Shadow work is a way to examine the hidden parts of oneself to improve self-awareness, understand one's emotional reactions, and heal from past experiences.
What is shadow work?
Shadow work examines the hidden self, also known as the “shadow self.” The shadow self refers to the parts of the unconscious mind where thoughts, emotions, or memories deemed unacceptable remain out of conscious awareness. These "shadows" are often buried deep as they may cause thoughts of shame, are perceived as negative, or stem from adverse life experiences. Shadow work is a way of deepening self-awareness by looking into the side of oneself that typically remains hidden, referred to as a "shadow side." Sometimes, it takes acknowledging the dark parts of oneself to bring out the light.
A swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, described personality through 4 archetypes, one of which he called "shadow." The inner shadow became a descriptor for the part of yourself you often choose to remain hidden or repressed. The shadow aspect of one's personality may be perceived as unfavorable, but Carl Jung views the shadow as an essential part of a person. The inner shadow could describe inner insecurities, repressed anger, negative subconscious thoughts, or even severe trauma. The shadow may include darker aspects of one's life experience and may be hard to examine.
Shadow work involves exploring those thoughts, feelings, and experiences that have been suppressed or remained hidden so that one can understand themselves better, improve interactions with others, learn more about themselves, and heal past traumas.
Consequences of shadow repression
It may be difficult or uncomfortable to acknowledge our shadow selves as they comprise aspects of ourselves that we want to suppress in the unconscious mind. Even though it may be hard to examine the shadow side of ourselves, keeping it repressed has consequences. Shadow repression prevents a person from being genuinely self-aware.
Repressing the shadow side of oneself means repressing one’s unconscious thoughts, which affects how one views themselves and others. For example, the shadow self may include hidden biases or prejudices that affect interactions with others. Suppressing these biases prevents a person from examining and challenging them.
The shadow self may also include subconscious negative thoughts and feelings about oneself that prevent someone from achieving everything they are capable of. Repressing this aspect of the shadow self will decrease self-confidence and hinder goal achievement. Shadow repression can also mean suppressing significant negative life experiences. Repressing these negative life experiences means that they will continue to affect you moving forward in your life.
What are the benefits of shadow work?
Shadow work is beneficial as it improves one's understanding of their unconscious aspects, which can be an essential part of developing self-compassion and self-acceptance. Shadow work helps a person develop deeper self-awareness and helps with personal growth.
Shadow work can be an essential part of the healing process from past traumas and will allow a person to confront their hidden emotions and understand their emotional reactions. Shadow work can improve a person's interactions and relationships with others as it can help someone understand their emotional responses or even an inner dialogue affecting their relationships. Shadow work helps increase compassion for oneself and others.
Shadow work can help to promote more understanding of a person's unhealthy coping mechanisms and how to create better coping strategies. This helps a person move forward from difficult life situations and helps a person cope with challenges in their life.
How to practice shadow work?
To practice shadow work, a person must bring the subconscious mind to conscious awareness. There are different methods for practicing shadow work, and it may be beneficial to try multiple methods. One method is self-reflection through journaling, which helps uncover more profound thoughts and emotions often suppressed in everyday life. It is also helpful while journaling to look at oneself and life objectively or as a "bystander" to honestly examine oneself.
It is beneficial to acknowledge insecurities, explore any typical adverse emotional reaction, and dive into past and significant life experiences to examine these darker aspects of one's personality. By recognizing these insecurities and emotional responses, a person can work on those thoughts and feelings to help them become their best version.
Some specific shadow work prompts help to begin the shadow work process. These include making a list of things that elevate you and something that depletes you—trying to identify inner shadow parts and saying them out loud—listing your own values—listing emotional triggers, and examining where those may have come from.
Shadow work can be combined with mindfulness exercises such as mindful meditation. For some people, it is helpful to work with a licensed therapist to help identify those inner thoughts, emotions, and traumatic events—some other useful practice including daily affirmations or other therapeutic activities such as art therapy.
Shadow work exercises
A couple of shadow work exercises that work well with beginners is starting journaling with these prompts:
What are your primary emotional triggers, and where do you believe these started?
What are your biggest insecurities, and where do those come from?
What resentment or anger do you hold towards others?
What are some common qualities I see in my family, and do I see those in myself?
Another example of a shadow work exercise involves identifying shadow parts of oneself and then thinking of how that shadow self can help you in your life. This allows a person to realize that the shadow part isn't inherently wrong but just another part of themselves that makes them who they are. These shadows can even be a part of what we determine to be our positive qualities.
Confronting and then releasing your shadows is another exercise that can be incorporated into shadow work once one can identify their shadow self. This exercise involves naming and claiming your shadow parts and pairing them with positive affirmations such as “I am releasing my shame.” This helps us accept our shadow parts instead of associating them with negativity.
Shadow work in therapy
It is beneficial for some people to begin working on shadow work with a therapist. Once one has developed enough trust with their therapist, shadow work can become a regular and essential part of the therapy sessions.
A therapist will likely begin shadow work by examining, together with the client, their reactions to certain situations or people and where those reactions may have stemmed from. With shadow work, a therapist will likely explore with you the root of some of these reactions, which can help to uncover some of those hidden parts of themselves. A therapist can help facilitate these reflections and pose questions that spark deeper self-reflection. A therapist can be helpful as an objective person to guide you through shadow work, especially as a beginner.
Frequently asked questions
How to start shadow work as a beginner?
Like much inner work, shadow work takes time and is a process of developing greater self-awareness. Starting shadow work as a beginner can be as simple as practicing self-examination through journaling. Take time during the day to acknowledge emotions and try to understand where these feelings are coming from.
Are there any negative aspects of shadow work?
Shadow work often means acknowledging negative emotions, insecurities, and potentially past trauma or complex life events. This can be emotionally and mentally challenging. Giving oneself time and space to process emotions that can arise with shadow work is essential.
Do you need a therapist or a coach to perform shadow work?
You don't necessarily need a therapist or coach to perform shadow work as resources are available to help people do it themselves, such as through shadow work prompts and journaling activities. For some people, a therapist or coach can help be an objective person to help you uncover and work through your shadow self. For others, discussing shadow work with close friends or family members to receive an outside perspective.
Why is there a shadow self?
The shadow self exists primarily because it is the aspects of oneself that a person determines as unacceptable and, therefore, suppresses. Since these thoughts, emotions, desires, or memories are hidden, they reside in the subconscious mind.
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