How can shadow work change your life? We all have hidden sides to ourselves, parts of us that we keep locked away in the shadows out of fear and shame. We have parts of us that we deny because they would be judged as ‘bad’ and we might be rejected by the world. There may be harmful behaviors that we do unconsciously and toxic cycles we repeat because something deep inside us desperately wants to express itself and needs to be healed. These aspects of our being live in our shadow self.
Accepting every part of yourself, the good and the bad, allows you to live a fulfilled and whole life. It allows to you express all parts of ourselves. That’s why doing shadow work is so important.
We’re going to talk more about what the shadow self is, how the shadow self expresses itself, the benefits of shadow work, and the ways you can do shadow work to heal the shadow self.
What is your shadow self?
Though the term ‘shadow self’ might sound a little woo or mystical, it’s actually a psychological term created by Carl Jung.
The shadow self is part of your unconscious self, the part of you that you aren’t really aware of. Frankly most people don’t want to be aware of it because it contains things that may make you feel weak or ashamed.
The shadow self is created by your ego to protect you. As I’ve talked about in How to Follow Your Intuition, the ego wants to protect you and it wants to be accepted because acceptance means safety.
It develops throughout your whole life starting from your childhood, just like your conscious self. Some behaviors are labeled as good like sharing and having manners, others are labeled as bad like tantrums, hitting, and sometimes even just expressing emotions like sadness.
The shadow self can be heavily influenced by gender rolls.
Men in particular struggle with expressing emotions in a healthy way because they are told to be ‘tough’ as little boys and push down hurt and sadness. This can lead to aggressive behavior as an adult.
Women struggle to be assertive and confident because as girls they are taught to be quiet and considerate of other people’s feelings over their own.
Because we needed to act in a way that provided safety and shelter we learned to hide away the ‘bad’ or weak parts of ourselves so we wouldn’t be rejected.
What is shadow work?
Shadow work is a form of self-examination that requires looking at the dark side of your unconscious self.
There is a lot of good in your unconscious mind. It regulates your bodily functions, and contains your intuition and creativity.
But not everything is sunshine and rainbows in your subconscious, and this makes us want to hide from our ‘bad’ side.
Hiding our shadow self hurts us.
When you hide your shadow self, keeping it suppressed in your subconscious, it eventually comes to the surface in ways you don’t want. It lashes out like a wounded animal or an angry toddler. It keeps you from reaching you fullest potential.
It also suppresses parts of you that could make life better like passion and creativity.
The shadow is a living part of the personality and therefore wants to live with it in some form. It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness. This problem is exceedingly difficult, because it not only challenges the whole man, but reminds him at the same time of his helplessness and ineffectuality. – Carl Jung
Is shadow work dangerous?
Shadow work is not dangerous, in fact it will actually improve your mental health and the way you interact with the world. We’ll talk about the benefits of shadow work soon.
Becoming aware of our ‘dark’ side allows us to heal old wounds and to integrate those unconscious parts into our conscious selves in healthy ways.
You can’t fix or heal something if you don’t know it’s broken, right? So shining a light on your shadow self lets you change or heal it.
It allows you to talk to that hurt part of yourself and tell them they are loved and safe.
How does the Shadow Self manifest in your life?
Some things that live in your shadow self are greed, envy, bigotry, racism, sexism, selfishness, hatred, shame, rage, fear, rebelliousness, judgement, violence, pride, addiction, anxiety, and depression.
These things are expressed in some of the following ways.
Excessive criticism and judgement
People who tend to be very critical and judgemental of others or even themselves have some shadow work to do. The need to always pick people apart or make a big deal of small mistakes of flaws comes from deep insecurity that they have not dealt with.
Critical people are some of the unhappiest people and they don’t know why. There’s nothing terribly ‘bad’ about their lives, all their needs are met, they have families that love them, and yet they always find reasons to be unhappy.
They aren’t always mean or bad people, some of the most judgemental people I know can actually be very nice, but they choose the most ridiculous things to criticize not understanding that what they see in others is actually a mirror of something they don’t like about themselves.
The things that most bother you about other people may be things you unconsciously do yourself, or something that lives in your shadow self that you are not acknowledging.
This happens because some part of you is mirrored in other people, and you don’t like seeing that ugly part of yourself in the mirror.
