How to: Shadow Work
As humans, it is easy to blind ourselves to the existence of our innate darkness. We do not want to be confronted with our personality's negative qualities or the dark sides of the human condition. Recognizing our immoral urges, unacceptable desires, shameful experiences, and propensity for aggression, greed, and selfishness would be too wounding for us to do. To live with this darkness we are ashamed of, we reject and repress it, hiding our negative qualities from ourselves and the world. This repressed dark side is called the “shadow” - the part our conscious sense of self does not want to face.
Have you ever said something to someone on impulse that you eventually regretted? We have all been there. But it may be difficult to recall.
Our inner dialogue may sound like, “what came over me?”, “why did I do that” or say, “that was so unlike me.” These questions suggest the presence of a shadow that peeks through our carefully curated sense of self. In those moments, this “being” threatens our idea of who we really are and deeply scares us. We are confronted with the fear of our shadow and worry that we are evil or wrong. In an attempt to control these feelings that we deem unpleasant and dangerous, we banish them away to a place where we can’t “see” them. The paradox is that by controlling our darkness and leaving the shadow in the unconscious, it is cut loose to create chaos, which can lead to self-destructive behaviors. We struggle to grow in a space that suppresses our basic human instincts without allowing them to play out naturally and healthily.
Just because the shadow is repressed does not mean it is not there. We find that the more our minds pretend the shadow selves do not exist, the more we become critical or ashamed of ourselves; the darker, deeper, and more dangerous we find the shadow gets. The shadow may be so intolerable that the pain it causes needs numbing. It may stir up feelings of discomfort, preventing you from living your life with ease.
Here are some behavioral manifestations of our shadow selves:
Tendency to be overly critical or judgmental of others
Lives in a victim mentality
Having a scarcity mindset
A G-d/Messiah Complex
Seeing one’s insecurities as flaws in others
Offensive behavior toward others
Self-loathing or poor self-esteem
Instead of the shadow being the innate evil in us, it is the parts we perceive as dark and dangerous. They are only a threat because we believe they are threatening. It is only through inner work with all parts of ourselves that we foster acceptance and compassion for the shadow. When we turn towards it, we can gaze at its benefits, such as empowerment, creativity, emotional intelligence, and boundary-setting. To be integrated and fulfilled, we must illuminate the shadow, understand it, and appreciate it. In essence, we must make the unconscious, conscious.
Through introspective practice, we explore the depths of our souls to heal and grow. By embracing and befriending our shadow, we can understand ourselves fully and live more authentically. It allows us to feel the full range of our emotions, tap into the strengths that may have gone unrecognized, show up authentically in our relationships, and release feelings of shame about parts of us that we deem as unappealing.
Ways to access your shadow:
1. Overcome our fear of our shadows
Acknowledging the shadow is acknowledging our darkness. When confronted with the shadow, we must familiarize ourselves with our potential to do bad things and accept them as a part of the human experience.
2. Become aware of our triggers
Observe ourselves. When events or triggers pop up, and we recognize bodily sensations or feelings that cue uncontrolled reactions from us, we can take a step back and ask, “why am I reacting this way?” or “what is going on here?”. This can be a weird and challenging process because of our instinctive impulse to avoid our shadow.
Ways to befriend your shadow:
1. Self-compassion – Speak kindly to it
Without our shadow, we are not really us! To feel whole, integrated, and complete in our lives and bodies, we must embrace the shadow and show some compassion towards it. It’s hurtful not to feel accepted, especially by your very self. Here are some positive affirmations you can tell yourself (and your shadow):
You are enough
You deserve to be happy
You are worthy of love
I believe in you, and I trust you
I am grateful for what I have in my life
I am healing and strengthening every day
I am confident in my ability to _____
What I love about myself is my ability to _____
I give myself the care and attention I deserve
I am at peace with who I am as a person
Keeping a daily journal is a safe way to express all sides of yourself and let out any thoughts and feelings you may have that you feel are unacceptable. It’s an opportunity to show lightness and darkness with complete freedom. Try not to censor yourself – be honest and lean into the discomfort of giving voice to your shadow. Here are a few writing prompts that can also jumpstart the creative juices:
How do you believe people see you? How would they describe you to someone else? How does that make you feel?
Pretend that a newspaper article is written about you. Write down five things you wouldn’t want to be said about yourself, and imagine five things the newspaper could write about you that wouldn’t affect you. Ask yourself: are the first five things true and the second untrue? How did you decide that the first five things are the wrong things to be? Write down a judgment you hold which each thing you spoke about, and then reflect on where it came from and when you first experienced this judgment.
Make a list of things you dislike in others. Then, think of a time when you displayed the traits you listed or others thought you did. Go deeper: explore the judgments about each feature and the people who display them. After, consider how maybe these negative traits have been helpful to you in past situations. For example, if you have judged someone for being weak, you can ask yourself, “has weakness allowed me to be vulnerable in relationships and brought me closer to my loved one?”
We listen in on the patterns of shadow statements that speak to us. These statements tell us to act or move in a certain way. By becoming aware of these momentary statements and bodily sensations (i.e., discomfort), we can catch what the shadow is doing. Once we recognize it, we sit with it and breathe through the pain it inflicts on us. We familiarize ourselves with it. We can listen to the shadow statements with more understanding and acceptance when meditating with them. Remember, the shadow is the part of us that has been silenced. So, let’s sit with it and maybe ask questions like, “What is the purpose of this?” or “Why do you act out like this?”. Regardless of whether or not you understand why it is doing what it’s doing, you’re still acknowledging it, and that’s good work!
The shadow is a source of richness and vitality – a place to heal our emotional and spiritual wounds. Being aligned with your higher self– the self that integrates the shadow - means moving in a way that feels good and right for YOU. When we heal and integrate our shadows with the self, we no longer live reactively and carelessly when we work. We stop hurting others, and, instead, make a conscious effort to form connections and act with kindness. In this work, we find balance and harmony within ourselves and the world around us– a yin-yang. There is divine balance in the dualities of chaos and control, light and darkness, and good and bad.
Shadow work is a process of showing up for what matters, being as authentic as possible, and allowing ourselves to be imperfect and human. Remember, perfection is not a prerequisite for receiving love. All that matters is having gratitude, acceptance, and an open heart and mind. :)