What is Shadow Work

Shadow Work is most often associated with Carl Jung, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who studied under Freud. Jung developed the idea of a “collective unconscious,” and while his work has been criticized for a lack of scientific rigor (it was the olden times after all), an aspect of his theory has gotten more attention on blogs and social accounts lately - Shadow Work.

According to Jung, our unconscious mind is segmented into parts he describes as “archetypes” - commonly recognizable characters and symbols that represent our concealed or suppressed motivations and perceptions of the world. He claimed these archetypes were universal, though nuanced across cultures. The list is quite long and worth a read if you’re interested. Some highly abbreviated examples include the Anima (an idealized female figure that you project onto someone in your life, or who you aspire to be), the Persona (a mask you wear to hide your inner self), and the Self (your conscious awareness). 

Applied in psychotherapy, considering your life through the lens of these archetypes can help you explore hidden drives and desires, navigate difficult relationships, and heal hidden wounds. The Shadow is both an aspect and an archetype. For example, the Shadow of the Old Wise Man archetype (where your wisdom resides) is the Trickster archetype (an urge to indulge in childish pranks and seek gratification at all costs). As an archetype, the Shadow represents a part of ourselves that we do not want to see, that we are ashamed of, or that doesn’t correspond to our ideal of ourselves. It is sometimes described as our emotional blind spot. 

Many of us are familiar with Freud’s concept of the id, a repressed aspect of our personality where forbidden thoughts and desires associated with our “animal” nature reside. Jung theorized that since most of us suppress and ignore the id so that we can fit into society, we internalize our unmet needs and desires, embedding them in a place where they’re not easily perceivable, but where they can secretly influence our thoughts and actions. This becomes the Shadow, a reflection of all in us that is emotional, needy, insecure, bitter, and self-destructive. If you’ve ever watched Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you know all about the Inner Saboteur - that’s the Shadow. Even when you think you’re going to do well with something - a new job, a new relationship - you’ll suddenly start to doubt yourself and act against your best interests. A Jungian psychologist would say that’s your Shadow, reaching up to try and get the things it craves at just the wrong time.

One of the most significant aspects of the Shadow is its subversion of our sense of self. In other words, our Shadow makes us see ourselves differently than we normally would, and not in a flattering light. It encapsulates what we most fear we might be, and our discomfort or disgust is often so great that we project aspects of the Shadow onto others. For example, if we fear we are too needy, we will notice this trait in others more readily, and it may lead us to dislike them without really knowing why. Projecting also distracts us from the reality that the trait we dislike could exist within us.

While Jungian archetypes may not be a precise diagnostic tool, they can offer a unique pathway to insights about your own thoughts, feelings and behavior. Shadow Work is seeking out and exploring the parts of yourself that you keep hidden, even from your own consciousness. This can include repressed memories, shame, embarrassment, even trauma. 

In doing Shadow Work, the ideal is to recognize, process, and accept your Shadow so that it can be healthily integrated into the full self. This could look like setting new boundaries to address an unmet need you’ve been too ashamed to communicate, or finally repairing a mystifyingly dysfunctional relationship you’ve never been able to understand. Doing Shadow Work can be liberating - it allows you to address complex problems that have bothered you for a long time without a straightforward solution. While there are many ways to do Shadow Work on your own, if you have a history of trauma it’s advisable to work with a therapist. Shadow Work can uncover repressed memories and feelings that can be difficult to process on your own. 

Journal Prompts for Shadow Work

  1. Take Care of the Baby: The needs of the Shadow are often rooted in our experience as children. In Jung’s framework, these needs live inside us and subconsciously influence our behavior, driving us to try and fill the absence. Many of us try to forget or at least forgive things that bothered us as children in order to grow and become more self-sufficient. This is generally healthy as a normal part of growing up, but revisiting your childhood as an adult can reveal underlying drives and give us more agency over our behavior in the present. Before you tackle these prompts it might be helpful to look at a picture of yourself as a child if you have one, or read something you wrote or look at something you drew as a kid.

    Imagine you could go back in time and give your child self anything - what would it be? Write a list and be as expansive as possible. Include material and non-material items on the list: going to a different school, having different friends, getting a pet, spending more time with a parent, getting an Easy-Bake Oven.

    Spend as much time as you want on the list, and feel free to put it down and come back to it. Once you feel satisfied with the list, review each item and consider whether or how that thing shows up in your life. If you wrote you would give your child self piano lessons, do you give yourself time to be creative now? Do you spend time discovering new music? Why did you want this for your child self?

    Exploring what you feel you needed as a child can reveal things that are still important to you, and that you perhaps haven’t allowed yourself, or haven’t thought about. Make an effort to act on one of these unmet needs, even if in a small way. You may see these needs as immature or unimportant now that you’ve grown up, but your inner baby deserves as much care as your outer adult, if not more.

  2. Dark Mirror: The Shadow often leads us to hate or resent a specific trait or aspect of ourselves, and to project that feeling onto other people. If we fear we are too talkative, we may have a problem with other talkative people. If we are anxious about our body image, we may be hypercritical of others’ appearances.

