Shadow work exercises are an effective way to face your inner shadow, allowing you to illuminate those dark aspects of your personality, and ultimately make peace with them.
Shadow Work Exercises: 7 Different Ways to Face Your Shadow
Our shadows live in our unconscious and and therefore by definition, they’re not obviously or easily accessible. It’s no wonder we reject these aspects of ourselves when we’re literally unaware of them.
Remember, these are characteristics which we consciously shun because they’re unpleasant. And the natural result of them living in our unconscious where they’re out of sight is that we disown and disassociate from them. They genuinely exist below the level of awareness.
Unfortunately, they make their presence felt all the same. Shadow projection is common, and often we can recognise our shadows by noticing which traits irritate us in others. It may, in fact, be a distorted perception of one of our own shadow traits.
But there are other ways we can identify our shadow selves too, using the below approaches.
What Are Shadow Work Exercises?
Shadow work exercises are techniques designed to help you distinguish your inner shadow traits. The theory is that in doing this and bringing those characteristics into consciousness, removing their power and negative influence over your behaviour, and thwarting their means to self-sabotage.
The purpose of these exercises is to illuminate our shadow traits so that we can become aware of and make peace with them.
7 Shadow Work Techniques to Help You Face and Embrace Your Shadow
In this post I’ll be covering the following shadow work exercises:
- Noticing emotional reactions
- Engaging in inner dialogue
- Challenging conscious goodness
- Shadow work meditation
- The 3-2-1 Shadow Process
- Shadow work affirmations
You may choose to use just one of these or any combination of these shadow work exercises, depending on what you’re most comfortable with.
When it comes to self-improvement and personal growth, journaling is my go-to choice because it’s so versatile and so effective.
Whether we’re talking about practicing gratitude, positive affirmations, inner child work, or shadow work exercises, journaling is my favourite technique. And it seems I’m not alone as my list of shadow work questions for this purpose is extremely popular.
2. Noticing Emotional Reactions
What is an emotional reaction?
It’s the response you have when you’re not engaging reason and logic to inform your feelings.
It’s a reflex. And it’s important because – if you pay attention – it provides you with vital information.
If you have the courage to examine your emotional reactions then you can find out a lot about your shadow.
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In this exercise, first simply begin to notice when big feelings and strong emotional reactions occur. You’re looking for patterns, so that you can begin to identify triggers.
Try asking yourself the following questions:
- What specific words, actions, situation, or person caused your reaction?
- How did you react? Consider not only the physical manifestation, but more significantly the feeling/s driving that physical manifestation. How did you feel?
- Why? Where have those feelings come from?
If you already know your triggers, or once you’re able to confidently say you’ve established what they are if you’ve previously been unaware, you can begin to move on to the next step.
For this part of the exercise, you need to objective and dispassionate. FYI – it’s hard.
When something or someone has raised your hackles or left you feeling anxious or frightened, it is not easy to be rational. But that’s what you need to be here.
If necessary, write down your thoughts and feelings and come back when you’ve cooled down. (This is why journaling is awesome!)
When you feel ready, think again about your triggers and your emotional reactions to them. Consider where they originate from.
Here’s the really challenging part. Now validate your feelings by accepting that in the context of where they originate from they are rational – and then calmly, logically, reasonably, think about whether they’re still rational in the context of what triggered them.
There’s every chance that when you’re able to be objective, you’ll come to acknowledge that you’re experiencing big, overwhelming feelings – which are, in fact, irrational.
This is perfectly normal, but it’s not helpful. It doesn’t help the people you’re reacting to – and it doesn’t help you either.
If this exercise throws up any clearly irrational behaviours, you may benefit from inner child healing exercises.
3. Engaging in Inner Dialogue
Another option for you if you identify any shadow parts of yourself that don’t necessarily come from childhood trauma, is to communicate with your shadow self.
This may sound a little bit odd, but bear with me.
You know those times when you say or do something and instantly regret it? Often there’s an element of shame involved in these situations, perhaps because the behaviour has an unpleasant edge to it. Perhaps it was unkind or even spiteful…
This is something that happens to the best of us, and you never have to share this with anyone, so for the sake of this exercise, be honest with yourself. I realise it’s excruciating, but nobody ever claimed shadow work exercises are easy (because they’re not).
Assuming this does resonate with you (no judgement – I’ve done this; I’m sure we all have at some point or other) – where did that come from? It’s not you on a good day, or the version of you that you project to the world the majority of the time.
But it is (a part of) you; it’s your shadow.
If we choose to ignore these ‘inner voices’ which represent aspects of our shadow parts, then they retain power and influence over our lives by influencing our behaviour.
In order to take away the power of our shadow and prevent them from hijacking our behaviour and sabotaging our relationships, we must listen to them.
We can do this by having imaginary conversations with them rather than silencing them. Once again, this exercise aligns perfectly with journaling.
