The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and one of my personal favorites, identified the collective unconscious which is comprised of eight archetypes.
- Self: The center of the personality or psyche — your conscious awareness
- Shadow: The dark and emotional aspect of your psyche
- Anima: An image of an idealized woman that draws people into their feminine side
- Animus: A part of you that has the capacity for reflection and self-knowledge
- Persona: The mask you wear to show the world while you protect your inner self
- Hero: A part of your psyche that can overcome evil and destruction
- Wise old man: A personification of the self that contains your wisdom
- Trickster: A childish part of your psyche that needs gratification
The term “shadow self” was used to describe the things people repress or do not like to acknowledge. Jung’s theory was that what we present to others is called the persona but that we have another side that people aren’t very aware of, if at all, called the shadow self. The shadow self tends to be interpreted as negative impulses, such as anger and resentment, but it can be much more than that, such as creativity. It is integral to a person’s experience of the world and their relationships and working with it can assist a person in gaining a better understanding of themselves and becoming more balanced. The goal of shadow work is to assimilate the shadow and the persona so that a person can learn how to manage impulses they usually ignore, such as anger or greed. It can also encourage you to be your authentic self.
Ignoring Your Shadow
When we ignore the shadow side of ourselves, it can have a negative effect on us and may also drive us to project onto others by judging those who display the traits in your shadow.
Ignoring your shadow can lead to:
- Self-loathing or poor self-esteem
- Self-deceit and deceiving others
- Anxiety and depression
- Offensive behavior toward others
- Struggling to have healthy relationships with others
- An inflated ego
Benefits of Shadow Work
- Gain more confidence and self-esteem
- Improve your creativity
- Build better relationships with others
- Practice self-acceptance
- Discover your hidden talents
- Improve your overall wellness
- Increase your compassion toward others
- Have better clarity
- Confront trauma, grief, and other challenging emotions
It may not always be possible or advisable to do shadow work alone when there is trauma or serious mental health concerns. There should be support from a professional.
Also keep in mind:
- Keep an open mind
- Practice self-compassion
- Be patient and go slowly
- Avoid multi-tasking while doing shadow work
- Take time to reflect on progress
Ways to Practice Shadow Work
- Therapist Assistance -vs- Self-Directed Work: Decide if you will seek a therapist for assistance or work on your own. Keep in mind, a therapist can spot patterns within you that you may not be aware of and can give you the tools you’ll need to deal with any triggers you may uncover.
- Practice Identifying Your Shadow: What patterns do you tend to replicate repeatedly in your life that you feel are holding you back? Pay attention to your triggers which remind you of past trauma and are messages to help you realize your shadow wants to be seen. Notice yourself projecting by using the mirror technique which is paying attention to how you think and feel when you interact with others. When negative feelings come up, ask yourself if you may be projecting. Say you’re talking to a friend, they start taking over the conversation, and you’re struggling to put a word in. You may start to judge and get upset. But perhaps this could be a projection of the shame you feel when you want to speak up and don’t.
- Think Back to Your Childhood: Explore parts of you that were treated poorly or rejected when you were a child. Which emotions were you punished for having? Emotions, interests, personality traits, and more get repressed and we grow up believing they’re bad and that we’re bad for having them.
- Avoid Shaming Your Shadow: Practice compassion for your shadow by using loving words.
- I trust in you
- I believe in you
- I’m glad that you’re in my life
- You are worthy of love
- You are enough
- You deserve to be happy
- You have a lot to offer
- Meditate to Observe Triggers: Notice triggers and step back to observe without judgement. Make note of what’s happening.
- Keep a Shadow Journal: This is a safe and practical way to express all sides of yourself, without censoring yourself, and without overthinking it. At first, what comes up may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to lean into it if you want your shadow self to feel heard. Some prompts to get you started:
- How do you believe people see you? How would they describe you to someone else? How does that make you feel?
- What are the worst traits someone can have, according to you? When did you demonstrate these traits?
- What tends to make you judgmental toward others?
- What memories are you ashamed of?
- Who do you envy, and why?
- Write a letter to the person who’s hurt you the most in your life, and tell them everything you’d like to say.
- What frightens you the most? What are some ways you could safely expose yourself to this fear?
- What emotions typically bring out the worst in you, and why do you think this happens?
- When was the last time you self-sabotaged? How were you feeling at the time? What do you think triggered this behavior?
- Which friendships make you feel safe and secure? Which relationships no longer serve you?
- What’s something you wish that other people understood about you?
- What are some lies you’ve previously told yourself?
- What’s your worst memory from childhood? What is the worst character trait that you have as a result of this memory or other events from your childhood?
- What are your parents’ best character traits? What about their worst?
- How do you feel when drama occurs?
- What makes you self-conscious?
- What makes you feel unsafe?
- Who do you currently have a grudge against? Why do you think you aren’t letting it go?
- Who’s let you down the most in your life?
- What makes you feel the most valued?
- Describe a trait you see in other people that you wish you had yourself. Why do you not have this trait?
- What are your personal core values? Why are those values important to you?
- What were your parents’ or guardians’ core values when you were a child? How do your own values differ from those of your parents or guardians?
- At what moments in your life have you been the hardest on yourself? Why?
- How do you define failure? How does failing make you feel? Are you afraid of failure? If so, why?
- What do you do with your time when you’re bored? What do you enjoy doing?
- Are there negative emotions you try to avoid? Why?
- Express Your Shadow Artistically: If you have a hard time writing but love artistic expression, allow yourself to feel all the emotions you need to feel when you’re creating art, even if they’re dark. Use the medium of your choice: painting, sculpture, singing, digital art, music, or anything else you feel called to try. Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. Create what your inner self wants to create, no matter what it looks like.
- Start an Inner Dialogue: Similar to meditation, ask your shadow some questions and wait for an answer. Keep an open mind, even if it feels weird. Take note of the answer and make sure that you’re listening without judgment.
The only way to live authentically as yourself is to discover and accept your shadow self. By accepting yourself fully, you can not only improve your own wellness and mental health, but you can also be ready to accept others for who they are, too.
Shadow work is a key part of developing introspective skills and self-awareness, which are foundational skills for personal growth. It’s not easy work since shame, frustration, and fear are difficult emotions to navigate alone because they distort our ability to see ourselves accurately and make us less self-compassionate — and self-compassion is key as you work with the shadow self.
Reach out if you need help.