The Value Of Shadow Work + 3 Exercises To Get Started, From Mental Health Professionals
When you consider words like "shame," or "fear," what do they bring up for you? Is it some aspect of yourself you'd rather not think about? Well, congratulations, because you may have just found your shadow. Within it lies some of the hardest—but most worthwhile—inner work we can do as people.
Here, we deep dive into what shadow work is all about, how to get started, and why it's so important.
What is the "shadow self"?
The idea of the shadow self was popularized by famed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and according to neuroscientist and author of The Source Tara Swart, Ph.D., it's composed of the parts of yourself that you reject. "They're in your personality," Swart explains, "but you're blind to them because you don't want to see them."
How the shadow self forms.
The reason you reject these aspects of your personality goes back to your childhood.
When we're young, we depend on our parents or main caregivers for survival. As a result, we become very attached to them and their way of doing things. So, say a caretaker scolds you for being outspoken, there's a chance that you won't feel safe speaking your mind from that point on, even as an adult.
"Because what it means to you is, the person I need to love me to survive won't love me if I do this thing," Swart says. That message becomes internalized—buried within your subconscious—and can therefore become a trigger for you for seemingly no reason.
In this example, if one of your shadows is around speaking your truth, it might bother you to see other people doing so. Every time somebody is outspoken around you, it might bring up unexplainable feelings of anger and resentment since you have been programmed to believe that speaking up is not a safe thing for you to do.
Do we all have a shadow?
"The concept of the shadow [...] is generally a widely accepted perspective in analytical psychology," he says, but it's by no means the only perspective of the human psyche. Shadow work can also fall under the umbrella of self-reflection, self-examination, etc.
Regardless of what you call it, "Most therapists are tapped with helping clients make the unconscious conscious, which is a fundamental tenet of shadow work," Caraballo explains. "As a therapist, I subscribe to the belief that we all have a version of a shadow that, when integrated, can be well-accepted and help us better manage our own mental health and relationships."
How to do shadow work.
So, how do you actually do shadow work? As Caraballo and Swart explain, it's all about bringing the unconscious mind to our conscious awareness. "This is something psychoanalytic theorists (like Jung and Freud) prized as important to maintaining psychological health," Caraballo tells mbg.
It's typically done with a "Socratic approach" of questioning and exploration. This entails asking objective questions that elicit critical thinking and a reexamination of old stories and beliefs we hold about ourselves.
"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 says.
And while it is often work done with the help of a mental health professional, you can begin to explore your shadow solo too, by examining your thoughts, feelings, and assumptions. Below, you'll find some prompts to help you do so.
The benefits of shadow work:
Tapping into your intuition.
Depending on what kinds of things you've tucked into your own shadow, there's a good chance shadow work can help you get in touch with your deeper knowing, or your intuition. If you were discouraged from using your intuition as a child—trusting your gut and inner compass—Swart says, "then you throw that into the shadow."
Freeing yourself from the unconscious shadow.
When we're operating at an unconscious level, our shadow effectively controls us. So while, yes, facing our shadow is hard work, it's also incredibly freeing. As Swart puts it, "It all sounds very negative, but it's really important to raise it from unconscious to conscious, and then it doesn't rule you like it can when it remains suppressed."
Empowering yourself and accepting your strengths.
"Interestingly enough, for people with very low self-esteem, they'll often put good things about themselves into their shadow because they don't feel worthy of it," Swart explains. In instances like that, shadow work offers us the chance to reclaim the gifts that make us who we are, which we've been hiding away.
Taking a step toward self-actualization.
If you're reading about shadow work, you're likely also interested in your own development and personal growth. And according to Swart, shadow work is necessary for anyone who wants to become fulfilled and self-actualized. "To become the best version of yourself, you need to know what the bad bits are that are holding you back or are hidden," she says.
When doing shadow work, don't forget to...
Watch out for your triggers.
To quote Jung himself, "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." As you're doing this work, you'll become more and more aware of the little things that trigger you—and why. So, keep an eye out.
"If there's something you've always wanted to do and you see a friend achieving that," Swart gives as an example, "then that triggers shadows, because it's like, why does that person have it and I don't?"
Give yourself grace.
Shadow work is by no means easy, and offering compassion to those parts of ourselves that we have hidden away for so long is important.
"A lot of people put off that work because they're afraid of what they'll find," Swart says. "There's so much shame associated with these factors [...], but often if you're mature enough or personally developed enough, doing shadow work can be a huge relief because you realize it's not as bad as you think."
Call on others for help.
Again, shadow work is never easy—especially if you've been through trauma. If considering the shadow sides of yourself brings about pain, suffering, or fear that you feel ill-equipped to handle, it's time to seek the help of a licensed professional.
"I think it's important for anyone doing shadow work to have things that help them feel grounded and accepted," Caraballo notes. "A nonjudgmental therapist can go a long way to help with this, but we also need our own tools that help us reaffirm and accept ourselves as we face the more difficult feelings, and parts, of ourselves."
Exercises and prompts for getting started with shadow work:
Think about someone who triggers you.
"One way in which the shadow shows up for us is in what we find most distasteful or difficult in others," Caraballo says. "Often these images are a reflection of parts of ourselves that we find unlikable."
So, a good place to start with shadow work would be to think of someone who bothers you, and reflect on what it is about that person that might also be within you, he says. To figure this out, he recommends asking yourself gentle questions such as:
- What is it about this person that I don't like?
- Do I find that I have some of those same traits sometimes?
- What makes it so difficult to be around them?
- What parts of me does that person enliven when I'm around them? And how do I feel about that part of myself?
Examine your family tree.
Swart provides another starter exercise to dip your toes into shadow work: analyzing your family tree.
"Make a family tree of your two sets of grandparents, all of your aunts and uncles, and your parents because they're the generations above you whose attributes—good and bad—might be in you," she explains. This practice is all about getting honest enough to say, "I love my family, but one of my uncles drinks too much," Swart gives as an example.
The next step is to really look at all those qualities that exist within your family, and ask if any of those things are in you.
Confront your shadow.
Another exercise involves meditating on, and confronting, your own shadow. Once you've got a clear (or at least somewhat clear) view of the aspects of your shadow self, you can begin the work of confronting and releasing them with positive affirmations such as:
- I allow the darkest shadow that's buried within me to be released.
- I release fear; I release doubt; I release shame; I release insecurity.
The bottom line.
In this life, some of our greatest lessons will come from looking at the parts of ourselves we hide away. Because when we can bring our shadow to the surface, heal, and integrate those lessons into our lives, we evolve exponentially. After all, it was Jung who said, "There is no coming to consciousness without pain."
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Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.