Notes on Shadow Work

What is Shadow Work?

The term “Shadow Work” gets thrown around a lot these days but often without an explanation. Perhaps it is because the process itself can look vastly different from one person to the next. The intent behind shadow work (sometimes referred to as underworld descent) is to uncover internal parts of ourselves that have been consciously or unconsciously repressed for any number of reasons. Essentially, our shadow is comprised of our blind spots: things we can’t see about ourselves. These often pop up in the form of triggers and/or very strong reactions to other people or situations.

Throughout our lives, we learn to repress parts of ourselves that society may deem inappropriate. Often, we do this to better fit in with family and our peers. This is important as our survival has historically relied upon our integration with our community. However, this stifling of our expression can lead to unwanted thoughts and behaviors, and over time can become quite destructive. It is in recognizing how these shadows affect our interactions and narratives that we begin to lessen our burden and gain emotional maturity.

Shadow work stems from the teachings of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. This work seeks to address the “negative” or “unflattering” impulses and aspects of our personality and learn how they came about. Often this can include jealousy, greed, rage, and sometimes unwelcome or troublesome desires. One of the more benign examples is if we were told as a child to be “seen and not heard,” the idea of public speaking as an adult can be paralyzing. Most of our shadows are born in childhood. As children, our capacity for joy, creativity, and curiosity are celebrated yet this is only part of our experiences in youth. We also experience anger, envy, and greed. Even expressing ourselves as silly or vocal in school was often met with negativity. These traits are experienced throughout our lifetimes, but it is in suppressing them as a child that they begin to take on a new shape. This reinforcement of reward for “good” behaviours and punishment for “bad” behaviours in childhood begins to take on the news shape: our shadow selves. 

As we work to accept and love all parts of ourselves, including those aspects that are contrary, we become further integrated human beings. Over time, we find that we are less sensitive to the behavior and comments of other people. This work is vital and a life-long journey. 

If you would like a wonderful resource for deep self-acceptance, I highly recommend the book “Existential Kink” by Carolyn Elliot, Ph.D. While not for the pearl-clutching lot, it is an intelligent but accessible and refreshing approach. 

Until our paths cross again…

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