Shadow Self 101: What It Is & How To Embrace It, According To Experts
We all have parts of ourselves that aren't necessarily our favorites, from doubts and fears to guilt and shame. These so-called bad aspects of ourselves make up the "shadow self," but the good news is, when you learn to embrace your shadow self, you can live a more balanced life. Here's how, according to experts.
What is the "shadow self"?
The shadow self refers to parts of yourself—whether personality traits, emotions, thoughts—that are difficult to accept. As licensed clinical psychologist Claire Nicogossian, Psy.D., explains to mbg, you often don't want to acknowledge, identify, or embrace these things.
There's a reason the shadow is often ignored or denied: These qualities don't fit in with our conceptions of ourselves.
For example, she says, consider someone who has a core belief that feeling resentment in motherhood correlates with being ungrateful or a bad mom. "Instead of embracing their shadow self [and] experiencing anger or frustration at times toward her child or a situation in her life impacting her as a mom, she ignores or denies or thinks she's less than because she's having the feeling or thought or experience," Nicogossian explains.
It was famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung who popularized the idea of the shadow self, licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, tells mbg.
Jung believed the shadow holds repressed thoughts and feelings, Caraballo notes—not all of which are necessarily "bad": "Jung believed that positive traits could be held in the shadow if those parts of ourselves were invalidated or minimized by others, leading us to repress those parts of ourselves."
Do we all have a shadow?
Jung believed everyone has a shadow self. As Nicogossian adds, we all come into the world open and free of judgment, but as we get older, we have experiences that cause us to judge ourselves.
Whether from parents, relatives, teachers, or society as a whole, Nicogossian explains that when we receive messages about what's acceptable and what's not, those unacceptable things about ourselves are pushed into the shadow.
Jung believed, however, that one of the best things we can do is work toward accepting and integrating the shadow rather than continuing to reject it, Caraballo explains.
"With that kind of exploration, he believed that we could successfully incorporate and work through these repressed thoughts and feelings and experience greater internal peace rather than being unconsciously driven by shadow self needs and feelings (like we normally are)," he adds.
How to embrace your shadow self:
Become a curious observer.
As Nicogossian explains, shadow work is fundamentally about bringing disowned parts of yourself and your experience to the light through awareness, curiosity, and intention. You do so when you "notice patterns and themes that keep showing up in your life," she says. The more you learn to witness your mind, the more you'll see how and when your shadow self influences you.
Practice nonjudgment toward yourself.
As you learn to witness and observe your mind and your shadow, Nicogossian says to do so without judgment or putting yourself down. "When you experience a shadow emotion, allow yourself to experience the shadow emotion without judging yourself or the feeling," she adds.
Work with a professional.
Of course, as with any deep inner healing work, it can be tremendously helpful to work with a professional. Caraballo notes that shadow work can be difficult, as it's hard to move something from your unconscious mind to your conscious mind all on your own—and it can be intense and even overwhelming in its own right. Having someone there to help can go a long way.
"Be sure to find a counselor who is nonjudgmental, supportive, caring, and with whom you feel safe to explore the shadow side of yourself, which is, in essence, embracing vulnerability with self-compassion," Nicogossian adds.
Meditating is a great way to learn how to observe your mind and practice nonjudgment. Caraballo says insight-driven meditation practices can help people develop greater consciousness and learn to not only accept but embrace shadow emotions.
Try shadow journaling.
Caraballo recommends shadow journaling as you're getting started on your shadow work journey. The benefit of journaling is it allows you to get all those thoughts out of your head and onto paper, offering a deep opportunity for reflection. Refer to some of the prompts below if you're unsure where to start!
Try past-life regression therapy.
Caraballo says some nontraditional therapies can also have a place in shadow work, such as past-life regression therapy. After all, if you believe in past lives or karma, who's to say aspects of previous lives aren't still affecting your shadow self today?
Exercises and prompts to get started:
Label your emotional experiences.
Get into the habit of labeling your emotional experiences in detail, Nicogossian suggests. (You can write them down or mentally reflect.)
For example, if you're feeling sad, she says, "Go a little deeper and ask yourself: What kind of sadness am I feeling? Perhaps lonely, depleted or exhausted, 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."
Think about someone who triggers you.
Caraballo says thinking of a recent experience in which you came across someone who really annoyed or frustrated you can help you quickly access your shadow. "Take a moment to consider what it was specifically that felt so bothersome about this person or what they were doing or saying," he explains. "Then, take a moment to reflect on how what you observed in this person could be reflective of some deeper part of you."
Ask yourself if you often criticize yourself for the same behavior, or if this person reminds you of someone who has wronged you. "The answers to those questions might provide space for deeper reflection and facilitate a connection to the shadow self," Caraballo adds.
Dig deep with specific questions.
Lastly, Nicogossian recommends asking yourself thoughtful questions about your own shadow self from time to time. As you're learning to witness your shadow, here are some questions she suggests:
- Are your thoughts critical statements about yourself? A relationship? An interaction or a situation?
- What are some of the messages you have received about experiencing a specific shadow emotion?
- When you were younger, 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 early on?
- Have you ever been met with anger or overwhelm when you shared your feelings in a significant relationship?
The bottom line.
We all have a shadow, and while learning to integrate and embrace it might not be easy, it's so worth it. As Nicogossian says, accepting the shadow self creates space to understand and process our experiences, which allows for both positive change and healing.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.