Table of Contents
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 legitimize 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 we have disowned, dislodged, and suppressed due to past trauma, social conditioning, and other reasons. 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’ profoundly influence 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 comprises notions of ourselves that we recognize, acknowledge, and attach to, 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 whole 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.’
Conversely, 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. You find yourself acting out in ways that surprise or frighten you at those times. For example, if you identify as tough and disown your 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 feel irrationally irritated or disgusted by aspects of someone’s behavior, 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 specific 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. By 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 humanity without being overly judgemental.
It’s fascinating to realize that even before we acquire the vocabulary to articulate it, our connection with characters in TV shows, cartoons, books, and fairy tales involves an element of what we now refer to as ‘shadow work.’ This idea becomes a genuine form of shadow work when we invest time in understanding these characters and use them as mirrors to reflect on ourselves.
For example, many characters in stories and media represent universal archetypes, such as the hero, the villain, the mentor, or the trickster. When we resonate with these characters, it often mirrors our inner landscape. For example, seeing yourself in the hero may indicate a strong connection to your own inner strength and courage. Similarly, identifying with the villain might hint at unaddressed aspects of your own shadow, such as suppressed anger or envy. Exploring these connections can lead to greater self-awareness and understanding.
On the flip side, when we strongly dislike or even hate a character in a story, it can also provide valuable insights. This aversion may point to qualities or behaviors in that character that trigger discomfort or resistance within you. This discomfort can be a sign that there are elements of your own personality or experiences that you’ve been reluctant to acknowledge or address. For instance, if a character’s arrogance annoys you, it might reflect a trait you find difficult to accept within yourself.
Even children, while exploring the world of characters and their own emotions through stories and fairy tales, are essentially engaging in a kind of shadow work.
‘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 essentially not living as the most authentic and human we are capable of being.
Having deep shadows plants the seeds of psychological triggers. We don’t feel at ease because our inner landscapes are typed up in knots. As we spend energy pushing down certain memories and emotions, we may be tired all day and lacking in energy and motivation.
When we carry heavy shadow baggage, our shadow triggers pop up everywhere— in our relationships and 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 feel uncontrollable rage towards something our partner does or says, but we are unsure why.
When we compartmentalize and deny parts of our psyche, we simultaneously reject 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 challenging 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 many seemingly unexplainable behaviors. 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 most bottomless patience, courage, and self-compassion to face what we had rejected and undo the internalized 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 about fitting in, and 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 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 often seen 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 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 and 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 asked Dr. Hollis: Are we responsible for our parents’ happiness and well-being? 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, we were whole and innocent when we first came into the world. 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 rarely seen in grown-ups. They seem so unashamed, carefree, and 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 message 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 shut down more than others purely because they are more expressive, ask more questions, and attract 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 thrive in the world. And this is the beginning of our lifelong mission to mold ourselves. Whatever sticks out and doesn’t fit into society’s mold, 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. 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’, as sometimes in the case of splitting, or when we surprise ourselves with 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, and desperate.
Rage, envy, grievances, grief, regrets, gluttony. Whatever we try to ignore will not be silenced for much longer. When our lives feel out of control, our psyche is signaling 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 push down parts of ourselves constantly. 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, and what your traits, strengths, and 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, and 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.
You see yourself more clearly as you integrate your shadow side and come to terms with your darker half. You become more grounded, human, and whole. Accepting the shadow in others is easier when you can accept your own darker parts. As a result, other people’s behavior 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 sometimes to 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 the foundation and one of the most powerful steps toward 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 that it is still a worthwhile endeavor, 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 recognizing what we have previously denied, uncomfortable feelings and sensations may emerge, and this is entirely 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 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 you are more robust than before. However, the resurgence of past trauma and dark materials can still be overwhelming.
It is best to take things slow to avoid adverse reactions or re-traumatization. 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.
How is Shadow Work Used in Therapy or Coaching?
In my coaching practice, I combine Shadow work with principles I have learned in the past in Jungian theories, Art Therapy, and Symbolism. Art possesses a unique ability to reach into your intuitive and emotional side, bypassing the analytical mind. Incorporating art into shadow work provides a powerful means of expressing complex feelings and experiences that words alone may struggle to encapsulate fully.
