What Are Shadow Emotions? How To Identify Yours

Clinical Psychologist By Claire Nicogossian, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Claire Nicogossian, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the the Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
What Are Shadow Emotions? A Psychologist Explains How To Identify Yours

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We live in a world where it's natural to put things into categories: good vs. bad, healthy vs. unhealthy, strong vs. weak, happy vs. sad, positive vs. negative, and so on. While categories can be helpful at times, they can also create an inflexible and judgmental way of appraising both ourselves and other people.

A great example of categorizing and judging in mental health is labeling emotions as positive or negative. Positive emotional experiences bring us joy, happiness, and contentment; they're the ones we strive to feel, the ones we want to hold on to and savor. In contrast, emotions we label negative tend to be pushed away, ignored, diminished, avoided, and removed from our experiences.

Many of us have been taught and conditioned to believe "negative" emotions are problematic and are linked with having a flawed character, being ungrateful, or having something wrong with us. 

In reality, emotions are neutral—they are simply pieces of data, and they are neither good nor bad. Emotional experiences show us what we need to pay attention to in our lives, within ourselves, our relationships, or our experiences. Emotional responses also give us information about how we are reacting to our inner world and outer experiences.

What are shadow emotions?

From a psychologist's perspective, labeling emotions negative is problematic and creates a response to avoid or suppress these experiences, becoming defensive, shutting down, denying, or ignoring. This is why I label emotions described as negative as shadow emotions. 

Shadow emotions fall into five categories:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Embarrassment and shame
  • Disgust

Within each broad category are shadow emotions that vary in intensity from mild to moderate to more intense. Shadow emotions are part of what it means to be human. Embracing shadow emotions opens up the possibility to be curious and committed to understanding our emotional health in more depth.

The shadow side of human nature was popularized by psychiatrist Carl Jung who emphasized that the shadow self is the parts of ourselves we reject, deny, repress, or ignore. Shadow work focuses on bringing disowned parts of yourself and experience to the light through awareness, curiosity, and intention. Accepting the shadow part of oneself, including shadow emotions, creates space to understand and process experiences, thereby allowing new self-appraisals, healing, and behavior change to occur.

Shadow emotions are the wise part of ourselves asking to be cared for and acknowledged. When shadow emotions are not paid attention to or managed, they get louder and more intense until we're forced to deal with our emotional experiences.

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How to identify your shadow emotions.

Here are four ways to identify and embrace your shadow emotions: 

1. Label your emotional experiences.

Describe in detail how you are feeling. For example, if you're feeling sad, go a little deeper and ask yourself: What kind of sadness am I feeling? Perhaps lonely, depleted or exhausted, depressed, or hopeless? The more descriptive and specific in labeling emotions, the more awareness is created, which helps identify what you need to do to take care of your emotional health. (Here's an online assessment for mothers I developed to help you go deeper.)

2. Pay attention to your thoughts around those emotions.

Pay attention to the thoughts you are having regarding this emotional response (sometimes referred to as your meta-emotions). Are your thoughts critical statements about yourself? A relationship? An interaction or a situation? Perhaps your thoughts are centered on a past event you can't let go of. How would you describe your thoughts? Insecure? Low self-esteem? Worry about the future? Are you frustrated and angry? Paying attention to your thoughts is another way to help be specific in identifying and labeling shadow emotions.

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3. Let go of judgment.

When you experience a shadow emotion, allow yourself to experience the shadow emotion without judging yourself or the feeling. Go a little deeper by answering these questions: 

  • What are some of the messages I have received about experiencing this specific shadow emotion? For example, if you feel jealous or envious (specific shadow emotions of anger), what were the messages you received from others about experiencing these shadow emotions? 
  • Were you allowed to feel shadow emotions, or were you shamed or judged or punished for having these experiences? 
  • Did you learn to ignore or avoid shadow emotions because of lack of support or being met with anger or overwhelm when you shared your feelings in a significant relationship? 

The messages we receive about shadow emotions and mental health affect how we respond to and take care of our emotional experiences in the present moment. Often, we have to unlearn the inaccurate messages received and embrace our emotions, including the shadow emotions. 

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4. Embrace your shadow emotions.

When you experience a shadow emotion, remember, you do not have to act on the emotion, nor does the shadow emotion define you. Shadow emotions can be temporary, vary in intensity, and be a path of self-discovery to explore with curiosity as a way to grow and heal from our experiences.  

Managing shadow emotions is an act of self-care that will promote health and well-being. Embracing shadow emotions can feel overwhelming at first. With time, practice, and self-compassion, you'll witness and experience the power of healing through caring for all parts of yourself and learn the shadow emotions are one part of you and do not define all of you. 

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