If somebody asked you to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? I’m guessing you wouldn’t choose to list out all your worst traits. But you know as well as I do that they exist all the same: we all have aspects of ourselves we know do not flatter us. Worse, as well as those characteristics we’re not proud of, we each have a shadow self hiding other grim qualities, the existence of which we’re not even aware of! The good news is, shadow work can help us to recognise and make peace with that dark part of ourselves. But what is shadow working, how do you do it, and how can it help?
What is the Shadow Self?
The concept of the shadow self was coined by Carl Jung, and refers to the unconscious part of our personality which we reject and/or repress.
The shadow is comparable to Freud’s ‘id’ – the primitive and instinctual part of us which is also largely unconscious and therefore devoid of good manners, existing only to satisfy and ensure our needs are met, at any cost.
Jung’s theory differs in that the shadow self evolves in response to our experiences, as a form of protection of those basic needs.
What Causes the Shadow Self to Develop?
As children when we express certain elements of our personalities which are deemed to be inappropriate, we receive negative feedback in the form of admonishment from parents of caregivers. When criticism of an intrinsic part of us gives rise to feelings of shame or threatens our sense of security, it provides the perfect environment for our shadow self to develop.
Shadow traits will often be negative, but not always – it can be any fundamental feature of our character that has received disapproval.
Each of us adapts our behaviour according to these external cues, in order to attain acceptance, first from our parents and later from our peers. This process inevitably leads to us shutting down and rejecting or repressing aspects of ourselves which we’ve learned are undesirable.
Any attribute that we perceive to be inferior, wicked, or otherwise incompatible with our conscious self-image, is consigned to our unconscious and becomes part of our shadow self.
How to Recognise Your Shadow Parts
Awareness is the first step to beginning to work on acknowledging and accepting your shadow parts – but how do you recognise the unconscious parts of yourself that you’ve repressed and hidden for so long?
If you consider that like photograph images, every facet of personality has a negative, you can begin to apply the concept to your own character.
The qualities you would use to describe yourself are those of which you’re consciously aware, and their negative is likely to be tucked away in your shadow.
Psychological Projection of the Shadow Self
Fascinatingly, part of Jung’s theory is psychological projection: those characteristics we find most unflattering or irritating in others, are likely to be ones which we ourselves also possess, but are unconscious of or deny. Therefore the people in our lives who provoke strong feelings within us offer clues about our shadow parts: they mirror and reflect the qualities in ourselves which we repress.
A perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.Wikipedia
You may, for example, consider yourself to be an introvert; but that may be because as a child you were discouraged from being excessively loud and as a result you now dislike extroverted behaviour because your own is repressed. Or, if you have colleagues at work whose arrogance infuriates you, perhaps if you look deep within yourself you may find a similar trait consigned to your shadow.
Anybody who rubs you up the wrong way or, conversely, who you greatly admire or perhaps even envy, can help you to identify your shadow parts. You could ask yourself these questions about the people who evoke powerful reactions in you:
- Who do you have strong feelings about?
- Who do you despise or place on a pedestal?
- Who fascinates you?
If you feel an overwhelming rage coming up in you when a friend reproaches you about a fault, you can be fairly sure that at this point you will find a part of your shadow, of which you are unconscious.Von Franz
But, remaining blind to our dark shadow and refusing to acknowledge these projected characteristics in ourselves gives them power, and that’s why shadow work is so valuable.
How Does Your Shadow Self Manifest in Conscious Daily Life?
Anything in your life which you know is a trigger for you, but you don’t understand why; any destructive patterns of behaviour; any irrational or defeatist thought cycles are likely rooted in your shadow self. Leaving these issues unresolved is what allows them to fester and continue to control and negatively impact your life and relationships.
Have you ever said something and instantly regretted it? This phenomena is so common that the phrase ‘opened mouth before brain engaged’ has been created to describe it – and it’s surprisingly accurate. It’s widely accepted in these types of circumstances that the shadow self has spoken.
