Shadow work: What is it and how could it help me?

Kat Nicholls
By Kat Nicholls,
updated on Oct 9, 2023

Woman and her shadow

We explore the concept of our shadow selves and what we can do to shed some light

Do you have any traits you try to keep hidden? Perhaps you react in certain ways that make you feel shame, but you’re unsure why. Do you have certain habits or ways of thinking that hold you back? First of all, you’re not alone here. This is often referred to as our shadow self - and we all have one.

The concept of the shadow self, or inner shadow, was popularised by psychologist Carl Jung who believed there to be various archetypes within our unconscious.

“This shadowy – unconscious – space is often where we try to hide the bits about us that we don’t like, though it's not just our failings and frailties that can get stuck there,” explains psychotherapist Jonathan Wilkes in the article How do we acknowledge and deal with dark thoughts?

“Sometimes, our abilities and attributes get trapped on the dark side where we’re unable to appreciate and use them.”

This inner shadow can be made up of different things. A negative experience in childhood may impact the way we think and react to certain things in adulthood. For example, if we were often told off for being too loud, we may silence ourselves in an attempt to reject this side of ourselves. We may feel ashamed when we think we are being loud and, in turn, fail to speak up when necessary.

“Carl Jung wrote, ‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,’” says counsellor Paul Henry in the article Me and my shadow: Becoming comfortable with who we really are.

“We need to understand and explore what is lurking in the shadows; our own personal shadow. Otherwise, the things that make us anticipate in a certain way, react in a certain way, feel shame, guilt, reluctance through threats to personal security, ambition and good relations will continue to be disturbed by unknown forces within us.”

When we continue to ignore our shadow, it can go to extreme lengths to be heard. We may notice poor self-esteem and a noisy inner critic. We may self-sabotage, struggle with relationships or even experience depression and anxiety. Something that can help us to recognise, acknowledge and even embrace our shadow is shadow work.

What is shadow work?

Shadow work is when we work with our unconscious to help identify what it is we’re repressing from ourselves. It encourages us to recognise and heal from difficult experiences that make up our shadow and recognise these aren’t flaws, but simply a part of who we are.

When we’re able to embrace our shadow with self-compassion, we gain greater awareness of our behaviours and actions. We can show up more as our authentic selves, feel more confident, cultivate deeper connections with others, unearth hidden talents and generally improve our sense of wellbeing.

While shadow work can be done alone, there is a great benefit to working with a trained professional, especially if you are dealing with past trauma.

“Therapy can help to uncover the shadow part of ourselves in a safe, confidential and trusting manner. The shadow may be so out of our awareness that it may take a while to surface, but in doing so we can start to become whole. We can only be whole if we learn to accept all of our dimensions,” explains psychotherapist Daljinder Bal in the article Persona vs shadow: The hidden side to us.

Some small steps you can take to start the process of shadow work include:

  • Becoming aware of your shadow: Try to identify when you feel triggered and react in unhelpful ways. Notice habitual behaviours or thoughts that aren’t serving you or times when you may be projecting onto others.
  • Find a way to express your shadow: You may find it helpful to journal about your shadow side or use tools like art or music to express what your shadow may be saying.
  • Reflect on past experiences: Consider what events, circumstances or situations could have led to your shadow self being what it is.

In the article, Rainbow self, counsellor Terry Burridge suggests that taking the whole spectrum of yourself to counselling can support this work.

“To be a real rainbow, it has to have all seven colours. Each colour only ‘works’ because it is part of something bigger. Yellow looks so showy because it contrasts with indigo. Blue shows up so well because it shares the space with red, and so on through the spectrum. Indigo doesn’t feel the need to apologise for not being yellow!

“Counselling allows us to look at our rainbow selves. To understand the indigo parts of ourselves along with the red parts. To try and understand why we always feel second best. Or to think about why we always feel anxious and angry all the time. Where does that depressed part of us fit in with the gay, cheerful person everyone else sees?”

If you’re interested in learning more about counselling and how it can help you embrace every shade, visit Counselling Directory.

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