Shadow work is recognizing and understanding the dark side of our personality. It was coined by Carl Jung and is essential to leading a fulfilling life.
Many years ago, a couple I knew well and loved dearly had a baby. It goes without saying that I was really happy for them. I went to see them and they told me the name they’d chosen for their child. They had taken the first three letters of both of their first names to make the new name for their baby.
They said that they had combined their love to make a baby, so when it came to naming her, they felt they should combine their names too. Instantly, I thought, ‘How pretentious’. As soon as the thought arrived, it disappeared. I didn’t know at the time, but my shadow self had emerged and shadow work could have helped me understand my feelings.
Carl Jung and Shadow Work
We all think that we know ourselves pretty well. I mean, if anyone knows who we are, it’s us, right? We also like to think that we have high morals, good values, and integrity.
However, what if I told you there are parts of your personality that you despise so much so you hide them away? This is your shadow self. But shadow work can help.
“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole.” Carl Jung
Carl Jung is responsible for identifying the ‘shadow’ in our personality. The shadow represents any traits in our personality that we don’t like, so we repress them in our unconscious mind.
However, because they are repressed, we can’t acknowledge that these thoughts or feelings exist. So what is shadow work and how can it help us heal from these repressed perceptions?
What Is Shadow Work?
Shadow work is the process of acknowledging and accepting the hidden parts of your personality.
In order to live a balanced life, we have to acknowledge the shadow. Sure, we might think we are whole and complete and as such, we have no need for introspection. But nobody is perfect. This is where Carl Jung’s shadow work is so essential.
This is because it identifies the areas that we are hiding from ourselves. It shines a light of perspective where before there was darkness. It is hard for us to be fully objective when it comes to self-analysis. Particularly when we are talking about our good and dark side.
No one wants to admit to having bad traits. It is much easier to concentrate on our strengths than our weaknesses. After all, who wants to own up to feeling jealous about a friend’s success? Or having racist thoughts? Or being selfish once in a while?
But this isn’t about finger-pointing or blaming. It is about understanding, processing, learning, and moving on to become a better person. What’s the point of focusing on all our good qualities? How do we learn if we don’t address our flaws?
“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.” Jung
What Can You Achieve with Shadow Work?
- Understand yourself better
- Work on ending destructive behaviors
- Be able to understand other people
- Have a clearer perception of who you really are
- Have better communication with others
- Feel happier about your life
- Enhanced integrity
- Have better relationships
How to Do Shadow Work?
Before you embark on shadow work, it is important to take some time to prepare yourself. Shadow work can reveal parts of your personality you might not be fully ready to acknowledge. So you need to be mentally and physically able to accept whatever will be revealed.
How to Prepare Yourself for Shadow Work?
You can do this by looking back over your life and recognizing the things you are grateful for. Appreciate that you are a miracle of life, that you are an individual with strengths and weaknesses like everybody else.
You are a product of your environment and your family. Remind yourself that no one is expected to be perfect. That you have chosen to confront your shadow and do the work to better understand yourself.
Be compassionate about yourself. Accept that you are human with all that entails. We are all vulnerable beings, prone to influences beyond our control. You are taking the first step to enlightenment. Be gentle with yourself on your journey.
For shadow work to succeed, you have to be brutally honest with yourself. There is no hiding or making excuses. You have to confront your worst fears about your own personality and character.
Some revelations may come as a complete shock and surprise. But don’t let that stop you from delving deeper. There is a reason you are here, right now, reading this. Stay on the journey. It may be uncomfortable at times, but it will be worth it.
5 Ways to Use Carl Jung’s Shadow Work
1. Recurring themes
Many experts on the subject suggest that you begin with writing down what makes you react particularly emotionally. What are your emotional triggers? Try to ask yourself the following shadow work questions:
- Is there are a recurring theme to your reactions?
- Do you have a tendency to get into arguments over the same topic? In other words, what pushes your buttons?
- What gets your motor going?
- What do you react to?
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Jung
2. Emotional reactions
Pay attention to the specific ways you react to people and situations. See if there is a recurrent theme or pattern. Once you’ve identified a pattern, you can then address it.
For example, I have a particular dislike of people with posh accents. To me, anyone speaking with a plum in their mouth is putting it on. It was only when I really thought about it that I realized it highlighted my own insecurities about growing up on a poor council estate.
Now, when I hear someone who is well-spoken, I understand that they are not doing anything wrong to me. It is my perception of them that’s making me feel insecure. I’ve stopped reacting to something that has got nothing to do with me. And that’s how shadow work can help.