    If there’s a person or a type of person in your life with whom you find yourself in frequent conflict, it could be beneficial to examine the root of your dislike for them and determine whether it’s founded in experience, or in self-critical assumptions.

    Imagine the person you dislike or disagree with the most. This could be a relative, friend, or stranger. Fold a piece of paper in half and write that person’s name on one side and yours on the other. Under the other person’s name write every trait you can think of for them - detailed physical appearance including mannerisms and quotes, whatever you know about their beliefs, desires, hobbies, and work, and anything else you can think of. Under the part of the paper with your name, mirror each of the traits as they apply to you. For example, if you wrote that they are medium height, put your height next to them. If you wrote that they’re into roller blading, put your favorite physical activity next to it.

    Once you have your two lists, consider what you may have in common with this person. It could be something very small - you both went to a liberal arts college, you both like jelly donuts, you both take your coffee black, etc. On a new piece of paper, write everything you have in common with the other person. Think about each trait - what does it say about you? About the other person? Does it mean something different for each of you? Do you display this behavior in different situations?

    You may have nothing in common with the other person, but this exercise can illuminate your own attitudes about yourself. Let’s go back to the talkative example. You may not be a talkative person now, but perhaps you used to be and received some criticism for it. Now, even though the other person may not be actively malicious towards you, their talkativeness reminds you of how you used to be and activates your self-censorship towards them.

    Our negative opinions of others may be a simple product of social situations, and that’s fine - we’re not trying to get you to admit that you’re just like someone you hate! The goal is to approach your deeply buried negative opinions of yourself as they may be reflected in your relationships with others. Ideally, this exercise will help you develop a little more insight and compassion for yourself and others.
  3. Feelings Wheel: Often the Shadow self clings to emotions that vent its unmet desires and unsoothed anxieties, leading us to express feelings and have reactions that we don’t feel in control of, or that feel out of character. If we’re not aware of this, the Shadow can almost control us without our knowledge - we end up reacting and then later feeling embarrassed and trying to rationalize how we behaved.

    Emotions can seem like an organic and uncontrollable phenomenon to us anyway, but that’s not the case. Our brains release chemical signals to trigger physical and psychic reactions based on particular stimuli: when we speak in public we get nervous, our hands shake and sweat, our face feels hot, and those physical reactions reinforce the initial feeling of nervousness, often creating a feedback loop that can be difficult to break. Our Shadow can create chemical pathways, or typical routes our emotions will go in response to most stimuli. In other words, if we’re used to being disappointed in love, when we meet a new person we’ll likely be primed to have a negative or pessimistic reaction to the interaction, whether it’s positive or not. These pathways can be comforting for many reasons - they reinforce what we think we know about ourselves and the world and they prevent us from taking scary risks like falling in love. However, if you’re craving some kind of growth or change, it’s often necessary to break these cycles and patterns and form new ones. This requires examining our go-to moods and emotions and interrogating whether they serve us. If those emotions are negative or tend to be destructive, they could be from the Shadow self.

    Creating a Feelings Wheel can be helpful. You can download fairly complex templates online with the whole variety of emotions, but for this exercise we encourage you to stick to something simple: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Surprise and Love. Draw a six pointed star like an asterisk. At the end of each spoke of the wheel write one of the main emotions. Then, based on how you think you felt that day, draw a point between the center and the outer edge of the circle for each emotion. If you felt very happy and a little surprised, your happy point would be far towards the edge of the circle and the surprised point would be very close to the center. Draw a line between these points so they form a sort of lopsided flower or starfish. Where does your circle tend to lean? Are your highest points by positive emotions like Joy, Love, and Surprise, or negative emotions like Sadness, Anger, and Fear?

    Try this exercise every day if you can remember, or at least somewhat regularly. What does your flower or starfish look like? Does your Feelings Wheel lean more heavily towards one point or another? Is this the same every day? If you find your feelings wheel seems regularly lopsided on one side, it could be a good idea to investigate that emotion. Your Shadow could be creating an emotional pathway that you’re falling into without meaning it.

    If you find your wheel leaning into fear for example, what causes your fear? Are you in an emotionally or physically damaging relationship or career? Are you concerned with world events or just overwhelmed with general anxiety? Whatever the reason, how long do you think this fear has been a reliable part of your life? When did it start? Or has it been here as long as you can remember? Is there something almost comforting about subconsciously knowing how things will make you feel? Are you shielding yourself from disappointment by anticipating the worst?

    The goal of this exercise is to recognize patterns and question them as objectively as possible. If you’re not ready to delve into the root of your emotions, simply performing the feeling wheel exercise each day in a journal is a helpful start. Knowing which path you unknowingly tend to take gives you more agency when you want to make a different choice.
Feelings Wheel Example

Closing Thoughts

There are many similar exercises available online, and we encourage you to try any that interest you. Shadow Work can be difficult, and can uncover feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment. You may initially feel ungrounded when exploring this work, detached from your familiar self and unsure of what the future holds. However, when approached with empathy and openness, Shadow Work can free us of our most entangling mental and emotional difficulties, and set us free to become who we truly want to be. We hope you find surprising and helpful insights by dabbling in this fascinating area of psychology.