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Shadow Work Can Change Your Life
“The shadow is needed now more than ever. We heal the world when we heal ourselves, and hope shines brightest when it illuminates the dark.” – Sasha Graham
If there's one thing we all share as humans, it's the presence of a mysterious and often misunderstood part of ourselves that tends to lurk in the background. You know, those thoughts or feelings we'd rather keep hidden from others (and even ourselves).
Exploring this elusive side can be both enlightening and empowering. It can also be scary as hell – but nothing worth doing is easy.
Before you start picturing ominous figures lurking in dark corners (although that could make for an interesting story), let me clarify what I mean by 'shadow work.' It might sound a bit spooky at first glance, but trust me when I say it offers an incredible opportunity for personal growth and self-discovery.
Shadow work is all about shining a light on our inner darkness – those aspects of our personality we're not always comfortable acknowledging or addressing. But why bother with such introspection? Because embracing our shadows can lead to increased self-awareness, improved relationships, boosted creativity; the benefits are truly bountiful.
If you struggle with emotional triggers, shadow work is your chance to unpack those triggers and show yourself compassion. Let's talk about it.
The Concept of 'Shadow'
The brainchild of Carl Jung, the concept of the 'shadow' refers to those parts of ourselves that we're not always aware of or willing to embrace. These can be repressed emotions, hidden desires, or even unacknowledged talents and skills.
At its core, shadow work aims to bring these concealed elements out from hiding and into the light so that we can better understand ourselves as whole beings – both our strengths and weaknesses. Recognizing and integrating our shadows helps foster emotional balance and self-awareness while paving the way for personal growth.
“Unless you learn to face your own shadows, you will continue to see them in others, because the world outside of you is only a reflection of the world inside of you.” – Carl Jung
I was definitely a little confused when I first learned about Jungian shadow work. I'm always wary of 'woo-woo' psychology and wasn't sure if this was just another ego-fuelled way of over-complicating things.
News flash: it's definitely not woo-woo. It's one of the most powerful ways to uncover what's really going on in your subconscious.
Have you ever found yourself getting unreasonably angry or frustrated with someone, totally unbeknown to them? No matter what they do, there's just something about them that makes your skin crawl.
For example – perhaps you get annoyed by a friend who talks about their problems and speaks very openly about their struggles or insecurities. It's not excessive, but to you, it seems self-indulgent.
What's really going on here? Chances are, your reaction has something to do with a hidden aspect of yourself that you're not comfortable acknowledging or embracing. It could be a fear of vulnerability, or maybe an insecurity about being 'weak' or having to ask for help.
The idea of the shadow is that it directly relates to your triggers. People and situations that make you react in an uncomfortable way are often indicative of something within you that could be addressed.
Where the Shadow Comes From
So, why do we have this 'shadow'? It's not some kind of demon we're all possessed by – it is a completely natural part of us all, and it's part of the human experience.
Think about photography. When you capture an image, the shadows are just as important as the highlights; combined, they make a complete picture. You can't have the light without the dark.
Poetry aside, what I mean by this is that the shadow was always there – but it certainly developed and evolved. According to Healthline, "A shadow usually develops in early childhood when we're told that certain behaviors are unacceptable."
Children who are punished for exhibiting certain behaviors or feelings may go on to internalize these restrictions, leading to feelings of shame and guilt. We learn how to be ‘good’ and what it means to behave in a socially-acceptable way – but at the same time, we also repress aspects of ourselves that don't fit into this mold.
This is why shadow work can be so powerful; it helps us reconnect with those lost parts of ourselves and explore them without judgment.
Why We Reject Our Shadows
"When our shadow remains unconscious, it wreaks havoc in our life. Repressed contents do not merely disappear..." - Carl Jung
If our shadow aspects are so important to unpack and address, why don't we do it? Why are most of us unaware of our subconscious motivations and beliefs?
The simple explanation is that we find it confronting or that we're scared of what we'll find, but that's not the whole story. We actually deny our shadow traits because they don't fit in with our self-conceptions.
If you believe yourself to be a kind, compassionate person (which you probably are!), it's not going to be easy to face those parts of you that are harsh or judgemental. If you see yourself as a strong independent person, it can be difficult to acknowledge feelings of vulnerability or fear.
Shadows in physics are created when the light is blocked. For us, that blockage is our own belief systems and ideas about who we are – but that doesn't mean we can't make a change.
Impulsivity and Projection: Ignoring the Shadow
Have you ever done something on impulse that you ended up kicking yourself for later?
(That's an obvious question – we all have!)
Maybe you lashed out at a close friend and said something you'd never normally say. You walked away immediately, knowing that it was uncalled for and not entirely understanding where it came from.
This is the impulsivity that comes from ignoring our shadow. When we don't take the time to understand ourselves, we're more prone to acting without thinking and making mistakes.
