The Significance of Shadow Work
What we can readily perceive or observe in what Western Psychology has defined as the shadow self, is a reality that we face as a result of how far we have deviated from the original disposition regarding the human psyche as was held in ancient Greece. While there is a valid argument that the origin point of our Western Psychological Paradigm stems from Aristotelian thought, the main difference is found in the way that, on a societal level, we no longer accept that ancient Greek belief as to how all aspects of the psyche, including the good, the bad, and the outright ugly, need to not only be embraced, but honored. The reasoning behind this was found in the Greek perspective that each part of the psyche was likened to a God or Goddess, and how, if we neglect or ignored these various aspects or Gods, then said force would essentially sneak up on you, and smite you out of existence. In this article, we will explore the working definition of what the shadow self is, the various aspects that make up this part of the self, and ways to incorporate daily exercises to work on the shadow self.
There are very few individuals that have contributed to the field of Psychology as that of one Carl Jung. It was his brilliance and astute compacity for observation that imparted to the entire scientific study such concepts as the collective unconscious, the difference between introverted or extroverted personality types, as well as that of the Jungian archetypes. It is usually from behind one of these lenses that we conduct our studies in such fields as the studies of religion, literature, mythology, and of course that of psychiatry. From these, came the Jungian idea of the shadow self. But what exactly is the shadow self?
The Shadow Self:
On a rudimentary level, what we call the shadow self could loosely be defined as the totality of the unconscious mind. From this we get the commonplace analogy of the brain being likened to an iceberg, where the conscious mind makes up the tip of the iceberg, and the unconscious mind constitutes for the monumental bulk that is unseen to the naked eye beneath the surface of the ocean, but that makes up the majority of whole.
The shadow self is likened to the unconscious mind, as it refers to those habits and behaviors that we exhibit but are not entirely aware of. It is believed that these behaviors that we demonstrate on an unconscious level are the result of the conditioning that takes place during our childhood; in a way they are like suppressed feelings or emotions.
This process takes place whenever a certain behavior had to be, to a varying extent, suppressed or repressed, in order that we may meet our basic needs. For instance, it occurs in the context such as when a child gets scolded or disciplined for saying no to much, or in telling their parents no. From this dualistic vantage point of this behavior is good, and that one is bad, it develops as an individual growing up, who has a hard time saying no. Or, we get the same result in, say, a child who was the class clown. However, through the same process that particular behavior was labeled as bad, or negative, and the individual grows up having difficulty expressing the more playful and humor-filled side of their personality. However, according to Jungian psychology, we carry these parts of ourselves behind us as big bags that could be described as our baggage, and often times we still enact these behaviors outside of our conscious awareness, in our futile struggle to continue to hide these parts of ourselves.
While the shadow self is often times synonymous with the unconscious mind, it is at the same time viewed through the lens of the feelings that the idea of one’s shadow illicit, in that it is some dark entity that follows us around everywhere that we go, and that is comprised of everything that is inherently bad within ourselves, or those parts that are deemed negative, embarrassing, as well as all of our insecurities, vulnerabilities, and everything that we are ashamed of within ourselves. Basically, a version of ourselves, the darker version as that, that is made up of all the things about ourselves that we aren’t necessarily proud of such as violence, rage, anger, depression, anxiety, or even suicidal ideations, just to name a few. We have been taught, and had it deeply instilled in ourselves that these things are innately bad, and that as such, we must not express these parts of ourselves. That is, until that breaking point where we can no longer hide or repress said feelings, and the God of the psyche comes out to wreak chaos in our lives. Now that we have a basic idea of what the shadow self is, and the stuff that it is made up, let us take a look at why it is important to address this part of ourselves, and the type of work and exercises that can be done to do what is commonly referred to as one’s shadow work.
Doing the Work
It was Carl Jung himself who once observed, ““One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” Here, Jung’s remark sheds light on the main precept behind doing shadow work, which is emphasized in the statement, making the darkness conscious. That is, the ongoing and never-ending process of confronting all our traumas, negative or bad behaviors, our vulnerabilities, flaws, and weaknesses, our shorting coming, and all other characteristics that we have shoved in a giant bad labeled bad. In the same way, it also sheds light into a general misconception regarding spirituality, or the spiritual journey. We often view it in terms of viewing the light only, as if it is all rainbows, sunshine, and majestical unicorns that are the harbingers of happiness, when the reality is quite the opposite. Just look at the way that the general pattern of most spiritual leaders is one of intentional martyrdom and confronting great suffering.
When speaking to the issue of the shadow self and the work that it takes to confront it, to bring light to the darkness of unconsciousness, Jung once remarked on the golden shadow, stating that, “The shadow self consists of ninety percent gold.” His intention for issuing this remark was to shed light on the fact that shadow work offers tremendous potential, opportunities, and gifts of incalculable value in terms of self-growth, spiritual and personal development, and ultimately in living a higher quality of life.
