Shadow-work: The Source of Love and Light in Our Lives
Carl Jung, a 20th-century Swiss psychologist, spent his life studying the human personality and mind. Among his numerous developments in psychoanalysis was the idea of the “shadow self.” The fact that this phrase includes the word “shadow” might come off a little spooky at first, but this is nothing to be wary of!
In Jung’s own words:
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
The concept of the shadow self is based on the notion that we figuratively bury those piecesof personality that we fear would not be welcomed, accepted, or loved by others; therefore, we keep them in the “shadows.” In short, our shadow selves are the versions of ourselves that we do not show society. the Shadow is our dark side; our lost and forgotten disowned self. Your Shadow is the place within you that contains all of your secrets, repressed feelings, primitive impulses, and parts deemed “unacceptable,” shameful, “sinful” or even “evil.” This hidden place lurking within your unconscious mind also contains suppressed and rejected emotions such as rage, jealousy, hatred, greed, deceitfulness, and selfishness.
Your Shadow side was formed in childhood and is both (a) a product of natural ego development, and (b) a product of conditioning or socialization. Socialization is the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. This “shadow self” is the parts of ourselves that have been pushed down to the unconscious — the parts that we’re insecure about, ashamed of, or frustrated with and therefore repress.
However, as tempting as it is to suppress our shadow self and focus only on ‘love and light’, discovering and owning every part of ourselves is a vital part of our spiritual journey.
Often, the shadow self manifests by causing us to feel triggered by someone else’s words or actions, to experience inner tension and cognitive dissonance, to judge or lash out at others, or to feel insecure and held back. When the human Shadow is shunned, it tends to undermine and sabotage our lives. Addictions, low self-esteem, mental illness, chronic illnesses, and various neuroses are all attributed to the Shadow Self. When our Shadows are suppressed or repressed in the unconscious long enough, they can even overtake our entire lives and cause psychosis or extreme forms of behavior like cheating on one’s partner or physically harming others. Intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs also have a tendency to unleash the Shadow.
Both religion and modern spirituality have a tendency to focus on the “love and light” aspects of spiritual growth to their own doom. This over-emphasis on the fluffy, transcendental, and feel-good elements of a spiritual awakening results in shallowness and phobia of whatever is too real, earthy, or dark. Spiritually bypassing one’s inner darkness results in a whole range of serious issues. Some of the most common and reoccurring Shadow issues that appear in the spiritual/religious community include pedophilia among priests, financial manipulation of followers among gurus, and of course, megalomania, narcissism, and God complexes among spiritual teachers.
When you ignore it, your shadow will find ways to make you aware that it exists. This can lead to issues like:
Hypocrisy (believing and supporting one thing, but doing the other)
Lies and self-deceit (both towards oneself and others)
Uncontrollable bursts of rage/anger
Emotional and mental manipulation of others
Greed and addictions
Phobias and obsessive compulsions
Racist, sexist, homophobic, and other offensive behavior
Chronic psychosomatic illness
Depression (which can turn into suicidal tendencies)
Narcissistically inflated ego
Chaotic relationships with others
Self-loathing or poor self-esteem
Anxiety and depression
Offensive behavior toward others
Struggling to have healthy relationships with others
… and many others. This is by no means a comprehensive list (and there are likely many other issues out there). As we’ll learn next, one of the greatest ways we reject our Shadows is through psychological projection.
When you reject your shadow, you may also start projecting onto others. Projection happens when you see things in others that you subconsciously recognize within yourself. Those parts can make you uncomfortable. As a result, you can seek to judge or punish others who reflect those traits. We may criticize, reject, hate, dehumanize, or even in extreme cases, physically or psychologically seek to destroy those on whom we project our Shadows(e.g., think of countries who go at war with the “enemies”).
None of us are innocent in this area. We have ALL projected parts of our rejected Shadow Selves onto others. In fact, Shadow projection is a major cause of relationship dysfunction and break down. If we are seeking to bring peace, love, and meaning to our lives, we absolutely MUST reclaim these projections. Through Shadow Work, we can explore exactly what we have disowned.
