SHADOW WORK - A FULL GUIDE: What It Even Is, Why You Need to Do it, and How
“Anything that you resent and strongly react to in another is also in you.” - Eckhart Tolle
THE LAW OF DUALITY
There is a precious duality to life, a constant yin and yang. There is light and dark, hot and cold, summer and winter, love and hate, fire and water, weakness and strength, and today’s focus which is good and evil.
A major misinterpretation that people make is the subconscious labeling of one half of the coin as “good” and the other half as “bad.” We humans tend to moralize pretty much anything. However, our reality is simply a reflection of our perception. “Good” and “bad” are nothing more than imaginary labels that we, both as individuals and as groups, stick on things in order to wrap our heads around existence.
But one side of the coin cannot exist without the other. We understand light only after witnessing darkness. We hear noise, because it is birthed from the silence. Similarly, we can only label something as “good” after experiencing “evil.” So, if the presence of one is necessary for the other to exist, then how can they morally be opposites? How can one be good and the other bad?
BIRTH OF THE SHADOW SELF
I pose this question, because we have labeled traits about humanity and ourselves using the same good vs bad process. The “good” parts of ourselves we want to highlight and present to the world, but our “bad” aspects we are shameful and guilty of, and as a result we spend our whole lives trying to keep them hidden.
It is in our nature, it is coded into our DNA, to want to be accepted by the pack. For that primal reason, the unattractive aspects of ourselves are neglected and rejected so thoroughly that they are no longer part of our conscious personality, meaning we do not acknowledge them as a part of us.
The darker parts of ourselves, that have been rejected and repressed into our unconscious personality, is what is known as the shadow self. This is where the least desirable traits of humanity, emotions that we as a society call “bad” (such as rage, jealousy, hate, deceit, greed etc.), and our primitive instincts that are deemed “wrong / sinful” lay dormant within our subconscious.
But what we resist, persists. The more we repress and ignore our shadow selves, the more they will act out and disrupt our lives in the form of mental/physical illness, low self-esteem, or addiction, to just name a few.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” - Carl Jung
THE SHADOW / SHADOW WORK
Shadow work is the name given to the action of facing the darker parts of ourselves head on, healing from them, and learning to embrace them. Once we own our darkness, we will no longer feel the negative effects of its repression.
For example, one of the negative consequences of our shadow self is projection. When we have yet to deal with the negative aspects of our own selves, our subconscious highlights those traits in others.
For instance, feeling a heightened, negative emotion whenever someone is disrespectful to you happens because you have yet to face and heal from the disrespect you hold within.
Getting annoyed whenever someone complains to you happens because you have yet to face the side of you who complains.
Once you embrace those parts of your shadow self, someone else's disrespect or act of complaining will not invoke a negative reaction from you.
Similarly, you get jealous because you feel lack, and you get anxious because you have yet to let go of internalized fears. Shadow work forces us to acknowledge our projections and turn the healing inward, causing us to become more empathetic, compassionate, and understanding towards both ourselves and others.
WHY WE MUST EMBRACE OUR SHADOW
This refers back to the law of duality: the yin and yang. Light is birthed from the darkness. The negative traits we possess are just as vital as our positive traits, because one cannot exist without the other.
Isaac Newton discovered this with his third law of motion: for every action/force in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is easier to understand this concept on the physical plane, but it is very much true in the metaphysical as well.
Bottom line: if you want good, you must accept bad. For instance, we do not curse the moon and fear the darkness of night, because we accept and acknowledge that with time the sun will rise again and give birth to a new day.
We must learn to accept the yin and yang that lives within each of us and our personalities, similarly to how we accept the rising and setting of the sun and the changing of the seasons.
IT’S WORTH THE WORK
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” — Joseph Campbell.
Facing our shadow selves and healing the parts of ourselves that we have tried to hide for so long is an extremely uncomfortable and mentally taxing experience. A lot of negative emotions bubble to the surface, but this is vital in order to heal from our past experiences/traumas and move forward in life as our most compassionate and authentic selves. We must first face the darkness we hold within head on with both empathy and nonjudgement. We must accept it and then befriend it. Only then will we be able to truly enter into our power, connect with our Higher Selves, and embark on our soul’s divine purpose.
