What is Shadow Work? Understanding and Transformation With Shadow Work Exercises
Updated: Jul 19
Speaking to this question of ‘What is shadow work?', the great psychologist Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” This is a powerful statement, isn’t it? Who wants their life to be steered by unseen forces or unmet needs within themselves they don’t understand? Who wants to be like a robot programmed with a narrow set of patterns and choices? Yet, this is the sobering reality for human beings who don’t have the methods, opportunity or interest to look into themselves.
The Unconsciousness of Person-ness
In Jungian psychology the personal unconscious is the term for where the aspects of ourselves that have been ‘split off’ are unconsciously stuffed away. This includes character traits, desires, needs, emotions and primal drives around power and sexuality. This stuffing away, that happens to everyone to some degree, happens without our awareness.
The unconsciously stuffing away , repression, that creates shadow material has varied origins. Within cultures, institutions and families there are character traits and desires that are celebrated and there are those that are deemed unacceptable.
Within culture, a notion of gender for example, may lead to shadow material. A parental or authority figure says or reflects that ‘a young lady does not get angry’ and then the anger, that naturally and rightfully is there in a human being, is corked up, sometimes to such a degree that one is completely oblivious to having that quality within.
Sometimes it happens another way. A part of us rebels and we embody those qualities undesirable to the normative culture and repress (make shadow of) the culturally celebrated qualities that are actually within our personality make-up.
Whatever we have not yet made conscious in ourselves, the unconscious will ‘project’. Projection is what happens with our shadow material - we see what we don’t yet see about ourselves in others - people especially, but sometimes objects and places, too. The ball is bubbling up, in another part of the pool!
The offensive arrogance we are triggered and infumed by may or may not actually be there in the person we’re pinning it on. Maybe other people see confidence or maybe they do see a bit of pride. Usually projection is characterized by an exaggeration of or a biased focus upon the quality in the other person, not so different from how our Inner Critic has biased focus upon our flaws.
There are positive and negative projections because there is ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ shadow material. Positive shadow material is called golden shadow. We may find ourselves intoxicated with the amazing whatever it is about somebody, viewing them as a divine being and ourselves as merely an unworthy worm. Our own divinity is being reflected to us by being projected on to this person, place or thing. If we did know it in ourselves, the projection would not longer need to take place.
Consequences of the Shadow
Whatever is in our shadow, depending on the intensity of the unconsciousness, is experienced as an inner or outer tension or conflict. The manifest evidence of this is reactively charged thoughts and feelings that are some version of “I am like this and I am not like that, I am like that, I am not like this!”
We might harbor ill-will towards certain types of people or emotions they embody and don’t understand why. The not-understanding leads to avoiding or ignoring those people or fighting with them. We may have shame about something we’ve done or said because that thing we did or said doesn’t fit within the acceptable parameters of our operating concept of self. The problem is that the operating concept of self-belief, the traits, qualities and desires it’s ok to have, without introspection, are hidden from our view.
Dazed and Confused
Maybe we’re afraid of something in ourselves, such as our own capacity for lust or destruction or positivity, yet we don’t know what it is we’re afraid of so the fear is free floating, confusing and frustrating as we can’t seem to do anything about it.
Shadow material is an unconscious, though passively active repressing- the repressed wants to bubble up and so like a beach ball held under water, it is continually but invisibly using our energy to keep this ‘shadow material’ down and out of conscious awareness. It’s a labor to move through life with parts of who we are murky, mysterious or bottled up.
Shadow Work Exercises and Meditations
Shadow work is always trying to happen. There is a spontaneous quality of revealing with the personal unconscious- whether through judgements, obsessions, pedestal putting or dreams, the shadow material is continually reaching into the light. That guy who is so sensitive it makes you cringe keeps coming into your life. That kind of lady who you fall for blindly repeatedly steps into your life and before too long is no longer who you thought she was, nor you for she, and the relationship dissolves. Shadow work is always trying to happen. How do you help it along? I will present three foundational shadow work exercises.
The first aspect is studying judgement and praise. Begin to look at the patterns of criticism or adulation you have of other people. What are the themes, currently and over the years? Do you hear in yourself some version of ‘I could never be like that’ or ‘how can anyone act that way?’ Discovering the rules that live in you around what are acceptable way of being in the universe are most accessible through those ways of being or actions that irritate, excite or just generally catch your attention.
When you get some clarity of the different forms of ‘i’m not or couldn’t be like that’, invite curiosity about the ways that you are like that. As a courageous shadow worker you ask the kind yet honest friend, ‘do I ever do _____?’ Your operating self-concept and authenticity will expand if you can ask and let the responses in. What it looks like to let them in is the second shadow work practice.
Embodying the fullness of your emotions is the second aspect that could be called shadow meditation. One of the ways the unconscious remains unconscious is through disinhabiting our bodies. An example from my own life is that when I was in my twenties I judged a man I lived with for being too fragile and emotionally volatile. His vulnerability irritated me and I wished he would not be that way ( i.e not be who he was).
I had vacated my own vulnerability. The tremendous sadness and heartbreak as well as the deep potential for empathy that I carried, were both bottled up in my chest, literally, my heart center. I discovered this was the case through embodied mindfulness practice. In more throughly inhabiting my body with awareness, I found that not much awareness was present in my heart and, especially when fear or grieving were going on, little to no awareness was inhabiting my heart. It was an unconscious mechanism of avoiding what I was feeling as the consequence of the presence of the qualities in myself that I misunderstood, feared and disavowed.