Before we continue, it is worth noting that while the process itself is of unmeasurable benefit and reward, that this is largely due to the monumental challenge that the individual confronts along the path. This is a consequence of how shadow work requires us to acknowledge, recognize, understand, and ultimately to accept and embrace the darker side of our personality. In a way it is to live out the Star Wars saga, and the central themes inherent within it, such as the hero’s journey. We see this in the way that this practice involves pushing through the pain and suffering that we store inside instead of running away from it or avoiding it. It takes confronting various traumatic events that shaped who we are, just as it requires us to face our deepest fears, and all that we hide away from the world that is not good enough, and in this way, it is essential not only that we transcend to a point where we can stop clinging to our fears and anger out of survival, but it is also essential for all of this to take place for the individual to leap a more fulfilling life. For this reason, the shadow work practices and exercises being simply with preparing the self for this ongoing procedure. The steps below are essentially a quick overview of the procedure that could be viewed as the journey to the center of the soul and back.
Step One: Prep work
If we want love, or for ascension, or anything else for that matter, we have to create the space for it in our waking lives, and it is the same in this instance. What we seen in the case of shadow work, is a reiteration of that proverbial sentiment in how all the answers we seek our within, that the greatest treasure is found within and not in the external and materialistic world. For this reason, in engaging in shadow work, the space that is needed is one where you feel safe and comfortable enough to go through an intense process of introspection, of deep-seated introversion, as deep within the self as possible to confront these demons or skeletons in the closest if you will. Here are some ways that you can achieve this effect.
First and foremost, there has to be kindness and compassionate with yourself. If you are going to push something to its limits, then you have to be gentle with it, and the same goes with the vehicle that is your body. What is taking place is an in-depth examination of what ails you, all your past hurts, traumas, pains, trials, tribulations, and fears. As a result, this may result in intense and uncomfortable feelings as we journey through these parts of ourselves, and we must have compassion for ourselves in those moments and be gentle with ourselves in subjecting ourselves in whatever may arise. This isn’t some solitary experience where you confront some aspect of yourself, and all of a sudden, you’re living your best life, and never have to worry about the process ever again. Quite the opposite really, Often times what we find is that these attributes, these characteristics or parts of ourselves are multidimensional and vastly complicated. Say we pull back the layers of some genetic predisposition such as family alcoholism. What we generally see is that we move beyond this, and we reach a plateau where we feel accomplished that we have transcended this part of ourselves, only to see that it was masking some other thing that we were completely unaware of, whether that is codependence or what may be the underlying cause or reason that created for said alcoholism, and the process starts all over again. To reiterate, it is a life-long process, so give yourself the time and space you need, and again, be as kind, compassionate, and as gentle as possible as you embark on this endeavor. The saga doesn’t end with Darth Vader alone. The Jedi realizes that there are plenty of other Sith lords that they will have to confront at some other time.
Once again, the majority of preparing for shadow work requires creating for the space for this procedure to take place, and this also includes one’s own head space. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, making the time out of our busy schedules to do the work, as we would anything else that is important to us. If it is important to us, we will make the time for it. This also includes reserving a peaceful place, whether it is in the comforts of your room or out in nature to engage in these practices, that allow us to experience these trying feelings and parts of ourselves that we have hidden away. To this end, it requires us to participate in a deep-seated sense of self-love. Just as it allows calls for us to painstakingly and brutally honest with ourselves; we are trying to get at the heart of truths, causes, and reasons of our pain, not for a sense of self-validation. In the same way, this prep work requires coming up with some means of documenting your realizations and progress that works for you. Below are several techniques for working on one’s shadow self.
Practice One: The Picture of, My Shadow Self- Express it Artistically
One of the most beautiful parts of being human is that of our capacity of emotion and feeling. This is perhaps one of the greatest attributes of artistic expression, in that it allows us to create a work that expresses how we feel, and that evokes and that can illicit strong emotions. Just look at music as one example. A single song is enough to bring a smile to our face, to burst out in laughter, or to cry uncontrollably, as a direct consequence of what the artist was feeling and expressing at the time of its composition.
Bearing that in mind, focus on those parts of yourself that are hidden away. Can you perhaps personify the shadow self in a painting, and if so, what does it look like? Are there areas in its physical appearance that seem burden, weighed down, heavy, scarred hurt, and if so where? Does it bear a resemblance to some alien creature? Could it be that this is the hearts way of saying it feels alienated? And if painting is not your forte, then how else could you create for the symbolism or for a sort of personification of the darker part of yourself. What is natural for you? Does thinking about it make you want to lament out in some sorrow filled song, or to compose intricate poetry regarding the dark night of the soul? Whatever it is, go along with it, and put a face to that half of yourself that has been restricted and confined for so long. Give it a name if you have to, even if that is a bold statement of, this is where it hurts.
