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What is Shadow Work? A Simple Guide to Getting Started

Shadow work is a psychological practice developed by Carl Jung that teaches techniques to work with your shadow self to reduce the negative effects plaguing your life and to separate and integrate parts of yourself into a single whole.

It’s meant to promote emotional healing and help you find peace with yourself. (And let’s be honest, couldn’t we all use some of that?)

What Does Carl Jung Say About The “Shadow Self”?

Jung describes the “shadow” as the disowned and unconscious parts of a person’s personality that their ego fails to accept, acknowledge, or see. In some cases, it’s the stuff we’ve buried so deep, our conscious minds aren’t even aware of them anymore. Essentially, it is the parts of ourselves that we like to lock away and hide from.

Carl Jung believed that understanding your personal shadow can assist with creating a more balanced life and promote feelings of harmony and contentment within “the self”.

What is shadow work?

The Jungian Shadow represents what is fractured within us. Shadow work is an effort to obtain “psychic wholeness” – bringing together all the pieces buried in our unconscious mind into a complete picture of ourselves.  This experience is meant to liberate you from the tug and pull of wrestling with your shadow all the time.

When you address negative emotions buried for a long time, it allows you to show up more intentionally and wholly for the commitments and relationships in your life.

You ever catch yourself being halfway somewhere?  You’re there but also very much inside your head and battling with yourself. Shadow work helps you get that under control. 

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

-Carl Jung

What Is The Purpose Of Shadow Work?

Shadow work allows you to feel a much greater sense of personal agency and power in the world. It’s a kind of personal development that helps you accept yourself more fully, warts and all. 

Shadow work also allows you to do some important deep healing. It shines a light on the good, bad, and ugly bits.

This is helpful because acknowledging the less-than-beautiful parts of ourselves allows us to express these characteristics in a healthier way, instead of suppressing or bottling them up until these feelings and emotions manifest in uncontrollable, unhealthy, and in some cases, even dangerous behaviors.

Some of these classic examples include lashing out, angrily blaming others, creating toxic inner dialogue, or developing a negative or distorted body image.

Basically, all the things that make you say, “Why did I do that?”

How Will You Know When You Need Shadow Work?

If you feel like something is a bit off, it might be worth exploring shadow work. Here are some of the tell-tale signs that your “shadow” is ruling your life:

– Things are not going your way

– You are stuck in a highly cyclical pattern

– You don’t feel like you’re adding value to the world

– You are experiencing an increase in negative self-talk

– You are experiencing difficult emotions or strange flashes like anger or lust at unpredictable or inappropriate times

– You forgive too easily

– You deny your reality

– You have changed who you are to suit another person or other people

– You deny your needs and wants

– You are working hard towards something, but you fail to get results

More>> What Are The 12 Shadow Archetypes?

Letting Your Personal Shadow Run Wild

When your shadow self is running the show, you might feel stuck in a Jekyll and Hyde cycle. We get to a point where we don’t feel in control of our emotional reactions.

We start projecting our insecurities and shadow aspects onto others. This can lead to defensiveness and creating distorted realities. We become blind to the positive aspects of ourselves and others. This kind of thing takes its toll after a while. 

How does shadow work help?

Shadow work is one of the best ways to truly experience transformation and inner healing, and all that is involved is “self-awareness“. It’s something you can on independently or with a trained medical professional. For a deeply traumatic experience, working with a therapist is highly recommended.

You can start by exploring different exercises and getting to know your shadow self and the parts of yourself you may not like so much. 

More>> Is Shadow Work Dangerous?

You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

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Shadow Work Exercise #1: Seeing Yourself in Others

Jung said, ” Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” But not many of us have the time or opportunity to work through these emotions as they arise.

For this reason, it is a good idea to take 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day to review your interactions or conversations with others, along with how you reacted to them. 

When another person bothers or irritates you, it might indicate disowned parts of yourself. One activity you can do is to journal about negative interactions you have with others. 

What happened? Why don’t you like this person? What character traits do they possess that turn you off? 

Once you unpack some of these elements, you can start examining how you express these same qualities. 

The more grace you have for the uglier parts of yourself, the more grace you’ll give to others. If you find this exercise helpful, these shadow work prompts can give you additional journal ideas.

What Is Shadow Behavior?

Shadow behavior is harmful and blocks your best self. It is an automatic, negative, unconscious, and unintentional response to situations, people, and events.

Your shadow behavior may manifest in acting defensively, manipulating others, resisting change, or acting aggressively. Other traits of shadow behavior include becoming overbearing, unresponsive, territorial, or impatient. 

Every person displays shadow behavior in different degrees; in some cases, the effects can be extremely severe. These behaviors often reflect our deepest wounds, things we’d rather not confront.

Shadow behavior not only blocks productivity and personal performance, but also:

– Erodes communication

– Damages and breaks down relationships

– Clouds judgment

– Undermines decision making

For deeper dives, I have a comprehensive list of free shadow work prompts you can use in your journaling practice as well as an article exploring different shadow work books to help deepen your knowledge. Check them out!

