What is Shadow Work?
Shadow work is a personal development method that originates from the work of Carl Jung. In the process, one would integrate disowned parts of their personalities. Shadow work is both a psychological and spiritual process.
Shadow prompts and shadow journals are helpful tools that help us gain awareness and re-integrate the parts of us that we have previously disowned, dislodged, and suppressed.
The benefits of shadow work are wide-ranging, from improving our relationship to helping you to manage your emotions at work. Now let’s look at the various facets of shadow work and how you can start.
What are the aspects of yourself you would rather not think about?
Do certain things about certain people tend to trigger you?
Do you sometimes find yourself acting in out-of-character ways’?
Do you struggle with powerful surges of emotions such as anger or envy and cannot legitimise their causes?
Do you sometimes feel surprised by aspects of your personality?
What is Shadow Work?
In a nutshell, shadow work is a process of deep self-integration. Shadows are the parts of ourselves that due to past trauma, social conditioning and other reasons, we have disowned, dislodged, and suppressed. According to Jung, the shadow is the unknown dark side of our personalities. We may be judgmental towards these parts of ourselves, and therefore feel critical of others when we see our shadow qualities in them.
In the realm of psychology, Carl Jung’s ideas of the ‘Persona’ and ‘Shadow Self’ have a profound influence on how we understand shadows and shadow work.
Jung used the term ‘Persona’- ‘Mask’ in Latin- to describe the side of us that we like, accept, and wish to present to the world. It is made up of notions of ourselves that we recognise, acknowledge, and attach to; these are often influenced by what society and our upbringing have taught us. They are labels and descriptions that we sit comfortably with: ‘I am a man,’ ‘I am a loving mother’, ‘ I am a good citizen and I obey the law’, ‘I am a caring person and I genuinely want my friends to be happy.’ They are true aspects of yourself, but perhaps not the full picture.
Jung said: ‘The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.’
On the flip side, we tend to suppress or disown parts of ourselves that we reject as ‘indecent’, and collectively they make up our Shadow Self. Since we do not like to think of these as legitimate parts, we keep them dormant and untouched in the unconscious, until the day they get unexpectedly triggered by people or events. It is at those times that you find yourself acting out in ways that surprise or even frighten you. For example, if you identify as a tough person, and disown your own vulnerability, you may be caught off guard and suffer from internal conflict when you feel weak or dependent.
Sometimes, we project our shadows onto others. When you find yourself feeling irrationally irritated or disgusted by aspects of someone’s behaviour, it can point to something you are deeply frightened of seeing or having in yourself. (On the flip side, if you find yourself immensely attracted to certain attributes in others, you may have disowned your own Light!)
By re-integrating our shadows, we no longer have to exert unconscious energy to suppress things we do not like to feel or hide aspects of ourselves we dislike. Understanding how shadows work, we will also have a deeper understanding of interpersonal and relationship dynamics; we can have more compassion for other people when they are acting ‘out of character, and we can be mindful of the dark side of humanities without being overly judgemental.
‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.’ – Jung
How Do We Know When We Have Shadows?
When we judge and suppress parts of ourselves, we are in essence not living as the most authentic and while human that we are capable of being.
Having deep shadows plants the seeds of psychological triggers. Because our inner landscapes are typed up in knots, we don’t feel at ease. As we spend energy pushing down certain memories and emotions, we may be tired all day, and be lacking in energy and motivation.
When we carry heavy shadow baggage, our shadows triggers pop up everywhere— in our relationships, at our workplace. For seemingly unknown reasons, we become emotionally reactive towards things that ‘shouldn’t bother us. For example, we may find we ‘can’t stand’ certain people at work, and feel irritated whenever they are around us. In relationships, we may find ourselves feeling uncontrollable rage towards something our partner does or say, but we are not sure why that is.
When we compartmentalise and deny parts of our psyche, we are simultaneously rejecting parts of ourselves. This does not set a good foundation for self-love and self-integration.
When we are unaware of what is happening on the inside, it is difficult to be self-compassionate, or compassionate towards others. We may operate from the part of us that is wounded and childlike, rather than wise and understanding.
In its deepest essence, shadow work is how we bring light into the dark places of our psyche.
