Purposefully examining our personalities for flaws and negative traits can be unsettling but the rewards are many. Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović explains what shadow work is, the benefits it offers, and five ways how you can start doing it.

 

In one of his most famous quotes from Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Carl Gustav Jung said: “How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also If I am to be whole.”

 

Shadow work is based on Jung’s concept of the shadow, which, in its simplest, represents the parts of our personalities we would rather not possess. However, we do. Not only possess them – they make up part of who we are. Regardless of how uncomfortable we are with those aspects of our Self, they are here. 

 

And, most importantly, they guide our actions from a shadow. That is why shadow work is essential if we are to become fully conscious of why we do the things we do. But, what is shadow work? This article will explain the basic concepts of shadow work, why it is essential and how to do it. 

 

What is shadow work?

In his uncanny ability to name complex concepts in a way that resonates with everyone, Jung spoke of the shadow. It is the part of ourselves that holds all that a person has no wish to be. However, it also contains all sorts of qualities, capacities and potential.

 

In Jung’s own words, the “shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part, inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors… If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of evil, it can now be ascertained on a closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is, his shadow does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses […]“. 

 

The shadow is usually born with our parents’ or society’s disapproval of our impulses. We then learn to block and deny them to ourselves and, simply put, be “good”. But, we do not only change our behaviour. We choose to “forget” those unacceptable impulses. 

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Learn how to do shadow work and unlock potential shutterstock/Douceflour


The problem arises when a person represses the shadow – which we invariably most often do. By sweeping parts of our Self we are uncomfortable with under the rug, we expose ourselves to many adversities. Studies on the perils of repression revealed that it can lead to:

 

So, what is shadow work? Shadow work is a process in which you learn to recognize, understand and accept your shadow. Although it sounds straightforward, it is, in fact, a laborious endeavour. However, avoiding the adversities of repressing the shadow is well worth the effort. 

 

How shadow work can improve your life

Living without the shadow, that is, without it in your consciousness, means living an incomplete life. You are not consciously in charge of all your decisions, perceptions and actions. 

 

Not convinced? If you take a closer look at your experiences, you will surely notice incidents when you acted “out of character”. Yet, this slip-up did not just come out of nowhere. Your shadow self took over. Indeed, the parts of ourselves that we ignore tend to turn against us eventually. 

 

“When you embark on shadow work, you can expect a range of positive outcomes. Shadow work is a profound way to enhance your relationship with yourself, others, and the world.”


When you embark on shadow work, you can expect a range of positive outcomes. In response to the question: “What is shadow work?” these benefits offer an answer – shadow work is a profound way to enhance your relationship with yourself, others, and the world. 

 

  1. Improved relationships
    What we perceive as flaws, when repressed, is most often projected onto others. We are judgmental, dismissive, and hypercritical – we hate weaknesses in others. Shadow work makes you more grounded and accepting of others. 
     
  2. Increased confidence
    When you learn to understand and accept your shadow, you can become authentically more confident. You are no longer a captive of your repressed fears of condemnation. You own all your parts and need not frantically hide them from others and yourself. This creates more inner confidence
     
  3. Enhanced energy and physical health
    Repressing emotions and thoughts is arduous work. As said before, it takes a toll on your energy levels and has been shown to even lead to a range of diseases, from chronic fatigue to cancer. When you let the dam open, it can be scary at first – but it will release your energy and help you be healthier.
     
  4. Psychological integration and maturity
    Mature adulthood is not a given. According to some authors, merely 2 per cent of adults reach this psychological development stage. Shadow work brings you closer to authentic maturity and wisdom.
     
  5. Greater creativity
    Creativity, according to humanistic psychologists such as Maslow and Rogers, is a hallmark of self-actualised, mentally healthy individuals. When you repress your “dark side”, the collateral damage is creativity in all life areas. On the flip side, when you open the gates between all the parts of your psyche, creative impulses will start to flow again.  

