What is your shadow? This question found me five years ago. It’s one year before TikTok is a thing and four years before “shadow work” is a trending hashtag attached to endless reels telling you all about it. But at the time, I could only guess that my “shadow” was exactly what it sounded like: A sort of darkness that follows you.
In that moment, “shadow” evoked dualistic themes of light and darkness. Good and bad. Day and night. But the shadow really isn’t so black-and-white.
One of several archetypes popularly conceptualized by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the shadow represents that which eludes the light of consciousness—blind spots we all have that, although unseen, influence thoughts, emotions, and behavior. The shadow is often locked-away emotions like anger, fear, shame, or grief; painful memories or experiences; or the wounds of historical trauma.
Jung emphasized that the shadow is not some illness to cure, but rather a natural part of being human. He wrote, “There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”
His collaborator, Marie-Louise von Franz, further described how a relationship to the shadow ultimately defines how it expresses itself in our lives. “The shadow is not necessarily always an opponent,” she wrote. “The shadow becomes hostile only when he is ignored or misunderstood.”
Britt Frank—neuropsychotherapist trained in trauma and parts work—explores this idea in her book, The Science of Stuck. “The goal of therapy (or any inner work) is not to change yourself, it’s to know yourself—and then conduct your inner orchestra with skill and compassion,” she wrote. “Genuine self-compassion is a daring quest to know every corner of your inner world.”
To build a conscious relationship with your shadow parts—this is shadow work.
What’s Shadow Work?
Shadow work is the process by which we identify, befriend, and integrate our shadow parts into our conscious wholeness. And this process is anything but new.
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Over a century ago, the term “shadow” was brought to the world’s consciousness by Carl Jung, an influential Swiss psychiatrist who studied under Sigmund Freud at the dawn of psychoanalysis. Like Freud, Jung was an early psychological explorer who sought to map the depths of the human psyche. Whereas Freud saw a subterranean landscape of psychosexual development (Oedipus complex, anal retention, and so on) beneath human personality, Jung imagined a sprawling ecosystem of parts that thrived when in integrated harmony.
One of those parts—or archetypes as Jung called them—is “the shadow,” the repressed aspects of ourselves relegated to the unconscious.
“Anything that is too much to bear consciously—either emotionally, somatically, spiritually, psychologically—the psyche finds a way to put it somewhere so it doesn’t threaten your sense of self,” said Dr. Ido Cohen, a clinical psychologist, therapist, and co-founder of the Integration Circle.
The psyche adaptively compartmentalizes material that would interrupt our system. This material isn’t necessarily positive or negative. “This has nothing to do with our definitions of good or bad—it’s homeostasis,” Cohen said. “It’s just change.”
While this compartmentalization process is useful for survival, it can also leave us feeling driven more by instinct than by choice. Janina Fisher, psychotherapist and trauma educator, writes extensively on what is called structural dissociation, or the tendency for chronically traumatized individuals to fragment and silo material as a protective response to stress.
“Preserving some modicum of self-esteem, attachment to family, and hope for the future requires victims [of abuse and neglect] to disconnect from what has happened, doubt or disremember their experience, and disown the ‘bad [victim] child’ to whom it happened as ‘not me,’” Fisher writes in Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. “By holding out some sense of themselves as ‘good’ disconnected from how they have become exploited, abused children capitalize on the human brain’s innate capacity to split or compartmentalize.”
To reconcile the tension between our inner parts by extending a gentle hand to that which is hiding is the basis of shadow work.
This idea of harmonizing with shadow didn’t begin with Jung. His study of Eastern philosophy and Taoism informed Jung’s work. The practices invited him to step out of the empirical, externalized world and into one of internality and interconnection. The wisdom of harmonizing tension and imbalance is also carried through Indigenous tradition. Eduardo Duran, author of Healing the Soul Wound, describes the example of Indigenous warriors who, after taking a life in warfare, are supported by a “spiritual/soul agreement.” This “psychospiritual paradigm” recognizes the balance of life and death, and ceremonies were practiced to assist warriors upon return to restore harmony in their spirits.
Its deep roots across early spiritual, cultural, and philosophical tradition demonstrate that there is more than one way to conceptualize and carry out shadow work. Broadly, it is a commitment to consciously understanding and nurturing these so-often misunderstood, alienated, or exiled parts which only ever sought to help us in the ways they knew how.
Is Shadow Work Dangerous?
Imagine there’s a feral cat living under the house. She’s alone, malnourished, and when you approach her, she hisses and swats. She raises her hackles to appear big, though she’s skinny and small. You want to bring her out of the damp, cold crawl space and into the blanketed nest you’ve made for her upstairs, but she’s terrified.
You could corner her, grab her bare-handed, and carry her into the unfamiliarity of the house above, but this will probably be upsetting to her and painful for you. So alternatively, you bring her food, water, and comforts. You respect her space. You slowly introduce her to your voice and scent. With patience, she begins to lower her defenses and trust you.
Our shadow, like anything in defense-mode, requires a slow and careful approach that understands its nature and responds to its needs. And if you’re wanting to do inner work, there are easier places to begin than with the metaphorical feral cat.
“If you don’t have a relationship with your creativity, your playful parts, and with your joyful parts, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to build a relationship with the harder, shadowier, more scared parts,” Britt Frank told DoubleBlind.
The vulnerability of these parts, or the ways in which they are conceptualized, may raise a few points of concern or criticism:
Critique #1: It lacks a scientific basis. Skeptics may highlight a lack of empirical evidence to support the validity and reliability of this work in therapy settings. While some parts-work theories like Internal Family Systems are evidence-based, psychodynamic theories in general are difficult to study qualitatively. That doesn’t mean that psychodynamic approaches delivered by a mental health professional aren’t effective—it just means the techniques are harder to operationalize (i.e., measure according to a defined standard).