Practice Two: Storytelling, or Journaling
In describing this technique at length, I should like to point out how fascinating I find it that the majority of skillsets that are used to deal with the shadow self deal with some level of creative expression, as in these last two. Even so, what we can view as a common practice in almost all areas of self-work, is that of the importance of writing down are thoughts; it lets us view them in plain sight, while at the same time the ability to organize those thoughts accordingly. Not only that, but in the process of writing it down on paper, it is common that that alone is enough to create for a strong emotional response to what is taking place in the operations of our minds. To this end, create for a shadow journal or diary whose primary purpose is to focus on those darker aspects, and to address the shadow self. If having a journal is not of your personal preference, see if you can still leverage this same modality by creating a narrative of those things or events that caused you to hide parts of yourself away. We all have a story. What is the story to your shadow? Nine times out of ten, the indicators for this story are easy to detect. In writing, we appropriately call these our demons. These appear to us as those hurtful things that people have told us, that we carry around with us, and that ultimately weigh us down. You can’t do this because of that, or what do you think you’re doing, or similarly, you’re just plain not good enough for that. In this process seem if you can identity an emerging pattern that you can identify.
Practice Three: Identify Patterns or Reoccurring Themes
The technique of shadow journaling or storytelling lends itself naturally to our next exercise which is that of taking the time out to see if we can identify patterns in thoughts or behaviors, or in response to certain stimuli. This particular exercise is relatively fascinating in that so much can be learned about the untold power and intelligence of the subconscious mind.
Through this exercise we see how truly remarkable the subconscious mind is. Often times, what we will find is that it places certain people in our lives to look at some area of ourselves that we have not acknowledged. For instance, one might question as to why that have to put up with the angry neighbor, feeling that they have done nothing to deserve this, but usually, this is the subconscious mind at work, and its purpose is to teach us a lesson. Perhaps that individual is in our lives to have us address an underlining fear of anger. Perhaps the individual had an angry parent growing up, and that was viewed as bad, and they did not want to become like said parent, so we decided to do away with the feeling all together, not being aware of the fact that we are prone to fits of rage. The neighbor is your subconscious minds way of bringing this to your mind. Again, we see a means for an easy indicator of these various patterns, and that is to look at what we don’t like or reject in another, whether that is tardiness, laziness, or anger. To this end Jung said, what we reject in another we are rejecting in ourselves.
It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to identify these patterns in our lives that play out over and over again, because on the most basic level, they care the life lessons we need to learn. Do you find yourself or your family plagued by mental illness, or that you are frequented with hospitalization, rehab, and institutionalization? Do you know it as the back of your hand, being able to identify that this generally happens every four years or so? This is what your subonscious mind is trying to bring to your conscious attention, and it is not the illness that it wants you to focus on, but the underlying cause and reason behind them. To this end, endeavor to be a fly-on-the-wall observer of both your thoughts and behaviors. Try and see if you can take a picture of each moment; are there pictures that you don’t like, or that you wish you could do away with altogether? And if so, how do you feel about that, and what can you do to make sure that is the case? If you don’t like the picture on the television, then change the channel. Feeling out the emotions from these experiences and facing them head on is the way to changing the channel, and ultimately rising above these reoccurring themes in our lives. On a final note, another strong indicator that you are moving in the right direction is found in the ability to note those things that you have the strongest emotional reaction to. And in order to fully participate in this practice, it is crucial for the individual to develop a sense of mindfulness, or self-awareness, and through it, an open mindset.
Practice Four: And Back to Creation; Start A Side Project
In the field of science there is a widely accepted belief that maintains that we are essentially made up of the stars, and to a varying extent, that we are the universe experiencing itself in infinitely different manifest physical forms. One could observe a certain degree of truth in that the how the attributes of the universe, of creation, expansion, and of growth, are all characteristics of the human spirit. At the same time, it is held that love is essentially, and from this we may see why we learn so much about ourselves through the process of creation, and perhaps, it is for this reason that the majority of self-work or shadow work involves some level of creation — that through it we explore, connect, and love ourselves.