The key is that you don’t need to be a professional artist; it’s about the process rather than the end result. You can employ various artistic mediums like drawing, painting, collage, or any other form that resonates with you. For example, when exploring feelings of anger, you might use bold red strokes or jagged lines to convey those emotions visually. The process of creating art can be therapeutic in itself, helping you access and process emotions that lie buried within your shadow.
Symbolism is another valuable tool in the practice of shadow work. Symbols function as shortcuts to the subconscious, condensing intricate ideas and emotions into more accessible forms. You can incorporate symbolism in your journal by integrating objects, images, or colors with personal significance. For instance, if a particular animal has always held meaning for you, you can explore why it carries significance and what it symbolizes in your life.
In coaching or therapy, you may also harness the power of shadow work as a valuable tool for healing trauma and grief.
When confronted with the overwhelming emotional turmoil that often accompanies grief and trauma, it can feel like an intense tidal wave crashing in. What shadow work does is guide you to confront these emotions head-on. Rather than bottling up or avoiding these feelings, it encourages you to embrace and fully experience what’s happening inside. Acknowledging and expressing your emotions, even when challenging, is pivotal to the healing journey following trauma.
The overarching objective of shadow work is integration. It’s about helping you bring together the fragmented parts of yourself (as in the Splitting mechanism) that may have remained concealed in the shadows, which often includes your experiences of trauma. Through shadow work, you work towards reconciling these fractured aspects of your identity.
One vital element of this approach involves addressing the “inner child.” Consider your “inner child” as a younger version of yourself that still resides within. Sometimes, this inner child is conscious but often remains suppressed and trapped. It clings to memories, experiences, and emotions from your early years, which can become frozen in time. When triggered, your inner child or teenager can resurface, leading to behavior that may seem out of character. The inner child never truly disappeared; it was always there but oppressed and pushed down.
You may carry wounds or unresolved issues from your past, such as traumas or negative experiences, into your adult lives. These issues can influence your decisions, impact your relationships, and shape your self-perception. Healing the inner child involves addressing and working through these past hurts and emotions, akin to offering the younger self the love, care, and attention they may not have received back then. Ultimately, when you successfully integrate the inner child and their wounds into your psyche, you experience a profound shift. You gain greater control over your emotions and behaviors, no longer acting in surprising ways.
Shadow Work in Art Therapy and Sandplay
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, cannot 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 move therapy along by tapping into places where talking therapy cannot. Amongst these, modalities such as Sandtray and Art Therapy have gained much popularity; they can go side-by-side with talking therapy.
Sandplay was initially developed by Dora Kalff, who integrated Jungian psychology and Buddhist philosophy to create this robust, 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 is effective in working with various 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, and 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 accessible and protected space, you can re-create your world and attribute meanings to symbols that mean something unique to you.
You may be able to find a therapist who practices 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.
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 were previously inaccessible. Usually, you will find that you do not need to ‘plan’ an image or come up with symbols. Instead, it will naturally and spontaneously emerge. There is no pressure to ‘do’ anything. Sometimes, sensory stimulation from the sand or art materials activates healing.
When creating art or 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-actualization, 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. 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.
An increasing number of neurobiological research now supports that positive or traumatic emotional and somatic memories are stored in the limbic system – the brain’s right side- and cannot be easily accessed by words alone. You can tap into a deeper layer of pre-verbal and unconscious experience through non-verbal processes like art. 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 rewritten 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, 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.
‘TikTok’ Shadow Work and Shadow Work Journal?
Regarding TikTok’s Shadow Work trend and the widely-used Shadow Work Journal, it’s essential to exercise caution. These online platforms are spreading awareness of crucial psychological concepts, which is great! However, it’s vital to approach them with a discerning eye.
On social media, the trend tends to oversimplify complex ideas. While it can serve as a quick introduction, it often lacks the depth and nuance these concepts deserve.Some people may market courses and products that promise swift and effortless solutions to deep-seated issues. This can be disappointing because it can dilute the authenticity of the genuine inner work required for personal growth.
