The shadow self houses all the negative aspects of ourselves that we have difficulty accepting. Many of us are afraid of facing darkness. Our first instinct is to suppress it and conform to societal norms, but your shadow self-craves to be seen and understood. Not coming to terms with it harms your wellbeing. Shining a light into your shadow will liberate you to live a life of love, balance, and joy. Find out everything you need to know about the shadow self and whether shadow work is suitable for you in your current circumstances. (Estimated reading time; 11 minutes)
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”— Carl Jung
One of my favorite movies as a kid was Peter Pan. No matter how many times I watched it, my heart would instantly swell with hope and joy.
This beloved tale about “the boy who couldn’t grow up” has all the elements of a wistful fantasy steeped in the imaginative spirit of a child: fairies, mermaids, pirates, and the ability to fly – all depicted against a background of dazzling storybook visuals from Edwardian England and the magical realm of Neverland.
However, Peter Pan’s shadow always puzzled me. During one of his visits to the Darling’s home to listen to Wendy’s story, their dog Nana barks at him. While Peter escapes, his shadow is captured. Later, Wendy discovers it and stores it in her drawer.
The night that Peter returns to retrieve his shadow, he finds it but accidentally wakes Wendy up. She laughs when she notices Peter trying to stick his shadow back on with soap and instead offers to sew it back on.
I have rewatched Peter Pan many times as an adult. Each time the narrative is enriched by my understanding of life through the experience I gain.
The metaphor of Peter Pan’s shadow first made sense to me after I learned about Jungian psychology at university and through books. It also gave me a glimpse of my inner demons.
Whether it was my envy of slimmer and prettier girls or my sense of entitlement stemming from princess syndrome, I was ashamed of having these feelings. I knew it was wrong and that it was bringing out the worst in me, so I decided to look more into shadow work.
I soon realized that I was not alone. We all have some version of Peter Pan’s shadow, and the sooner we integrate it, the easier life becomes.
Peter Pan knew that a part of him was missing without his shadow. He knew he had to deal with it and embrace it as part of who he was to feel stronger in the face of peril.
What is the shadow self and how does it develop?
There are two sides to everything in life. Light and dark. Summer and winter. Joy and sorrow. Chaos and order. We cannot fully experience a whole and well-rounded life without this duality.
Many of us are afraid of facing darkness. Our first instinct is to suppress the darkest side of ourselves and conform to societal norms. The parts of us we don’t reveal lie behind a veil of decorum and niceness. This unsavory aspect of our persona is the shadow self.
The shadow self is a part of us that houses everything we have difficulty accepting: rage, negativity, deceit, greed, and any other primitive impulses. Pushed into the deep corners of our subconscious mind, it is forgotten until it rears its ugly head.
The disowned shadow self is unleashed in addiction, self-sabotage, low self-esteem, anger, and sometimes violence and abuse. It’s not uncommon to see seemingly normal people do something outrageous. How often have we heard people who knew murderers say, “but they seemed so normal!”
Your shadow self-craves to be seen and understood. Not coming to terms with it harms your wellbeing. Rejecting the shadow can cause several symptoms like:
- Projection, judgment, and hurting those who have those traits
- Inflated ego and self-absorption
- Rudeness and offensive behavior
- Self-loathing and insecurity
- Being easily triggered and offended
- Prejudice and stereotyping
- Refusing to accept other’s perspectives
Ignoring these feelings can cause them to intensify and even result in an outburst of emotions that can inflict pain. Like a ticking time bomb, it’s bound to explode.
Where does the shadow self come from?
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung popularized the concept. He spent his life studying and analyzing the human personality and mind. The shadow self was one of the eight archetypes that he identified.
Our inner shadow depends on what we subconsciously reject, which can be traced back to early childhood experiences. For instance, if you were told that you talked too much and it was unacceptable, you’d be weighing every conversation as an adult, afraid to speak up.
Suppose you’re negotiating for a pay rise with your boss, and they seem like they need more convincing than you expected. In that case, you’re more likely to give in because it triggers your memories of saying too much and being reprimanded for it.
Jung said that honing our shadow self may allow us to “obtain a state of internal completion.” He said, “There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”
In Chinese philosophy, the Yin and Yang symbol represents the perspective of darkness balancing the light. According to the idea, light cannot exist with dark and vice versa. They are integrated and work together.
Many spiritual beliefs make us focus on love and light without addressing the malice and darkness that accompanies it. But there’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about the shadows. Just as the sun shines on one side of the moon, the other side is enveloped in darkness. They coexist in harmony, and so can we.
Does everyone have a Shadow Self?
As uncomfortable as it may sound, yes, all of us have a shadow self – no exception. Some people’s shadows are darker than others depending on how much they have integrated with their shadow, or as many therapists say, “make the unconscious conscious.”
Know that your dark side is not your fault. Social conditioning has made us believe that “a good person” does not have a shadow side. Only thieves, murderers, and criminals do.
However, the reality is that you can be a good person and still have a shadow. You can use environmentally friendly products, volunteer at homeless shelters, and take care of your grandma, but still harbor dark instincts.
Believing that you’re a paragon of virtue is unhealthy, unrealistic, and delusional. People who think they can do and say no wrong tend to deny, obfuscate the truth, and never own up to their mistakes. A person like this tends to say things like:
“I deserve recognition and applause for my good deeds.”
“Everyone likes me, and if they don’t, something’s wrong with them.”
“I’m not like other people. I’m special.”
“Felons and wrongdoers are evil and don’t deserve to be treated like humans.”
No matter what version of a shadow we have, exploring it will illuminate our path. We’ll experience happiness, love, inner peace, and fulfillment – and more importantly, we’ll respond to triggers with ease, calm, and grace.
The good news: we have a golden shadow too
There is a bonus to working with our shadow — not everything is doom and gloom. While mining your psyche, you might find that you’ve not only disowned your shadow but also your brightest self — the golden specks within your darkness.
Jung once said that the shadow is ninety percent pure gold. He meant that we could find our most powerful gifts, talents, and qualities submerged in our shadow when he said this. This includes our undiscovered creative, innovative, courageous, and magnetic aptitudes.
Many famous artists know some of their best creative ideas are submerged in the shadow self. The surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali, the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, or haunting melodies like the “Funeral March” by composer Frédéric Chopin are all products of the shadow.
One way to identify your golden shadow is by noting down the people you most admire. What are the qualities that you love most about them? The brightest qualities that you notice in others represent a golden disowned part of yourself and your untapped potential.
Your golden shadow lives behind the gates of your pain and wounds. You must first muster the courage to walk through the shadow to mine the gold within. Your golden shadow will resurrect like a phoenix rising from the ashes, ready to be revealed in all its glory.
What is shadow work?
Shadow work is the process of uncovering what’s hidden in our shadow selves. We sift through every part of us that’s been rejected and disowned, and every repressed idea, fear, and desire we have locked away.
Shadow work was traditionally done by medicine people, shamans, priests, and priestesses. Today, it is commonly practiced in psychology, psychiatry, and by other spiritual therapists.
Some people can do shadow work on their own. However, this is not recommended if you’re experiencing severe trauma, depression, or have painful memories from the past. In such cases, it’s necessary to have the support of a licensed professional to guide you through the process.
Shadow work aims to develop self-awareness and accept every part of us that’s natural to who we are. It’s about opening ourselves up to the possibilities of the unexplored parts of us and getting curious about what we could find in the process.
Once we better understand our shadow self, we begin to see how our thoughts and emotions have influenced our behavior and choices. This awareness gives us the power to be more conscious and deliberate about how we move forward.
We carry less emotional baggage and become healthier and more authentic in our roles in all our relationships, both in the personal and professional realms. Others can sense our positive and harmonious energy and will be drawn to us, which can open new doors to opportunities.
Shining a light into the shadow will help us reach a whole and integrated self. We begin to love and accept ourselves and even experience a deep sense of self-love. When done right, it can be life-changing and liberate us from the inner blocks holding us back, including vices we’ve used to soothe the pain of our neglected shadows.
What to know before doing shadow work
Shadow work can be scary, but the potential outcome of not doing it at all is scarier. Many experts say that shadow work is not unbearable since we’re already under the influence of our shadow and, therefore, familiar with its patterns.
Shadow work is even more important if you constantly get stuck in unhealthy relationship dynamics or if your thinking and behavior are causing pain, confusion, mood fluctuations, and derailing you from success.
Before you engage in shadow work, it’s good to assess whether you are ready to go on the journey. We’re all at different stages in our personal evolution. Not everyone is prepared for the intensity and rigor of facing their darker side.
Here’s a checklist that you can use to determine your readiness for shadow work:
1. You’re rooted in a strong sense of self and self-worth: Shadow work is all about tough love, and you must be strong enough to face the truth. People who have low self-esteem should work on raising their confidence before embarking on the process.
2. You’re detached from your thoughts: Observing and understanding the shadow requires a neutral stance. From a calm and centered state, you’ll be less likely to be enmeshed in the shadow and be able to work with it and heal it.
3. You’re prepared to create time and structure for it: Shadow work requires time, consistency, and dedication. You will have to make the time for it in your schedule and record your discoveries and observations.
4. You’re ready to face truths: Shadow work is not meant to be feel-good and validate you. In fact, it can be tough and confronting. It’s only for those who seek the truth, even if it hurts.
5. You have a post-shadow routine that comforts and soothes you: It’s essential to have a post-shadow work routine that includes activities like calming mindfulness practice, meditation, nature walks, a warm bath, or relaxing music. Remember to practice self-love and compassion to deal with any shame that may come up.
7 ways to do Shadow Work
If you decide to try shadow work on your own, there are a few things you can do. While there’s no standard way to do shadow work, these methods will help you open and gradually build up to the self-discovery process:
1. Observe your shadow triggers: Notice the kind of people or situations that cause emotional reactions in you. Meditate and try to understand them without judgment. Try to figure out what types of thinking and beliefs are causing you to react in this way.
2. Spot your shadow: Take note of the patterns that repeatedly recur in your life that are holding you back. Also, pay attention to when you find yourself projecting onto others. When you feel negative feelings towards someone, especially intense ones, perhaps that person displays one of your shadow traits.
3. Open a dialogue with your shadow self: Whenever you feel your shadow self creeping up, start an inner conversation with it. Ask your shadow self questions like “what are you bringing to my attention?” or “what aspect of me do you represent?” Then, wait for an answer and take note of it when it arrives.
4. Keep a shadow journal: Keeping a daily practice of writing down your thoughts, both light and dark, is a safe and healthy outlet to express your thoughts. You won’t have to censor yourself, and you can write what comes to you without the need to overthink it. As you continue this practice, you’ll notice some recurring themes emerging that will bring your shadow traits into your awareness.
5. Express your shadow self through art: Jung believed that art was one the most effective mediums to connect with your shadow. It’s a fun and elevated form of self-expression through which your shadow self can make its presence known. Whether writing songs, painting, creating mandalas, or molding clay, choose whatever works best for you.
6. Explore your dreams: Dreams can reveal a lot about your shadow self. Pay attention to them and write them down in a dream journal so that you don’t forget them. There are plenty of resources and experts who can help you interpret them and discover unconscious aspects of yourself.
7. Learn more about the shadow self: Plenty of books, courses, and retreats are dedicated to understanding and healing the shadow self. Consider adding them to your toolbox if you’re curious and want to go more in-depth into shadow work. The more knowledge and insight you have about the shadow self, the easier it will be to work with it.
Shadow work is needed now more than ever. When we heal ourselves, we heal the shadows present in our collective energies. Like dark clouds parting in the sky, our light will shine brightly and illuminate the darkness in our world and create the peace and harmony we wish to see.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What is your favorite way of working with your shadow? What has shadow work taught you about yourself?
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