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Shadow work. What is it? How do I do it? Why would I do it?

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

The shadow self is term coined by psychologist Carl Jung. It is the concept that there is an unconscious side to our personalities. Hidden aspects of us that form the way we think, feel and behave that are unknown to our conscious selves. Often people think of the shadow self as being dark and contains those parts of us that are ‘negative’. But if we can shift our perspective a little, we can start to also see the hidden ‘positive’ parts of us also.

When we use the terms positive and negative, judgment is placed upon something as being good or bad. Perhaps another way of viewing it could be light or heavy. We can apply this filter of light or heavy to all aspects of our lives. Our relationships, our work, our feelings, thoughts or behaviours.

Shadow work is shining a light onto those parts of ourselves that perhaps we have repressed or have been unable to accept as a part of us. To bring to the attention of the conscious mind the heavier ways we have been truly feeling or behaving. To begin to understand and accept that heaviness without judgement, we can start to really embody the lighter parts. Very often we project those heavier parts onto others. What we find uncomfortable, undesirable or even repellent in others, may well be a reflection of what is really going on inside of us. Like a fairground mirror, what we perceive may not necessarily be true. Our shadow filters could be distorting the nature of our reality.

Perhaps we are triggered by a person in our lives. It could be an offhand comment by a stranger or repeated behaviour from someone we love that really gets to us. It provides us with an emotional response that we may then repeat again and again in our minds and bodies. We may feel hurt or outraged, and that then affects the way we view ourselves and interact with others. Then every time we see them or something that reminds us of that trigger, it brings up that same feeling in our body, and we have the same associated thoughts. It then re-confirms and compounds that pattern and affects the way we interact with the world.

If we can delve inside to understand why that comment or behaviour is bothering us so much, we can start to see it in a different light. If we can start to acknowledge and accept the part of us that is angry or hurt, we can start to release the emotional charge we have towards it, which in turn can change our thoughts. We can discover new ways of thinking and feeling that are lighter, which can become our greatest strengths, our hidden gifts.

As an example, perhaps you have a friend that has a constant need to be acknowledged as right about anything and everything. They always need to have the last word and will criticise people that they deem to be wrong. Perhaps that makes you angry, and you find yourself stooping to their levels in an effort to prove that they’re not correct. You end up justifying yourself in messages or conversations and become the very thing you didn’t like about them. Every time they open their mouth, or you see their name pop up you’re already bracing yourself and starting to feel that anger rising up inside. Or you overthink everything before responding to ensure they cannot criticise it.

Why has their criticism and need to be right bothered you so much? On some level, are you like that yourself? Well yes, in a way you are, because that’s exactly what you’ve become. You can blame the other person for that, or you can take responsibility for it. So why? Why do you also feel the need to be acknowledged as right? What’s really going on inside? Has something happened in the past where your feelings or thoughts haven’t been heard? Did someone very close to you dismiss what you were experiencing in a difficult moment for you? Whatever it may be, why not try to examine it in more detail and start to bring it up to the surface. Perhaps you’re actually feeling angry towards yourself for not speaking up in a critical moment. In what other ways has that been affecting you and the way that you live? You can delve as deeply into it as you wish. Sometimes it can be difficult and emotional to do so. To be really be truthful to yourself about how you really are can be painful, and you might not always like what you discover.

Now that you’ve found a shadow part, what then? Understanding, and more importantly accepting how you’ve been operating without judgement; you can start to change it. Give yourself a break and embrace that part of you and give it love for the teaching it has given you. After all, it’s been hiding away without you even knowing about it. It’s not good or bad, it’s just heavy. Each one of us has the capacity to change in every moment. How would you like to be from now on? In which ways would you like to be different? What lessons can you learn from this experience of self-exploration? Next time you’re communicating with your triggering friend, how will you react? Perhaps you can even start to see them in a new light and be grateful to them for giving you this learning opportunity. In fact, your new ways of behaving with this person can start to become your greatest strength.

Perhaps it can allow you to take a step back in other situations in your life, rather than reacting emotionally where you may say or do something you’d regret later. Now you may approach situations very differently and assess the facts of the situation before having an opinion. Perhaps you don’t need to form an opinion yet until you have more facts to hand. You can find new and creative ways to react in a calm and measured way. People may start to comment on how you’re good in a crisis at work as you don’t lose your head. If you’re not giving your friend the friction they crave, they may start to be less critical. If you let them believe that they’re right, it may lose its shine for them. You can respect each other’s differences and learn from them. Your relationship with them may start to feel lighter, and you can focus on more ways that you agree with each other, bringing more harmony to each other’s lives.

Next time you’re triggered by something or someone, will you just allow it to happen, or will you take a step back to be the observer? Where is the gold of your greatest potential hiding? In which ways can your heaviest parts become the lightest?

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