Here are some of the ways your shadow may express itself:
- Lack of confidence
- Anger and aggression
- Power struggles
- Guilt and Shame
But, if we face and accept our negative shadow qualities, then we can bring them into the light and make peace with them. Likewise, we can rediscover those attributes which were not encouraged or endorsed when we were children and which we therefore turned away from. We do this with shadow working.
What is Shadow Working?
Shadow work or shadow working is the commitment to actively working on the shadow self; it’s the unearthing of our unconscious self, tuning into those unexamined characteristics we’ve disowned for so long, so they are no longer hidden.
It’s a messy, uncomfortable process. But it holds huge value in terms of personal growth, and can be very liberating.
How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side if I am to be whole.Carl Jung
Shadow working can take various forms, including writing, meditating and mindfulness, or really any process which increases your awareness of yourself, your triggers, and buried shame and desires.
How Does Shadow Work Differ to Inner Child Healing?
If you’ve heard of inner child work you may have noticed that there’s considerable crossover between the two concepts, but there is a difference:
The shadow self consists of the dark parts of ourselves which we reject, deny, and essentially disown. We don’t want them – but they remain nonetheless, as a dark shadow following us around. As mentioned, bound up within our shadow self may also be buried dreams and ambitions which we’ve squashed and repressed.
By contrast, our inner child comprises the wounded parts of ourselves which have never been allowed to heal, resulting in traumas which we still carry around today. These aspects of ourselves are ones which we would ideally acknowledge, feel, and let go of.
So, inner child work may be a facet of shadow work.
Choosing to face our demons, our historic hurts and our crushed aspirations, can provide a new lease of life.
Benefits of Shadow Working
Confronting our shadow self is a brave act, because it means looking inside ourselves at the most painful and ugly parts, which we’ve worked hard at hiding, even from our own consciousness. But failing to do so is to allow our difficulties to go unchallenged, and ultimately persist.
Shadow work is critical to personal growth. By committing to it, you are making the conscious decision to take charge of the less attractive parts of yourself, therefore taking away their power.
Living in a shadow is exhausting, it uses up a lot of emotional energy trying to outrun it, yet you never will because it’s simply not possible. The only way to conquer the shadow is to bring it into the light, accept your darkest parts and show them compassion. It’s a big undertaking, but the only alternative is to continue living in your own shadow. Both are draining, but it’s surely preferable to expend your energy on a positive goal, with a valuable outcome, one which promises freedom from the difficulties you’ve repeatedly faced thanks to your shadow self?
If you no longer want to feel stuck in a negative cycle, if you want to be free from the constraints of your own personal demons and finally feel liberated, consider shadow working.
Beginning the process means you can expect to gain:
- Better understanding of yourself,
- Improved insight into your triggers,
- Decreased judgement, of yourself and others,
- Increased ability to set healthy boundaries,
- Clearer sense of self and personal values,
- Improved communication with others,
- Better relationships with others,
- Enhanced state of wellbeing,
- Peace of mind.
How to Get Started With Shadow Work
The starting point with shadow working is having a good understanding of the concept. Once you know the theory, your self-awareness will grow as you go about your daily life, which by itself is beneficial.
If you’re interested in reading more on the subject of the personal shadow and shadow work, you may like to try these books:
As you go about your life with this enhanced awareness, so you’ll e in a stronger position to decipher and decode your shadow self, learning which behaviours serve you and which are established reactions. Over time you’ll find yourself better able to pause and respond thoughtfully and rationally. Your triggers will diminish as you discover their origins and remove their power.
Shadow Work Techniques
While journaling is a really integral part of shadow work because it allows you to record and analyse your progress, the most important aspect of this practice is self-awareness. Why not get started with these 45 shadow work prompts?
Noticing things you wouldn’t usually notice is crucial to the process. Notice your triggers, your reactions (as opposed to measured responses), your irrational feelings, your negative thoughts and actions. Notice patterns.
All of these things provide clues as to what’s really going on for you, below the surface, in your shadow. And the ability to recognise and identify your shadow self is half the battle won.