Updated: Sep 1, 2021
I finally decided it is time to jump on board with the ragingly popular topic of shadow work. This concept runs the rounds on spiritual and psychology blogs and I’ve been resisting facing it. Partly because I think it has been covered enough times to not need my input and partly because I think that it is a little fad-ish. But I’ve come across some ideas lately that have me pondering shadow work in a new way and figured it was time to share.
Shadow work comes from the Jungian school of psychology and involves exploring the hidden aspects of ourselves. As I said, it shows up in all kinds of spiritual, self-help, and psychology work these days as a powerful way to examine the parts of us deemed “unacceptable." All the dark parts of our subconscious, negative emotions, base desires, inferior needs, and power-hungry aspirations are shoved into our shadow. Often this is the part of ourselves we cannot see such as our foibles, failures, bad habits, and poor attitudes. It’s all the stuff we wish we didn’t have, assuming we know we have it at all.
The power of examining the shadow, many argue, comes from knowing the worst parts of yourself and being able to integrate them in healthy ways. By repressing or ignoring our shadows, we actually give them power as they fight to be seen and heard in the most uncomfortable ways (such as Freudian slips). Acknowledging the shadow allows it to be healed and provide input into your life. An additional benefit is that all the energy used to repress the shadow is then set free and available for positive use. Understanding your shadow gives you opportunities to grow, change, and mature through facing the worst parts of yourself.
So overall, I agree that seeing and dealing with our dark side can be a very healing process as you learn to accept the totality of who you are. If you want to undertake this type of work, this is ample information on the Internet for you to look up and get started immediately. Have at it.
What I’ve been pondering over the last few weeks as things have popped onto my radar is the idea that our shadow hides both negative aspects and positive aspects of ourselves. The positive aspects may at one time have been deemed “unacceptable” and hidden away in the background of our unconscious. This isn’t a completely unique take on this concept. Psychologists do occasionally write about this. It’s just that they like writing about the dark, dirty parts of the psyche more. Who wouldn’t?
I’d like to suggest a few additional ideas of what might be hiding in your shadow. These are aspects you may want to seek out and bring back into the light as forgotten but much needed pieces of the person you are supposed to be.
Some aspects of yourself that may be hiding in your shadow might be parts of you that learned it was unsafe to be seen. This very often happens in childhood, but could happen later. You learn that you aren’t supposed to act too smart, or talk too black, or ask too many questions, or sing too well, or even dress too provocatively. There are many reasons why this occurs, but it shows up often in abusive families, conservative religious settings, or oppressive social situations. Your (often) young brain realizes that something about you is not safe and shoves it away in the shadow self.
I see this happen in religious contexts where male and female roles are strictly policed. It shows up for those who identify as LBGTQ+ when expressing themselves is not acceptable. (It’s interesting that we call telling people about your sexual orientation “coming out if the closet” which is similar to “coming out of the shadow.”) I see this in any situation where a particular role is set and strictly enforced for a racial group. This definitely shows up in families where particular people are the peacemakers, the conciliators, the apologizers, or the passivists, or simply the ones trying to survive an abusive situation. In all these contexts, acting outside of a given role can be terrifying and those aspects of yourself that don’t fit in get pushed into the shadow.
The liberating thing to know is that the piece that was shoved away might, in a different setting later in life, be perfectly acceptable. It might even be a desirable trait or a key piece of your personality waiting to be restored to its rightful place. In another blog post I talked about when something about you feels wrong, then maybe the problem isn’t you but the culture around you. It is worth asking whether your culture/family/religion of origin was correct in how they labeled you (or parts of you). Spending time as an adult befriending your shadow might give these mislabeled aspects of yourself the opportunity to come back into the light as important missing pieces of your personality who are now safe to express themselves. Finding the whole of you, including aspects that were hidden in the past, can be a very healing process.
Another related reason why parts of you might be hidden in your shadow is because of past trauma. There are big T traumas, major life-altering events that no one should ever have to face, and little t traumas, the natural negative experiences of life that we all go through. What is the same about both is that when you experienced that (T)trauma you were not able to process it. One kid may be embarrassed about speaking in front of a class and it becomes trauma for them because they couldn’t process the shame. Another kid might be embarrassed but have the emotional maturity to process the shame which kept it from becoming trauma that dogged them later in life. Same experience, very different ways of dealing with it due to resilience, support, and maturity. Big Truamas are the ones that few have the ability to process at the time they occur, particularly ones that happen in early childhood.
When we have experiences we cannot process, they become part of our shadows as well. We shove them aside, forget about them (or not), and don’t deal with them. The good news is that these parts of our shadow hang out there until we ARE able to handle them. When we have the necessary emotional support and maturity we can visit our shadow side, find these past aspects, and bring them into the light to deal with them. This happened for millions of women who shared their abuse during the #MeToo movement. They were finally able to look at the junk hiding in their shadow and reveal it to the world and (I hope) process it. Similarly, the #ChurchToo movement exposed the rampant sexual abuse in religious settings. What is really interesting about the women of these related movements is that they didn’t just bring to light parts of their individual shadows that need work, but they shone a light on the collective shadow of our religious and civic culture that need work.
Here is another possibility. Your shadow may be hiding a part of you that is so powerful and free that you are scared to let it out. Marianne Williamson writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Why would people be afraid of the best parts of themselves? For many reasons. Because of what others might think. Because of the responsibility it brings. Because of how it puts you in the spotlight to be seen. Because of how it might leave others behind. Because of how it might rock the boat in your current family/culture/social group. I’d argue that most of us have bright and brilliant parts of us hiding in the shadows that we are scared to reintegrate into our lives simply because of the change it would bring.
The last aspect of shadow work that I want to discuss is the parts of you that you pushed into your shadow because they didn’t seem to fit who you are. These aspects might be perfectly harmless or even delightful, but you shoved them away because they were inconveniently outside the box of who you thought you were (or should be). This might be the lawyer who shoves aside all artistic inclination in favor of a 70 hour work week. It could be the sports star who trains year-round and turns down opportunities to go away surfing with friends. It could be the woman who wants to be a mother and so denies parts of herself that really wants to start a business. It could be the man who really wants to go back to school and change careers but doesn’t because he thinks it is irresponsible. It could be the student who majors in whatever will make their family happy when all they really want is to travel the world for two years. There are so many things we set aside or deny ourselves because we think we want something else, or we don’t think we can have it all.
Those pieces of ourselves are really important, though. The things that bring us joy (or brought us joy before we put them aside) are vital clues about who we are and what we are supposed to do in the world. Ignoring them simply keeps us from expressing our most authentic selves. Thankfully, you can always go back and retrieve those lost parts of yourself and experience those things you put aside. We are lucky today to have so much at our fingertips. We can take classes, watch videos, get books, order supplies, and find new communities online to explore whatever it is we gave up. Befriending your shadow allows you to rediscover those hidden parts of yourself and let them out to play. It will help you find the wholeness of who you are supposed to be.
So I would like to expand the definition of shadow work to include all those lost, forgotten, ignored, hidden parts of ourselves that we need to find again in order to become whole human beings. They aren’t just our deepest, darkest secrets we don’t really want to face. They are vital and joyful characteristics that we can welcome back into our lives with open arms. Befriending your shadow will bring up some stuff you may not want to face again or show you parts of yourself you’d rather not be there. It will also allow you to create a life that is more authentically yours then you’ve ever had before. There is good stuff and bad stuff in your shadow. Clean it all out and let it come to light. You might be really surprised at what you find.