So practices of embodiment, particularly ones where you are still, put you in touch with who you are at a deep level because the heart-mind-conscious and unconscious, and body are two sides of the same coin. The essential point is to feel your whole body completely, consenting to all the feelings and texturings.
You don’t need to look for shadow qualities in your body. Inhabit your body with an openness to where awareness is weak or absent, inhabit your body with trust that this will bring to light what we need to see. Full embodiment + openness invites seeing of the unseen.
The third aspect of shadow work is direct relationship with those people and things you find undesirable, foreign or repulsive. I think it is rare to consciously engage this kind of shadow practice. With or without our readiness, invitation or consciousness, life brings the undesirable, foreign or repulsive to our doorstep.
Marriage or committed relationship is often a place where this happens. We think we’re attracted to those who we feel see us and because the other has or gives what we feel we lack- beauty, tenderness, affection, confidence, optimism, etc. Yet the hidden gifts from this person are the qualities they possesses that emerge when we stick around long enough. Those behaviors, beliefs or traits that challenge us and test our openness, patience and ability to love provide, often in a perfect dose, exactly what we need to grow beyond our current limitations.
Here are some examples of how you can intentionally step into this aspect of shadow work:
1. Muster an open mind and sustaining that, watch a video or read a book or article that has perspectives you have friction with or feel you don’t understand.
2. Notice who at work or other social gatherings you avoid conversing with. If you see them in the break room, for example, be brave, sit down and ask them how they are doing. Listen receptively and break the spell of the alien other.
3. Ask for direct feedback on your behavior from people.
4.Look into what things you tend to procrastinate, the tasks you put off on others, the kinds of projects that you leave unfinished. Why is this happening? Who in you doesn’t want to see them brought to completion? What does it say about your identity if you do or don’t do those things?
Why undertake Shadow Work Practices?
It is rare for someone to be motivated to illuminate the under-known corners of their body, heart and mind. A good essay could be written about the rational motivations to not undertake this! However, if you’ve read this far I bet there is more than a superficial interest. Therefore, I’ll name some of the motivations that I imagine are already living in you, at the very least in seed form.
Know Thy Selves
The call to know who you are, thoroughly. We can cultivate a broadband awareness of the forces within us. Self-understanding is it’s own reward. I think this is what we’re intuiting when we desire authenticity or wholeness. Being a person is multidimensional so not being in touch with the range of our dimensions can have a subtle but pervasive feeling tone of impoverishment or lack.
Perhaps you are mostly a kind person. But you’re not just kind. You have a ferocious side, you have part of you with opinions about lots of people. Of course, you don’t have to give unbridled expression to all these parts. But living as though they are not there is not living the whole picture.
Not living a compartmentalized life. This is about our sense of integrity, inside and outside being in accord, and the peace that comes with that. We know the stories of the moralistic preachers passionate against the sins of homosexuality who are caught soliciting sex from young men. We cause harm to ourselves and others based in denial and ignorance of energies and motives that live in us.
For example, you have an angry outburst and damage a relationship. You find yourself committing infidelity. Judgments of co-workers or friends gradually wear on them and you find your connections withering and your loneliness growing strong.
A portion of our vitality is continually siphoned off by keeping what we are perplexed about in ourselves submerged in the water. Eventually through fatigue or activating circumstances, what is not clarified in ourselves emerges and sometimes emerges very strong, unfiltered and unbidden, overwhelming our conscious control. For those in positions of authority, these upsurging, out of character episodes can sabotage our leadership and the causes we’ve invested in through boundary crossing and power abuse.
There is a motivation to shine light in the neglected corners of our self based in compassion. When we are working to include the whole of who we are in awareness we then have the foundation to embrace the whole of others. The playwright Terrence wrote “I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me.”
Each person is like a jewel with which we can only ever see some of the facets at one time. Knowing that people are always more than a conclusion we have about them, that they are always more than the conclusions they have about themselves, softens and expands our heart. Love is the motivation, the practice and its outcome.
It is difficult to stay the course with shadow work exercises on our own. The parts of us that other parts of us don’t want to acknowledge or feel are strong and may have been operating in our lives for decades at this point. We need support to take this to a point of lasting transformation.
Trusted friends can be allies, mirrors and catalysts for each other in shadow work. There needs to be mutual respect, mutual aspiration and accountability to both gently and skillfully mirroring and being mirrored. Work out any existing tensions or conflicts before undertaking these exercises with each other so the connection in the relationship is in a solid place before beginning.
For many people, working with someone who has done a significant amount of work with their own shadow and has training in facilitating others to do the work will be the most transformative option. A quality of humility and acceptance comes from deeply opening ourselves up and shining light on what’s there; these traits are something I would look for in someone I was considering working with. Also, a sense for timing and some mastery of technique goes a long way.
Another one of the benefits in working with someone outside your friends and family is they are less likely to have bias beliefs or fixed agendas for who you’ve been and should be. If you have a therapist or spiritual guide, share your interest in exploring this territory with them and get their perspective on your and their readiness to proceed.
Entering this work with people is one of my callings, passions and privileges. If you’d like to read a bit what it might look like to undertake shadow work with me, read on. If not, thanks for coming this far!
Shadow work with me brings mindfulness practice, Buddhist psychology and Parts Work facilitation (Voice Dialogue, Internal Family Systems) together into a powerful combination. I offer you warm, personal guidance with uncovering, understanding and reclaiming lost, rejected or unknown parts of yourself. We can bring insight to blindspots, stop patterns of self-sabotage, renew vitality and heal relationships. We can also address spiritual bypassing and look into what is obstructing a wholehearted offering of your gifts to the world. More information here.