The “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.
The concept of the shadow self is based on the notion that we figuratively bury those pieces of 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.
So what is shadow work? This is the practice of loving what is, and setting the shame and judgements free, so that we can be our true selves.
As Victor Hugo famously said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves”.
What is the Shadow Self?
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!
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.
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.
Sometimes, we’ve pushed little bits of ourselves so far away from us over the course of a lifetime that we don’t even know what is tucked away in the shadow self. (In a sense, we often don’t know what we don’t know!) The bringing to light, processing, and re-accepting of those little bits — piece by piece and one by one — in order to reach a full, whole, and integrated self is what makes up shadow work.
Essentially, shadow work is a form of psychoanalysis (as psychoanalysis is at the core of Jungian psychology). Regardless of the term used to describe it, though, Jung argued that the integration of the compartmentalized versions of the self is a powerful thing.
How Does Shadow Work Provide?
While shadow work isn’t easy, as it is often accompanied by the sting of past rejection, the healing of the split between the conscious self and the shadow self can be a life-changing process. Per Jung, “shadow work is the path of the heart warrior.”
Jung believed that such a process could help to create a balanced life and a sense of harmony within the self. Feeling whole, rather than fractured, can create a new sense of freedom, releasing us to look at life differently and experience new things we wouldn’t or couldn’t before.
Addressing the emotional baggage long buried in our shadows can allow us to show up more wholly and intentionally for our commitments and relationships in life, whether that’s being a better partner, sibling, child, parent, teacher, mentor, friend, or any of the countless other roles we fill throughout our lives. Shadow work also allows us to feel greater senses of power and personal agency in an ever-changing and sometimes limiting world.
By growing us into the truest versions of ourselves that we’ve ever been, shadow work practically guarantees greater authenticity in everything we do.
Finally, by accepting and healing the parts of ourselves which we’ve allocated to our shadows, we can learn to express those characteristics in healthy ways, rather than suppressing them until they manifest in unhealthy, uncontrollable ways (like lashing out at others in anger or creating a toxic body image and inner dialogue). Even beyond that, this acceptance can blossom into a deep sense of self-love.
Shadow Work Methods
Though therapy and professional help is sometimes the answer, shadow work is something we can do for ourselves as well. Here are some methods:
Suspend judgement on yourself : Shadow work is a practice of healing and self-growth, which means that it requires surrender and acceptance. Instead of attacking everything that you don’t want to think, feel, or address, go into this process with an attitude of compassion for yourself and your experiences. Treat yourself with patience and kindness, and you’ll find shadow work to be more effective and less difficult.
Ask why: Doing shadow work can be visualized as pulling up a rope from a deep hole. Asking ourselves and then answering the question, “Why?” over and over again is like hoisting that rope up further and further. This repetitive questioning of the emotions we feel, the behaviors we engage in, and the experiences from our past which have affected us help to uncover layer after layer of the shadow self. For example, asking why another person’s behavior triggers us to react in a certain way can lead us to examine the specific emotions experienced in that situation.
Then, asking why we feel those emotions (like anger or anxiety) can perhaps bring us to a deeper layer of emotions (such as bigger, abstract fears or a reminder of a past trauma). Asking ourselves where those deeper emotions stem from takes it even further, and so on. The bottom line: everything is connected, so let one discovery lead you to the next.
Journal: Journaling allows us to do a figurative “brain dump” in order to better process thoughts and feelings. That processing, in turn, leads to a greater awareness of those thoughts and feelings. In addition, consistently jotting these kinds of things down (either on paper or somewhere digital like the notes app on your cell phone) can help us to see things from a broader perspective, make connections, and find patterns in our emotions, actions, and past experiences. Overall, the reflective nature of journaling makes it powerful for self-growth processes like shadow work.
Meditate: Sometimes, just sitting in stillness is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Meditation is one of the most effective tools available to us for forming better self-awareness, and consistent meditation practice can allow us to become more in tune with our minds, our actions, and our overall selves. Often, meditation sets the stage for significant breakthroughs and emotional healing.
Talk to somebody: Whether you’d prefer to put yourself in a professional setting with a therapist or to simply talk to a close friend or family member, having someone who can help you process through your feelings and experiences might be beneficial if you are having trouble figuring everything out on your own. Furthermore, an outside or objective opinion can help you to see things that you might not yet be aware of.
Break down limiting beliefs: By slowly unpacking a lifetime’s worth of difficult or painful emotions, it is possible to uncover the foundations of many of our limiting beliefs about ourselves. For example, do you feel unqualified to apply for a job you want? Are you afraid to take a trip you’ve always dreamed of? Often, these things have roots in our shadow selves. Whether those roots are fear, rejection, insecurity, or any number of other feelings or experiences long pushed aside, addressing them, understanding them, healing them, and letting them go can be immensely freeing. Shadow work can take the power out of the things that hold us back, allowing us to grow into stronger, more authentic versions of ourselves who are better equipped to go after our goals and dreams.
Take an individual approach: We all have our preferred ways of getting more in touch with ourselves and experiencing personal growth. Maybe it’s going for a hike in order to spend some time alone just clearing your mind and reflecting; or, maybe it’s an EFT session that makes you feel most introspective. Regardless of what it is, roll with whatever works for you! What’s important is not the method, but the process.
No matter how we get there, greater self-awareness leads to relief, growth, freedom, and authenticity! Besides, what the world needs more than ever are people who have confidence, know who they are, love themselves, and are empowered.