As authors and psychotherapists Steve Wolf and Connie Zweig note:
“Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality, and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life.”
In other words, the Shadow isn’t just the centrally wounded part of us, but it also provides a path towards a more authentic and fulfilling life. In order to heal and grow on a mental, emotional, and spiritual level, we need to integrate all our parts, even the shadows. Thankfully, there is a way to explore the Shadow and prevent it from devouring our existence, and that is called Shadow Work.
Jung once stated that “the shadow is ninety percent pure gold.” What this means is that there are many beautiful gifts offered to us by our Shadow side if we take the time to look. For example, so much of our creative potential is submerged within our darkness because we were taught when little to reject it.
Not everything within our Shadow is doom and gloom. In fact, the Shadow contains some of our most powerful gifts and talents, such as our artistic, sexual, competitive, innovative, and even intuitive aptitudes.
The ‘Golden Shadow’ also presents us with the opportunity for tremendous psychological and spiritual growth. By doing Shadow Work, we learn that every single emotion and wound that we possess has a gift to share with us. Even the most obnoxious, “ugly,” or shameful parts of ourselves provide a path back to Wholeness. Such is the power of the Shadow – it is both a terrifying journey, but it is ultimately a path to Spiritual Enlightenment or Illumination. Every spiritual path needs Shadow Work in order to authentically Be Love and Shine the Light.
So what is shadow work? Shadow work is the process of working with our shadow selves to eradicate their negative effects in our lives and to integrate the separate parts of ourselves into one whole. This is the practice of loving what is, and setting the shame and judgements free, so that we can be our true selves. Shadow work facilitates us becoming whole again. It works on the premise that you must 100% OWN your Shadow, rather than avoiding or repressing it, to experience deep healing.
Proponents of shadow work say it can help heal generational trauma, allow people to rethink the messages they send children in their life, cope with emotions in more constructive ways, and feel more whole.
During your Shadow work practice you may have to face traumas or difficult past experiences, which can be tough to handle. If you're not careful, shadow work can leave you feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and even traumatized. It's crucial to approach shadow work cautiously and go at your own pace. For those whose shadow is associated with trauma, this type of work helps you work through trauma to embrace the part of yourself that’s been suppressed or shamed throughout your life.
Shadow work is, at heart, about developing self-awareness and ultimately, self-acceptance and compassion. Shadow work is often both therapy and more spiritual, helping you see the different parts of yourself. For people who have been especially good at avoiding their shadow — for instance, because it is too far different from your own self-perception or desired impression — shadow work is about acknowledging the existence of shadows and getting curious about exploring them. By accepting your shadow self, you can start to see how your thoughts and emotions influence your behavior. When you’re aware of this, you can take control and empower yourself to live life more deliberately and consciously. You can start to show up as your authentic self.
Traditionally, Shadow Work fell in the realm of the Shamans, or medicine people, as well as the priests and priestesses of the archaic periods of history. These days, Shadow Work falls more commonly in the realms of psychotherapy, with psychologists, psychiatrists, spiritual guides, and therapists showing the way.
Please note: Shadow Work exercises should not be undertaken if you struggle with low self-esteem. Before doing Shadow Work, we strongly and emphatically encourage you to work on cultivating Self-Love. Shadow Work should only be undertaken by those who have healthy and stable self-worth and a friendly relationship with themselves. This daunting and often frightening task is a requirement of every person. But you don’t have to go at it alone. Shadow work can be done in therapy, but there are some exercises you can do on your own.
Some Benefits of shadow work can include:
Deeper love and acceptance of yourself
Better relationships with others, including your partner and children
More confidence to be your authentic self
More mental, emotional, and spiritual clarity
Increased compassion and understanding for others, particularly those you dislike
Discovery of hidden gifts and talents
Deepened understanding of your passions and ultimate life purpose
Improved physical and mental health
More courage to face the unknown and truly live life
Access to your Soul or Higher Self
A feeling of Wholeness as a person
healing generational trauma
learning healthy ways to meet your needs
It’s important to remember that there are no quick fixes in Shadow Work, so these life-changing benefits don’t just happen overnight. But with persistence, they will eventually emerge and bless your life.