4. Challenging Conscious Goodness
Most people believe themselves to be essentially ‘good’. I know I do, and I’m sure you do too.
The theory of shadow work is that for every good trait we consciously attribute to ourselves, we have an opposite contrasting one which exists – but we repress.
For example, you may pride yourself on being highly organised. There’s nothing wrong with that – but there’s nothing wrong with being a bit scatty sometimes either. And if this example does happen to describe you, can you, if you’re honest, admit to sometimes not living up to that image of perfection you ascribe to yourself?
Just like Monica and her cupboard!
By defining yourself as organised, you’re effectively denying the messy counterpart of yourself – and so it hides within your shadow.
By rejecting aspects of your true self, you give those shadow parts power; hidden away, they challenge your more respectable traits, and will continue to influence and sabotage your behaviour.
Unless you face and embrace them.
The purpose of this exercise then is to acknowledge, accept, and make peace with your shadow parts. It’s okay not to be perfect.
5. Shadow Work Meditation
Meditation can sometimes lead to insights about our feelings and where they come from, and other times it can simply facilitate acceptance of ourselves.
Meditation can be practiced in different ways, either where you try to empty your mind, or where you follow a script, idea, or visualisation.
You may find that you meditation practice leads to spontaneous healing, or it may come in layers or stages. Whichever way you choose to meditate, the only important objective is that you feel a sense of progress, however small.
Over time, meditation can be profoundly healing – or if you’re fortunate you may even experience this from a single session.
6. The 3-2-1 Shadow Process
This process was conceived and developed by philosophiser Ken Wilber, and it can be using as a form of journaling, or as a meditation practice.
The concept of this exercise is to first face it, then talk to it, and finally to be it. The idea is that you look objectively at a negative situation with another person, in order that you gain perspective and be reasoned and rational in your thoughts and feelings.
The theory is that in following these steps you’ll gain insight into both the person you’re having difficulties with, as well as yourself, and will hopefully feel able to proceed from a place of better understanding and with compassion.
How to Do 321 Shadow Work
First choose what, or who, ‘it’ is going to be in this exercise. Keep in mind that for this particular technique it’s easiest to work with another person with whom you have a troubled connection, perhaps a friend, colleague, spouse or relative for example.
You might be rankled simply by being in the company of this person, or perhaps you feel intimidated by them. Alternatively you may be infatuated or jealous of them.
Whatever your reasons, whether positive or negative, the objective is to choose somebody with whom you have a strong emotional resonance and an intense relationship.
3. Face it
Picture the person you chose in your mind’s eye. Really try to conjure up their appearance, and then zone in on the feelings that evokes in you.
You can do this next bit verbally, or you can return to tried and true journaling.
Using third person pronouns (s/he, they), describe the traits and qualities that most irritate, fascinate, or attract you. Don’t overthink this, just feel it and then either say or write it – there’s no need to censor yourself, this is completely private and nobody is judging.
2. Talk to it
Now, communicate with the person directly, as though they were in front of you. Use second person language this time (you).
Again, you can speak or write, whichever you’re most comfortable with.
Tell this person the things you need to say to them, how they make you feel. Ask questions such as:
- Do you know you make me feel this way?
- Why do you behave that way towards me?
- What do you want from me?
- What do you want me to understand?
Now imagine their answers to these questions, and either say them out loud, or write them in your journal. Have a ‘conversation’ if you feel you have more to say in response.
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1. Be it
This step may feel awkward. Become the person you’ve been in dialogue with. Embody their persona.
Take on the traits you identified and described earlier as your own; use first person language this time (I, me), and make ‘I am’ statements:
- I am angry
- I am hurt
- I am frightened
- I am jealous
- I am vain
If you feel uncomfortable then that’s no surprise – the theory is that these traits are the very ones you’ve been repressing or denying in yourself.
Growing From the 321 Shadow Work
The final step in this process is to acknowledge that you possess these qualities inside of you, and to actively begin to notice them.
Reject feelings of guilt or shame, that’s not the purpose of this exercise. Simply recognise that these traits exist in you, and accept them as part of you, with compassion. Try also to extend the same compassion to the person you were focusing on.
Remember, your choices are half chance, and so are everybody else’s.
The value in this technique is that you should be able to unify your unconscious shadow with your conscious self, thereby reaching a sense of harmony and peace.
(If it also facilitates a process of humanising and/or forgiveness towards the person you were working with then that’s no bad thing!)
7. Shadow Work Affirmations
You may have noticed that we used some negative affirmations in the previous exercise. Well, you can also choose to use more positive ones as part of your shadow work.
With the nature of shadow work being what it is, not all affirmations will be ‘positive’ and uplifting – some are more grounding. But used together they can be an effective technique to illuminate the shadow self, enabling you to gain the inner peace you’re seeking.
Shadow Work Exercises For Beginners
If you’re wondering which are the best exercises for beginners, I’d highly recommend a combination of beginning to actively notice your emotional reactions, and – of course – journaling.