 

How to do shadow work

If you started reading this article with the question: “What is shadow work?” by now, you are probably wondering, “OK, so how can I do shadow work?”

 

Although completing shadow work usually requires a professional’s help, there are plenty of activities you can do on your own to start communicating with your shadow. Overall, shadow work exercises centre around three basic principles – awareness, honesty and acceptance. Here are five activities to get you started with befriending your shadow. 

 

1. Develop self-awareness

The most obvious yet, highly challenging step in shadow work is cultivating awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Our shadow, albeit hidden, gives clues of who she/he is. Repressed content appears in our dreams, slip-ups, projections, acting-outs. 

 

Learn to observe your experiences. Who makes you particularly angry? Why? What it is in others you cannot stand? What do you dream about that feels foreign when you wake up? In which situations you tend to “lose it”? 

Meditation can assist you in fostering self-awareness. Mindfulness offers awareness with suspended judgement – just what you need when you do shadow work.

 

2. Be unswervingly honest

Yes, a predictable piece of advice, but a tough one. Most of us spent our entire lives with a strong urge not to let out flaws show. As good we are at hiding imperfections from others – we are masters in hiding them from ourselves. 

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Facing up to all sides of who you are is part of shadow work 

Nonetheless, what you hide from yourself owns you. So, face the monster. Do not do it in a judgmental way. That would be your Super Ego talking. You want to be unshakably honest but not criticizing or condemning. 

It will not be comfortable. It will take courage. But, at the end of the road, autonomy and genuine confidence await you.  (Also, no one is looking. Nobody is listening. Just be frank.)

 

3. Be compassionate with yourself

The way to avoid rife (unconstructive, to be precise) self-criticism is to practise self-compassion. Become your best friend, unconditionally supportive, and be good to yourself at all times. You will need it once you start facing the skeletons in your psychological closet. 

 

According to Kristin Neff, a psychologist researching self-compassion, it has three components:  

  • Self-kindness (being supportive, kind, and forgiving towards yourself)
  • Common humanity (understanding that you are not alone in your pain and imperfection)
  • Mindfulness (accepting your experiences without being condemnatory)

 

4. Recollect your projections

As you read above, what we repress about ourselves, we tend to project onto others. Your job now is to recollect those projections. Claim the weaknesses and flaws back. 

 

Yes, you are not perfect. But you must come to peace with that, instead of hating, being repulsed by, or fearing others. It is the only way to see yourself, others, and the world realistically.

 

“Shadow work is a process in which you learn to recognize, understand and accept your shadow. Although it sounds straightforward, it is, in fact, laborious.”


So, the next time you notice that you are possibly overreacting about someone’s actions, ask yourself – what is making me so angry/scared/judgmental? What part of me is hiding behind my reaction? Do this again and again, and respond with the steadfast honesty we spoke of earlier. 

 

5. Keep a shadow journal

The final step in shadow work is to keep a journal. The disowned parts of ourselves are tricky. They can still elude you – even after you have noticed them. Your mind will keep trying to repress the darkness for some time. 

 

RELATED: Journaling techniques – travels to our interior


So, write down your insights regularly. Make sure you come back to your notes from time to time to refresh your memory, in a sense. After a while, they will finally stick in your conscious awareness.

 

The wrap: embrace your wholeness

Getting to know anyone’s “dark” side is always an unnerving experience. But when it is your own darkness, it can be downright scary. However, let us channel Socrates to encourage ourselves to do so – “the unexamined life is not worth living”. 

 

Indeed, you will never be complete unless you know and accept every nook and cranny of your soul. You will never be the master of your actions unless you learn to look your darkest motives in the eye. So, venture into shadow work as soon as now. You might be amazed by how more vibrant life feels once you dismiss the veil of repression and become accepting of your whole Self. 

Main image: shutterstock/Dean Drobot
 

 

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Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović

bert.jpgStanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.

 


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