If you’ve dipped your toes in the waters of the self-help, wellness, or spiritual communities, then you’ve likely heard the term “shadow work.” It’s also likely that you immediately thought, “what the hell is that?” Followed by “how do I do it?” Often times when shadow work comes up, someone is telling you that you need to do it, but without providing any guidance on what it is and how to do it yourself.
In this blog post, I will provide you with the psychological foundations of shadow work, where it came from, when to do it, how to do it, and how to integrate the shadow into your daily life.
What is the Shadow Self?
20th-century psychologist Carl Jung brought shadow work to the western world. Jung describes the shadow self as the “dark side” of our personality as it usually coincides with our repressed emotions, unresolved trauma, and/or ego-based actions.
Jung once wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” To put it simply, the shadow self is the part of our human existence that we refuse to face as it has not been brought to light–– it’s the part of ourselves that lives in the unconscious and subconscious space, void of consciousness.
We all have a shadow. It’s part of our human experience and it’s also part of our journey as humans to integrate our shadow into our consciousness.
The Birth of the Shadow
When we incarnate on earth as children, we are born free of shadow. Yet the shadow quickly emerges as those we are closest with project their own shadow onto us through conditioning. Though our human nature is to be loved and accepted, we begin to hide parts of ourselves that inhibit us from receiving love and acceptance. Through this process, we begin to adopt the behaviors and values our parents’ place on us. This then follows us as we grow, appearing in our relationships with friends, partners, and co-workers.
Another way to understand the shadow is through the lens of the wounded child archetype. This archetype lives within us and holds onto all the experiences we had when we were hurt and didn’t fully process the emotions, thus repressing the experience deep into our subconscious or unconscious mind. On a wounded human level, we repress because it seems like the easy solution or we do it completely unconsciously. Either way, like Jung said the less we acknowledge the shadow, “the blacker and denser it is.
To Ignore the Shadow or Integrate the Shadow?
When we live without acknowledging or integrating our shadow self, we live a life of ego. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as our ego is what keeps us safe and comfortable. However, our ego also brings us into our fated life–– a life of conditionings rather than a life meant for our highest self.
Jung summarizes this theory by saying, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” In order to step out of your fated life, you have to be willing to look in the mirror. If you want to live a life of light, then you have to face the shadow–– for one cannot have light without the shadow lurking around the corner. If the shadow is not integrated into daily life, we begin to project unconscious and subconscious conditionings onto others. In psychology, this is known as projection. Projection creates a barrier between reality and our perception of ourselves, preventing one from addressing the shadow.
However, projection isn’t the only way the shadow rears its ugly head in our daily lives. Often times when we feel triggered, we are unknowingly facing our shadow. Our triggers alert us to a feeling or memory that we have repressed–– indicating that something below the surface needs healing. Becoming aware of your triggers and how they show up can be a great tool in identifying where healing work needs to be done.
Repeating patterns is another way our shadow shows up. Patterns keep appearing because the shadow wants us to become aware of the pattern. This happens so we can move forward and break the cycle. However, in order to do this, we must be willing to face what our shadow is trying to show us.
How to Do Shadow Work
There is no set way to do shadow work. You can do shadow work alone, with a therapist, as well as with a spiritual space holder. However, doing shadow work is no substitution for proper trauma care. Shadow work can bring to the surface repressed traumatic memories, and if or when that happens, it’s best to consult with a licensed professional to get the care you need.
The first time you do shadow work, you might not experience any break-throughs. It’s important to give yourself grace through this process and understand that what works for one doesn’t work for all. Below I have complied a step-by-step list to help you dive into your shadow. I invite you to use what works, release what doesn’t, and use this framework as a guide for developing your own shadow work ritual.
Centering & Creating Your Safe-Space
Before you dive into shadow work, it’s important that you are grounded. In order to get constructive and eye-opening insights from your shadow self, you can’t be in a frantic energetic state. Being grounded and centered helps you surrender and drop into the experience.
It’s important that you are aware of what makes you feel present and in your body. Going outside and connecting with the earth is a great way to bring yourself into balance. Even taking a few deep breathes is a great way to center yourself.
Once you feel grounded, begin setting up your space. I like to light candles, surround myself with supportive crystals, and dim the lights. Although I like to use these spiritual tools, none of them are necessary. Although my safe-space includes a dimly lit room, your safe-space could be finding comfort in your bed with a big blanket.
The most important thing before you move onto the next step is to ensure you’re feeling calm and clear in your mind, body, and spirit as well as in your physical surroundings.
Supporting Yourself Through Affirmation
Connect with your breath once your space is set.
Breathing in deeply and exhaling with a loud sigh, letting go of any sensations that are lingering.
As you breathe in affirm to yourself “I am safe.”
As you breathe out affirm to yourself “I am supported.”
Repeat these affirmations to yourself at least 7 times so they have time to fully integrate into your body.
Discovering the Shadow Through Meditation
While keeping the supportive affirmations in mind, set an intention for your meditation. I’ve personally found that I prefer my intentions to be rooted in a question.
“Why did I react that way?” “What is this triggering from childhood?” “What am I feeling suppressing?”
As you meditate on this intention, become a conscious observer of any thoughts that pop into your head. Don’t try to solve any problems, just be. Allow your subconscious to guide you. Don’t force anything. If you feel yourself getting stuck, bring the phase “I surrender” into your awareness. In doing this, you let go of the expectation to answer a question and allow your subconscious to guide you.
If you feel heavy emotions coming up at any time in the meditation, allow yourself to feel them completely. Don’t hold back tears. Let the water flow. If you feel anger, observe where that anger lives in your body. This goes for any other emotions or feelings as well.
Journaling to Bring the Shadow Self to Light
Once you come out of your meditation, you should immediately journal on what came up. Not only does this provide you with an opportunity to brain dump all the thoughts that popped into your head and the emotions you felt, but it provides you another chance to dig deeper and make connections with your conscious mind.
Personally, I write down all the major themes and individual thoughts that came up. Then I will dive into each of those individually to access deeper wisdom by asking:
“What does this thought mean?”
“Are there any underlying issues?”
“Why did I feel this emotion?”
“What does this emotion tell me?”
Once this step is complete, I will then enter into meditation again to make connections as to how these themes tie together and then journal on them.
Integrating the Shadow
Perhaps the most difficult part of shadow work is integrating your discoveries and break-throughs into your daily life. This is a process that takes time and requires you to treat yourself with loving kindness.
I’ve found that the best way to integrate my discoveries into my life is to create a distinction between my higher self and my ego. I’m aware that my ego is quick to act or react. Whereas my higher self takes a moment to observe the situation, consciously reframe, and move forward with compassion.
Shadow work is not a one-time thing. We are full of programmings and conditionings that create our shadow. It is our duty as spiritual beings having a human experience to continue unblocking our shadow self so we can live in alignment with our highest self. The shadow never goes away, it just provides us with more information for integration so we can live intuitively! The more you become aware of your shadow and accept it, the more embodied you are as a conscious living being.
Start slow and ease yourself into the process. Remember that you might not experience breakthroughs right away, but don’t give up. You’re meant to do this work.
You are safe. You are supported.
Want more? Tune into Creating Consciousness.