The beauty of taking on a project, asides from the given of overcoming a challenge, is that it provides a platform to learn a consider deal about ourselves. Not only that, but the totality of the process allows a space to confront deeply instilled believes regarding ourselves. When we create something, it is as if a part of us goes into it. At the same time, the process from beginning to end sends the individual through a whole gamut of differing emotions. We get frustrated when we come to some aspect that we get stuck on or can’t quite figure out. Just as we receive a rush of accomplishment and pride in its completion. Throughout this process continuously ask yourself what you are feeling. What does it stir up in you? For instance, in the case of my writing this article, for the most part of feel a great sense of joy in that I get to do what I love and am passionate about, and on a certain level, there is a sense of empowerment that I am able to do that. Not only that, but in creating for it, and having gotten this far, I have confronted that part of me that believes I struggle with initiating tasks, just as I will overcome a strongly held belief that I have difficulties with consistency and following through once I have seen it to publication.
Practice Five: Know thy Self; Knowledge is Power — Know Your Personal Archetype
It cannot be repeated enough that this is a process of becoming whole and accepting one’s unapologetically authentic self. This echoing the remark issued by Aristotle as this topic is concerned in that, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” As such, in this process of self-discovery and exploration, it is helpful to foster and understanding of the different shadow archetypes, as well as the differing Jungian archetypes, to develop a better understanding of who we truly are. For this reason, I will include a lists of all the various different archetypes to aid in this process of individual discovery.
1. The Egotistical Shadow
2. The Neurotic Shadow
3. The Untrustworthy Shadow
4. The Emotionally Unstable Shadow
5. The Controlling Shadow
6. The Cynical Shadow
7. The Wrathful Shadow
8. The Glib Shadow
9. The Cold Shadow
10. The Perverted Shadow
11. The Rigid Shadow
12. The Cowardly Shadow
13. The Immature Shadow
1. The Sage
2. The Innocent
3. The Explorer
4. The Ruler
5. The Creator
6. The Caregiver
7. The Magician
8. The Hero
9. The Rebel
10. The Lover
11. The Jester
12. The orphan
To articulate this point further, I will use myself as an example. Each of these archetypes carry with them a variety of a attributes to assist in identifying which category you fall under. In my particular case, I find that I am the controlling shadow as well as that of the magician Jungian archetype. For instance, one of the defining characteristics of the Magician is the tendency to deal with conflict, challenges, and obstacles by utilizing acceptance. I cannot efficiently relate as to how accurate this is in my personal life; it seems only fitting enough to describe that I try to incorporate radical acceptance in all areas of my life as much as I can, no matter what it is. Just as my fears of hopeless or helplessness and the likes are all telling of the controlling shadow.
Additional Practices: Really any means of going within, and challenging limiting beliefs or parts of ourselves that we have hidden away or that we have not accepted is sufficient enough. However, these other tasks are all typical in participating in the practice of shadow work. Activities include but are not limited to attending to the child within, going out into nature, having an inner dialog, acting situations out, and role play.
Why Shadow Work is Important:
What you will find below is a brief list of some of the advantages that can be gained from incorporating shadow work in one’s daily routine:
· A greater sense of self-love and acceptance for the self
· Assists in developing long lasting and meaningful relationships, improved relationship quality
· Free you to walk in your love and light, and to have the confidence to be your most unapologetically authentic self
· Crystalline clarity in all areas of being
· Deeper sense of understanding, compassion and acceptance for others; even those you’re not particularly fond of
· Creativity goes through the roof
· A remembrance of your individual talents and abilities
· Improved health
· Understanding of personal purpose and meaning
· Deeper connection with one’s higher self
Of these, it should be noted that the major take away from shadow work is that it not only allows us to be more conscious individual, but it is found in how it allows us to be complete and whole unto ourselves, coming to a place where we don’t need another or something to feel whole. According to Jung, it was only through addressing the shadow that the individual can come to live their most fulfilling life. On this point he said, “How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole.”
A Final Cautionary Note: The Risks of Not Addressing the Shadow Self or on Rejecting It
The consequences of failing to attend to one’s shadow self almost seem incalculable, for they can manifest in so many different faculties of our lives, in one way or the other. One of the main reasons for this is found in the way that the shadow, like any other sentient thing, years to be known, acknowledged, understood, and ultimately accepted. The other reason for this is due to the way that, in neglected the shadow self, we are to a certain extent, living a kind of fragmented version of ourselves, which is asking to be sent spiraling out of control in a desperate attempt for recognition, validation, and to become whole again. One of the most noticeable ramifications that result as a result of neglecting the shadow is found in projection or in projecting our insecurities onto, which when combined with the unrecognized shadow can be a toxic and dangerous cocktail. Not only that, but rejecting or avoiding the shadow can also result in narcissism, god complexes, megalomania, hypocrisy, deceptiveness, rage, a tendency to manipulate others either emotionally or mentally, addictive personalities, greed, irrational phobias, obsessive compulsive tendencies, intense anxiety, perversion, depression, and a multitude of other self-destructive behaviors. All of which just serve as another reason that it is so crucial that we work on our shadow self.