Projection is another symptom of not dealing with our shadows properly. A parent worries that their child will make all the same mistakes they did; a teacher blames their students for their own shortcomings; a politician demonizes an entire group of people.
Our shadows are alive and active, and they don't go silent just because we ignore them. If anything, they get louder – and that's exactly why we need to address those parts of ourselves.
How To Begin Shadow Work
If reading this newsletter has brought up some uncomfortable feelings, it's possible you're recognizing some of your own shadow traits that need to be addressed.
(That's a good thing.)
Whether you're a journaling type of person or you've never journaled in your life, it's time to put pen to paper and start working through those triggers. I'll walk through a series of powerful journal prompts here to get you started.
1. What are some of the traits that I dislike in other people?
Shadow work is about you, but it's also heavily related to your attitude toward other people. What are the traits that frequently annoy you in others?
Example: I dislike people who aren't dedicated or committed to their work.
2. What are your biggest triggers?
You'll likely see a strong correlation between the traits you don't like in others and your own biggest triggers. What are some situations that make you particularly angry or frustrated?
Example: When people don't follow through on their promises.
3. What do you judge most harshly in yourself?
When we're judging other people, it's often because we're actually judging ourselves. Are there any characteristics that you find particularly difficult to accept within yourself?
Example: I have a hard time forgiving myself for procrastination.
4. Are there any emotions you feel afraid to show others?
Shadow work is about being honest with ourselves – and if we're honest, most of us are afraid to exhibit certain emotions. What do you feel particularly scared to show others? Is there anything you hide from your family, close friends, or partner? Can you think why?
Example: I refuse to show fear in romantic relationships because I don't want to be perceived as weak.
5. Who do you envy or feel jealousy toward?
Jealousy is one of the strongest emotions that can be triggered by our shadows. Who do you feel particularly envious or jealous of? What qualities in them make you feel this way?
Example: I'm jealous of my best friend's success and ambition because I feel that my career so far has been inadequate.
6. What personal narratives do you tell yourself?
Whether we realize it or not, there are narratives we tell ourselves every day that reveal parts of our shadow. Perhaps you tell yourself that you're not worthy of love, which often comes from a lack of love in childhood.
Think about the stories you tell yourself when things don't go as planned. What do they reveal?
Example: When I fail at something, my inner narrative is that I'm not inherently good enough or smart enough to succeed.
7. Are there any topics you avoid discussing?
The shadow can often manifest in avoidance patterns; if there are certain topics we're scared to discuss or think about, chances are it's related to our shadows. Pay attention to what conversations make you uncomfortable and why.
Example: I avoid talking about money because I never learned how to manage it properly, so it makes me feel anxious and out of control.
8. Do you feel like the most authentic version of yourself?
This is a difficult one. It's easy to trick ourselves into thinking we're authentic at any given moment – but how many times have you looked back on past selves and cringed at the act you were putting on?
Take a moment to really think about the way you show up in life. Are there parts of you that stay hidden? Do you betray parts of yourself to impress others? Do you act in conflict with your values to fit in?
Someone who feels comfortable with their shadow does not need to deviate from their core self.
Other Practices for Understanding Your Shadow
Journaling is one of the most powerful things you can do to understand your shadow – but it's not the only one.
Here are a few other practices that can help you further explore and accept your shadows:
Meditation. We all know the benefits of meditation for relaxation, but it's also an excellent way to become more aware of our shadows. Spend some time meditating on the topics discussed above – what triggers do I experience? What narratives do I tell myself?
Shadow work with a therapist or coach. Sometimes it's helpful to have someone else guide us through the process of understanding our own shadows. Working with a trained professional can be invaluable for getting to the root cause of certain behaviors – and learning how we can address them head-on.
Grounding. With a chaotic mind, it's near impossible to tap into our shadows. Spend time grounding yourself with activities like walking on the grass, stretching, or gentle breathwork. Grounding is the best way to warm up for journaling or meditation sessions.
I'm not an expert, and I'm certainly not Carl Jung, so don't take my article as your own source of information about shadow work. Dig into the many resources and books available because there's plenty out there. I went down the fascinating rabbit hole of shadow work and learned an awful lot about myself – and I hope it helps you do the same.
Our shadows, when we leave them to their own devices, cause all sorts of reactive and impulsive behaviors – lashing out, judgment, projection, anger, jealousy, and more.
But when we learn to understand them – when we make the effort to journal, meditate, ground ourselves, and work with a professional – they can bring us an immense sense of self-awareness and emotional resilience.
Working through your shadow traits is an incredible way to show yourself love and compassion. It's a hug for your inner child and an invitation to open up and be vulnerable.
Don't ignore your shadow – work with it, learn from it, and use it to step into your most authentic self. Thanks for reading!
If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.
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