Some Benefits of Shadow Work Include:
A better perspective on life
Stronger and healthier relationships
Greater mental and even physical health
Better access to creativity
Resilience and courage
Compassion and empathy
BEFORE YOU START
In order for us to properly deal with our shadow, we must first have a solid foundation of self-love and self-compassion.
Owning our flaws and taking responsibility for the negative emotions we feel is no easy task. It is much easier to pass the blame onto something external and continue to highlight our strengths, but that will not cultivate growth.
Before you shine the light on your own darkness, make sure you are in the proper mindset to begin this work.
Accept that you are human, and therefore you are flawed.
Acknowledge that you are not alone in your imperfection. Perfection is an illusion.
Shift your perspective and talk to yourself the way you would a best friend, loved one, or your own child. You would never make that person feel poorly for simply being human.
Practice neutrality. Allow thoughts and feelings and epiphanies to flow through your mind without judgements and labels. Simply acknowledge what comes up with neutrality.
Do something kind for yourself, because you deserve it! Treat yourself to your favorite dessert, get your nails done, take a long walk, go for a drive and listen to your favorite songs, or take an hour out of your day to watch your favorite show or read a book. Just do something nice for yourself before you start facing your flaws head on.
WAIT THERE’S MORE
Before you face your shadow self, you must also be centered and aware.
Mindfulness practices, breathwork, yoga, meditation, walks in nature, dancing, and journaling, are all great ways to bring yourself back into the present moment. This can take as little as 5 minutes. It is important that you are brought back into the now and that you are able to feel connected to yourself before you delve into shadow work. The truth will not reveal itself, and your intuition will not communicate clearly, unless you are centered, focused, aware, and non-judgmental.
It is also important to keep an open mind and be extremely honest with yourself when doing this work. If you are facing hard emotions such as anger, jealousy, or greed, do not cower and hide from it because your ego is being threatened. Embrace the darkness and heal it with light and love. That is the only way to make it through.
Take as much time as you need to create a strong foundation before you enter into this emotional, ego-shattering, and divine practice. Once you feel like you have cultivated the energy of self-love and self-compassion, you have become centered and aware, and you have promised yourself to be open minded and truthful the entire time, you are ready to start the process of shadow work.
RESPECT THE PROCESS
Shadow work is a practice and a tool that we use on our spiritual journey to become in greater union with our Higher Selves and with God/ the Universe/ Source (whatever higher power you feel called to believe in). It is not something that we do in one sitting while we are bored on a Tuesday night. It is an intense journey within us that cultivates a clear understanding of our own unique psyche. It should be respected for the divine practice that it is.
This is totally optional! But I found it helpful to familiarize myself with the Jungian Archetypes before delving into this practice.
“In Jungian psychology, the archetypes represent universal patterns and images that are part of the collective unconscious. Jung believed that we inherit these archetypes much in the way we inherit instinctive patterns of behavior”(The 4 Major Jungian Archetypes).
“Each archetype possesses qualities that we define as the best attributes of mature adulthood. But for each constructive archetype, there is a destructive shadow. And not just one shadow, but two: an active side and passive side”(Scott Jeffery).
The Four Major Archetypes:
1. Archetype: The King
Active Shadow: Tyrant
Passive Shadow: Weakling
2. Archetype: The Warrior
Active Shadow: Sadist
Passive Shadow: Masochist
3. Archetype: The Magician
Active Shadow: The Detached Manipulator
Passive Shadow: The Innocent One
4. Archetype: The Lover
Active Shadow: The Addicted Love
Passive Shadow: The Impotent Lover
Research more about the shadow archetypes here!
SHADOW WORK STEPS - OVERVIEW
Choose the right time and set the right mood
Let your emotions, feelings, and thoughts lead you to Identity your shadows
Explore / Question the shadows - figure out the why (when you think you hit the bottom, dig deeper)
Process the information you have learned
Accept the shadows for what they are
Embrace the shadows / Reframe your thoughts around the shadows in a positive light
Move on, heal, and go through life with a broader mindset and a clearer perspective
STEP 1: CHOOSE THE RIGHT TIME AND SET THE RIGHT MOOD
This process is hard. Make it as easy as you can for yourself by creating a soothing environment for you to process your hidden, negative emotions. If you can spend an evening alone, that is great, but at the very least make sure you have an hour where you will be uninterrupted.
