What is Shadow Work? and Why it Matters
Updated: Jan 28
What is Shadow work and why is it important?
The term Shadow was first coined by Carl Jung, a protege of Sigmund Freud, to describe the part of the mind that we do not consciously identify with. The shadow encompasses everything that we have not brought into the conscious “light” of our awareness. The shadow represents anything we have pushed out of our awareness-deemed as “inappropriate”, “wrong” or “unacceptable”.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychoanalysis, gave us the metaphor of the conscious mind as being like a tiny little garrison of soldiers within the immense city of Rome. The unconscious mind is like the immense city of Rome, with all of its hidden passages, buried villages, dark alleys and long history. This immensity of light and dark represents the unconscious. The work of psychoanalysis according to Freud was to bring all those unexplored bits of the city (the mind) into the light of conscious awareness (under the control of the garrison).
Shadow work involves working with these parts of our minds that we struggle to identify with. How do you work with a part of your mind that you cannot access? You get out of your mind and into your body; adopting the attitude of the explorer, you embark on the journey inward.
The simple act of committing to this process can yield profound insights about oneself and radical shift in one’s mindset and beliefs-but that is not enough.
Shadow work can be done on one’s own but it is best done within the context of a supportive community. The reason for this is that all of our wounding occurs within the context of relationship-so healing and re-patterning must also be done within the context of relationship.
From these early relationships we form unconscious beliefs about the world. Then from these beliefs we adopt patterns of behaviour that usually tend to counter the negativity in our unconscious beliefs.
We need others to identify our negative patterns and to hold open a space of curiosity for us-without others we are simply lost.
Why is working with shadow important?
The psychic material in our shadow is immensely powerful. It can withdraw energy from our system and leave us feeling exhausted.
We can find ourselves “triggered” with intense emotional intensity-that seems to repel others-or be inappropriate for the situation. A tell-tale indication that something in our shadow system has become activated is when we have reactions to situations that are much more intense and deeper than the present situation actually calls for.
Often it is not the situation at hand that is bothering us, but what the situation reminds us of and what that memory represents in our minds that is causing discomfort.
When material in our shadow is activated, we can find ourselves withdrawing from the presence of others, closed hearted and chronically reactive-wasting much of our energy dealing with small or insignificant problems.
The reason why we become stuck is because we develop fixations or repulsions. A fixation can be like an addiction- something we feel we are lacking in ourselves-usually connected to an early developmental issue- love, warmth, acceptance, etc. We then seek this in the other, or in a substance or behaviour.
Repulsions can come in the form of things that we completely disown and often actively seek to destroy or eliminate from our lives completely. This type of energy seeks to dehumanize people completely. The reason why we can treat others so badly is because we often have some of the traits in ourselves that we are actively seeking to destroy in others. This occurs via the mechanism of projection, when the psyche can’t handle energy it pushes it out onto the world and others.
E.g. I have not fully experienced, expressed or owned my anger, so I see and perceive anger in others. I have not given my anger permission or space, so I cannot give space to hearing or meeting the anger in others.
Why we can’t get rid of the Shadow
No one is free of a shadow and we can never completely rid ourselves of our shadow. The reason for this is like in my earlier example of the captured garrison within the city of Rome, there is always more to explore.
Once Rome is explored there is the rest of the world, then the planet, then outer space and its seemingly limitless dimensionality.
We cannot get rid of the unknown world. The best we can do is to shine the light of consciousness on it. Our only hope is to get to know it better, that is to become acquainted with it so that it can begin to serve us rather than hinder us on our journey forward.
How to recognize Shadow-Projection and Transference
Projection is a mechanism by which we fully see something in the other which we also possess. Projection involves not being fully aware that the attribute that we see in the “other” also exists in us. An example of this is “I’m not angry-you are the one who is angry”. A sure sign that something is in our shadow system is that a trait in another deeply affects us- as opposed to simply informing us.
Transference is the term Freud came up with to describe the tendency he noticed for patients to place the emotions of another time and place onto him in therapy.
This is an important point in working with the shadow as people have a tendency to let past experiences crowd the field of their own present time experience.
Benefits of Shadow Work
The human psyche contains a great amount of energy. When one adopts the mindset of an explorer and begins to face the darker sides of themselves, vital energy can be liberated within the mind and body.
Attitudes and beliefs can radically shift: where the mind goes the body will follow. I have witnessed people turn their lives around from participating in shadow work.
My personal experience with Shadow Work
My experience with shadow work I would describe as a slow, natural unfolding of coming to presence with the darker sides of my psyche. For most of my childhood and teenage years I would see evil everywhere; the world (as I viewed it) was fundamentally flawed.
It is no wonder that I saw evil everywhere. As a child I had developed a deep wound which would be best characterized by the term counterdependency which is the refusal of attachment needs, the denial of the need for love within one’s self.
This wound resulted from the heartbreak of not having my biological father present in my life. Heartbreak occurs when we show up for love and it pulls a no show on us. This left me fixated, not on my wound but on moving in the other direction from love.
As I progressed developmentally I became fixated on certain intellectual topics of interest. My first love was philosophical discourse. I believed that if I read and understood enough philosophy that all my woes would be cured.
Next I became fixated on society. I became a Marxist, thinking if society could organize in a way that was more compassionate, that many evils in the world could be cured.
I then became interested in practical matters, making money, learning practical skills, training my body and last but not least understanding intimate relationship.
My next fixation was with spirituality and therapy. Getting in touch with the presence of the mysterious ‘other’.
This last fixation included Shadow work, getting in touch with the darker aspects of my mind and spirit, accompanied by experienced facilitators, coaches and therapists.
The benefits of doing this type of work are vast. For many years I looked upon my own stages as wasted time and energy, but after doing inner work I see those stages as necessary and beautiful parts of my development. I have changed the meaning of my relationship with myself, finding forgiveness for the younger me.
Finding forgiveness for myself has allowed me to connect with others in a way that is more meaningful. Instead of seeing others through the lens of whatever ideology I was obsessed with I now view them for the perfect representations of light that they are. This is not to say that I don’t see flaws in myself and in others - I do, but I am now capable of holding open a space for myself and others, that is much larger than it used to be. The space is so large that it cannot be confined by an ideology, neologism or cultural meme.
What comes from this expanded view of myself and others is responsibility. I am not just responsible for myself and my family, I am responsible for all beings everywhere, at all times. This expanded sense of responsibility has allowed me to extend myself into the world and truly begin to give my gift to others.
In short, I haven taken on responsibility for my own greatness, and by extension, the greatness of others. This has allowed me to step fully into my role as a coach, mentor and leader.