must behave in order to be accepted and considered functional in society. While many of these norms exist for good reason, others encourage us to hide aspects of our personality and talents in favor of more socially acceptable ones.
There is a similar dynamic in our own homes and family units. Imagine someone who is naturally sensitive, honest, and open, living in a family that encourages toughness, silence, and privacy.
This person gradually learns to push these positive attributes down into the unconscious, in order to be seen as acceptable by their family. People like this often find themselves being classed as the black sheep or the outcast.
We can see how the shadow side surfaces during the teenage rebellion stage, which is where we battle this schism. The shadow can intensify into adulthood if we continue to push aspects of our personality out of sight, in order to maintain order.
These aspects do not simply go away but instead fester and shape our lives unconsciously. They can then manifest in more insidious ways such as addiction, anger, self-doubt and depression later on.
At first the shadow side appears as something dark and scary to approach, like a monster. This is what stops a lot of people from working with their shadow, it’s just too much to face and manage at once.
However over time, as we become more conscious of our shadow, it doesn’t look so intimidating. Each shadow aspect we have arises as a way to protect ourselves, or to cultivate a certain image. In itself this is not a bad thing, it’s simply how we as humans adapt to our environment, to survive in many cases.
When we look at the shadow (both the negative and positive) we can see the ways we have tried to protect ourselves in the past, perhaps from danger or criticism, and the ways which this might no longer be necessary.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”Carl Jung
What Is Shadow Work?
Typically shadow work refers to practices that put the shadow front and center, such as specific journal prompts or exercizes. However shadow work is much broader than that.
Simply put, shadow work is any practice which brings awareness to the aspects of our personality/consciousness which we repress. The parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore or pretend didn’t exist.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are a form of shadow work in this way. Eventhough we aren’t specifically focusing on the shadow, it comes up when we pay attention to our thoughts and emotions.
Once we are aware of these repressed aspects we can begin to integrate them. Shadow work allows us to examine and release our negative traits without shame, and uncover the positive traits we have yet to embrace.
Chances are you are already doing shadow work in day to day life, even if you aren’t using these terms.
When you meditate and observe your thought patterns, when you are engaged in conflict and become conscious of where you are projecting, when you go to therapy and talk about the patterns that are holding you back – these are all forms of shadow work.
Why Shadow Work Is Important
When we only focus on the positive and refuse to address the negative, our spiritual practice becomes an escape from reality rather than an honest confrontation with it. In this way, shadow work is an essential part of any spiritual practice.
Many spiritual teachers and practitioners will use slogans like good vibes only or only focus on the positive, and while these may sound great on the surface, they leave us unprepared when it is time to dig deep and face a problem or have difficult conversations.
This is what is known as spiritual bypassing, which is when we use spiritual practices or concepts to avoid facing responsibility, accountability or negativity. Our spirituality isn’t complete if it doesn’t adequately acknowledge all of reality, not just the parts we find pleasant.
By focusing only on the positive our spirituality cannot guide us when we may need it the most – in times of struggle. This isn’t to say that we must focus on negativity all the time, of course not, but that we bring some balance to our awareness.
Read More: 7 Benefits of Shadow Work
The Golden Shadow
Despite what I’ve just said, not all aspects of shadow are negative. Many times the parts of ourselves which we push down and repress are positive attributes which just haven’t been appreciated as such.
For many their spirituality can be a shadow aspect! I know many people who had to address their wounds around practising spirituality before they could fully embrace their gifts. Many times their natural-born gifts were seen as weird or scary and so they suppressed them.
Similarly, a person who is naturally creative but wasn’t appreciated as such, might push their creative potential down into their shadow. In this way, many of our positive attributes make up the shadow, waiting for us to fully express them.
Carl Jung called this repressed potential the Golden Shadow.
The Shadow Isn’t All Negative
Shadow work is also important because it opens us up to the gifts and positive traits that we’ve suppressed. This may sound weird but makes sense when we think of how often our positive attributes are mocked, dismissed or seen as useless. People may project their insecurities onto us, and we end up internalizing this.
Using the example from before, let’s say you were a naturally creative child but your parents were more interested in traditionally academic pursuits. This would cause you to push down your creative side into your shadow.
This could cause you to feel unappreciated and without purpose. For many, working with the shadow helps uncovers these hidden talents and opens up a more fulfilling path. Funnily enough, often what brings us the most healing is simply returning to the things we enjoyed as children.
How To Do Shadow Work
Be prepared before diving into these exercizes. Shadow work is incredibly important but it requires care so we do not hurt ourselves further. Expect heavy emotions and memories to surface, so be in the right mindset before going ahead.
1. Acknowledge your inner child
The inner child and shadow self are so intimately connected because we form our shadow side in primary socialization. We push aspects of ourselves into our unconscious to appease our parents, authority figures and our peers.
It helps to take a look back at your childhood and early home environment, and identify what aspects of yourself you had to push down, what aspects were not appreciated, and what you did to accommodate this.
