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What is Shadow Work and why is it helpful?

The term 'shadow' comes from the work of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Basically, there are characteristics about ourselves that we like and some that we may feel ashamed of. Often, we try to suppress and hide the things about ourselves that don't like. This causes these traits and characteristics to go into our 'shadow'.

The difficulty with this is just because we can't "see" them at the moment doesn't mean they cease to exist.

Usually, what's being suppressed is exactly what pops up in a stressful moment - like a beach ball you're trying to hold underwater!

The idea of Shadow Work is that we bravely take a look at what we've place into our shadow so that it can be attended to. The thing is that most times, the characteristics we've placed there aren't shameful or unlovable, we've just perceived that they are from some external situation.

For example, as a child you love making jokes and making people laugh. There's a moment that you make a joke to your Father while he's doing something that has him preoccupied and a bit stressed out. He maybe snaps back, "now isn't the time for your jokes". For a young child this seemingly simple moment can cause them to feel like it's not okay to be funny or make jokes and 'Dad doesn't like it'. That funny part of you may start to be suppressed more and more.

This example shows how even "good" qualities can get shunned into our shadow. Far less what we deem as "negative" qualities. Maybe you sometimes have jealous, arrogant or aggressive tendencies. You try to hide them but they don't disappear, they just show up in even stronger ways when you least expect it.

This is why I said we do shadow work so that we can 'attend' to these parts of ourselves. All of our characteristics are part of us and they've formed for a reason, either innately or through your experiences growing up. Thus, the attention seeking individual for example, just needs... attention. When we can give ourselves the attention we seek and look at all our traits and characteristics with compassion and curiosity we can really see what's there and how to work with it.

This is how we meet ourselves. It's such an act of self-love to accept who you are and learn how to work best with what you have instead of trying to change or force yourself to be somebody else.

When you know all of who you are and how to work with yourself; your flaws and all, you are less triggered into unfavorable reaction patterns. Or, even if an old, unhelpful pattern gets triggered, you're more aware of what's going on so you're better able to course correct and apply damage control.

When we ignore the parts of ourselves that we don't like it can contribute to:

  • Low self-esteem

  • Feeling fragmented and distant with our 'true selves'

  • Low mood and overall dissatisfaction in life

  • Difficulties in relationships

  • Feeling confused, lost and anxious

Engaging in shadow work helps us gain greater self-acceptance and compassion which leads to more self-confidence and self-worth.

Anyone can do shadow work on their own but it's important to know some self-regulation tools before you dive in, just in case there's some traumatic elements that are hidden there as well.

It's something that you can also do with a trained professional.

If you want to start some shadow work on your own:

  • Learn what helps you self-regulate if you feel triggered- this could be talking to someone, going outside for a walk, breathing deeply, taking a shower or grounding for example.

  • Think about what you've been taught isn't "acceptable" in your family or society. What do people around you judge or ridicule?

  • Notice what you try to keep others from knowing about you. Sometimes, we are even successful in hiding these elements from ourselves.

  • Journal about some automatic reactions you have to certain situations that feels harmful or unhelpful. What are these reactions, where is it coming from? What's really going on underneath that pattern if you look a bit closer?

  • Practice self-compassion. Don't begin your shadow work with more judgement, your shadow elements have had enough judgement over the years. Know that you are human and this is normal. We all have a shadow. You can get more self-compassion resources from psychologist Kristin Neff here.

We will be exploring a bit of shadow work in one of my upcoming workshops.

Stay tuned.

Email me if you'd like to know more about when this workshop is launched.

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