You can go full out and take a warm shower, make a cup of tea, grab a journal and blanket, and maybe even light a candle, whatever feels good to you. I like to integrate shadow work into my self-care routine, and I enjoy making my atmosphere as cozy as possible, but do what feels right and authentic for you.
Either way, it is imperative that you center yourself and feel at one with your mind, body, and soul. Do not go into this practice if you are in an anxious, frazzled, or negative mindset. Go in with a clear head, a light heart, and pure intentions.
Before you delve into the exercises and prompts, take a few deep breaths, sip your tea if you made a cup, and set an intention. Mine is usually something along the lines of this:
“I intend to use this time to gently dig deep into the darker parts of myself that I have ignored and repressed out of fear. I am aware that these negative feelings do not define who I am. By shedding light on my shadow, I will be able to shine a brighter light on the world around me. I am compassionate, I am forgiving, and I am ready to do the hard work towards growth.”
STEP 2: IDENTIFYING THE SHADOW
There are many ways in which you can identify your shadows, and no way is better than another. I will share some exercises that I discovered in books and online that I have found to be the most beneficial, and I will share some exercise that I have created on my own. It may be helpful to use these exercises as first, but I encourage you to make this practice unique for you and your own personal needs.
Shadow work requires the action of writing down your stream of consciousness using guided prompts.
It is imperative that you let your thoughts, feelings, and emotions guide this process, even if it gets uncomfortable. Your emotions are signs that point you in the direction of what inner aspects of yourself need healing. (Projection is an example of your emotions acting as a flashing neon sign!)
WARNING: CHOOSE ONLY ONE EXERCISE TO DO AT A TIME!
In my opinion, embarking on all of these exercises at once would be catastrophic to one's mental health. Baby steps. I am listing these exercises back to back in order to keep this article neat and organized; I am not implying that you need to do them all at once.
Write down a list of 5-10 things about the world that you strongly dislike.
Then write down a list of 5-10 things about yourself that you strongly dislike.
It can be as simple as that. Just writing down the things about yourself and the world that you do not like. These will be the more obvious shadows, but it is a great place to start. (This list will be used and interrogated in Step 3).
Pay close attention to your emotional responses towards other people.
Since our shadow is so repressed, it makes itself known to us through the strong, negative reactions we get towards others who are expressing the same traits that we have rejected.
Obverse the qualities, traits, and behaviors that others possess, especially your close friends and family, that upset you.
I am not saying that person X isn’t disrespectful for being impatient and short with you, but chances are if you did not hold those same qualities within you, person X would not have been able to invoke such a strong, averse reaction from you.
Also, I am not saying that every single situation that evokes a reaction is a big flashing sign pointing back to you; emotions are extremely complex. But studies have shown that this is often the case. That is why we use Step 3 to question what stuff is ours and what stuff is not.
So, make a note of what causes you to to feel intense, negative emotions and journal it out at a later date. (I will explain more about this in Step 3).
Think of a person that you know in your personal life that you cannot stand, a person that whenever you think of invokes such a strong emotion from you (such as rage, jealousy, hate, etc.)
Next write down 5 traits about the person that you strongly dislike and highlight the one that you think is the absolute worst.
(This trait will be used in Step 3).
Make a list of 5-10 things that you are afraid of/make you anxious, and I am not talking about fears such as heights, small spaces, sharks, etc. I am talking about the fears of commitment, fears of failure, fears of being alone, fears of upsetting others, fears of not being perfect, fears of being unaccomplished, fears of being poor, fears of not being accepted.
Write them down, even though it's uncomfortable.
(This list will be used in Step 3).
Write the name of one of your family members (Parent 1) at the top of a piece of paper.
Make a list of 5 positive traits about Parent 1.* These are traits that you strongly admire and respect about them.
Then make a list of 5 negative traits about Parent 1. These traits are aspects of them that you strongly dislike and that invoke a negative emotion in you. (Can you see where I am getting at? And yes, I know how uncomfortable this is. Do it anyway. That means it's working).
Then make a list for Parent 2, etc.
(These lists will be used in Step 3).
*It is important to also recognize the positive traits that we hold within ourselves during this practice. For example, you may have a short temper like your Dad, but you also gained his incredible ability to listen to and comfort others. We are human, we make mistakes, but I believe that there is more good living inside each of us than “bad.”
