What is shadow work, or the shadow self... and why does it matter?
Getting To Know Your Shadow Self
It can be highly conflicting to recognise an "undesirable" trait in ourselves, or one that goes against our belief systems or core values. It's no wonder that we don't want others to see what we don't even want to see ourselves! Our shadow self can often be a direct contradiction to the side of ourselves that we do like and want to be known for - and it can be incredibly uncomfortable to fully acknowledge that we aren't just the person we've put on display.
What Happens When You Ignore Your Shadow Self
Sure, it's easier to just carry on ignoring your shadow self. Why open that box, right?
Although our shadow self is used to being repressed and ignored, it still hugely influences our lives, our personalities, and our day-to-day living. Helloooo triggers! It wants you to know it's there, and it will creep in whether you're ready to acknowledge it or not.
Ignoring our shadow self can lead to it manifesting itself as things like
- Projecting our own insecurities onto others
- Self sabotage
- Low self esteem
- Arrogance/inflated ego
- Judgement and being overly critical of ourselves and others
- Trouble connecting with others/unhealthy relationships
- Feeling "stuck" in life
- Unwanted habits or addictions
- Difficulty asking for what you want or need
- Lack of boundaries
- Anger, frustration or irritability with "no cause"
- Taking offense at things that don't involve or affect you (and aren't hurting others)
- Holding onto trauma
- Poor physical health
Once you start diving into shadow work, you'll begin to notice and recognise your shadow influencing your daily life much more easily. You'll also start to be able to process, understand, hold space for, and accept this side of yourself - and the emotions and responses that comes with it.
Undertaking shadow work isn't a panacea; I'm not suggesting that you won't ever experience these things again after starting shadow work. We need to both experience and acknowledge these occurrences; they're indicators of where we need to give our attention.
What Is Shadow Work?
Shadow work is the conscious journey of exploring, acknowledging, accepting, and embracing the shadow self - giving it attention, to follow on from the last section! It's a multi-faceted, therapeutic, holistic process of integrating your conscious and subconscious selves. It starts with finding and developing complete self awareness, and then - eventually - complete self compassion. The goal? To own and accept your whole self; the good, the bad and the ugly.
This journey will look different for everyone; and it's one that is ongoing - it's not a weekend workshop where you meditate for a day or two and come out "cured" (not to bag on weekend workshops - they can be fantastic in their own right, and can be wonderful for growth!).
- Self acceptance + compassion
- Self love
- Becoming more grounded + balanced
- Better perspective + clarity
- A better understanding of the environment around you
- A better understanding of your triggers
- Better confidence + self esteem
- Better relationships
- Better resilience
- Increased creativity
- Better mental, spiritual + physical wellness
- Acknowledgement and healing of trauma + grief
Through doing the work, you'll be able to more easily recognise your shadow self, identify what needs healing (and what simply needs recognition or acceptance), and become a more authentic, integrated version of yourself.
How To Recognise Your Shadow Self
The first step is recognising your shadow self. We can't work with it if we don't know what we're working with! So how do we find it?
There are many ways we can learn to identify the ways in which our shadow self appears in, and influences, our lives. Some of the more common things to look out for are:
When we judge or are overly critical of others, it's often because of an aspect of our shadow selves that we haven't acknowledged, integrated or healed yet.
You're in your last year of study, and a fellow student withdraws themself from the course instead of finishing - and you judge them for dropping out. The reason you may be taking offence at a person who is doing something that is right for them and actually has nothing to do with you (and isn't hurting or negatively impacting anyone else), could be because deep down you're actually jealous. You don't realise it, but you wish you could embrace your desires, follow your instincts and go against the grain in the pursuit of freedom or passion - rather than finishing up something because you "should" or are expected to.
Another way your shadow self can materialise in your life is via projecting. Projecting is where you subconsciously attribute your issues, feelings or fears onto someone else, shift blame, or falsely accuse others of wrongdoing to deflect or avoid acknowledging your own issues.
Your boss at work is constantly micromanaging you, berating you, and accusing you of not putting enough effort into your work - even though all your performance reviews have been great and you're getting your work done by the deadlines. The reason for this aggressive and controlling behaviour could be due to their own insecurities about their role or job security, fear or failure, or because they are feeling threatened by your excellent performance reviews.