The popularity of these trends online also makes them susceptible to misinterpretation and distortion. This can lead to misconceptions that encourage people to experiment with techniques that may not genuinely help them in their journey of self-discovery and healing.
Things like advice on TikTok and the Shadow Work Journal offer one-size-fits-all advice. However, shadow work is an intensely personal journey, and what proves effective for one person may not yield the same results for another.
Exploring deep psychological concepts with Jungian shadow work can be a turbulent and challenging experience. While social media and buying a Shadow Work Journal on Amazon can provide inspiration and initial exposure to these concepts, they don’t replace doing Shadow Work in a professional or relational space, especially when you compare that to the rigorous deep work you can do with a Jungian Analyst, which often take years.
If you’re committed to embarking on the journey of shadow work, consider seeking support from someone who possesses the expertise to navigate the complexities of your psyche—a seasoned coach with deep experience or, for those especially dedicated, a Jungian Analyst. This way, you’ll receive authentic guidance and extract the maximum benefit from your efforts on this transformative journey of self-discovery and healing.
How Do You Do Shadow Work Safely On Your Own?
In shadow work, it’s crucial to approach the process with self-compassion. Delving into suppressed emotions, such as shame and anger, can be weighty. Therefore, remember to be gentle with yourself and intend to be exceptionally compassionate as you navigate your inner world. Shadow work is not about self-criticism but self-acceptance. It’s about embracing all facets of who you are. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would with a beloved child or a dear friend. This nurturing approach is fundamental in shadow work.
Shadow work isn’t a sprint; it’s more like ascending a steep hill. It’s a process that takes time, so avoid the temptation to rush through it. Give yourself the necessary time and space to explore your psyche’s hidden aspects thoroughly.
One key aspect of successful shadow work is establishing a secure and comfortable environment. Find a quiet and peaceful place, set aside dedicated time, and ensure that you’re in a space where you feel safe and grounded. This is essential because you don’t want to feel overly disturbed or insecure after deepening your emotions.
Resistance is normal during shadow work. Your ego may put up a fight to shield you from uncomfortable truths. When this resistance arises, acknowledge it without judgment and gently persist in your exploration. Recognize that resistance often indicates areas in need of deeper exploration.
In summary, optimizing your approach to shadow work involves approaching it with compassion, embracing your true self, being patient with the process, creating a safe space, acknowledging and overcoming resistance, and seeking support when necessary. These principles will help you effectively navigate shadow work’s challenging but rewarding path.
Shadow Work Exercises
Reflecting on your 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 react 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.’ Please pay attention to their facial expressions, what they wear, and how they compose themselves. You don’t have to be good at drawing to do this; play with the idea. Now, next to each version of ‘you’, list the desirable and undesirable qualities. Then, imagine these two characters having a dialogue. You may supplement this with a journal.
Finally, create a drawing that is a version of you that combines the above.
Reflect through media materials.
You can seamlessly weave shadow work into your daily life by paying attention to your reactions when engaging with different media forms. Whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a book, or even a piece of art, take a moment to ponder why you have particular likes or dislikes regarding characters or elements. These emotional responses often harbor valuable insights into your inner world.
Being drawn to a specific character or storyline can signify a resonance with something within you. Try to explore what facets of your personality or life experiences they remind you of. It might be their bravery, vulnerability, resilience, or even imperfections. These resonances can serve as clues about parts of your own psyche that you might have concealed in the shadows.
Conversely, when you strongly dislike a character or a plotline, it could indicate that they trigger discomfort or resistance within you. This, too, presents an opportunity for valuable self-reflection. Ask yourself why this aversion exists. What qualities or behaviors in the character unsettle you, and could these traits mirror aspects of your own personality that you’ve been hesitant to acknowledge?
Incorporating shadow work into your daily life through media analysis is a natural and accessible approach. It enables you to practice self-awareness and introspection in a non-intrusive manner. With time, you’ll become more attuned to your emotional reactions and better equipped to identify the facets of your shadow self that seek recognition and integration.
This article was written by Imi Lo.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.