This exercise I found online here! Written by Mike Bundrant.
It is a list of 10 fill in the blank questions.
I used this practice myself, and I found it to be a gentle yet assertive way to recognize some of my shadows that I have never thought of before.
I encourage you to try it out! It took only about 5 minutes.
This exercise I found here! Written by Kelly-Ann Maddox.
It is a list of 25 questions to ask yourself to help you discover some shadow aspects of yourself. Some of the questions I really liked, others I didn’t.
I think this is a great resource to go to if you are looking specifically for a shadow work journaling prompt. I would not answer all 25 questions in one sitting.
These are just 7 exercises that I use / have found, but there are a plethora of others you can find online and in books. I encourage you to do your own research and find exercises that really speak to you!
STEP 3: EXPLORE / QUESTION THE SHADOW
Basically, just ask yourself “why” over and over again. Use the lists that you made in your exercises and interrogate why you wrote down what you did. Then embark on unraveling your emotions and reactions. Figuring out why can help you understand your shadow more and will help you show yourself and others more compassion and forgiveness.
For example 1: Why do you dislike X about the world?
Why do you dislike X about yourself?
For example 2: Why did your coworker’s negative trait X invoke such a strong reaction from you today?
For example 3: Why do you hate X trait the most about person X?
For example 4: Why are you so afraid of failure?
For example 5: Why do you dislike X quality the most about Parent 1?
Step 3 in practice can look something like this:
Why did you get so angry when your coworker took her frustration out on you today?
Because it was rude.
Why was it rude?
Because I didn’t do anything wrong and she was mean to me regardless.
Why was she mean to you?
Probably because she was upset about something.
Have you ever been upset about something at work?
Have you ever let it affect the way you say or do something, even a little bit?
Because I was in my own head and I didn’t realize I was taking it out on others.
Because I had a headache.
Because I had a lot of homework and I was stressed.
There you go, you got so upset because you have done the same thing in the past. Now that you have identified your shadow and interrogated it, you can process the information you have gained, acknowledge it, heal, and move on (I will explain how to do just that in later steps). And I bet once you heal that part of yourself, or at least make peace with it, the next time your boss takes her frustration out on you, it will roll right off your back.
Step 3 in practice can also look something like this:
Why are you afraid of failing a class?
Because I want to do well so I can get into a good college
Why do you want to get into a good college so badly?
So I can get a good job
So I can be successful
So I can make a lot of money
So I can get nice things and go on vacations
to feel accepted / to feel worthy / to feel enough / to prove to my parents that I am not a failure / to prove myself to others / etc.
Step 3 in practice could even look something like this:
Why do you hate pollution?
Because people are disrespecting and neglecting the earth!
What are the ways in which you disrespect and neglect yourself?
Cue deep answer
Step 3 in practice could also look something like this:
Why does it bother you that person X always posts her gym routine, her gym outfits, her physique progress, etc.?
Because it’s annoying. She’s so full of herself. No one actually cares about her abs.
Why does it really bother you?
Because I wish I had more time for the gym and every time I see her photos it makes me feel bad about not going to the gym and not looking slim and toned.
Why does it bother you that you don’t go to the gym and look toned?
Cue deep answer
Do you get the gist? It always bubbles down to something more. If you are still answering the question of a surface level, dig deeper.
Do not stop until you feel uncomfortable, like you hit a nerve. By shining light on the real root of the issue, you can begin the process of healing, accepting, and moving on.
STEP 4: PROCESS THE INFORMATION
Process the information you have learned with compassion, understanding, and most importantly without judgement.
These previous steps have brought a lot of dark and painful things up to the surface. Give yourself time and full permission to feel however it is that you feel. It is okay to cry, mourn, journal, and even talk about what you have discovered with a loved one if you feel comfortable enough to be that vulnerable.
It is okay and normal if this intense work has brought to light some serious issues, and it is okay and normal if you need additional / professional help.
I actually strongly recommend everyone see a therapist of some sorts.
I unknowingly engaged in shadow work my freshman year of college by questioning and integrating some of my behaviors, and it led me to discovering that I had an eating disorder. Since I could not deal with that on my own, I ended up starting therapy.
It is okay if you need help dealing and processing your shadows. You could find a therapist to see weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.
Or you could utilize the remote / online licensed therapists that you can pay to text / call whenever the need arises.