Common inner child wounds:
- Feeling unsafe
- Self doubt
- Aversion to authority
- Feeling unloved
- Difficulties with expression
2. Observe your triggers
One of the quickest ways to identify your shadow side is to observe your triggers – these are moments where you react disproportionately to what someone says or does, based on past traumas.
For example, you may have had highly critical parents as a child, which caused you to associate any external input with criticism. Then when someone offers an innocent suggestion, instead of taking this as it is, you react defensively and see it as a criticism of yourself.
You can see from this example how our triggers and consequently our shadow are directly related to the unhealed inner child. It can be helpful to create a running list of these so you have something physical to reference.
3. Create space for your shadow
Once you have your shadow out in the light, the next step is to create a space where it can be integrated.
If we view the shadow side as a child who didn’t receive the care they needed, then we start to see this side of ourselves with the compassion it deserves.
Instead of pushing the shadow down further or ignoring it completely, we have to let it breathe.
There are three simple steps to doing this:
Observe: Firstly notice when your shadow is showing up in everyday life. Notice where you are triggered disproportionately, notice when you are projecting, and notice the aspects of yourself you hide from others out of fear or shame.
Validate: Avoid labeling these shadow aspects as good or bad, and instead acknowledge that they are there for a reason. These shadows aspects are linked to parts of ourselves we haven’t faced, or lessons we haven’t overcome – they are here to guide our healing.
Shift: Consciously choose to shift this shadow into light. When you feel yourself being triggered, take a deep breath and examine why this is. When you are projecting pull your energy back, and see what this idea is based on. When you feel yourself hiding, identify why you feel the need to do so.
Shadow work exercises
1. Visualize your shadow
One of the most direct ways we can begin to work with our shadow is by interacting with it as if it was a distinct aspect of ourselves, much like the inner child.
- List five of your most obvious negative traits
- Visualize how someone who completely embodies these traits would look
- Get into a meditation and picture this person in front of you
- How would you interact with them & what would you say to them
You can get a good idea of how you are viewing and interacting with your shadow through this exercise. How might you judge someone who looked like this if you saw them on the street? How would you view someone who acted in accordance to these negative values/ideas?
Here you have an opportunity to listen to that critical dialogue, but also create new ways of interacting with this aspect that exists within you. What words of advice would you give to this being?
2. Practice mirror work
Mirror work is the practice of observing our reflection in a mirror and seeing what initial reactions, insights, emotions come up.
When I first did mirror work I didn’t realize how deeply confronting it would be. When I looked at my reflection it was as if for the first time. Doing so with awareness gives us a whole different perspective.
When I looked at my eyes I instantly recognized how disconnected I was from my body. I was so focused on my spirit (as some distinct part of myself) that I had neglected everything else. It was a wake-up call.
- Stand in front of or hold up a mirror at eye-level
- Take a few deep breaths
- Gaze at your reflection for around thirty seconds to a minute
- Note your immediate reactions/opinions
- Write these down on paper
It’s important that you observe this initial self-criticism without judgement, to take a step back and just allow the mind to speak freely. Then come in and work with these thoughts/themes, try to pinpoint where they stem from.
Use these observations as inspiration for affirmations you want to incorporate into your day to day. Over time as you come back to this exercise you’re going to find that these initial self-criticisms lighten and you can see yourself in a more holistic way.
3. Create rituals
One of the biggest mistakes when doing shadow work is to keep everything as a mental or energetic exercize. Shadow work involves physical action, our physical body and physical surroundings.
Going back to the example of the creative child who rejects that side of themselves and moves onto something more acceptable. Many of our shadows come about because of how we shift our actions.
To address that shadow might involved mentally letting go of the fear and doubt we’ve internalized from others, but to truly embrace that creative spark might require we pick up a paintbrush or pencil and practice creating art despite the resistance that comes up.
As you identify shadows from childhood along with your triggers/projections in the present, think of a physical action that you’d like to take in order to confront that repressed shadow.
This might involve picking up a paintbrush as in the example, it could also mean setting firm boundaries and acting accordingly, shifting the work you do, or interact with different types of people.
Shadow work can become heavy if we keep it all as a vague mental exercize. It’s common to feel bogged down by it all, or that the shadow becomes larger and more convoluted in a sense, because we end up overthinking things.
Journaling is a great way to face your shadow, particularly if you use specific prompts.
- What was a need that wasn’t met for me as a child, and how does that reflect my current needs?
- What irritates me most about others, and how does that reflect my own traits?
- When do I feel most judged?
- What is a positive trait I would like to reclaim?
- When/where do I feel most uplifted?
When you journal you don’t want to force anything or try to manage what is coming out too strictly. Instead allow your words to flow as natural as they would while thinking. This allows you to catch ‘negative’/shadow-led patterns as they arise.
Go deeper with my shadow work guide that comes with 52 printable journal prompts.
Shadow work isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds. It is an ongoing process of meeting these unconscious aspects of ourselves with the compassion they deserve, and shifting between the inner child and conscious adult.
It’s easy to become discouraged if this doesn’t feel like it’s working, but know awareness of the shadow is the first step. There will be times where it feels like you are regressing, but these periods will eventually be where your greatest growth comes from.