Shadow work has been one of the best emotional healing tools I’ve used thus far in life. I’ve had several “dark nights of the soul” that caused me intense emotional distress. My first “dark night” I was flat broke with no money to invest in counseling. That’s not a great space to be in when life seems to be toppling over you day after day.
However, I didn’t let low funds stop me from trying to crawl out of the darkness. In fact, that’s when I started learning about inner healing work, or what some call shadow work. Digging into the shadow side of the psyche has actually become quite popular in recent years. Kudos to the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, who brought the shadow work concept onto the scene back in the 20th century.
Essentially, Jung described the shadow as the unconscious parts of ourselves that have been repressed, rejected, denied, or disowned. They are the parts of us we don’t want to see or can’t see.
Our “dark” side.
Most of us can admit that we’ve got some emotions, memories, traits, thoughts, or belief patterns tucked away in the corners of our mind. After all, it’s really tough experiencing things like despair, rage, or paralyzing fear. Or, thinking wicked thoughts or remembering horrific memories.
It’s rather easy to repress or disconnect from such things, but in the long run, not healthy.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
This means that until we take some time and begin digging into our unconscious or shadow side, the dark part of our psyche may be calling the shots of our life. And if that shadow bag is large, it’s likely we’ll be experiencing some inner pain – and may have no idea why.
I grabbed a lantern and started digging into my darkness (shadow side) a little over a decade ago. I was in immense emotional pain and had little idea as to why I just couldn’t get a grip. After all, I’d been so good at keeping my emotional composure for decades.
I wore my “All is well” mask quite well.
But masks can shatter, and when they do, we can stay in the brokenness or start gathering our parts and putting ourselves back together.
This is what shadow work has done for me. It’s helped me face those parts of me that I repressed, rejected, denied, or exiled into my unconsciousness over the years. The experiences that were too tough to handle as a child. The memories that were too painful to see. The trauma. The confusion. Files that my “processing system”, or ego, just couldn’t or wouldn’t process.
Face, feel, deal, and ultimately, heal – that’s what shadow work did, as still does, for me.
Illuminating those parts of me that I’ve lost along life’s journey allowed me to finally witness and embrace them. Jung called this process “individuation”.
Quite simply, I call it becoming more whole. Feeling more emotionally balanced. Experiencing less inner turmoil and more inner peace.
Not everyone is keen on shadow work and that’s alright. There are various paths to becoming more peaceful and joyful. The following are my five biggest take aways from doing shadow work over the years:
Robert Bly wrote a short, insightful book about the shadow called, A Little Book on the Human Shadow. In it, he refers to the shadow as “the long bag we drag behind us.” You’ve probably heard people talk about having “baggage” – things from the past that cause us some issues in the present.
We all have shadows. We may come onto the planet as purely conscious, innocent beings, but life has a way of causing us to divide the mind into conscious and unconscious parts.
Jung writes: “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
If there's one thing I'd like to teach children, it’s that they indeed grow a shadow bag comprised of thoughts, beliefs, conditioning from parents and society, trauma, tough memories, etc.
And, as they get older those shadows will come knocking on their psychic door wanting to be addressed. That energy that’s exiled to the shadow bag doesn’t disappear. It grows in intensity.
I spent my latter teen years and early 20’s wearing the mask that everything was alright. That I was the best wife, best Christian, best mother, friend, etc., but all the while I was unconsciously lugging around a huge shadow bag. And if I let myself get still and quiet long enough, I'd hear those shadows whispering, “Please, tend to us.”
I ignored them for a long time.
Doing shadow work has helped me realize that no one is perfect and everyone carries some unconscious wounds, memories, or experiences. I don’t have to wear a “perfection” mask anymore. I’m not aiming for perfection. I am aiming for raw, real vulnerability and authenticity. This helps me extend more compassion to others, as well as myself.
We live in a world of opposites. Day and night. Up and down. Yin and yang. Happy and sad. I wouldn’t know what true happiness was without feeling deep sadness. I wouldn’t appreciate good health as much without feeling illness. I totally appreciate a light switch when entering a dark room.
Jung said, “Every good quality has its bad side.”
Understanding this has helped me beat myself up less when I’m dealing with negative emotions like anger, rage, paralyzing fear, self-loathing, and so on.
Because I know on the opposite end, all negative shadows have positive aspects, like joy, faith, confidence, compassion, love, and so on.