Your judgement may also be aimed at yourself. You may tear yourself apart for the slightest mistakes. You may develop anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses or self-esteem issues that come from a deep feeling of not being enough, or being ‘wrong’ in some way.
Repeated cycles of toxic behavior
We all repeat cycles of behavior that we inherit, or observe, from our parents.
If we’re lucky we inherit mostly good behavior patterns, but sometimes we pick up not so good behaviors.
If you’ve ever noticed that the same situations keep repeating in your life over and over again, it’s because your shadow self is trying to express something, and until you face it the same pattern will keep playing out in your life.
This can manifest in all sorts of ways. It can be self-destructive behaviors or behavior that affects others.
We may unconsciously do things to sabotage relationships by repeating behavior we saw our parents do or doing irrational things that end relationships to avoid being vulnerable.
We might keep attracting the wrong kinds of people who are manipulative and abusive.
We may not be able to hold a job or just be a responsible adult.
Some get stuck in a cycle of addiction, and while biology can make people more prone to addiction sometimes it’s an expression of the shadow self.
When you’re hiding from your shadow self you can tend to project on to other people.
You may accuse someone of talking behind your back when you’ve been talking behind theirs. You may assume someone did something out of malice when you have a tendency to act from meanness.
We project our shadow self onto others when we are unwilling to take responsibility for our own demons.
A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbor. – Carl Jung
Think about the people who accuse their partners of cheating when they are cheating themselves. This can be a form of conscious manipulation, but it can also come from an unwillingness to deal with their own guilt and shame.
Instead of dealing with their own issues they project their darkness onto their partner. The shadow self takes hold and expresses itself in that way.
The benefits of shadow work
Self-awareness allows you to observe your thoughts, beliefs, actions. When your shadow self wants to express itself you will be able to recognize it and deal with it in a healthy way instead of having it lash out like a neglected child.
Shadow work allows you to start healing old wounds that you may have covered up.
When you acknowledge past trauma and give it space to breathe instead of stuffing it down in your unconscious mind or your shadow self you have the chance to heal and move forward.
It allows you to lead an emotionally stable life.
Fully understanding all aspects of yourself allows you to really own who you are.
There is power in being able to say yes I’m flawed but I know my weaknesses and I can work with them instead of having them work against me.
You internalize everything you see as you’re growing up and relationships leave a big impact on you.
If you grew up in a home with a lot of fighting or unhappiness that will have left it’s mark on your shadow self.
Recognizing the relationship trauma in your shadow self can help you break toxic cycles and improve your relationships.
Carrying around an unacknowledged shadow self can be like pulling a ball and chain behind you for your whole life.
It impacts your physical health and can cause chronic pain, anxiety, panic attacks, low immune system, trouble sleeping, and more.
When you start to dig into your shadow self you will recognize these patterns and are able to end the cycles of self-sabotage in your personal development, career, relationships, finances, and the way you show up for yourself and in the world.
Be your authentic self
You can’t really be your authentic self if you are hiding a part of you, even unconsciously. When you embrace your shadow self you are able to be authentic and own all part of yourself including your flaws, instead of letting your flaws own you.
How to do shadow work
Before we get into the shadow work exercises you can try I just want to say that you aren’t going to be able to work through all your shadow issues in a day, week, or even a month. It took years for all your shadows to accumulate and it’ll take time to work through it, and just when you think you’re done you’ll likely find another layer, and another, and another.
And that’s ok! We are always growing and learning. Sometimes it takes a new experience or epiphany to shine light on something that you didn’t see before.
It’s also going to be uncomfortable at times to look inside and see truths that you’ve been hiding.
Be patient with yourself and the process. Choose one thing to work on at a time and just chip away at it little by little. In time you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come.
Here are the shadow work techniques.
1. Be willing to look inward
I tend to be an observer of people and something I’ve noticed, particularly in the last few years, is that people do not like looking inwards. People don’t like looking at the beliefs and behaviors and questioning why they think and act the way they do.
They might find something that scares or shames them, and people generally avoid those feelings if they can especially if it would require they do some serious self-work.
The good thing is that once you shine the light on your shadow, part of the work is done.
But if we are able to see our own shadow and can bear knowing about it, then a small part of the problem has already been solved: we have at least brought up the personal unconscious. – Carl Jung
2. Watch your emotional reactions to other people
Chances are that you are triggered by some things other people do because they are unexpressed parts of yourself. You feel anger or shame at these qualities and feelings when you see them mirrored in other people.
