Shadow Work: What It Is, How To Do It, And Where Does It Come From?

What Is Shadow Work, And Should I Be Doing It?

August 17, 2020 Updated December 12, 2020

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Photo by Umberto Shaw from Pexels

New buzzwords and phrases pop up all the time — some more intriguing than others. But perhaps none in recent memory have been so intriguing as the concept of “shadow work.” Are you scratching your head in bewilderment right now? TBH, that’s probably the standard response. So, what is shadow work? And should you be doing it?

Sit tight, this is going to be a bit of a wild ride. Fully exploring this psychology concept by storied analytical psychologist Carl Jung would require stepping into the deepest portals of the psyche and, hey, we’re all busy here. In the name of brevity (and a little sanity, too… this is easier to grasp in chapters), this explainer will bring you up to speed with the basics of Jungian shadow work.

Where did this idea originate?

Shadow work comes from the term “the shadow self,” which was coined by famed 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung. In Jungian psychology, this term describes the unconscious parts of the personality that our conscious ego doesn’t want to identify in itself. “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is,” Jung wrote. In essence, the shadow self is the darker side of ourselves we repress or ignore. Just think of it as an invisible bag you drag around behind you.

So, what is shadow work?

It was Jung’s supposition that if you didn’t embrace the entirety of your being, you couldn’t live a full and unfettered life. “Until you make the unconscious, conscious, it will direct your life,” he tendered, “and you will call it fate.” A shadow can lead to limiting beliefs, which may snowball into all manner of undesirable outcomes: self-sabotage, destructive behavior, ruined relationships.

The idea of shadow work, then, is acknowledging all parts of the psyche — effectively bringing what is dark into the light. You can’t have balance without both the dark and the light. Shadow work actualizes living a multi-faceted life that incorporates the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the embarrassing, the uncertain. All of it!

How do you do shadow work on yourself?

In full disclosure, you might not believe some of the more, erm, nuanced sides of shadow work (more on that in a minute). However, you can probably agree that we all have things we prefer to keep hidden. So, if shadow work as a means of working through that repression resonates with you, there are a few steps you can take.

Confront your shadow: In layman’s terms, this looks a lot like exploring the full breadth of your feelings. To flush out your shadow, you must be willing to lean into all of your emotions and accept that even the “negative” ones belong. You can hone your heightened awareness of emotion by asking yourself questions. When you feel the surge of emotion, ask why you felt it. Give your collective consciousness a minute to respond. Learning to listen to yourself — your full self — will take time.

Get to the root: An integral step in shadow work is identifying your shadow. In other words, you need to get to its root. What feelings bubbled up and led to this blockage? Do you struggle with feelings of self-doubt? Are you worried you aren’t quote-unquote normal? This step can understandably be tough.

Be kind: There’s always the risk that the more you dig, the darker things will get. Your natural inclination might be to blame yourself for your shadow self. Or, just as problematic, blame others for any negative behavior patterns. So, as you move further into shadow work, it’s vital to remember kindness. Be compassionate with yourself and others. If something proves particularly triggering, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Believe you’re worth it: Confronting the darker parts of your own psyche won’t exactly be a walk in the park. You might (okay, you almost definitely will) find things you don’t like. The journey might be painful. That’s okay. What’s crucial for you to understand is that you are worthy of all this work. You deserve to live as a whole being, the sum of all your parts.

Is shadow work dangerous?

Here’s where things could get a little too — hmm, how do we say this? — paranormal for some people. In certain camps, the shadow self is referred to as a demon. The idea is that whatever parts of ourselves we disown turn against us, manifesting as a sort of paranormal entity. That entity can operate on its own, without our knowledge, which can result in situations we end up regretting. It’s all very Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… but demonic.

Is it worth trying?

Listen, even if the demon stuff is too much for you to wrap your brain around, there’s plenty of merit to the concept of shadow work. Uncovering the things festering just below the surface can lead to healing. And healing can lead to wholeness which, in turn, translates into things like improved relationships and a clearer perception of self.

Devout believers in shadow work even insist it can lead to enhanced energy and renewed physical health. It actually makes sense if you think about it. When you’re emotionally tapped out, it can make you feel exhausted in every way. The argument here is that if you aren’t embracing your full, authentic self, you’re living in a perpetual state of emotional overextension. Cue constant fatigue!

So, sure, shadow work is worth a shot. You can always work with an expert or simply choose to stop if it truly does turn out to not be your thing. Who knows, though? Maybe you’ll unblock something inside and discover an untapped fount of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy.

What else did Carl Jung say?

As the founder of analytical psychology, Jung was known for his enlightening thoughts on the human psyche. The following quotes may help you come to a better understanding of yourself.

“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.”

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

“Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

“We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect; we apprehend it just as much by feeling. Therefore, the judgment of the intellect is, at best, only the half of truth, and must, if it be honest, also come to an understanding of its inadequacy.”