Let’s talk about Shadow work.
We’ve all likely heard of the Ego – that part of the self that reflects the ways in which we relate to and identify in the world, and how we desire to be perceived by others. It is the Ego that motivates us, that regulates our thoughts and feelings, and the Ego that largely controls much of our behavior accordingly. But, dwelling deep in the subconscious there is another part of the self – the part of the self that has been rejected and abandoned by the Ego — and that is the Shadow.
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WHAT IS THE SHADOW SELF
The “Shadow” is a term coined and popularized by Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung in the early 1900s, however it is a concept that has been recognized and referenced in some form or another for centuries, dating as far back as the ancient Greeks and Shamans.
The Shadow represents our “darker side,” our “disowned self,” or “wounded part.” It is made up of unprocessed anger or rage, hatred, hurt, fear, greed, jealousy, deceit, and secrets or impulses that make us feel guilt or shame; The aspects of ourselves or qualities that we don’t see or don’t want to see, as we deem them to be evil, sinful, flawed, or other wise unacceptable or unflattering, so we push them away and bury them in darkness.
To have a Shadow is not inherently bad — everyone has a Shadow. It is part of a natural evolution of the Ego and a natural response to our social and cultural conditioning. That said, a repressed Shadow will often inevitably lead to an array of self-sabotaging behaviors, destructive patterns and damaging habits.
This is why Shadow work is so important for deep healing.
Working with the Shadow — that is, identifying exactly what aspects of the self have been pushed into it and learning to reintegrate those parts into the conscious self in a healthy way — can create a powerful shift in consciousness and lead to deep spiritual transformation and wholeness.
HOW THE SHADOW FORMS
To effectively work with the shadow, we must first understand how it is formed.
We are fundamentally wired for survival, and one of the most primitive means of survival as social beings is acceptance; To be accepted is to belong, to be safe and protected and cared for, and most importantly to be loved.
So, when we are met with negative cues from our environment – often beginning in early childhood – we instinctively try to divorce ourselves from whatever we did to cause the negative cue as a mechanism of self-preservation.
For some of us, these negative cues may have been abuse or trauma, for others it may have been humiliation or bullying – even just a sharp word that left a lasting mark. Whatever the case, in one way or another, we were instilled with the belief that something about us or something we did was not “okay.”
For example, perhaps we had expressed our opinion about something in school only to be laughed at by our teacher or mocked by our classmates. Maybe we were repeatedly told that we talked too much, or we were scolded for making a mistake. Maybe we were raised to believe that sex is a dirty act unless it is done within a marriage. These of course are just some examples, but you get the idea.
So, what happens?
We learn that there is something wrong, something shameful about our thoughts, about expressing ourselves, about trying something new, or about our sexuality. So in order to feel accepted, we swallow our opinions, we quiet our voice, we avoid trying new things, or we repress our sexuality; We put these things in our shadow.
HOW THE SHADOW GROWS
The problem is, just because we cast these things aside to be buried in darkness, doesn’t mean that they disappear in that darkness. On the contrary, they are very much still there, and want desperately to be acknowledged and understood. And the longer these parts of ourselves are kept in shadow, the more loud they become in their cries for light.
What begins as a coping mechanism becomes very low self esteem or social anxiety, complacency, sexual perversion, addictions, and other toxic patterns of behavior. We may become narcissistic or self loathing, highly defensive or combative, our relationships become turbulent, and ultimately we self sabotage.
HEALING BENEFITS OF SHADOW WORK
By working honestly and openly with the Shadow, we become more authentic and whole. We gain deeper self awareness and self acceptance, and we have greater compassion and empathy for others. We are more grounded, more centered, and are able to communicate and express ourselves with greater confidence and clarity, which inevitably leads to more genuine and harmonious relationships with the people in our lives. We may also feel more energized — on a physical level as well as mentally, emotionally and spiritually — and more attuned to our creativity.
INTEGRATING THE SHADOW
First and foremost, it is imperative that you begin Shadow work from a place of gentle compassion. Looking at these parts of ourselves that have been rejected is not fun or easy work to do, so cultivating a loving and open relationship with yourself first — or at the very least, enlisting the support of someone you trust, perhaps a therapist or experienced energy worker -– is key. Otherwise, this work will be ineffective or quickly nosedive into a downward spiral of self loathing.
Know Your Triggers
One way to begin integrating the Shadow is to become consciously mindful of the things that trigger you. Pay attention the people or situations that you find you have a strong emotional reaction to, or comments that make you feel particularly emotionally reactive.
When you notice that you are triggered, ask yourself what it is that you are feeling, then ask yourself why. It may seem silly, but by having this inner dialogue with yourself you are actually giving a voice to your Shadow. Keep in mind too that it may be challenging at first – remember, your Shadow self is accustomed to being ignored — but the more you try to openly and honestly engage with it the more readily it will respond.
Journal or Write Letters
When you start to develop an awareness of these triggers and where, what or whom they are rooted in, writing is another great way to further explore the ways in which you were affected. You can journal about your experiences, how you felt, how the behaviors you developed may have helped you then, and how they may be holding you back now. You may even write a letter (not to send necessarily, just for yourself) to the person or people involved, telling them how they made you feel and all the things you wish you could say to them.
Then, work on forgiveness. Try to put yourself in their shoes and experience the situation from their perspective. Ask them why they did or said those things. Listen to what they have to say. Thank them for this opportunity for self reflection and self growth, and work on releasing whatever feelings you have surrounding them and thereby releasing yourself from those events so that you can move forward with your life in a more healthy and positive direction.
Inner Child Work
If there are specific memories of situations or events that come up for you – particularly from your childhood, but not necessarily – try to go back in your mind to those points in time and hold loving space for your younger self. Hold your younger self and tell him or her that he or she is loved and is safe, and initiate a dialogue. Ask what he or she is feeling or thinking and listen openly. What can you tell him or her? How can you comfort and support him or her, and give them the guidance and love that they were not given then?
Reading about Jungian archetypes can also be helpful in exploring and understanding your own.
Here is a great book:
And here’s another great book
on Shadow Work in general for further reading: