The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore,. as a rule, meets with considerable resistance. Indeed, self-knowledge as a psychotherapeutic measure frequently requires much painstaking work extending over a long period.(From Aion: Phenomenology of the Self published in The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 145.)
We hear about shadow work in the spiritual sphere often, but many people don’t know what it is and what it involves. I think it’s fitting to talk about shadow work at the beginning of the year, especially as we approach the first full moon of 2020. If you Google the term “shadow work”, you’ll find that most of the results that come back to you are going to be psychologically related. This is because shadow work started with psychology and a man named Carl Jung.
Who was Carl Jung?
Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology. He worked for a while with another well-known psychologist named Sigmund Freud, although they weren’t always on the same page. Carl Jung is known for several psychological concepts including the ideas of synchronicity, the collective unconscious, and the shadow. It appears that Carl Jung in modern times would be considered a psychologist, yes, but also a spiritual person. Maybe he wouldn’t think like that, but I certainly do.
Among his many theories and psychological discoveries was the concept of a divided self. This divided self was made up of the Ego, the Id, and the SuperEgo. According to Jung, these are all aspects that everyone carries around with them and they dictate how we see the world. Today, we’re just going to talk about the Ego – the outer self – and the Id – the shadow.
“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (1938)
What is the Shadow?
Looking at this concept from a psychological perspective first – because that’s necessary to understand why shadow work is spiritually beneficial – we need to take a look at both the Ego and the Shadow. The Ego, according to Jung, is the part of ourselves that the rest of the world sees. This is the “I” that we present to our family, friends, loved ones, and anyone else we interact with. When we think about who we are as people, we usually think about the “I”, or the Ego.
However, there is a deeper part to you that you might not be aware of. Chances are if you’re more spiritually inclined, you may know some of this already, but perhaps you didn’t know what to call it. The Shadow self is the part of us that is rejected and/or repressed. These parts of us have been pushed into our subconscious by our Ego from a young age. Why? There could be many reasons, including childhood trauma, important events, or how you were raised. For one reason or another, your Ego decided that these things were dangerous to you and needed to be hidden.
So what kind of things are hidden in the shadow?
Since the shadow is made up of those aspects of us that were rejected or repressed, it is most often full of negative – or “bad” – thoughts, emotions, and behavioral impulses. These will be things like rage, selfishness, laziness – things that you were told as a child were bad and you shouldn’t do them.
The shadow doesn’t necessarily contain only negative thoughts, emotions, and behavioral impulses, though. Take, for example, someone who, as a child, was verbally abused. They learned early on that talking back and standing up for themselves was dangerous because it would lead to more abuse. So, people like this may have shoved that part of themselves into their shadow – their ability to stand up for themselves. That is a positive aspect that got pushed into the shadow based on someone’s life experience.
So then, what is shadow work?
Shadow work is the process of meeting your shadow-self. It is a method that was proposed by Jung as a solution to closing the gap between the two aspects and becoming aware of our impulses. In this way, we can choose how we react to them. If our shadow self is continuously repressed and pushed to the back, we have no control over those impulses and how we react to them. There is no chance for behavior modification if we don’t understand the behavior in the first place.
As Jung wrote in Psychology of the Unconscious:
“It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature.”
According to Jung, the purpose of shadow work is to integrate. We stop rejecting parts of our personalities and find ways to bring them forward in our lives. This doesn’t mean that, if you have homicidal urges you get to act on them. This means that the fear, aggression, and wisdom informs our actions, our decisions, and our interactions with others. It is a process of healing because, in doing shadow work, we might come to understand why we feel a certain way, why we have impulses to do certain things, and we can move on and move past those impulses and urges because we now have the wisdom that comes from understanding them.
How do you do shadow work?
Several methods are out there for doing shadow work, and it’s not something that you sit down and do once and then you’re done. Some people have been working with their shadow for years, and that’s okay. It is work, and it’s not easy work either. Many of these methods can be done on their own, but I recommend combining the ones that work for you.
Meditation, Self-Awareness, and Taking a Step Back
I grouped all of these methods together because they involve a similar process. You can’t effectively begin to understand your shadow self if you don’t take a step back and allow time to process what’s going on. Self-awareness is one of the first things I would recommend when practicing shadow work. You need to be capable of recognizing your own behavior and emotions before you can begin to understand them. This might look like you realizing that your anger or your fear is irrational. From there, you can begin to break that down and figure out why you feel anger or fear.
During meditation, you can do a specific shadow-work meditation. This would be one that would allow you to meet your shadow and have a conversation with your shadow-self. You can find a few on YouTube, but a specific shadow-work meditation is not necessary.
Keep a Journal and Analyze your Emotions and Behavior
Along with self-awareness, I recommend keeping a journal to write down your thoughts and emotions. This is a good way to go back and look at certain events that happened – and your reaction to them – and dig a bit deeper. You need to be honest with yourself about why you feel that way and why you have the impulses you do. If you aren’t honest with yourself, the shadow work will get you nowhere.
Practice Self-Compassion and Nurture your Inner Child
A lot of our shadow-self is repressed and rejected thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from childhood. Maybe this came about because of abuse or trauma. Maybe it happened because of the way you were raised or societal expectations. Either way, most of us have an inner child that is missing some form of love or compassion. Go back to the child, either in meditation or trance, and give them what they need. Tell them they are loved, that nothing is wrong with them, and they are perfect just the way they are. Allow yourself to feel these emotions and begin the process of healing.
Now that we know about the psychological process of shadow work, we can look at the purpose. Why do we do it – or why SHOULD we do it? Shadow work is beneficial for spiritual reasons as well as psychological. It can improve your relationships with those around you by allowing you to be empathetic to the behavior and emotions of others. It also allows you to grow spiritually by avoiding something called spiritual bypass.
Spiritual bypass is a concept that is prevalent in the New Age community. It is the idea that you can ignore all negative things in your life or the world around you. That focusing only on the positive energy, positive vibes, and positive emotions will keep you happy. You can’t have the light without the dark, and ignoring the anger, the sadness, and the fear will get you nowhere. Allowing yourself to understand and acknowledge the negativity in your life will allow you to grow from it. If you don’t acknowledge it, you become stagnant.
Shadow work isn’t an easy process and it can be painful depending on your past. That being said, I do think it is a process that everyone should attempt. However, not everyone should hop into it with both feet because of what their shadow may contain. Also, depending on your emotional trauma and mental health, you may want to take it slow or do shadow work under the supervision of a mental health professional. Be safe – your mental well-being is important.