An introduction to shadow work

It is officially autumn here in the Southern Hemisphere. At the we enter the dark part of year, my magick also turns to darker practices. This is the time of year when I focus heavily on shadow work.

What is the shadow?

“Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” – Carl Jung

According to the celebrated Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the shadow or “shadow aspect” are those things about ourselves that we are not fully conscious of. Under this broad definition, such things may be positive or negative. However, generally the reason we are not conscious of such things is because they are the least desirable aspects of our personality.

You might be thinking, “Great, let’s leave them nice and repressed then!” If they are undesirable, why bring them to the surface?

Carl Jung
Carl Jung

Jung believed that the shadow is prone to psychological projection. That is, we defend ourselves against them by denying them in ourselves and attributing them to others. For example, we righteously condemn another person for not listening to us, not realising that we have not been listening to them nor that we generally are a poor listener.

These projections insulate and harm us. Furthermore, if we don’t become intimate with our shadow, it can control us and we can lose ourselves to its darkness.

To engage in shadow work is to encounter the shadow, confront it, understand how it operates, find its origins, accept it, and assimilate it. This process frees us from destructive or self-sabotaging behaviours, helps us come to term with major life transitions, helps us regain confidence, and helps us grow. The ultimate goal is integration.

The shadow is meant to be understood allegorically. It is not an evil inside you or a split of your personality. It is not something wrong with you. It is part of the human experience. The shadow is primordial and, as such, it has natural, life-giving, underdeveloped positive potentialities too. Jung believed that “the shadow is the seat of creativity”.

What does this have to do with spirituality and creativity?

In short, individuation. This is a process of psychological integration by which we take greater responsibility for ourselves and our actions to achieve wholeness and balance. Shadow work allows us to embrace our weaknesses, find new strengths, be more compassionate, and more creative. It springs forth an authentic spirituality.

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” -Carl Jung

Spirituality is not necessarily a method of self-development, but it generally provides processes that improve awareness, develop talents, helps us realise dreams, and just generally enhance our quality of life. Though its roots are in Jungian psychology, shadow work is one of those processes.

How do you do it?

It’s not something you do once in a few hours or even a few days and then you’re done. It’s ongoing. Approach it like any other work – something you do in a specific space for a specific period of time. Ground and centre and learn to be okay with not being finished. The nature of this work requires that it be put aside and you come back to it time and time again.

If you’ve never done this kind of work, start by asking yourself some questions. You may not have clear answers for these questions and that’s okay. You might want to journal or meditate on them.

  • What don’t I want others to know about me?
  • What do I tend to have a disproportionate reaction to?
  • What qualities of mine do I often feel aversion toward?
  • Which emotions am I uncomfortable expressing?
  • What am I most scared to express in a relationship?
  • What traits in others really annoy you, wind you up, make you angry or frustrated?
  • What traits do you most admire in others?
  • Who do you look up to? Who are your idols?
  • What do you find yourself doing over and over “by accident”?
  • What is the worst insult someone can give you?

And then ask yourself why. Ask yourself why a lot. Try to recall moments in your life when these feelings emerged and keep going back in time to try to find where it all began. Hint: a lot of it is rooted in some childhood event.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” -Carl Jung

When you have identified pieces of your shadow, you can do a meditation in which you meet it. Ask it its name. Ask it questions. What is important to you? What do you want? What can I learn from you? How I can honour you?

Remember that this process is not about eliminating our shadow aspects; that may not possible. The purpose is to recognise it and to accept it, establishing a new awareness so it doesn’t control you any more.

A final word on self-care

Shadow work is a painful and lengthy process. There can also be a great sadness when we realise that what we thought was true about ourselves was just a defence against things we were afraid of. This will pass. When you emerge from the work, it will be as if a great burden has been lifted. You will find gold and you will find yourself.

In the meantime, be sure to set up a system of support and self-care. That might be a network of friends, a marathon of your favourite TV show, an indulging bubble bath, or your favourite ice cream. Whatever it is, be sure to engage in some activity that nurtures you and makes you feel good.