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What is Shadow Work? A Simple Guide to Getting Started

Shadow work is an increasingly popular psychological practice developed by famed psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. The purpose of shadow work is to teach you techniques to work with your shadow self – the hidden parts of your personality you try (consciously or unconsciously) to cover up.

The theory goes that by uncovering and working with your shadow yourself, you can reduce much of the negativity plaguing your life. How exactly? By integrating those hidden, “less-desirable” parts of yourself into a single whole.

(That’ll make more sense in a minute.)

What is “The Shadow”?

The “shadow” in shadow work refers to the parts of yourself that you don’t usually see or acknowledge. These could be emotions, desires, thoughts, or parts of your personality that you’ve pushed away or ignored because you think they’re bad, wrong, or not acceptable.

Imagine you have a big box, and every time you feel or think something that you believe you shouldn’t, you put it in the box and close the lid. Over time, the box gets filled with all these hidden parts of yourself. That’s your “shadow.”

Shadow work is like opening the box and looking inside.

It’s about exploring these hidden parts, understanding them, and finding ways to accept and integrate them into your whole self. This process can help you become more aware of yourself, heal old wounds, and improve your relationships with others.

So, in short, the “shadow” in shadow work is like a hidden part of yourself, and shadow work is the process of exploring and understanding that hidden part.

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

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”.

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. 

What is shadow work?

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.

In the absence of shadow work (or related personal development), we tend to suppress or bottle up all these parts of ourselves we deem bad or shameful. And what inevitably happens? At some point those same 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

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. 

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

However, there is one caveat. For healing deeply traumatic experiences, 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. 

A woman examines her shadow through a transparent shape
how to do shadow work

Integrating Shadow Work into Therapy

In many cases, you may want to try shadow work with a trained professional. Doing shadow work in a therapeutic setting can be a powerful experience, but it’s important to find the right practitioner.

You want someone who is well-versed in Jungian psychology and can guide you gently yet effectively through the process.

They should be able to help you explore your unconscious mind and bring those hidden aspects of yourself into the light. Remember, this is not about labeling parts of yourself as bad or wrong, but rather acknowledging them and understanding their role in your life.

A therapist can help you do that in a safe and healthy manner.

Type of Therapeutic Modalities Used in Shadow Work

Once you find a practitioner who is trained in shadow work, you might wonder what types of activities and therapeutic modalities they’ll use. Here are a few options:

1. Gestalt Therapy:

The purpose of Gestalt Therapy is to help patients focus on the present moment and become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Gestalt therapy can help patients identify and work through their shadow self by exploring their emotions and behaviors in the present moment.

2. Schema Therapy:

Schema Therapy helps patients identify and change negative patterns of thinking and behavior that are rooted in childhood experiences.

It is an integrative psychotherapy that combines theory and techniques from previously existing therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic object relations theory, attachment theory, and the aforementioned Gestalt therapy. 

The goal of schema therapy is to help people recognize their behavior, understand the underlying cause(s), and change their thoughts and behaviors. 

Schema therapy is based on the idea that everyone has emotional needs that are universal and present from childhood, including safety, stability, nurturance, acceptance, autonomy, competence, identity, expression, spontaneity, and for a world with realistic limits.

3. Internal Family System:

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a type of psychotherapy that views the psyche as a collection of sub-personalities or “parts.”

According to the IFS model, everyone has a core “self” that is naturally calm, compassionate, and connected. However, this “self” can become obscured by protective and wounded inner parts that have taken on extreme roles within us.

The goal of IFS therapy is to help patients access and heal their protective and wounded inner parts so that they can live more fulfilling lives. Conceptually, this is very similar to the idea of identifying and integrating the shadow self.

4. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR):

EMDR uses eye movements to help patients process traumatic memories. It’s a structured therapy that encourages the patient to focus briefly on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements – hence the name).

This is one of those therapy modalities that I would bucket under, “have no idea why it works, but it does.”

If you’re interested in trying EMDR virtually, that’s an option as well.

5. Art Therapy:

This approach uses art to help patients express and explore their emotions. Art therapy can help patients identify and work through their shadow self by exploring the images and symbols that arise in their artwork.

Citations:

  • https://eggshelltherapy.com/shadow-work/
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/shadow-work
  • https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/shadow-work-emotional-suffering/
  • https://www.readytogroove.com/shadow-work/other-methods-of-healing
  • https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-is-shadow-work
  • https://www.betterup.com/blog/shadow-work
  • https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/schema-therapy

Experimenting with Shadow Work on Your Own

There are plenty of shadow work activities you can try on your own. We’ll explore a few beginner exercises here.

I also recommend this video if you’re interested in exploring shadow work further:

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.

For more on shadow behaviors, here’s a video worth exploring:

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. 

Here’s a video to walk you through the process:

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.

A woman lays on the ground doing a body scan meditation as part of her shadow work practice
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:

1. Better Relationships 

Shadow work provides a way for you to see things more clearly. 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. 

2. Improved 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. 

3. 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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