Noticing your triggers means noticing your shadow self. In behavioural terms, a trigger is an otherwise neutral stimuli that invokes an immediate and personal response. Triggers can be positive or negative, however usually when people talk about their "triggers", they're referring to something that prompts a negative response. Triggers are different for everyone, and are generally created in response to a significant event in someone's past. Recognising your triggers (and the response they create) helps you to identify aspects of your shadow self.
You notice that you always get upset or angry when a friend talks about going out with their other friends - even though you know this response is irrational. This could be due to the aspects of your shadow self that feel jealous, insecure, rejected, or unworthy of friendship, stemming from trauma surrounding your childhood relationships.
Why Doing Shadow Work Is Worth It
Although it can be hard, shameful, uncomfortable and scary, it's also empowering, relieving, healing and freeing. There is a lightness that can come when you embrace your shadow self, and you'll often find yourself navigating life with more ease and self assuredness.
When you acknowledge and work to understand the hidden and repressed sides of yourself, you can start the healing process - meaning that things that would normally have a massive negative impact on you can be worked through. You can learn to respond instead of reacting.
A family member visits your house, and makes a comment about the tidiness of your sibling's home. Although your house isn't as tidy as your sibling's, it's in a functional and tidy-enough condition for you - but these remarks always spark both anger and embarrassment from you (and your shadow). You feel judged and shamed.
Through the journey of shadow work, you may recognise that for you:
-> There has been a subconscious belief that tidiness = good, and clutter = lazy, slob, unmotivated = bad
-> This belief stems from being shamed and reprimanded for having a messy room as a child (trauma), but you hadn't previously thought about or acknowledged how this had made you feel, or forgiven those who shamed and punished you (repressed feelings + memories)
-> When you hear the comment from your family member, subconsciously your shadow self usually hears "you're a lazy slob and that makes you a bad person" or "your sibling is better than you"
-> This triggers an instant reaction of anger ("how dare they!"), embarrassment ("I'm not as tidy as I should be") and judgement ("people think negatively of me when they come to my house")
-> Because you now understand that this is a response from your shadow self due to the previous trauma, and because you did the work to both accept yourself as you are, you can shift your perspective and understand that a) having a cluttered house does not mean you are a lazy slob or a bad person, b) the condition of your house is neutral and does not place you in higher or lower standing than anyone else, c) it's not a competition between you and your sibling, and d) the family member may not have meant their comment the way that you interpreted it
-> You can release both this comment and the negative feelings that arose in response to it, because you understand that this isn't something you need to hold onto
The above is an example of working through things that were brought on by others; but what about when we're diving into past mistakes by ourselves?
A Note About Guilt
A huge part of shadow work is around taking responsibility for our own actions, feelings and behaviours - and understanding that we can't simply blame everything on other people or "the situation". As we're working to accept ourselves as a whole, this includes accepting and forgiving our past selves - the selves that made mistakes, acted in ways we wouldn't care to admit to, and did things we're ashamed of. Even when we've done horrible things, hating ourselves isn't going to make it any better.
Guilt in itself isn't always a bad thing. Guilt, along with remorse, make up our moral thermometer; which is there to let us know when we're doing (or have already done) something wrong. It's when guilt and remorse are left to fester within us that they become toxic. Shadow work isn't about completely absolving ourselves of guilt; it's about facing the guilt head on so that we can understand why we did the things that made us feel guilty, accept responsibility for our actions, forgive ourselves, recognise the difference between our past selves and our current selves, and move forward.
How To Get Started With Shadow Work
It can feel daunting getting started with shadow work; I don't know about you, but the term itself makes me think of standing at the edge of a big, dark hole, not knowing if I'll fall in or what's waiting for me at the bottom. (side note: this is an example of a trigger for me, drawing my attention to the fact that the words "shadow work" awaken the uncertain, anxious aspects of my shadow self!).
So... how do we do it?
Shadow work, in its essence, is exploration. It's asking questions, and being open and willing to receive the answers - even when they're not the answers we want. While there are a tools and strategies that you can use for your shadow work (which I'll explain below), they themselves aren't "the work"; the work is the content, not the technique.
As mentioned earlier, the first step in shadow work is awareness. Paying attention to your behaviour, and consciously looking for the real-life implications and evidence of your shadow self. This sounds easy enough, but remember that the shadow self is the parts we're subconsciously trying to hide - so it's not uncommon to try and skim over things and think we're "doing the work", when in reality, we're doing a watered-down, movie-trailer version.
