Whether you have a therapist, follow mental health advocates on Instagram or both, you’ve probably noticed quite a few phrases and buzzwords — terms like “gaslighting,” “holding space,” and “self-care” may immediately come to mind. You may have also heard about the “shadow self.” While it may sound a bit scary (shadows, darkness, oh my!), it turns out that understanding your shadow self can have profound effects on your mental health and your relationship with yourself and others.
What is the “Shadow Self”?
In addition to advancing the idea of introverted and extroverted personalities and archetypes, the “shadow self” was originally coined by the 20th-century analytical psychologist Carl Jung. He believed that just like our physical shadow, everyone carries a figurative shadow, but “the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is,” Jung wrote.
Our shadows originate in childhood as a result of interactions with the people closest to us that deem aspects as good or bad. Punishing the “bad” aspects (like telling children to “toughen up” or “just be nice” when they display emotion) leads to the individual rejecting those aspects, and the shadow is formed.
As we get older, our shadows contain what we perceive to be incompatible with our conscious attitude. This could be negative human emotions like envy or greed or primitive feelings that we may not want to admit to others or ourselves. The shadow isn’t just about suppressing “negative” qualities, though — it can also include positive traits that we have deemed inferior or not worthy to be openly displayed.
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But just because we’ve rejected these feelings and traits doesn’t mean they go away. In fact, we repress them and still carry them around with us as part of our subconscious. As Jung explains in Phenomenology of the Self, repressing the shadow will give it the power to continue to create situations in one’s life. And if you’ve ever experienced self-sabotage, destructive behavior, or ruined relationships (hint: all of us), you probably know this to be true. That’s why shadow work is important — and why I decided to start.
What is Shadow Work?
In short, shadow work is all about raising self-awareness of repressed traits and feelings, and that is the kind of work that doesn’t come with an instruction manual or timeline. However, the good news about performing shadow work is that it doesn’t require years of planning. All that matters is that you’re doing what you can to bring your shadow closer to you. Remember that the goal is to release those repressed feelings, break bad cycles, and create peaceful patterns.
How to Perform Shadow Work Yourself
In addition to therapy, there are many ways to make peace with your shadow. So, find the one that works best for you! Here are a few ways you can approach your shadow solo:
- Keep a journal! If you prefer to pencil shadow work into your schedule, set some time aside to keep a written record of your shadow work. Write a letter of forgiveness to a past version of yourself or someone who has hurt you, or you can even recount a painful childhood memory and what you’d say to that child today. There are plenty of shadow work-specific prompts out there, so find some that speak to you and get to writing!
- Examine your feelings in the moment. Whenever you experience conflict with yourself or others, take a moment to ask yourself where these emotions are coming from.
- Spend time reviewing your childhood. Because the shadow starts in childhood, focusing on this time in your life can be a great way to better understand the root of it. Are there any events as a child or teenager that you think contribute to your life now?
Regardless of how you prefer to conduct your shadow work, it’s important to accept this side of yourself — not to shame it. After all, it was formed from repression in the first place! Instead, this work is performed so that you understand and accept this side of yourself in order to live a more peaceful life.
Remember that shadow work is supplemental
Keep in mind that while shadow work can definitely open your eyes to understanding yourself, it isn’t a replacement for therapy. Also, pay attention to how you feel when you’re performing this work — if you’re in a mindset where focusing on the darker aspects of yourself is making you feel worse, maybe save the shadow work for a better day. You want to be in a place where you can fully process what you’re doing and come to terms with it, not repress the shadow further.
How I’ve benefitted from my Shadow Work
After realizing that journaling had been instrumental in helping me process and work through some past relationships, I decided to shift my writing focus to shadow work. And just like my experience with the Break Up Journal, it helped immensely. The results weren’t immediate, but over time I started to notice the following changes in my life:
My relationships with others (and myself) improved
Instead of leaving some conversations feeling anxiety or frustration over what I had previously perceived to be “bad vibes” or harsh subtext, I took things for what they were. Because I was learning not to hear or process things through the filter of my previous wounds or anxiety, my interactions with others didn’t feel that they required as much analyzing or emotional work from me.
My anxiety has lessened
I’m not saying that shadow work is a treatment for anxiety by any means. But in my unique situation, I don’t experience as much social anxiety as I used to. My urges to “say the right thing” and people-please aren’t as intense as they used to be, which has allowed my mind to rest.
My self-perception has shifted
When I stopped trying to suppress parts of myself and instead leaned into trying to understand them, my self-perception and self-image immediately started to change. When I do start to feel the shame of past decisions and interactions with others, I remind myself that there is light and dark in all of us. We’re complex individuals and nobody is perfect.
My professional life is less stressful
As much as I’d like to attribute my work-related anxiety to COVID-related layoffs, my past history of people-pleasing and ignoring my own boundaries started way before the pandemic. Shadow work has taught me that I can still be a team player and help others at work, but it’s also important for me to learn to communicate realistic timelines and boundaries. Not only does that guarantee that I’m able to deliver the best work possible, but I’m also being kind to myself and avoiding burnout.
I have more energy
When you’re putting so much energy into protecting yourself, it’s not a surprise that you don’t have a lot of mental energy and bandwidth to divvy out to other areas of your life. I’ve found that learning to love and understand my shadow frees up that mental energy to dedicate to positive areas of my life and things I actually enjoy!
I feel more creative
As a creative writer, I’ve been so happy to find that I’ve enjoyed more writing sessions and experienced fewer instances of writer’s block. Much of my shadow self involves crippling stage fright and anxiety related to showing others my art and music. As I’m doing this work, I’ve actually wanted to share my creative side more often. (I also think that showing others your creative side will also inspire others to feel safe enough to do the same, so it’s a win-win!)
While shadow work has definitely enriched my life, I still experience moments of shame and doubt. After all, it’s part of the human experience! However, when I do experience those feelings now, I’m able to better process them and not dwell on things as long as I used to. Remember, we’re all made of light and dark and this work is a journey, not a destination!
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