By doing shadow work, we can illuminate the reasons behind a lot of seemingly unexplainable behaviours. As Connie Zweig once wrote: “I could sense then why some people went mad, why some people had torrid love affairs despite a strong marriage bond, why some people with financial security began to steal or hoard money or give it all away…”
The process of shadow work is one where we summon the deepest patience, courage and self-compassion to face what we had rejected, and undo the internalised shame we have inherited from our parents and society.
When done successfully, shadow work promises authenticity and wholeness. We will begin to feel more at ease in our daily lives, more aligned with our values, and have a deeper connection to those around us.
According to Jung, the first half of our lives is very much about fitting in, adapting to social norms and conventions, but as we enter the second half of our lives, what has worked all these years no longer do. This is when we start to ask questions like, “Who am I apart from my roles? Who am I apart from my history? Who am I apart from my obligations?
This phenomenon is seen very often in emotionally sensitive and intense people, as many have suppressed their natural qualities and shoved their natural urges, desires and needs into their shadow. Their shadows come from the experience of being ostracised, oppressed, and the guilt of breaking free from home.
When it comes to understanding shadow work and its related concepts, there is no better way than to learn from a Jungian Analyst. I have spoken with one of the most prominent Jungian psychologists James Hollis in a podcast episode about what many of us have done to our natural qualities due to parental and cultural expectations, as well as what we can do to reclaim our shadows in the second half of our lives. Here is a link to the podcast and the full show notes.
I have also directly asked James the question: Are we responsible for our parents’ happiness and wellbeing? Here is how he answered it in this short podcast trailer video:
Why Do We Have Shadows?
Jungian analyst Robert Bly has poignantly called our shadows ‘the long bag we drag behind us.’
According to Jung, when we first came into the world, we were whole and innocent. We had not yet learned to judge ourselves or anyone around us. If you have ever observed young children play or sing, you find a level of exuberance that is rarely seen in grown-ups. They seem so unashamed, carefree, and actually, powerful. Picasso said “ Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. “
However, this purity usually does not last very long. It is the fault of no one but inevitably, our parents start telling us to be quiet, be nice, sit still, and act politely. We got the messages that some parts of us are not accepted, or that something about us is ‘bad’. Children who are naturally intellectually curious, emotionally intense and imaginative get shuts down more than others, purely because they are more expressive, asks more questions and attracts more attention.
Most parents never meant to harm us, of course. They want us to fit in nicely with what society wants from us so we can be safe and successful in the world. And this is the beginning of our lifelong mission to mould ourselves. Whatever sticks out and doesn’t fit into society’s mould, we shove it into our shadow. Or, as Robert Bly aptly calls it, ‘the long bag we carry’. Men shove their feminine side into the bag, women shove their outspokenness and assertiveness into the bag. We might have been angry at our parents or felt hostile towards our siblings, or envious of our friends. None of these was allowed— gone our natural emotions are, into the bag.
But this is not a long-lasting strategy. As illustrated in the tale of Dr Jakyll and Mr Hyde, whatever it is that is in our shadow eventually takes on a life of its own.
When we suddenly act in ways that are ‘out-of-character’, or that we surprise ourselves for the rage and impulse we have, we know whatever that was in the bag has evolved.
We had not given what is in our shadow love, it is only natural that they do not love us back. Instead, they become angry, hostile, desperate.
Rage, envy, grievances, grief, regrets, gluttony. Whatever it is that we try to ignore would not be silenced for much longer. When our lives feel out of control, our psyche is signalling us, nudging us to commence shadow work.
When suppressed or projected, your Shadow can become destructive; it may erupt in depression, self-directed aggression or interpersonal hostility. It takes a lot of energy to constantly push down parts of ourselves. Many people who find themselves chronically fatigued can benefit from psychological Shadow work.
Shadow Work Benefits
Shadow work has the potential to offer a wide range of benefits in your personal life, relationships and work life. Shadow work is a rewarding and challenging process. Despite it not being an ‘easy’ process, many people have chosen to dive in, as it reaps the following, potentially life-changing benefits.
Here are some potential benefits of doing shadow work:
You are more self-aware— you know who you are, what your traits, strengths, weaknesses are. You are not afraid of owning your needs and desires and expressing yourself.
