The idea that you have a shadow self might sound forebodingly dark and ominous, but counter-intuitively, shadow work is an illuminating resource that can help us get far more out of life. The concept of the “shadow” was defined by psychologist Carl Jung. When he used this term, he was describing the disowned self — the parts of ourselves that we don’t consciously recognize or embrace. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
Have you ever experienced a moment in which you’ve done something that you wouldn’t usually do, and then afterwards wondered what on earth inspired your actions? If so, then you’ve already crossed paths with your shadow self. At some point in our journey, we ceased to claim certain parts of ourself as our own. These remain with us, while being pushed into the subconscious. Psychologist Carolyn Kaufman wrote that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness — or perhaps because of this — the shadow is the seat of creativity.” With that in mind, join us for a journey into the art of shadow work, and discover how to integrate the aspects of your unconscious psyche into your conscious experience — for a fully harnessed self, and a more meaningful life experience.
What, Exactly, Is the Shadow?
Carl Jung was a renowned 20th century psychologist from Switzerland, whose work remains hugely influential today. His theories on the workings of the human mind included archetypes, the collective unconscious, concepts of introversion and extroversion, and the shadow self. Jung believed that shadow work was important because, as he put it, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” In contrast, by integrating our shadow side, he believed that we could acknowledge our full selves and live in a more balanced way.
To dispel any sinister sense to the term shadow, it is important to recognise that we each possess both light and dark qualities. However, that which is relegated to our shadow is not necessarily negative — but it is inescapably part of who we are. Much of the shadow is believed to be formed when we are children. Through experience, the idea is internalised that certain facets of our character are bad, and so we suppress them. For example, an early experience may have led us to believe that showing emotion was a sign of weakness, so as an adult our more emotional tendencies are pushed, so to speak, out of the light. Another example might be that our head-strong younger self was told to tone it down, and this experience produced a sense that being assertive and confident was wrong. Through fear of what others will think, we shut a door on parts of what makes us fundamentally us. In doing so, we set ourselves us to experience dissatisfaction or even distress in later life, and find ourselves unable to trace the root causes.
That Which Lies Within the Subconscious
The realm of the shadow self lies firmly within the subconscious mind. However, we remain unaware of it, because we cannot see it clearly. And so, the conscious mind balances the metaphor, being comprised of all that we are aware of — that which is in the light. Facets of ourselves that we once perceived as flawed become suppressed and ignored, but remain active in our subconscious. This dissociation forms a fragmentation of the self, creating the uncomfortable sense that “we” are not always at the wheel. The shadow takes on a life of its own, and makes unexpected appearances.
Jung explained, “A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps…living below his own level.” Jung drew on the iconic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as a tool to explain why shadow work is so important: “It must be Jekyll, the conscious personality, who integrates the shadow … and not vice versa. Otherwise the conscious becomes the slave of the autonomous shadow.”
The Rewards Of Shadow Work
Jung believed that our shadow holds the capacity to manifest as a character within our dreams. Fascinatingly, typically the shadow “appears as a person of the same sex as that of the dreamer” and may shed light on our state of mind, if we are open to interpreting its — fundamentally our — dreamed actions. This leans into another of Jung’s theories: the theory of enantiodromia. He defined this term as “the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time.” Fundamentally, just as balance is restored in nature, following the principle of equilibrium, Jung believed that through enantiodromia we can harness an organic momentum as we seek to shine a light into the corners of our subconscious. “We begin to travel through the healing spirals…straight up.”
By engaging in shadow work, we not only eliminate the pain that comes with suppressing parts of who we are, but also allow ourselves to tap into the potential, talents and gifts that will remain unilluminated when shunned into our subconscious. By engaging with this introspective practice, we can tap into a greater sense of authenticity, emotional freedom, an unfettered creativity. In embracing our whole selves, we can enhance the quality of our relationships, improve our communication, identify key boundaries that we need to set, and even experience improved well-being, energy and immunity, as our minds are subject to less of the stress of maintaining a compartmentalised self.
Shining A Light On Your Shadow
So, you may wonder, how do you begin to see into the darkness, and illuminate what lies within your shadow self? The subconscious tends to leave us clues to its inner workings — sometimes subtly so, and sometimes in ways that we might not have welcomed! The emotional triggers that catch us off-guard as we move through life are always strong sign-posts towards our shadow. So too are our inclinations to judge others. We often project our shadows, experiencing a strong sense of dislike when we perceive qualities in others that we have suppressed in ourselves.
The experience of being stuck in a rut is another shadow sign-post that should not be ignored. Following the principle of enantiodromia, the shadow will continue to push to the surface until we do the work of unearthing and integrating its contents. In this sense, the repeated behaviours that do not serve us and the strong reactions that we experience can serve as a mirror, helping us to learn more about the inner elements that are waiting to be integrated into our conscious self.
Integrating The Unconscious
If through self-observation you can begin to uncover what lies within your shadow, what is the next step? Sadly, there is no magic wand that will do the work of integration for us — shadow work is best perceived as a life-long endeavour, rather than a one-and-done activity! Many find journaling a powerful tool when it comes to recording and analysing thoughts and feelings, shining a light on subconscious emotional and behavioural patterns. Once again tapping the work of Carl Jung, you may find it valuable to align shadow parts of yourself with Jungian archetypes, in order to better understand them.
Reviewing your childhood experience, seeking out any elements of yourself you may not have felt were accepted, may lead you further into your shadow self. As you identify aspects that you might have rejected, avoid shame, blame, or judgement. These reactive thoughts are what formed your shadow in the first place — what is called for now is compassion and acceptance. By identifying the root causes behind any negative patterns and personal triggers, you will find yourself able to take an observational role — crucially, placing that which was in darkness in full view. From there, you can re-evaluate the parts of yourself that you previously rejected, choosing to embrace new potential positives, and forging strong emotions into new allies. Integrating your shadow means knowing yourself, and that is a pursuit that offers a lifetime of growth.
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