In saying that, it is ok to start slowly. Shadow work can be uncomfortable, upsetting and confronting at times. It's certainly better to ease your way in, rather than go full noise, have a freak out, then shove everything back into a mental box and hide it in the wardrobe because it was too intense to deal with. Give yourself the gifts of compassion, grace, curiosity, patience - and forgiveness where needed. Allow yourself to experience the range of emotions that will arise, and remember that you are doing this to become the best, most authentic version of yourself. You are not doing this as a punishment, or to fix yourself, because you aren't broken - you're human.
Journaling is a powerful way to explore and navigate your shadow self, and it can be an extremely helpful tool to get your thoughts and journey out of your head and onto paper. There's a plethora of shadow self/shadow work journal prompts online to help get you started and guide you. Using prompts can also help bring out areas or aspects that you didn't even know needed attention.
Meditation is another tool you can utilise for shadow work. When you meditate, you allow your brain to slow down and switch off from all the external noise. This gives your mind space to open up to subconscious thought, meaning that anything lingering below the surface has the opportunity to come to light. If you find meditating hard, try starting out with a guided meditation - there are plenty of videos and soundtracks to choose from online. If you're feeling worried about being asked to confront something you aren't ready to address yet, it can be worth having a quick skim of the reviews or comments of the meditation you choose before you get started.
There are also exercises and tasks that can help you along on your shadow work journey. Here are a few to get you started:
Make it a focus to identify areas, behaviours or feelings that are related to your shadow self. Examine your interactions with others, including ones where you've acted in ways you're proud of, and also ones where you've acted in ways you aren't proud of. What aspects of your shadow self have come to play? Why do you think you acted in an undesirable way?
Identify the separate areas of your life, eg. personal, work, motherhood, friend, partner, etc. Pick one area, and identify aspects of yourself that you like. Then explore this area, and take an honest, open look at how your shadow self comes to play (this will often be in direct contradiction to the aspects you like). For example, with work, you may like that you are: hard-working, friendly, optimistic, loyal and resilient. Then when you explore further, you may notice that you are also: over-competitive, prone to becoming aggressive and arrogant when confronted or criticised, afraid to deeply connect with your colleagues further than an "at work" surface level, overly optimistic to avoid being judged as negative or a downer, afraid to ask to be paid what you're worth, or stubborn.
If you're ready to dive further, you can then identify ways these shadow traits show up in other areas of your life, and/or what has happened in your past that may be contributing to your current behaviour.
Finding Your Shadow In Others
Choose a person with whom you have a strong emotional charge; be it strongly negative, or strongly positive. Imagine this person, then identify the characteristics that most upset, irritate, repel, attract, or excite you. Ask questions about these traits as if that person were there; because this is an exercise, you can speak freely. Imagine their responses. Then imagine you are that person, and take on the characteristics that you've identified - verbalise them, by saying "I am [characteristic or attribute]". Now consider which repressed part of you carries these attributes? Why have you rejected these parts? How can you accept them as a valid part of you?
Identify aspects of yourself that you are proud of, and that you are known for. Now, turn your attention to their opposites - the work now is to acknowledge that part of you holds those characteristics. For example, if you identify that you're confident, then you can explore and acknowledge ways in which you're shy or insecure. Perhaps you are only confident up to a certain point, or perhaps you portray overconfidence in a subconscious attempt to manage and influence what people see you as. Perhaps deep down within your shadow self, you actually feel a deep, repressed sense and fear of inadequacy, so you have a subconscious compulsion to try and control the narrative.
Disclaimer: This is a very small snippet of what I've delved into; although I'm fairly open with sharing online, there are obviously many things that are deeply personal and private (and that I'm still working through!).
I have a resistance to stepping outside of my comfort zone. That's not a huge, ground-breaking confession, I know. Nor am I alone; it wouldn't be called the "comfort zone" if people didn't find it comfortable!
But one of the things I've been working on is exploring why I have such an aversion to it. Why am I afraid to try new things? Why do I find confrontation or conflict so hard? What aspect of my shadow self is coming to play when I shy away from the things I want to do... but don't?
What I've come to learn through doing the work (including using the tools and techniques mentioned earlier), is that a lot of the main reasons I avoid stepping outside my comfort zone are based around fear:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
- Fear of judgement
- Fear of shame
- Fear of rejection
So let's dive deeper on what that actually means:
For as long as I can remember, I've studiously avoided doing anything I might fail at. And for a long time, the bar I'd set for "fail" sat "anything less than 100% perfect".