You have better relationships with your friends, family and colleagues. As you have accepted your shadows, you are less judgmental of others and do not get triggered by their flaws.
You will learn to surround yourself with people who love you, support you, rather than the opposite. People often get attracted to people who treat them badly because of unintegrated shadows.
You have a more realistic expectation of yourself, less plagued with self-blame, shame, and perfectionism.
You procrastinate less because you are connected to your inner life force, and you are not so afraid of making mistakes. This makes you a better employee, leader and team player.
You become more creative— the parts of you that are playful, spontaneous and creative is re-integrated.
You are better able to manage your emotions, and no longer lash out uncontrollably.
You have more peace in life.
You feel more spiritually connected to the greater whole as you begin to see the interconnectedness that exists in humanity.
You become kinder, more compassionate, easier to be around.
You become a better parent— more patient, wiser, more resilient.
You see yourself accurately, not narcissistically, but not without self-confidence.
You have more physical energy and health, as you no longer exhaust yourself trying to suppress psychic materials and past trauma.
You can let go of things that do not truly matter.
The above list is just a glimpse at what shadow work can do. The list is not exhaustive.
As you integrate your shadow side and come to terms with your darker half, you see yourself more clearly. You become more grounded, human, and whole. When you can accept your own darker parts, it is easier to accept the shadow in others. As a result, other people’s behaviour won’t trigger you as easily. You’ll also have an easier time communicating with others. You may notice an improvement in your relationships with your spouse, family members, friends, and business associates.
Therapy and self-development is a process of uncovering both your light and shadow. Holistic health and true self-esteem come when we can accept all dimensions of ourselves. Through cultivating the capacity for self-compassion, you can learn to integrate your own Shadow— including your natural propensity to sometimes be angry, self-preserving, needy, and burn with envy.
Learning to accept the fullness of who you are is the first and final step of self-love. Shadow work is not only the foundation but also one of the most powerful steps you can take towards true peace and aliveness.
Is Shadow Work Dangerous?
Is shadow work dangerous? The short answer is, mostly no, but it depends. The long answer is: It is still a worthwhile endeavour, but if you have unprocessed trauma, it is best to take things slow and do it under the guidance of a therapist or expert.
In the process of facing our inner demons and recognising what we have previously denied, uncomfortable feelings and sensations may emerge, and this is completely normal.
By and large, the consensus amongst people who have been through shadow work and mental health professionals is that shadow work is a healthy integration process. Most of the notion of it being ‘dangerous’ comes from the stigma that is attached to the word ‘shadow.’
However, it can be argued that when someone is not ready to face the dark side of their soul, they could be plunged too quickly into self-hate, identity confusion and existential depression.
There was a legitimate reason why you have shoved certain memories and parts of yourself into the shadow. Perhaps at some point in your life, you couldn’t acknowledge you share certain traits with those who abused you. Or, perhaps it felt too risky to acknowledge your anger in a household where violence was present. Hopefully, by the time you decide to do shadow work, your circumstances have changed, or that you are stronger than before. But the resurgence of past trauma and dark materials can still be overwhelming.
To avoid adverse reactions or re-traumatisation, it is best to take things slow. Do not pressure yourself to read a lot or do a lot in a short period, and ideally, do the work with someone mindful and aware of your past, like a therapist or a trusted mentor.
Shadow Work Exercises
Reflecting on Triggers
You can start spotting your shadows by seeing what others trigger in you.
Reflect and journal on the following:
Do certain traits in others stir up out-of-proportion emotions or reactions in you? Who do you look up to? What qualities do you see in people you admire?
When you find yourself reacting strongly to certain aspects of others’ personalities, either positively (your Light) or negatively (your Shadow), dig deeper.
Dialogue between different parts of yourself
This is a common therapeutic technique used in many therapy approaches, such as Gestalt Therapy, Schema Therapy, Internal Family System, and Psychosynthesis. You can engage different parts of yourself by journaling, drawing, art-making, or empty-chair work. You can do this in the presence of a coach or therapist, or in your own reflection time.
Journalling: Draw a line in the middle of the page, have one side of the page represent the side of you that you like and accept, and have the other side of the page represent the side of you that you dislike, judge, or something that you see in others that you would never want to see in yourself.
