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What is Shadow Work?

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

It was Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who coined the term ‘shadow work’. So what is shadow work?

Our unconscious mind hosts parts of ourselves that we have rejected, repressed and hidden from ourselves and others. We’ve rejected and hidden these parts because we, or other people, consider them to be bad, wrong, shameful, unattractive, weird or socially unacceptable. These parts are hidden in what we call the ‘shadow’. It’s called the shadow because it’s hidden from sight.

The shadow therefore contains the disowned parts of ourselves.

It is also often referred to as our ‘dark side’, as it can contain primitive and negative emotions such as selfishness, greed, envy, wanting control or power, anger and rage. These are traits that we and the people around us (our parents, teachers, family, society) perceive as bad, unpleasant or unlovable.

But there are also some positive elements very often found in our shadow, such as bravery, leadership and assertiveness.

What is shadow work - image shows a woman floating underwater in the dark

Why do shadow work?

What we repress forms part of the unconscious (which is that which we’re not consciously aware of). Whatever is repressed into the unconscious can’t be seen because we’ve hidden it – which means we can’t heal it. By keeping these things down, they try to rise up, which can cause us to sabotage ourselves.

By doing shadow work, we are bringing to light those parts of ourselves that have been rejected and repressed so that we can learn to integrate them and feel more whole. Shadow work can also help us to understand why we sabotage ourselves, what is causing it, and why we have a strong dislike or admiration for certain character traits in other people. Doing shadow work can help us to understand and accept ourselves better as we no longer hide the bits we feel ashamed of, and we can recognise these parts in others too bringing about acceptance of the self and others.

The shadow self

Many things can create our 'shadow self' including our upbringing, our beliefs, religion, the way teachers treated us at school, the way other family members and friends treated us, the way society functioned around us, the media and how we were treated by others after displaying certain types of behaviour (positively or negatively). We learn and discover what types of behaviour brings us love, and what types of behaviour causes love to be withheld from us.

As children, we learn that certain behaviours are met with approval and praise and others are met with disapproval, punishment, embarrassment or a withdrawal of love. We therefore learn to disidentify with what is deemed as the ‘bad’ parts of ourselves because we don’t want to be disliked, punished or ignored. We do more of the things that get us approval or praise, like being generous and kind to other people, being quiet and ‘well behaved’. Anything that doesn’t get approval from others is pushed down into our shadow as we try to ‘fit in’ with the society around us.

Hiding and burying certain parts of ourselves was deemed necessary to our survival and happiness.

Where do these parts go, once we have disidentified with them? They get pushed down into our shadow. And because we can’t identify these traits within ourselves, we project them onto other people (known as 'projection').

We may feel angry when someone is behaving selfishly. This is because we’re frustrated at not owning our own selfishness, because it’s buried in our shadow. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t get triggered. People behave in different ways around us all the time but some people seem to rub us up the wrong way, whereas others don’t! - and not everyone is triggered by selfishness. If you notice someone’s selfish behaviour is irritating you, then you can recognise your own selfishness that is buried deep within your shadow. If you learn to integrate your shadow, you gain an understanding and self-awareness that means you won’t be triggered any more, as there won’t be the emotional triggers that cause the irritation.

What is shadow work - image shows a woman looking angry after being triggered

What are examples of shadow work?

Here are some examples of situations where a trait of your character could have been pushed down into your shadow, where it becomes repressed:

1) Your Parents

Your parents were loving towards you when you were kind, generous and giving. You were showered with love and affection and they told you they were proud of you (positively reinforcing your behaviour).

When you threw a tantrum and shouted, you were put on the naughty step or sent to your room.

Your parents weren’t trying to cause you harm – they wanted to teach you ‘right from wrong’ and ‘good from bad’. As a child, when you got a negative cue (your parents looked disappointed or you were punished), you realised that the behaviour you had displayed was not desired and you stopped behaving in that way. That behaviour therefore was pushed down into your shadow.

2) Your School Teachers

You were spontaneous at school, being playful and silly and making the other children laugh.

Your teacher told you off, embarrassing you in front of the other children. You felt ashamed and disliked.

You therefore pushed playful, silly behaviour down into your shadow.

These examples are how the shadow is formed. But how does it affect and sabotage us? Here is a deeper example of the shadow forming, and the triggers it can cause:

3) People Pleasing vs Speaking Your Truth

You were brought up to be generous and to look after others. If you said ‘no’ to someone, you were told that wasn’t likeable behaviour and that it’s good to be kind to others. You learned that saying ‘no’ is not likeable, and that putting other people first is more preferable.

You inadvertently learned that it wasn’t good to speak your truth about your desires and needs, as that is selfish. Speaking your truth was therefore pushed down into your shadow, and became a repressed trait of your personality.

With that trait locked into your shadow, as you got older it started to bother you to see other people speaking their truth and establishing healthy boundaries. Every time somebody behaved in an outspoken and assertive manner around you, it would bring up seemingly unexplainable feelings of anger and resentment, since you were programmed to believe that speaking up for yourself is not the ‘done thing’ and you shouldn’t assert yourself or refuse to help another person. You felt confused by your anger towards other people as it didn't seem to make any sense, and that led to self-hatred and shame.

What is shadow work - image shows someone with their finger covering their lips, as if they have been programmed to be silent

Is shadow work dangerous?

Shadow work isn’t dangerous but it does require a certain amount of courage to face your shadow. It can be triggering and upsetting whilst you undertake the work, but it’s a very rewarding practice.

Shadow work can be done with the support of a mental health professional, however you can explore your shadow on your own by examining your feelings, beliefs and thoughts and journalling them. The course that is linked at the bottom of this blog explains shadow work more fully and includes a workbook/journal and guided meditations that can be used to explore and integrate your own shadow.

Why is shadow work important?

Shadow work can bring the unconscious mind to our conscious awareness and is an important step in maintaining good mental health. It enables us to feel whole and complete, truly encompassing our whole selves and learning to love and integrate every part of us. It leads to greater self-awareness and compassion for the self and others. Shadow work can also lead to finding potential gems in your shadow like confidence, leadership abilities and assertiveness. It’s a great self-development tool to understand yourself better.

How to do shadow work

I've produced a course to help you to undertake shadow work and benefit from this incredible spiritual practice. Take a look at the shop to find the shadow work course and my other spiritual development courses

The course is designed to help to you deeply explore and integrate your shadow 💫

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