What is shadow behvior?

Exercise #2: How To Identify Your Shadow Traits: the 3-2-1 Shadow Process

If you would like to follow a detailed guide on how to work on your shadow, it is highly recommended to look into the 3-2-1 Shadow Process created by Ken Wilber in “Integral Life Practice.” 

Below is an introduction to these steps:

Step One:

First, choose a subject (a family member, friend, or your husband/wife) to think about. Pick someone you struggle to get along with or have an emotionally charged relationship with. This is the easiest place to start for this activity. 

Step Two:

The next step involves imagining this person. Think about the qualities that upset you the most or characteristics that attract you the most, using 3rd-person language such as it, she, and he. Use a journal to write what you are feeling. 

“He annoys me. He talks too much and never gets to the point.”

“She makes friends so easily. Everyone loves her right away, and she makes it look so effortless.”

Step Three:

Now create a dialogue or conversation with the person using your imagination. Speak to the person using 2nd-person (use “you” language). Speak directly to the person and imagine they are there. Tell the person what irritates or bothers you regarding how they behave. 

This can be done out loud or on paper.

You can ask these questions:

– Why do you do these things to me?

– What do you want from me?

– Are you trying to show or tell me something?

– Why do we keep having the same argument?

– Do you have something to show or teach me?

Think about how they will respond to each question. Speak these imaginary responses out loud. You can also record these conversations in a journal. 

Step Four:

Now become the person taking on any qualities that fascinate or annoy you. Now embody all the traits that you described in the 2nd step. Use 1st-person language (such as mine, me, and I). This might feel awkward and strange, which is perfectly normal. The traits that you take on happen to be the traits that you deny in yourself. 

You can use statements like:

– I am jealous

– I am angry

– I feel insecure.

You can also fill in the blanks with the qualities you are currently working with: ” I am …..”. 

Step Five:

Look at all the traits you’ve uncovered and start identifying how these aspects exist in you. These are your shadow traits. Sometimes these are things we need to work and other times, they are things we need to lovingly accept about ourselves. 

Exercise #3: Body Scans and Mindfulness

Another great strategy for connecting with the deeper parts of yourself is through mindfulness. In particular, body scan meditations are particularly good for achieving a stronger sense of wholeness.

Benefits of body scan meditation include:

Part of connecting with your shadow self involves reconnecting with your body. How often do we go through our day physically and emotionally tense without realizing it? We end our day with aching shoulders and clenched jaws.

Body scan meditations, when done consistently, can help us escape this cycle of zombie stress and become more in tune with our bodies.

woman doing body scan meditation
Body scan meditation and shadow work

How To Do a Body Scan Meditation

Lay down or sit comfortably in a chair. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Starting at the top of your head, begin to “scan” by focusing your attention on the crown of your head. Scan your attention down to the eyes, ears, nose, jaw, and lips. Feel the breath on the body. Notice any sensations or tensions.

Continue this scan down the neck and onto the shoulders. Is there tension? Breathe into it and allow your body to relax.

You’ll continue to slowly scan through the body in this manner until you reach your feet. The goal is to bring all your awareness onto your body – how it feels, where there is tension, discomfort, or stress, or where this is relaxation. Then use your breath to breathe into the discomfort and allow your body to work itself out.

There are plenty of free, guided body scan meditations available. I personally use Insight Timer, which is a 100% free meditation app.

Why Is It Important To Get To Know Your Whole Self?

Shadow work can help you to connect to yourself in a much deeper way which will have a trickle-down effect on your world. Here are some ways shadow work can improve your life:

– Better Relationships 

Shadow work provides a way for you to see things more clearly. You will become more whole, human, and complete. When you start accepting everything inside you, it becomes much easier to accept and love others. It also means that the behavior of other people will also not upset you as easily. You’ll take things less personally. This leads to much better communication with your friends, partners, work colleagues, and family. 

Perhaps most importantly, it can lead to a better relationship with yourself. 

– Improvement Of Physical Health And Energy

Emotional baggage is exhausting. It also takes a lot of work and energy to continually crush and repress the part of yourself that you are not prepared to face.

Lethargy and fatigue often manifest through illness and physical pain. When you start working on integrating your repressed parts, you can release an abundance of stored up energy that you have unconsciously invested in to protect yourself. Think of it like a gigantic, spiritual exhale. 

– Greater Creativity 

Among the many benefits of shadow work is that it will unlock your creative potential. This is a process that involves integrating yourself so that you can become fully activated. It is a kind of unblocking. 

Final Thoughts on the Elements of Shadow Work

As with any form of self-reflection and therapy, shadow work will take intention and time, and at certain times it can become painful. For this reason, you need to approach these processes with a lot of self-compassion. You also should avoid judging yourself for certain behaviors, but rather focus on the healing you can experience through this process. Also, don’t be afraid to engage in this work with a trained professional. There are no bonus points for going it alone. 

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