The term shadow work often comes up in spiritual and self-development circles.
It’s been defined in many different ways, and there are many approaches that can be used to do this type of healing work.
For our purposes, we can think of shadow work as a particular kind of inner work. It requires us to face our shadow aspects and either transmute them or shift our relationship to them, so they’re no longer “driving the bus” and influencing our behaviors and choices subconsciously.
WHAT IS SHADOW WORK?
In many ways, the idea of shadow work is derived from the work of Carl Jung.
Jung coined the term shadow to describe the personality aspects that we repress, reject, or hide away. We all have certain aspects of our personalities that we feel would be unacceptable to show to the world – and so we repress them deep down into the subconscious.
Sometimes, we can also be repulsed or scared by these aspects of our own personalities, so we don’t want to show them even to ourselves. Some of these shadow aspects might include a part of ourselves that is overly jealous or vindictive, or a part that delights when other people fail or make mistakes.
Doing shadow work is all about recognizing and becoming conscious of these “dark aspects of the personality,” as Jung puts it.
True shadow work is not a trend or something fun to do. It’s also not something we do just once and then we’re healed.
True shadow work requires you to:
- take ownership of your life, behavior, and choices – on all levels
- be willing to come face-to-face with uncomfortable aspects of yourself
- commit to a regular, ongoing practice of recognizing and transmuting your shadows
- release victimhood and judgment (of others & self)
- be vigilant about spiritual bypassing, to make sure your shadow work is grounded in reality and helping you make healthy changes & choices in your life
A helpful way to begin working with your shadows is to consider your shadow archetypes. In my experience, we all have primary and secondary shadow archetypes that are active at any one given moment.
Here are some shadow archetype examples (read through this list with self-compassion and notice gently if any of these feel familiar):
- The Victim
- The Martyr
- The Saboteur
- The Judge
- The Perfectionist
- The Liar
- The Addict
- The One Who Delights at Others’ Mistakes (credit goes to teacher Caroline Myss for identifying this one!)
- The Outcast/Reject
- The Envious One
Your primary shadow is the shadow that’s most dominant for you at any particular moment in time. It’s important to note that our shadow aspects can morph and shift over time.
For instance, the Martyr might have been your primary shadow for a few years or decades until you did the work of enforcing boundaries, putting YOU first, and no longer sacrificing yourself for everyone else. Then, another primary shadow might take the Martyr’s place and become more dominant.
Does this mean you have to constantly play whack-a-mole with your shadow aspects? Well, not necessarily. But as long as you have a physical body and human ego, you will have some shadow aspects within yourself. There’s no escaping from that or “clearing out” all of your shadows completely.
This is why I prefer an approach that seeks to befriend and trasmute the shadow aspects as much as possible, rather than seeking to eradicate them.
You also have a constellation of secondary shadows that dance around your primary shadow. For example, your primary shadow right now could be the Addict (it was for me for many years, with sugar and food addiction). Dancing around the Addict might be other shadows – maybe the Liar, the Judge, the Sneaky One, or a shadow aspect that carries your shame and guilt about the Addict.
BEST PRACTICES FOR DOING SHADOW WORK
Since doing shadow work requires commitment, awareness, and willingness to take ownership for ourselves, I like to recommend a few best practices to my clients and students.
These practices can help guide your shadow work and ensure that it’s as productive and helpful as possible.
Practice #1 – Open Curiosity & Non-Judgment
As you can imagine, working with our shadows can be triggering. Aspects of ourselves that we haven’t confronted or acknowledged in years can come to the surface.
So it’s really important to always do this work with the energy of open curiosity and non-judgment.
As you become aware of them, you want to gently and gradually approach your shadow aspects. Avoid beating them into submission or punishing yourself for having them in the first place.
Release expectations about timelines and outcomes, too. You can’t do shadow work effectively if you’re trying to rush through it or if you’re placing heavy expectations on what’s “supposed” to happen.
Being openly curious and non-judgmental means noticing a shadow aspect and kindly asking, hmm, I wonder what this is about? or hmm, I wonder where this is coming from, cause it doesn’t feel like myself.
Practice #2 – Connect to a Source of Light
Doing shadow work requires you to plunge into the depths of your subconscious to bring things into the light of day. To bring things out of the darkness.
So I recommend doing shadow work within the container of a modality that helps you feel connected to the light – the light of Divine Source and the light of your Higher Self, which can illuminate all of those dark, shadowy corners.
For instance, the Akashic Records are an ideal tool for this. If you work with the Records, you can open them and do your shadow work while you’re held in the Akashic energy field. This will bring a frequency of self-compassion, unconditional acceptance, and clarity to your shadow work.
Other options could include:
- self-Reiki, breathwork, or meditation before and after doing shadow work (to bookend your practice)
- doing shadow work near or at an ancestor altar (invoking the protection & guidance of your benevolent ancestors)
- lighting a white candle
- holding a piece of selenite or clear quartz (or any other clear/white crystal)
It’s also important to ground yourself after doing shadow work. Quick tip for this: stand up tall, visualize yourself as a tree, and send down new roots down your legs and feet into the Earth. (Bonus points if you can do this outside, but inside will work too.)
Practice #3 – Humor & Taking Breaks
Since you might have to deal with some uncomfortable, heavy, or long-repressed parts of yourself, it’s a good practice to alternate your shadow work with rest and humor.
Remember to do uplifting, supportive things in between your shadow work practices. Go for walks, take detox baths, see good friends, watch uplifting shows and movies, spend time in the sun and in nature.
You might also want to journal or do other spiritual practices to debrief your shadow work and reflect on the insights that are coming up for you.