There are also a lot of free or low-cost options available both online and in person.
You are not weak if you need help, you are human, and processing this information the correct way will only lead you towards a path of healing, self-love, happiness, and authenticity.
STEP 5: ACCEPT THE SHADOWS
Accept the shadows for what they are. Do not label them or fight them or wish they did not exist.
Whatever you do, do not judge yourself.
Every single person in the world has things about themselves that have been labeled as “bad” or “undesirable” or “negative” in some way. That is what got us to subconsciously repress these things about ourselves in the first place.
Now that you have uncovered them and shown them to the light, heal and love them so they can no longer be used to cause you harm and bring negativity into your life.
STEP 6: EMBRACE THE SHADOWS + REFRAME
Reframing your thoughts and altering your perspective is a powerful and wonderful tool. It is one of my favorites. We each create our own reality based on how we view and perceive the physical world around us. If we do not like something about our lives, we must change our mindset (and if needed take the proper actions required).
If you are having trouble acknowledging the positive aspects of your shadows, think of it as if you are speaking to a loved one: your child, your sibling, your best friend, etc.
Here are some ways you can reframe your shadows:
Fill in the blank: Even though I am __(something negative)__I am also __(something positive)__.
Even though I am impatient at times, I am also really productive and give work my all.
Ask yourself: What is this shadow trying to tell me?
My annoyance at seeing person X’s gym photos lead me to acknowledge that I feel insecure about what my body looks like.
What is my bad body image trying to tell me? It is telling me that I do not truly love and respect myself and I should work on my self-esteem and implement more self-care.
Ask yourself: What does this shadow give me? How does it help me?
My selfishness helps me to get my basic needs met.
My obnoxious voice allows me to be heard.
My impatience allows me to always be on time.
My need to be right makes me fact check my thoughts and ideas.
Own your traits with awareness and compassion.
Yeah, I am too chatty and annoying sometimes, but that just means that the people who are my friends really love me for who I am and want to spend time with me despite my flaws.
Reframe negative thoughts directly.
Turn “I am lazy.” into --> “I am giving my body rest. The feeling that I always need to be doing something has been instilled in me by capitalist society. I do not actually always need to be doing something.”
Turn “I am not pretty/smart/cool/funny/good enough/etc.” into --> “No one is pretty/smart/cool/funny/good enough. Perfection is literally an illusion, an unattainable goal. Everyone is just human, meaning no one is perfect. So, I do not have to be.”
Do not hide these traits / shadows anymore (remember repression and rejection got us here in the first place).
I even encourage you to talk about them with a loved one in order to bring them even further into the light, or at the very least journal about them on paper to give them space in the physical realm.
STEP 7: MOVE ON + HEAL
Accepting and embracing your shadows is an imperative step in the shadow work process, but I do not want you to mistake this as me saying that it is okay to be an asshole, because it’s not.
The point I am trying to make is that nothing is wholly good or bad. People do/say “bad” things due to an underlying issue. By shining a light on your shadows, you will be able to learn where these traits stem from, and therefore you will be able to heal from them. Once you heal from them, these traits will no longer control you. You will no longer act out in ways that do not align with your authentic self.
Through recognizing our shadows, we gain the ability to choose whether or not to integrate them into our lives, but until then, they unknowingly control how we act and view the world.
Now, you will be able to move on and go through life with a broader mindset, a clearer perspective, and more compassion and forgiveness for both yourself and others. You will be able to love all of yourself, and therefore be able to love and accept others in their entirety.
There may be times when you are judged or ridiculed for your shadows, but you will have the inner wisdom and self-love to acknowledge why others are reacting strongly in the face of that trait, and you will not let it affect you and your inner peace.
You will allow yourself to truly and wholly be, and your authentic self will feel safe and loved enough to shine its brightest.
WORDS FROM THE AUTHOR
I hope this article and guide will serve you well on your own journey of personal growth, self-love, and spirituality. My only hope is to inspire others to become their most authentic selves and to live out their truth.
Shadow work is a touchy subject and is a challenging process. I did much research before sitting down to write this piece, and I chose my words with care as not to unintentionally offend anyone.
I hope you take this knowledge and use it to heal and grow and blossom into the ball of light and love that I know you are.
As always, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or just to chat.
With love and light,
RESEARCH / REFERENCES