3. Identify patterns
First, you begin to identify patterns. Then you can analyze and understand them within the context of your life. Once you’ve understood them, you can discard them and move on. You are now processing these thoughts and feelings.
Remember, in the past, you found these thoughts so unacceptable that you’ve had to bury them. It is only once you have identified the specific patterns in your shadow that you can begin to work out how to deal with them.
4. Write it down in a shadow work journal
It helps to keep some sort of record or journal while you are doing shadow work. This is so you can get everything out of your head and onto paper. It is a little like decluttering your mind.
You don’t have to worry about any kind of structure to your thoughts. Just let them spill out onto the page. You can always rewrite them later. The important thing is to get them recorded while you are thinking about them.
5. Write a letter to yourself
Another one of the shadow work exercises people find helpful is to write a letter to themselves which expresses sorrow or regret at their thoughts and feelings. You can say in the letter how you are attempting to clear yourself with shadow work.
You can give yourself permission to be forgiving in the letter. Remind yourself that you are not the only one with a shadow self.
What Is Your Shadow Self Hiding?
In the process of doing shadow work, you may reveal some repressed thoughts and feelings you had no idea were there. It’s easier to understand if I give you a couple of examples of the kind of things I’m talking about.
The example I talked about at the start of this article was jealousy. I didn’t realize at the time, but my criticism of the child’s name stemmed from my jealous feelings towards the parents. Instead of confronting the way I felt about my jealous feelings, I lashed out at their choice of name for their child.
It made me feel better about my situation that although they might have everything I want, at least they couldn’t even choose a good name for their kid.
Human beings make quick judgments on other people’s appearances all the time. It is natural and has led to a boom in the cosmetic surgery industry. But some people make sweeping judgments on people because of their race or color.
Society has a zero-tolerance of racial prejudice. So rather than address their feelings, some people repress their views for fear of confrontation.
In today’s society, there is a tendency to have to take ownership of everything that happens to us. But some things are out of our control. Refugees fleeing wars, terrorist bombings, and devastating famines.
This doesn’t stop some people from putting the blame on the victims on these incidents. Despite the fact they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why Do You Need to Do Shadow Work?
So those are the kinds of things I’m talking about. The characteristics in our personality we don’t admit but are there. They are just hidden from us.
But if they are hidden, what’s the problem? They are not doing any damage? They are in our unconscious mind just lying dormant.
Well, take my jealousy issue. How does my being jealous of other people help me achieve my own goals in life? Why am I measuring myself against other people in the first place? We know that’s not healthy. It’s not good to be envious and covet the things other people have.
It’s much better to create your own goals. To be grateful for the things you already have. Not to constantly measure your achievements against the things other people have.
I saw a drawing once that summed this up beautifully.
A man is in an expensive sports car and next to him is a second man in an ordinary car. The second man looks at the first and wishes he could have the expensive car. Next to him is a third man on a motorbike who wishes he could have the ordinary car. Next to him is a fourth man on a pushbike who wishes he could have the motorbike. Then a fifth man walking past wishes he could have the pushbike. Finally, there’s a disabled man watching from a window in a house wishing he could walk.
So we know that jealousy is not a good characteristic and that it can be destructive. But there’s another reason why shadow work is so important.
Although we find it very difficult to see undesirable traits in ourselves, we spot them very easily in others. In fact, the easiest ones to spot are the traits that reflect the ones we hide in ourselves. This is ‘projection’.
“Unless we do conscious work on it, the shadow is almost always projected: this is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it.” Robert Johnson
What is happening is that our minds are prodding us to deal with these undesirable traits. But because we can’t face them in our own selves, we seek them out in others. We are punishing other people for our own flaws. And that’s not fair.
The opposite of projection is ‘reflection’. This is a quality we admire in another person that we lack in ourselves. Reflections are attributes we want to embody. We are envious of these qualities and jealous of those who have them.
The thing is, shadow work isn’t just about making us better people or stopping us from attacking those around us that remind us of our worse traits. It can help us heal from trauma, mental health issues, low self-esteem, and more.
Shadow work isn’t about dredging up unwanted repressed thoughts or desires that make us feel uncomfortable. It is about confronting the side of ourselves we feel we need to hide away. Because it is only once we have faced this side of ourselves can we acknowledge it exists.
It takes a lot of courage and a lack of ego to carry out shadow work. But Carl Jung believed it was necessary to live a fulfilling life. Because only once you know what is hiding in the dark can you feel really happy in the light.