Shadow work involves getting in touch with the parts of yourself that you’ve repressed — or what many might refer to as their “dark side.”
By Tonya Russell
You likely have a dark side – psychology says that everyone does – but there’s also a process that might help you work through that part of yourself. It’s called “shadow work,” and involves “diving into the unconscious material that shapes our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors,” according to therapist Akua Boateng, Ph.D. The goal is to make those unconscious fixations – such as the pain of a traumatic event – part of your conscious awareness so that you can then work on them in therapy, says Boateng. Those unconscious aspects, which are responsible for your impulsive behaviors and a part of your so-called dark side, can result from painful experiences, trauma, and past memories, explains Boateng.
Dealing with your past is necessary for healing, says Boateng. “As a result, I encourage clients to form a new relationship with some of the unlikeable, unreasonable, wounded parts of their psyche in order to integrate new patterns into their lives,” she explains. This is where shadow work comes into play.
What Is Shadow Work?
Popularized by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, M.D., the “shadow self” is a side that you may have learned to suppress as a child. For instance, if you were scolded for throwing a tantrum, you may have stored that anger away and put on a more socially acceptable smiling face for the world. You were taught early on that being angry was undesirable. This anger, as well as rage, jealousy, greed, and selfishness, are feelings that everyone has, but not everyone is comfortable expressing them. These suppressed emotions or characteristics are a part of your shadow personality.
“Shadow work is all about the unconscious mind, which consists of the things that we repress and hide from ourselves, such as traumas,” and shadow personalities, explains Danielle Massi, L.M.F.T. Your shadow self might show up when you’re triggered, in your relationships, and through varying levels of anxiety and depression, she says. And when this seemingly dark side does rise up, it might reveal that something about your personality that’s worth a closer look.
While anyone can do shadow work, a licensed mental health expert is the best option for treatment, especially for helping someone who’s experienced severe trauma, such as surviving an accident or experiencing violence or abuse. That’s because they’re trained to know how to help you work through trauma without experiencing re-traumatization, aka causing additional emotional and biological stress, according to the Center for Health Care Strategies. For the last year, Massi has frequently practiced shadow work with many of her clients. “As a psychotherapist for a decade, I felt that my clients and I could only get so far exploring the conscious and the subconscious mind,” she says. “In order to best help my clients, I moved away from traditional psychotherapy and into shadow work to help them heal at a much deeper level.” (Related: How to Find the Best Therapist for You)
The Goal of Shadow Work
“In my practice, I have seen clients break patterns of self-sabotage, addiction, and codependency [through shadow work],” says Boateng. “Some have faced the subconscious patterns that stem from childhood, sexual, or psychological abuse. By opening up to the shadow that you were previously resisting, you can see how your thoughts and feelings influence your behavior and create your reality. You empower yourself as you take responsibility for your projections.” (Related: Why Everyone Should Try Therapy at Least Once)
Many people who undergo shadow work are looking to “solve for why.” This means figuring out the root of their patterns which, Boateng believes, contribute to their shadow selves. “Instead of distancing themselves from learned behavior, leaning in with empathy brings about revolutionary change,” says Boateng. “We all have the tendency to adapt to our circumstances and sometimes those circumstances require us to protect ourselves in undesirable ways.” Translation: Your responses can often be a form of self-preservation. For instance, shutting down emotionally may have been a way for you to stay safe during childhood, though it may hinder your relationships going forward.
Seeking Shadow Work In Therapy
To determine if you should try shadow work, Boateng recommends paying attention to your relationship dynamics and, more specifically, any patterns that you tend to get stuck in (i.e. calling off a good “thing” the moment a potential partner starts to open up and wants you to do the same.) And if you decide this type of treatment might be worth a try, Massi recommends “working with a therapist who is trained in shadow work.” That person may have taken accredited courses and received a Shadow Mastery Diploma, which is recognized by the Complementary Medicine Association. (More on how to find these types of pros below.)…