Make a list of qualities in a person who really annoys you. Then look at that list and see if there is anything that you relate to. If your first reaction is denial take a second look.
When you notice you feel angry at a particular behavior ask yourself some questions about it.
- What am I really feeling?
- Are there other emotions tied to this feeling?
- Does it make me think of a person or event from my past?
- Can I identify the true root of this feeling?
You may not be able to answer these questions right away but over time they will come to you.
This can also manifest through jealously. When you see someone who is happy and seems to have what you want and you just can’t help but hate them, you need to figure out why you are triggered by someone being happy.
3. Be honest
Once you start the process you have to be honest about what you find no matter how hard it is to admit you may be in the wrong about something.
Here in the United States in particular there has been a lot of dialog about racism, especially in the last few years. As a white woman I used to feel defensive when black people would rightfully call out white people as a whole for being racist. I thought ‘I would never treat someone badly because of their appearance, don’t lump me in with the real racists!’
But the more I read the stories black people shared about their experiences and looked at history the more I looked inward at myself. Though it was true that I would never consciously do something to hurt black people, I had unconscious biases from my upbringing and I benefited from a system that has hurt black people for generations.
Identifying those biases was uncomfortable, but I am a better and more compassionate person because I was honest with myself about what I found and the work I need to do.
If you find something you don’t like in your shadow self and push it further into the dark instead of dealing with it you are only hurting yourself.
Forgiveness is not necessarily for the person who wronged you, it can be just for you.
You may have deep hurts living in your shadow self that you are carrying around like a weight on your chest. They lead you to unconsciously act in negative ways.
Forgiveness is a shadow work tool that let’s you shed that weight. It let’s you feel better and excise some of that pain.
It’s not about changing the outside situation, it’s about changing on the inside.
A forgiveness method you can do to with shadow work is the Ho’oponopono method.
Ho’oponopono is an ancient Hawaiian prayer that helps you repair a situation or relationship. The mantra is “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.”
I’m sorry for holding onto the situation for so long.
Please forgive me for any part I played.
Thank you for the lessons you’ve taught me.
I love you
When you practice think of the person (it might be yourself) or situation you need to forgive, let those feelings come to the surface, and repeat the mantra until you feel calm and peaceful.
Shadow work can be uncomfortable. Accept the discomfort and work through it. If you hide from it it will just come back another day.
5. Identify your limiting beliefs
You shadow self holds all your self-limiting beliefs. Limiting beliefs are beliefs you have about yourself that hold you back from so much in life. They might be about your self-worth, your ability to succeed at your dreams, your ability to find love, the opportunities available to you, the amount of money you can have, the type of treatment from others you allow, etc
Look at an area of your life that you’re struggling with and identify some of your limiting beliefs around it. I’ve written a step by step guide to help you overcome limiting beliefs, it will give you the formula to start clearing those beliefs so you can move forward and be free of them.
6. Practice mindfulness
Being mindful of your thoughts is an important part of shadow work because it helps you notice your inner dialog from an outsiders perspective instead of being caught up in it.
Mindfulness lets you step outside the river of your thought so you can look at them impassively. You can watch them float by, and when your thoughts are on the negative side you can just observe them without letting them take control and create negative feelings.
Writing out your thoughts and feelings is a great outlet to express your shadow self.
When you’re feeling anxious or afraid you can write it all down and then look for limiting beliefs you need to change or a situation you need to forgive and do whatever work you need to resolve it.
Try writing a letter to the hurt part of you. This may be a younger version of yourself who felt unloved, neglected, abandoned, bullied, or hurt in any way. Tell that version of you how much you love them, how valuable they are, and that you’re sorry they suffered but it’s ok now and they are safe.
I also have 55 Shadow Work Journal Prompts you can use to guide you to beliefs and experiences that need to be healed.
Final Thoughts on Shadow Work
We’ve learned that shadow work is a way to resolve pain and shame that lives in your shadow self. There are many benefits to doing shadow work like emotional healing, improved relationships, ending self-sabotage, and more.
Some methods to do shadow work are looking inwards, noticing your emotional triggers, being mindful, and changing limiting beliefs.
To learn more about how to improve your life read my guide to self-work.
Have you done shadow work before? Are you going to try it now? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for visiting A Point of Light.