(For real - I did one of those Australasian exams in primary school and got ONE question wrong. I stewed over it for weeks.)
Fear of success?! Surely not! But it's a thing. After doing a deep dive into my childhood, I realised there were two reasons I had this deep-seated fear of success. Firstly, I discovered that my shadow self held this suppressed belief that successful people were selfish, only work-orientated, secretly disliked by others, and a plethora of other undesirable traits. I also held this massive feeling of inadequacy - often showing up as imposter syndrome - that kept me in a space of "even if I do somehow manage to become successful, I wouldn't deserve it, nor would I be able to live up to the expectations of the successful version of myself.
Again, I'm sure I'm not alone here. As social creatures, we have this in-built desire to fit in - it's actually a defense mechanism! But what I realised, was that part of the reason I've been resistant to trying new things, was because I had this fear around being judged by others - either for trying, for failing, for succeeding, or for even wanting to do *insert scary new thing here* in the first place.
Similar to the fear of judgement above, shame is something that lingers in the shadows. There's a lot that I had to unpack around both my childhood and teen years around here - which, as brave as I'm being right now, it's not something I'm ready to share! - but shame is a biggie. And it's still something I'm working through.
Again, loads to unpack from my younger years here - both things that actually happened, and things that were a traumatic experience because of the way I experienced and viewed them at the time. But this sense and fear of rejection has followed me throughout my life, and has affected my relationships, my business, my parenting and my mental wellbeing. When I was in the midst of post-natal depression, a huge part of my struggle was around feeling isolated; the kicker was, I isolated myself because this shadow self came out in force and I felt like the world was rejecting me. It became this vicious cycle, and was hard - but necessary - to pull myself out. I had to come to the stark and quite confronting realisation that in many ways, I was making things worse for myself. Please note: I am not suggesting that its anyone's own fault if they are depressed - just like it wasn't my fault that I was depressed. I am also not suggesting that mental health can be "fixed" purely by a mindset shift and "pulling yourself out of it". This was a small part of a much bigger holistic care plan, and took years to get through. I used this as an example of how shadow aspects can come to play and influence our wellbeing - and how understanding and working through them can hugely benefit us.
So after diving into alllllll of that, the next step has been to accept the parts of myself (and my past self, including decisions and mistakes that I've made) that I either haven't liked, haven't accepted, or haven't wanted to admit to myself were there. It's been hard to admit how much I care what other people think of me, and how that influences my behaviour.
Just while I'm baring my soul - because talking about all my flaws online is so fun *insert hysterical cry-laugh here* - my shadow self's fear of failure and insecurity also manifests as instant offense, anxiety, anger and/or self doubt if someone challenges or questions me on things. Even if I'm only perceiving them as challenging or questioning me.
To keep baring my soul (and to illustrate how shadow work can keep going and going), the above example also stems from a deep-seated stubbornness to be right, and a rigidity/unwillingness to learn from others. Now, consciously, I love learning from others. I know that I don't know everything, and I love growing as a person - but there is this buried part of me that whispers "others can be right, as long as you aren't wrong".
Can you see how intertwined the shadow self is with the conscious/outer self?
All of the above has only been the tip of the iceberg; the noticing, and recognising. From there, I've had to do a lot of work to:
- be ok with trying new things and not knowing if I'll succeed or fail
- accept that my self worth is not tied up succeeding or being right
- accept that my self worth is not tied to not failing
- be ok with people not liking me, not agreeing with me, and/or thinking I'm wrong
- be ok with being wrong
- understand that being wrong is not failing
- understand that failing is not failing
- be ok with failing
- accept the mistakes and/or decisions I've made in the past
These are all things that are a constant work in progress, but looking back now, if you'd told me 10, 5, or even 2 years ago where I'd mentally be now, I would've laughed in your face (although now I constantly tell myself where I'll be in the future and fully accept the challenge to get myself wherever I so desire!).
Shadow work + getting to know your shadow self is a big undertaking, and certainly not for the faint of heart; when you unpack boxes that have been sitting in your mental and emotional attic for years, it will always be a surprise what you might find! Some things will be a pleasant surprise, and some things will be difficult, perhaps even painful reminders. You'll be faced with things you hadn't wanted to look at, memories you'd tried to forget. But through all that, your whole self is waiting for you to love and accept it - and surely that's a worthy cause.