And remember to laugh about these shadow selves! I don’t mean laugh at them, but laugh about the human condition itself. Laugh about the weird reality of having an ego, and how absurd our human behaviors sometimes are. Bringing some humor to this helps to soften self-judgment and to not see yourself as a “bad” or “weak” person.
THE 4-STEP GUIDE
STEP 1: IDENTIFY THE SHADOW
Before you can work with a shadow aspect, you must be able to recognize it.
Most often, your shadows will make themselves known when you experience a trigger.
For example, let’s say you’re scrolling through social media and come across the post of a former high school friend. She looks radiant in her pictures (or videos), her family looks perfect, she’s recently gone on an amazing vacation, she just bought a new house, and her business is taking off. As you absorb all of this, you start to get triggered. Some part of you begins to feel insecure, or jealous, or perhaps inadequate as you compare yourself to this person. And uncomfortable feelings start to come up: resentment, self-doubt, envy, disappointment in yourself, etc, etc.
This would be an excellent time to pause and ask: what shadow aspect of me has gotten triggered?
Because it’s not you – the Real You – who experienced the trigger. The Real You is your Higher Self, and your Higher Self cannot get triggered. So we have to assume that some other, limited aspect of you got triggered. This would be a shadow aspect. Maybe, in this case, we could call this shadow the Insecure One. Or even the Impostor, if this is the part of you that carries impostor syndrome or a feeling of not being good enough.
So step 1 is to mindfully notice your triggers and inquire: when do you get agitated or stirred up? Which situations, people, and relationships trigger you the most?
Underneath those triggers are your shadow aspects.
To share from my own life, I had many triggers around my Addict shadow self. The Addict would get triggered in these circumstances (and others I can’t remember!):
- watching someone near me eat sugary foods
- watching someone eat sugary foods in a movie/show
- walking by certain aisles in the grocery store (i.e., bakery & ice cream aisles SUCK – I generally avoid them or prepare myself mentally before walking through there)
- stress, worry & anxiety (I used food to numb these feelings)
- that quiet downtime after socializing (I used food to ground myself after being around other people’s energies, before I learned how to deal with this in a healthy way)
STEP 2: INTUITIVE DRAWING
To do step #2, you don’t have to be an artist – so no worries if you’re not great at drawing or art!
In this step, once you’ve identified a shadow aspect you want to work with – let’s say the Impostor from our example above – you can take a blank piece of paper, colored markers or pencils, and draw your shadow.
Do this from your intuition. Don’t overthink it. Don’t plan it. Don’t edit whatever comes out. Just put marker to paper and draw.
Use as many colors as you like. Once your drawing feels done (again, follow your intuition on this), lay it out in front of you and observe it.
Then run through this series of questions:
- how large is your drawing? does it take up the whole page, or half a page, or less? (this will give you a sense of the scope of your shadow, and how big or small it feels in relation to you)
- how many colors did you use? is the drawing mostly in dark, drab colors? or are there some vibrant colors in there too?
- does your shadow have some kind of recognizable form? does it look human? or animal? or humanoid? or insect-like? or is it completely abstract?
- does your shadow have any human attributes; i.e., a mouth, eyes, ears, a torso, legs, arms, etc?
- what’s around your shadow, if anything? did you draw any other figures or things on the page?
- what emotions or feelings come up as you observe your shadow in this form?
- what insights come up as you observe your shadow in this form?
Simply observing what you’ve drawn will give you tons of information about your shadow, if you’re willing to look.
STEP 3: DIALOGUE WITH YOUR SHADOW
Now that you’ve got your shadow on paper, you can put it up somewhere (or just hold it in front of you) and engage in a dialogue with it.
Drawing the shadow is an important step in externalizing it, so you can see it for what it really is.
In doing this exercise, my clients often report feeling a sense of vulnerability, empathy, sadness, or compassion for their shadows. This is a great indicator that the shadow aspect is becoming re-integrated in a healthy way, through self-acceptance.
Dialoguing with your shadow requires you to intuitively ask your shadow questions and notice what happens. What do you hear in response to those questions? What does your shadow seem to be saying to you?
To facilitate your dialogue, you can ask your shadow questions like:*
- why are you here?
- how long have you been with me?
- what do you need from me?
- are you trying to keep me safe? (if yes, from what?)
- what do you fear?
- what do you need that you haven’t been able to get yet?
- how can we work together moving forward?
- how can we help each other?
*Please note: this exercise is a streamlined variation of Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons practice. I invite you to explore her work if you want to take this even deeper.
STEP 4: UNCOVER THE SHADOW’S AGENDA
Our shadows are with us for a reason. And they typically have some specific agenda they’re trying to fulfill.
For instance, my Addict shadow’s agenda was to “help” me numb my feelings, distract me from building my business (so I wouldn’t risk failure), and keep me stuck in a loop of self-destructive behavior (because that behavior felt familiar and safe, despite being dysfunctional).
Every shadow aspect has an agenda that you need to uncover. This agenda is the shadow’s motivation for existing, and it will subconsciously influence your behavior and choices until you become aware of it.
Importantly, the shadow’s agenda is often in conflict with the purpose and mission of your Higher Self.
Your Higher Self wants you to expand, grow, take worthwhile risks, become free of any dysfunctional habits and relationships. Your Higher Self wants you to live your full potential. But your shadow aspects aren’t typically interested in that, as they often seek to keep you “safe” by living out the same old patterns and dysfunctions.
In figuring out the shadow’s agenda – why is it here and what is it trying to get you to do? – you can recognize how this agenda conflicts with your soul’s purpose and calling.
From there, you can lovingly thank your shadow for whatever “job” it’s been doing all this time. And you can make the conscious choice to align yourself with your soul’s calling, instead of being driven subconsciously by your shadows.
Please let me know by leaving a comment below if this guide is helpful! And I’d love to hear if you have other tricks or techniques for working with our shadow aspects.