Here is a list of five questions to ask yourself before starting shadow work:
Who am I?
What do I want?
What do I have to let go of to get the things I desire?
Who do I have to become to receive those things?
How do I want to show up?
And here are some simple ways to begin your own shadow work practice...
Review your childhood. Ask yourself: Which emotions were you punished for having? Many children get told to “get over” their anger or sadness. As a result, those emotions get repressed. We grow up believing they’re bad and that we’re bad for having them.
2. Become aware of your shadow. We are unaware of the shadow in the same way we can't see in the darkness. However, it’s not always easy to come to terms with our shadow selves. To do this, you can start by spotting habits you may have. Habits can be good, but they can also be negative. What patterns do you tend to replicate repeatedly in your life that you feel are holding you back? You should also pay attention to your triggers to spot your shadow. Triggers remind you of past trauma, which is usually associated with your shadow. Those triggers are messages to help you realize your shadow wants to be seen. Finally, you can spot your shadow by noticing yourself projecting. One way you can do this is by using the mirror technique. This technique can be uncomfortable at first. However, it can allow you to uncover who your shadow self really is. To practice the mirror technique, pay attention to how you think and feel when you interact with others. When negative feelings come up, ask yourself if you may be projecting.
3. Don't shame the shadow. Once you become aware of your shadow self, don't shame or blame it. Your shadow is you and we all long to feel whole so it is more that we long to feel integrated, whole, and complete in our lives. Embrace your shadow and have some compassion for yourself. Remember that it’s tough not to feel accepted, including (or especially) by yourself. Practice loving words of affirmation toward yourself (including your shadow).
4. Use Your Triggers. Triggers are Clues Notice the triggers that cause emotional reactions within you. Then, you can meditate on them so that you can step back and observe what’s happening.
5. Observe without judgment. When emotions come up, allow yourself to have them.
6. Keep a Shadow Journal. A shadow journal is a safe and practical way to express all sides of yourself. You can let out your thoughts, both light and dark, using the written word. Make it a daily practice to sit down and write in your journal. Don’t censor yourself. Write whatever comes up without overthinking it. At first, what comes up may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to lean into it if you want your shadow self to feel heard. Here are some Journal prompts to get you started. These challenging journal prompts and questions will reveal your truths and help you to promote deep healing from within. You can use them in any way that you see fit. If you feel inclined to use one prompt a day then go with your instincts and follow the guidance from the Divine.
What are your triggers and what caused them?
Is there anyone you hold a grudge against? If so, what is holding you back from letting go and moving on?
Do you feel misunderstood? If yes, what misconceptions do people have of you?
What do you dislike about yourself most?
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done and why did you do it?
Are you happy with where you are in your life? Is there anything that you can do to improve it?
Over the years of our own Shadow work practice, we have found help and support from Spirit Guides such as our Ancestors and Guardian Angels to be indispensable. One such guide that provides exceptional support is Anubis. We have come to know Anubis as a Master Shadow Guardian. In his role as the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife as well as the patron god of lost souls and the helpless, he has unparalleled wisdom in navigating the liminal spaces of our Being.
As Shamans and Medicine workers, we have the highest respect for Shadow Work. It is the single most important path we’ve taken to uncover our core wounds, core beliefs, traumas, and projections. We have also observed how Shadow Work has helped to create profound clarity, understanding, harmony, acceptance, release, and inner peace in the lives of others. It is truly deep work that makes changes on the Soul level, targeting the very roots of our issues, not just the superficial symptoms.
There is much to be gained from making Shadow Work a part of your life and daily routine. If you’re looking for serious, deep, authentic, and long-lived healing in your life, Shadow Work is the perfect pathway to experiencing profound inner transformation. Remember that what you internalize is almost always externalized in one form or another.
“To confront a person with his own shadow is to show him his own light.”
— Carl Jung