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A person holds flowers in front of their face. A shadow from a window blind is also across their face.

Shadow Work: What It Is & 4 Steps That Will Help You Face the Darkness

We all have this idea about ourselves, of being good people. In our minds, we are full of compassion, empathy, love, and we glow with positivity.

What we like to ignore is the fact that every one of us has a bit of darkness inside. We often push this away easily though, to uphold the perfect, bright image we like so much. Or so we think, at least.

While we believe we’re doing a good job at holding up this miraculous image of ourselves, we create a place deep down where we store all things that just don’t fit into that image. It seems to be a scary place to visit – it is dark and abandoned.

One of the first people who dove deep into the mysteries of human self was Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst (1875 – 1961). He decided to go to that mysterious place and what he discovered there he called the “shadow.”

The “shadow” is made up of the dark aspects of our personality which we repress and reject. This happens because we think they are undesirable to society, or just plain wrong to us. We push them as deep down as we can and bury them in our unconsciousness where they can cause some big problems.

Today we are going to help you understand the nature of shadows, the reasons why we have to face them and give you 4 steps to begin the journey of your shadow work.

What are Shadows?

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung

Let’s have a look at my usual Monday morning in Berlin – the smell of fresh coffee in my nose, the first rays of sunshine breaking through the window, and I have a few minutes left before I have to rush to work.

I grab my phone (what a natural habit it has become), and before I know it, I find myself scrolling through my endless Instagram feed.

I have 5 minutes before I have to run to the tram. 5 minutes I spend scrolling past happy couples, girls who seem to be jet-setting from one paradise to the next, friends who spent great weekends out hiking, the usual yogi who impresses me with yet another handstand exercise, and some extremely passionate sustainability advocates.

I spend 5 minutes in a world that seems so perfect, full of people who seem so content.

Most of us are familiar with the feelings that follow shortly after. While we scroll with a blank face, jealousy, envy, sometimes even anger will emerge. An aching thought might pop up: “why can’t I be like that?”

No one likes these emotions. They seem dark and cause pain. And so we decide to look away.

I quickly pack my bags and rush to work. Leaving that darkness behind, or so I think.

Check out: How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others (on and off the internet).

A plant casting shadows against a white wall.

You might find yourself stuck in some of the most common shadow beliefs that sneak up quietly:

  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I’m unlovable.”
  • “I’m too stupid.”
  • “I’m not worthy.”

We all feel this darkness within at times, and it is often triggered by the smallest day-to-day moments. It’s painful and we choose to shut down, look away, run as fast as we can towards the brighter parts of our personality.

We don’t listen to our shadows, even though it might be one of the most important challenges for our personal growth.

We all have shadows. And if we don’t get used to the idea of that, it will be impossible to see them, understand, and grow with them.

Where Do the Shadows Come From?

When it comes to the theories of how we are born, there is an endless discussion we could dive into. For now, let’s agree on the simple fact that the second we are born, our emotional system is untouched by the experiences of this world.

We learn quickly, however, which sparks reactions – as babies, we learn to cry when we are hungry, and someone will feed us. We learn for the next time, from experience: “When I cry, I get food.”

As we grow older, we start realizing that certain things are more acceptable than others in our society.

When we develop our character further, we notice how we get praise if we share our toy with a friend, but punishment for hitting another kid at the playground. Our society teaches us quickly what is appropriate, and what is not. Anything that is seen as “wrong” or even “too challenging” will be suppressed, first by the outside, then by us within.

It is a natural behavior that is triggered by our need to belong.

As Maslow discovered, the satisfaction of this need is essential for developing self-esteem and confidence, letting us thrive in society. Hence, we store the inappropriate sides of our character away. We store them so deep down in our unconsciousness, that they turn into shadows.

A person walks away from their shadow on a marble floor.

What Happens When You Repress Your Shadows?

You might be wondering – why can’t we just let our shadows be? Let them sit there in the darkness and just push them back down when they want to bubble up to disturb our peace?

Firstly, Jung believed that suppressing our shadows would lead to addictions, low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness, mental, and even chronic illnesses. As author and life coach Charyl Richardson explains, shadows often hold us back from getting what we want in life.

Another side effect that might be easier to see for yourself is the following:

You go to a restaurant, and the couple sitting at the table in the corner is extremely rude to the waitress. You can’t help but get upset about it – rudeness is such a terrible thing! Why are people like that? Anger arises within.

It is likely that you are projecting what you can’t accept within yourself.

The behavior we judge most in others is often exactly what we deny in our personality. It is a defense mechanism from our ego, to hold up the image of our false, good self. Robert Johnson says: “Unless we do conscious work on it, the shadow is almost always projected: that is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else, so we do not have to take responsibility for it.”

