What is shadow work?
Carl Jung was the first psychologist to propose the idea of a “shadow self”- those parts of us such as personality traits and core wounds that we deny and hide from. Everyone has a shadow self, and the more you deny it the stronger it becomes, and the more likely it is you will project it onto others. Jung believed that we do not see others for who they are, but instead through the lens of our own shadow. For example, the core wound of abandonment, if suppressed and unaddressed, can be projected onto others- you might assume every person who gets close to you will abandon you, and see all of their actions from this perspective, regardless of that persons real intent.
Shadow work, then, is taking an honest look at ourselves- at our weaknesses, our faults, our core wounds and toxic behaviours. It is facing them, learning from and integrating them into our personality so we can be more whole and authentic in our actions. It also helps us to have more empathy for others- by looking at our own shadow we realise that often the people who hurt us simply cannot or will not integrate their own.
How does shadow work help with our healing?
Shadow work is an integral part of healing. When we act unconsciously from our shadow, we hurt ourselves and other people. We allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our wounds and controlled by our past traumas. As we integrate our shadow, we take responsibility for our actions and gain insight into our triggers so that rather than avoiding the things that trigger us, we learn to overcome the trigger.
We begin to love ourselves fully only when we begin to love our shadow aspects.
Part of the reason the healing process is so painful is because many of our shadow aspects are brought to the forefront of our minds- this happens not to hurt us but to direct our attention to the things we need to address and heal from. If we continue to turn away and deny them, healing will be much slower and more painful for us.
Shadow work can be incredibly painful, but ultimately it is a pain that is constructive- the same way your muscles are painful after working out. The pain of unhealed trauma and a neglected shadow is not constructive- it serves only as a messenger, urging us to do the work.
Where to begin?
It is important to take shadow work slowly, so as not to be overwhelmed by it. A good way to begin is by taking an inventory of your strengths, positive characteristics and talents. Use a fresh journal which will just be for this work, and make a list on the first couple of pages of everything you like about yourself, everything you think you are good at. Leave some space at the end to add to it- as you do the work you will uncover more and more strengths to add to the list.
There are many ways to approach shadow work. Because our subconscious minds work with symbols and feelings instead of words and thoughts, we have to find a way in through our feelings- sitting and thinking about it endlessly will not get us to the root. So to begin to identify shadow aspects, we simply need to notice when we are feeling triggered, and start to look for patterns.
Can you remember the last time you felt triggered? Outline the situation in your journal. For example you could start with: Yesterday I was triggered, because my friend cancelled our plans together at the last minute. That’s how you would describe the situation consciously. To access the subconscious, examine your feelings. How did it feel?
You might write: I felt sad and worthless. Allow the feeling to wash over you. Write down anything that comes to you. Move more deeply into the emotion.
Have you felt that way before?
You might remember a painful experience such as a time when you were bullied at school. Note down anything that comes up. Immerse yourself in the painful emotions. Ask yourself: Why did I feel sad and worthless?
You might not be ready to go further than that, and that is okay. You might move deeper into the emotions and realise that you felt sad and worthless because you felt rejected and abandoned by your friends.
You have uncovered two core wounds- rejection and abandonment. You were triggered not because your friend cancelled plans- life happens and we all cancel plans from time to time. Rather, your core wounds were triggered. This is why we have seemingly disproportionate emotional reactions to things.
The next stage in the process is to remember other times we felt rejected or abandoned. Most survivors will immediately go to the traumatic events in their past. A survivor of child abuse might remember feeling rejected and abandoned by their parents. When we connect these dots, we come to realise just how much of our present reactions are dictated by past unhealed hurts.
Working with Core Wounds – The Inner Child
It is the child in you that feels rejected and abandoned. You can work with your inner child to start healing these core wounds. Sit or lay quietly and close your eyes. Breathe deeply and slowly, and picture yourself as a small child. How do you look? How do you feel?
Picture yourself walking up to that small child you were. Take their hand, or take them in your arms. Talk to them. Explain to them that you are here now, that nobody can hurt them again. Tell them you are sorry for all the times you abandoned them, too. You may feel that all the rejection and abandonment in your life came from other people, but trauma also causes us to reject and abandon ourselves. Take some time to listen to your inner child. Acknowledge their pain. Reassure them.
When it feels natural, return to your journal and write down any feelings or impressions you get from this encounter. As these core wounds are so ingrained into us, you should repeat this exercise frequently. You might just find that the next time someone lets you down, your reaction to it is less extreme.
Gentle reminder that this work can be very painful. Please do not undertake shadow work if you are struggling as it could make things worse. It is best to start this work when you are feeling strong and have a good self-care regime. Always proceed slowly with this work. Always return to your list of positive qualities and remind yourself that you are so much more than your shadow side.
Now you have found a way in to your shadow side you can use this method to help overcome your triggers. Each time you feel triggered, repeat this process to find the root cause of the trigger, and spend time to love, honour and heal your inner child. Forgive yourself for poor coping methods you may have employed in the past. Change happens now- and only now.
It is important not to think too much when answering these questions because the majority of your shadow lies within the subconscious- therefore, it is accessed more easily by stream-of-consciousness style writing. If you try to think too much, your ego will take over and you might not answer honestly, or find yourself justifying things rather than taking a square look at them. This is not ultimately helpful.
You have the power to change any aspect of yourself.
One of the best things about moving from a victim to a survivor/thriver mentality is the realisation that the power to change lies within you. As difficult and painful as this work can be, it is so transformational.
There are many more methods and tools you can use for shadow work, and I will be writing a series. I hope this first article has given you a solid starting point. Again- please be safe, and go at an easy pace. Know that I am proud of you and you should be proud of yourself for even considering doing this work as many go through their entire lives without looking at themselves in this way.
Have you tried shadow work? Did you find this useful? Please let me know in the comments below. Like and share this article if it moves you, and don’t forget to subscribe to artoftrauma below for updates of new posts. You can check out some of my other trauma healing articles at the end of the post. Thank you so much for reading- I appreciate you.
Ten Ways to Heal Trauma Part One, Part Two
Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing
Trauma bonds (and how to break them)
Emotional Flashbacks- and how to cope.
Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma
5 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Trauma Symptoms you didn’t know were symptoms
5 Journal Prompts for Trauma Healing
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