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 

  • Stronger intuition 

  • Higher self-esteem 

  • 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. 


SHADOW ARCHETYPES


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

  1. Choose the right time and set the right mood

  2. Let your emotions, feelings, and thoughts lead you to Identity your shadows

  3. Explore / Question the shadows - figure out the why (when you think you hit the bottom, dig deeper)

  4. Process the information you have learned

  5. Accept the shadows for what they are

  6. Embrace the shadows / Reframe your thoughts around the shadows in a positive light 

  7. 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.  


Exercise 1: 

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). 


Exercise 2:

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). 


Exercise 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.)