Shadow Work: 4 Steps to Shine the Light Unto the Darkness Within

Now that we understand what shadows are and how they affect us, the big question remains: how can we bring some light into the darkness? Shadow work is exactly that: the process of uncovering the unconscious shadows we carry within.

Step 1: Start Observing Your Emotions

“You can’t heal if you can’t feel,” says Life Coach Debbie Ford.

The most important step in allowing us to feel all emotions is accepting the fact that they are not bad.

We can learn to hold space for them, without giving them control over us. As poet Janne Robinson writes: “Our pain is only here to teach us, not to make a home in.”

The following questions can help us to create distance which allows us to observe:

  1. “What am I really feeling?”
  2. “Where does this feeling come from?”
  3. “Why is it there?”

On a daily basis, Julia Cameron recommends “morning pages.” Since I started reading her book The Artist’s Way, I have dedicated 30 minutes a day to write down whatever crosses my mind.

Some days it might be as simple as describing my surroundings, other days, however, I dive deep into the mysteries of my thoughts, reactions, and creativity. By allowing our mind to flow, we give way to our emotions without feeling bad for them.

As Cameron explains, there is no wrong way to do the morning pages, and so it gives us space that is free of judgment.

A person wearing a floppy hat is holding lavender casts a shadow on a white wall.

Step 2: Identify Your Shadows

Not long ago, I came across the magazine Flow on my mom’s living room table. I always liked the covers which usually constituted of colorful mandalas, flowers, or Buddhas.

I read something on the cover that caught my attention, something about shadows. Interesting, I thought and shortly after, I found myself in a freeing meditation exercise:

Find a quiet, comfortable spot and close your eyes. Focus on your breath and imagine you are traveling down within yourself as if you entered the elevator at level ten and then you go down, all the way to level five.

With every breath, another level down, and when you arrive the doors open. Before you, a lovely garden – imagine all the flowers, the bumblebees, and butterflies swirling around you as you enter. Imagine every beautiful plant, and feel the sunshine on your skin.

You approach the center of the garden and imagine a giant tree growing out of the ground. This tree holds all wisdom about you and your soul. Take a moment to appreciate the growth, every branch that emerges, and every leaf that grows. The tree grows taller and bigger.

Now, take a moment to ask the following questions.

After each question, give the tree a moment to reply. Listen carefully and be open for any answer that may come:

  1. “What secrets about myself can I not tell anyone?”
  2. “What characteristics do I want to hide from the world?”
  3. “What is something I want to hide from myself?”
  4. “Which emotion do I judge most in others and why do I hate it so much?”
  5. “What do I admire most about myself?”

Allow yourself time. Allow yourself to travel down anew for each question. Keep a pen and paper by your side to journal about your experience, about the shadows you discover.

Step 3: Explore the Darkness

Exploring the darkness and bringing light to our shadows is an extremely personal experience.

Therefore, there are various methods you can try:

These various techniques will likely bring up some repressed feelings and thought patterns that you can then reflect and work on.

Step 4: Spend Time With Your Inner Child

Throughout our childhood, there are always experiences that shape us – not necessarily in positive ways.

At times, behavioral or emotional patterns we learn from our parents can be destructive and leave deep wounds, that we see today as shadows.

In order to uncover these traumas of our inner child, we need to travel back in time.

Talking to Your Inner Child

Try to remember a moment in your childhood in which you felt deep pain or vulnerable – paint a picture in your mind of yourself as a child, your surroundings and bring back the emotions you felt that moment.

Tell yourself what you would have needed to hear at that moment. It might be something like “love yourself”, “you are enough”, or “things will fall into place, don’t stop believing in yourself.”

Meeting your inner child with compassion and love will help you to heal. You might even have some advice you would like to share or simply a big hug.

If you feel like you need more guidance on this, consider talking to a psychologist or a therapist for hypnotherapy.

Read this next: Why & How You Need to Heal Your Inner Child

Embrace Your Shadow

Shadow work is uncomfortable, frightening, and requires us to be vulnerable to an extent many of us have not experienced. Let’s be honest: Who enjoys exploring their weaknesses, accepting personality traits we despise in others, or the negative emotions?

But the journey into our darkness holds a lot of potential for us. It is a necessity if we want to grow and live a life of inner peace. Shadow work will give us new perspectives on our relationships and will allow us to see triggers as door openers for growth.

Shadow work is soul work. Don’t be afraid of the shadows within – the power you carry within may be greater than you think!

Your emotional wellbeing is important: Read more about our inner emotions and why all emotions are good emotions.

Allison Heidrich

Allison Heidrich

Born and raised in Germany by her American mother, the travel bug got to Allison at a young age. Allison's curiosity has not only led her around the globe, but also a whole lot closer to herself. While still figuring out her place in the world, she is slowly finding... Read More

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