We all have parts of ourselves we'd sometimes rather not face. Yet these "shadow" parts of ourselves are the ones we need to work with for personal growth and deep healing to occur. If you are ready to dive into shadow work, these 45 expert-approved journaling prompts are here to get you started on the journey. Let's dive in.
What is the "shadow self"?
The shadow self is essentially comprised of the "darker" parts of yourself—the things that bring up shame, fear, disgust, and the like. The idea of the shadow self was popularized by renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
As neuroscientist and author of The Source Tara Swart, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg, we typically repress our shadow self because we don't want to acknowledge our perceived shortcomings, negative qualities, or difficult memories.
The shadow self is created throughout childhood as we learn how we're expected to behave in the world, particularly by our caregivers. This transforms the way we operate as adults.
As Swart notes, these messages from our caregivers can tell us that in order to survive, we have to live up to their expectations—and inhibit any behavior deemed unworthy or unacceptable.
Shadow work, then, is all about bringing these shadow aspects into conscious awareness so we can live more authentically. As licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, previously told mbg, "This [shadow work] is something psychoanalytic theorists (like Jung and Freud) prized as important to maintaining psychological health."
Therapists and mental health professionals will often take a "Socratic approach" to shadow work by asking patients to explore questions that help them reexamine old stories and beliefs they hold about themselves. "The idea is that a more objective entity (such as a therapist) can help provide an interpretive mirror to the parts of ourselves we have a difficult time seeing and accepting," Caraballo explains.
While doing shadow work with a trained therapist is certainly beneficial, your journal can also act as a mirror for self-guided work.
The following prompts from holistic psychiatrist Kayse Budd, M.D., and licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, are designed to help you shine a light on your own shadow using a pen and paper.
45 prompts to get started:
- What pattern of reactions or interactions do I find triggering from my parents or siblings?
- What effect do these patterns create in me?
- Do I have any of these behaviors myself?
- If yes, can I practice compassion for myself?
- How do I take care of myself when triggered by any of the above?
- How are these challenges helping me grow spiritually?
- What kinds of interactions with other people cause a really negative reaction/are triggering for me?
- Are the answers similar or different from what triggers me within my family and/or myself?
- Is there some way I have a similar trait to the person who is triggering me but it is more minor or suppressed in myself and more obvious in this other person?
- What problems do I usually run into in the workplace?
- How do these issues reflect my inner values possibly not being met?
- How do I handle disappointment?
- What kinds of situations make me stressed, anxious, or panicked?
- How do I handle them?
- What kinds of situations make me frustrated/angry?
- How do I handle them?
- What kinds of situations make me withdraw/feel depressed or despairing?
- What techniques do I have to manage them?
- Can I acknowledge my role in a dynamic?
- Can I apologize when my role has resulted or may have resulted in a negative impact on another?
- What do I truly value most in the world?
- How do those values influence my choices?
- What values did my parents have, and do I hold those same values?
- What am I most afraid of and why?
- Who in my life triggers me the most? What is it about them that tends to trigger me?
- What situations trigger me most and why?
- What are the parts of myself that I try to hide from others?
- What are the parts of me that I try to hide from myself?
- Which of my traits tend to show up when I’m stressed?
- How comfortable am I with feeling anger?
- How comfortable am I with expressing my anger?
- How do I feel when others express their anger?
- What traits do I find most repulsive in others? In what ways do I also have these traits?
- What emotions do I find most challenging and why?
- What truths in my life do I tend to ignore?
- When did I feel most betrayed and why?
- What was a problem I faced in childhood, and how does it affect me today?
- What does failure mean to me, and how do I face it?
- How is my relationship with my family?
- What issues or negative traits do my parents deal with (or dealt with when I was a child), and do I deal with those same things?
- What have I not forgiven myself for?
- What have I not forgiven someone else for?
- Which emotion do I avoid the most?
- What kind of self-destructive habits or behaviors do I exhibit?
- What do I want to get out of shadow work?
Tips to optimize the practice:
Start off slow and don't spend too much time on it.
Budd urges you to be gentle with yourself when reflecting on shadow prompts. Especially as you are first getting started, don't feel like you need to dedicate too much time to it. After all, it's heavy work and not an easy undertaking. "Rather than ruminating or thinking about it too much, let this process have a moderate tempo," she advises.
Have compassion for yourself.
Secondly, remember to give yourself grace, Budd says. "Have compassion for what you find, choose to make peace with what you find, and have compassion to soften around it rather than build up a more negative reaction," she notes, adding, "Although if you build up a negative reaction, have compassion for that too."
Trust in your personal journey.
And last but not least, Budd says the goal is to cultivate trust in whatever you find within yourself as you're writing and reflecting. "Trust that there's some sort of spiritual purpose and meaning tied to that situation," she says, and that it can be addressed and dealt with in a healthy and productive way on your personal journey.
The bottom line.
Reflecting on shadow work prompts is definitely challenging, but as they say, the best things in life don't come easy. And if there's one thing that can be said of shadow work, it's that confronting and healing your shadow self is an essential step in achieving spiritual awakening.
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.