Drawing: Draw out ‘the best version of yourself’ and ‘the worst version of yourself.’ Pay attention to their facial expressions, what they wear, how they compose themselves. You don’t have to be good at drawing to do this, simply play with the idea. Now, next to each version of ‘you’, list the desirable and undesirable qualities. Then, imagine these two characters have a dialogue. You may supplement this with a journal.
Finally, create a drawing that is a version of you that combines the above.
Using Symbols and Archetypes for Shadow Work
Make sense of your story through symbols and archetypes
It is not uncommon for us to feel ‘stuck’, or stagnated, in healing, therapy and coaching work. You may feel that you are going around in circles, are not able to gain new insight, or even feel increasingly hopeless about moving forward.
In the past decade, thanks to advancements in neuroscience, psychologists have learned much about the ability of the brain to change, the right-left brain communication, and the mind-body linkage. Since then, there has been an upsurge of evidence that therapies involving multiple levels of perception – visual, kinaesthetic, sensory – can be extremely powerful, and can move therapy along by tapping into places where talking therapy cannot. Amongst which, modalities such as Sandtray Therapy and Art Therapy has gained much popularity; they can go side-by-side with talking therapy.
Sandplay therapy is originally developed by Dora Kalff, who integrated Jungian psychology and Buddhist philosophy to create this powerful and creative form of working with the mind. Based on the depth psychology of Carl Jung, Sandplay falls back on a rich history of over 75 years of clinical application by psychologists and therapists from around the world. It is considered one of the most potent yet safe methods and has been found to be effective in working with a wide range of issues, from existential inner conflicts to PTSD and trauma.
When you walk into a Sandtray room you will be provided with shelves full of figures and miniatures, representing most ‘archetypes’— people, animals, machines, mythological characters, historical and contemporary objects found in the world. You are then invited to create a scene or a story from figures and objects within a box of sand. In this free and protected space, you can re-create your world and attribute meanings to symbols that means something unique to you.
You may be able to find a therapist who practises Sandtray Therapy with adults (not just children) in your local area. Alternatively, you may even create your own miniature collection. Here is a book on Sandtray Therapy if you are interested in finding a therapist or creating your own collection.
Using Symbols and Art for Shadow Work
Engaging in Arts Therapy, dream analysis, self- directed art-making or Sandtray therapy allows you to create a visual representation of your psyche’s contents and reveals unconscious materials and internal conflicts that are previously inaccessible. Usually, you will find that you do not need to ‘plan’ an image or come up with symbols, rather, it will naturally and spontaneously emerge. There is no pressure to ‘do’ anything. Sometimes, even just getting sensory stimulation from the sand or art materials is enough to activate the healing process.
When you are creating arts or creating a visual scene, you create a place for material from the unconscious to become visible and integrated into your life. The effectiveness of art and symbol work comes with the archetypal and personal symbolism that surfaces in the process; in Jungian psychology terms, it facilitates a process known as ‘individuation’, which means the integration of the previously fragmented parts into wholeness. The goal of this process is self-actualisation, where you get to discover the meaning and purpose of your life.
This process also allows you to work on the many existential paradoxes we face in life. You may use the tray to explore, for instance, the tension between freedom and stability in your lifestyle, the balance between your feminine and masculine side, or how to balance your survival needs with your other needs in this world.
An increasing number of neurobiological research now supports the fact that positive or traumatic emotional and somatic memories are stored in the limbic system – the right side of the brain, and cannot be easily accessed by words alone. Through non-verbal processes like art, you will be able to tap into a deeper layer of experience that is pre-verbal and unconscious. The remarkable feature of symbol work and art-making is that, as you construct a scene and give meaning to the symbols in your image, it provides a direct link to your brain where neuro-pathways can be re-written into a healthier, new configuration. It provides a pathway to access, with immediacy, the brain and the mind.
The basic premise of Jungian symbol work is holistic and spiritual, it is believed that the psyche has the natural power to heal and integrate itself. Just like how our physical wounds can naturally heal themselves, our mind also has the instinctual wisdom to do so.
As adults, we often have forgotten how to play. However, many people are surprised by how liberating and powerful the process of art-making and symbol making is.
This article is written by Imi Lo.