My task is to consciously balance ego and shadow from the perspective of luminous spirit.
Shadow work helps me illuminate what dense, heavy shadows are out of balance or have been exiled. But rather than fear them, I can understand it more as disharmony. And where there is disharmony, there is the potential of creating harmony. It is about perspective.
I’ve retrieved plenty of dark, heavy shadows and brought them back into the light. Some slip back into the shadow side, so there’s opportunity for repeats. Like getting triggered over and over about the same thing in a relationship – some shadows go deep and wide. It takes consistent shadow work to completely integrate some shadows – sometimes a lifetime.
Getting to know my own shadow side has helped me feel more compassion for others. I can look at most anyone now and rather than immediately judge them for the way they live their life or how long they've been stuck in their negative behaviors or patterns, I can extend grace. I have no idea what shadows are lurking in their subconscious. How could I know what they've experienced from the time they were infants? How can I know what’s really going on in their internal and external world?
And it doesn’t even matter what they’re contending with. Dark is dark, and I’ve been there. This allows me to better hold a safe space for others while they are trying to do the best they can along their life journey.
I not only have more compassion for others, but more compassion for myself. We can be our own worst enemies, beating ourselves up for even the slightest, tiniest shadow. Journeying this human life is no piece of cake. We all experience challenges, confusion, pain, existential angst, and more. This leaves room for no judgment from me.
We don’t only repress or deny negative emotions or traits. We can also exile positive parts of ourselves to the shadow side. The parents who tell their son that coloring or drawing is for girls may repress his creativity to his shadow side. The girl who is yelled at for being “overly dramatic” may repress her love of acting or her sensitivity.
There’s gold in the shadow side too.
Creativity, uniqueness, sensitivity, intuition, assertiveness, wit, and other talents and gifts.
I unconsciously repressed plenty of positive aspects of myself and emotions to the shadow side. Shadow work is helping me illuminate and breathe life back into these parts. My voice is but one shadow that I repressed for many years, afraid of rejection. Unearthing, embracing, and integrating that shadow helped me ditch a job I didn’t like to become an author and writer. What I want to say matters.
Shadow work has helped me understand that I am not a victim. I am not a victim of the things that happened to me as a child. I am not powerless over the way I live my life on all levels. Yes, I've experienced plenty of awful things throughout my life, as I’m sure we all have – even traumatic things. I've consciously and unconsciously banished a lot of things to my unconscious or shadow side. The sheer weight of that shadow bag is what has caused me the most pain.
I pointed fingers at others for a long time, but eventually, projection gave way for inner inquiry.
Remaining in a victim mentality means that we give our power away. There's no doubt that we will all experience pain along life's journey. That's inevitable. But we don't have to suffer year after year or decade after decade.
There are tools, techniques, and plenty of healing modalities that can help us. There are many professionals who love to help people heal and reclaim their authentic, healed selves. The toughest part is actually making consistent effort. Even when I didn't have two nickels to rub together, I was scouring the Internet learning about emotional healing and watching plenty of videos on a variety of healing techniques. Everyone's journey will be different and that's alright.
Shadow work is but one tool to begin diving within our own selves to see what's going on in our psyches. It's about becoming more self-aware. It’s giving those parts of us that have “gone unconscious” time and energy. Those fragments that only want to be acknowledged and processed. Giving those parts of us an audience.
Isn't that all what we want? To be seen and heard? To be really seen and heard?
This can begin with seeing ourselves – our fragmented selves – and embracing them, loving them back into our whole personality.
My hope is that you will embrace an inner journey. Take some time to shine the light of your consciousness into your shadow side. I’ll end with a quote by shadow work expert, Debbie Ford. This has inspired me many times, and I hope it will inspire you as well.
“After a decade of coaching individuals and leading groups, I have discovered that if I don’t buy into people’s perceptions of who they are and what they are capable of, I can bypass their public personas and see who they are in their highest expression. With a little effort, I can see their magnificence and their potential no matter what they look like or what condition their emotional, spiritual, or financial world is in. I can see through their acts, their personas, their fears and insecurities. I can see who they are apart from the baggage they carry around. The undeniable fact is that underneath all of our public personas, we already are that which we desire to be. Our only job is to see past our own limitations so that we can return to that which we already are.” Debbie Ford
August 8, 2022
August 6, 2022