Have you ever heard of shadow work? Despite the dark connotation that usually coincides with the term shadow, shadow work actually has some light aspects to it as well. Shadow work was coined in the twentieth century by famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that to acknowledge our full self and live a balanced life, we must fully integrate the shadow side of ourselves.
Each person’s shadow, according to Jung, consists of the unconscious and hidden aspects of ourselves that our ego fails to accept and acknowledge, without any exposure to the person we project to the world around us. This usually happens during childhood, depending on how our caregivers raise us. The parts of our developing personality they disapprove of most likely will be suppressed and become part of the subconscious mind, or shadow, where the parts of ourselves we reject from an early age reside.
For example, if you got in trouble for being angry as a young child, you may have begun suppressing the feelings you experienced inside your shadow self. A person’s shadow self may appear when they are triggered, such as in certain situations that arise in relationships or when experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression.
Although our shadow consists of parts of ourselves that were once rejected or disapproved of, this doesn’t always mean that those aspects of personality were negative. The shadow is full of potential and positive aspects that were once repressed due to fear of judgment and disapproval. For this reason, shadow work aims to uncover and acknowledge aspects of yourself that have been subdued to integrate them into your whole, true self. While practicing shadow work, you may experience the same emotions you felt when those parts of your personality were condemned. However, once you work through the emotional hardships, you will become the most genuine version of yourself.
Shadow Work and the Subconscious Mind
Shadow work acknowledges the rejected parts of yourself hidden within the subconscious mind to become your true self, in its entirety. The overall goal of shadow work is integration, which involves bringing your unconscious mind back into the light; making it conscious once again; and having complete awareness of yourself, others, and the surrounding environment.
As you continue to practice shadow work through reflection and increased self-awareness, you may experience a great deal of emotional healing, which may lead to a positive transformation. Shadow work provides a path toward a more balanced life, helping people feel whole instead of compartmentalizing aspects of their lives. If you are struggling with your emotional or mental health and it is affecting your daily life, seek out professional mental health support, in the form of a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
Five Shadow Work Methods and Practices
1. Review your childhood.
Each person’s shadow develops during childhood. In order to come to terms with our shadow, we must reflect on our experiences and find what has been repressed. Asking yourself questions about your childhood and thinking deeply on the answers is a great way to begin practicing shadow work. Some questions to ask yourself are:
- Was I completely accepted as a child?
- What was expected of me?
- Was I judged by my behaviors and emotions? If so, what were those behaviors and emotions?
2. Use your triggers.
Triggers in adult life are a reminder of trauma from the past. These triggers help provide an inkling as to what’s hidden within our subconscious mind. If you’re not fully aware of the reasoning behind triggers in your life, shadow work can help you figure it out. Triggers include anything that brings up an emotion, be it positive or negative. Not addressing the negative triggers – like words or phrases, routines, or even places – can lead to an increase in stress and continuing to allow your shadow to grow. Working to address your triggers head-on, instead of allowing them to affect your day-to-day life, is part of shadow work. This could include:
- Identifying the source of the trigger
- Noticing signs beforehand
- Managing reactions in order to bring you back to the present through deep breathing, taking a quick walk, etc.
- Seeking guidance from a professional or loved one
3. Don’t judge yourself.
One of the main mistakes people can make while practicing shadow work is responding with judgment once they find the hidden aspects of themselves. Doing this will only further the rejection of your true self. When you practice shadow work, make sure to embrace the aspects of yourself you once hid, without judgment. Instead, aim for acceptance and acknowledgment. Then work to understand that part of you to grow into the best and whole version of yourself.
4. Keep a journal.
Journaling allows us to better process what we are feeling. While practicing shadow work, keeping a journal can help you become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that have lay dormant over time. This method can also allow you to think with a different perspective and see how your experiences may have caused you to hide aspects of your personality, from yourself and the people around you. You can journal the answers to the questions above – as well as any potential triggers – when reviewing your childhood and exploring the process of shifting from judgment to acceptance.
Meditation is a great tool if you are looking to practice shadow work. Meditating is a way for all people to become aware of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions – the goal of shadow work. Sitting with your thoughts allows you to think more clearly and deeply, which helps you explore the depths of what is hidden within your shadow self.
Five Benefits of Shadow Work
Communication is key in relationships. By doing shadow work and accepting all pieces of yourself, your relationships may improve. Behavior that would once trigger you may not have the same effect once you partake in shadow work. These discoveries may lead to better conflict resolution, improved communication skills, and overall satisfaction in relationships.
A Clear Perception of the World
By integrating your authentic self through shadow work, you will be able to look at the world around you through a clearer and more realistic perspective. Shadow work leads to better self-awareness, compassion, clarity, and understanding when evaluating your environment and experiences.
Repressing parts of yourself during adulthood can be draining and lead to emotional and even physical fatigue over time. Shadow work can help improve your physical health by stopping the constant emotional cycle of repressing different parts of yourself. Doing shadow work can lead to decreased feelings of stress and anxiety (which can wreak havoc on your body, from headaches and stomach upset to hypertension). In fact, John E. Sarno, MD, the author of The Mindbody Prescription, has helped many of his patients by teaching them to let go of anger within their unconscious minds through shadow work.
Believers in shadow work say that accepting every part of your mind and being is crucial to reaching mature adulthood. To feel whole and balanced within your mind, you must confront the hidden aspects of yourself from the past so that you can fully move forward into your future with a clearer sense of self and purpose.
According to psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, creativity is a spontaneous occurrence in mentally healthy individuals. Because shadow work can improve mental health, doing the work to address your shadow self can be helpful in sparking your creative side.
The bottom line
Overall, the purpose of shadow work is to help you realize your most authentic self by addressing the shadow, or hidden, aspects of your personality and being. Before practicing shadow work, it’s important to have an open mind, with no judgment. This will make facing the repressed parts of yourself easier and more pleasant.
Start with journaling, meditating, or concentrating on your thoughts and feelings to unify your whole self. To support you on your shadow work journey, you can enlist a Health Coach, who can help you create wellness goals, find your true purpose in life, and realize your full potential.
If shadow work brings up overwhelming feelings that you need assistance in dealing with, seek out a licensed mental health professional.