Critique #2: It can be self-indulgent. One might argue that focusing inward turns attention away from the collective system in which we live. Any inner work has the potential for tunnel vision, but intentionally reconciling our shadow parts can also have a positive impact on how we show up in relationships, communities, and in advocacy work. Cohen points out how social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter exemplify how shadow work can be done on a collective level.
Critique #3: Shadow work can be overwhelming. Diving into things like challenging emotions, grief, and trauma can flood our system and make us feel elevated stress if approached without adequate preparation, pacing, and support. Having a professional therapist assisting you is certainly helpful, if you have the means and access to one.
For those who do, Frank likens this to having a personal trainer who can help you build strength to tolerate the discomfort. “It takes a tremendous amount of privilege to be even able to do shadow work,” Frank said. “Luckily, you don’t need a therapist to do shadow work.”
But when is it advisable to recruit the help of a professional?: “If you are, as a result of all of this shadowy content, struggling with active addiction, suicidal depression, or self-harm, or if there’s any avenue in which you are not able to tolerate what you’re feeling,” Frank said.
How to Get Started with Shadow Work
Ask yourself, are you safe?
“Shadow work can only be done to the degree that you are actually safe,” Frank said. “Let’s access safety before accessing subconscious. Environment always trumps psyche, in my opinion.”
The definition and conditions of safety varies from person to person; in general, a bedrock of physical safety (i.e., basic needs are met, and no life threats such as domestic violence are present) will help support the emotional demands of inner work.
With the basic prerequisite of safety met, the unfolding of shadow work can begin. Here’s where you might start, according to Cohen and Frank.
“Curiosity is the compass to awareness and self-knowledge,” Cohen said. “Start cultivating curiosity about why you do what you do, why you think how you think, why certain things make you feel what they do.”
Need a tool to help with those questions? Frank recommends sifting through your own browser history. “Where do you go when you’re spaced out and dissociated?” she said. “In our patterns and habits lie clues to our shadow, and no place is more a documented demonstration of our habits than our browser histories.”
“Shadow work,” Frank writes in The Science of Stuck, “is just a fancy way to say ‘being honest with yourself about yourself.’”
Cohen provides examples of how to use honesty to support shadow work. “When you are told you hurt someone, take it in,” he said. “When you have scary or mean thoughts, or do things that are self-sabotaging…start wondering about why you do that. Develop a relationship of acceptance—not shame and avoidance.”
Commit to the ongoing work.
“There is a troubling misconception in the healing and psychedelic world that seeing trauma or confronting your shadow means it is cured and gone—that you have ‘killed your ego,’” Cohen told DoubleBlind.
Cohen emphasizes that while encountering our shadow parts is an important step, shadow work involves a continuous practice of learning and integration.
“Only through an ongoing relationship and inquiry, one learns the origins, influences, needs, and methods of the shadow,” Cohen said. “Then one can learn to change their relationship with it and pave new pathways of working with and responding to it.”
Shadow Work Prompts for Beginners
With so much interest building around shadow work, the internet is now teeming with exercises to help you engage with shadow work on your own. A quick search of “shadow work workbooks” will reveal a virtual bookshelf of tools with journal prompts, meditations, and other exercises intended to facilitate exploration.
However, if you choose to proceed with shadow work: “Make sure you have enough curiosity to tolerate what you’re working with,” Frank said. Knowing that we have the ability to summon curiosity, compassion, or other supportive qualities (known as the 8 C’s in Internal Family Systems) will help convert shadow work into a helpful experience as opposed to an overwhelming one.
Frank’s book, The Science of Stuck, also includes a few creative ways of building supportive relationships with your shadow parts. In an interview with DoubleBlind, she shared a few other ideas to try out:
Draw your parts
You don’t need to talk about your parts to get to know them. Art and play are ways to come into contact with a part, especially if they’re hard to internally approach or verbally articulate.
“If you’re scared of your murderous rage, then get a red marker and let yourself doodle what your rage looks like,” Frank said. “You’re going to feel a little uncomfortable; likely, you’re going to create something strange or unfamiliar. Then get curious.”
Dialogue with dominant/non-dominant journaling
Get out two pens and a piece of paper—your parts are going to have a chat. Put one pen in your dominant hand, and the other in your non-dominant hand, and write out a dialogue between your shadow part and another part starting with a friendly greeting. Non-dominant handwriting is a strategy for bringing less-conscious material to the forefront, and in shadow work, it can help generate amicable conversations with shadow parts.
“It feels terribly disorienting because your non-dominant hand is going to write things that you feel like either you’re making up or being controlled,” Frank said. “But that’s how you get to unconscious content. You don’t have to be afraid of [your shadow parts].”
Frank clarifies that getting to know a part is like building any relationship. “If you and I wanted to build a relationship, I’m not going to go to coffee with you and then tell you everything that’s wrong with you and what you need to change, and hope that we develop a beautiful friendship,” she said. “We have to start with, ‘hey, I’m curious about you.’”
Take note in relationships
“A lot of our shadow actually comes in relationships,” Cohen said. “Maybe it’s with my partner, a person at the market, or an experience I had at work.”
We can use relationships and interactions as both rich sources of data as well as training grounds for shadow work. See if you can practice a shift from being reactive to introspective. Cohen adds that mental health professionals, friends, or community groups can offer a kind of mirror, as we notice our shadow parts in those interactions.
As an added bonus, doing this work with supportive people can help us maintain it. “To be witnessed without being shamed, ridiculed, or rejected has a profound effect on our ability to stay and engage in the shadowy aspects of [ourselves].”
There are endless ways to practice doing the shadow work. And integrating its principles of curiosity, honesty, and commitment draws it into our being. Shadow work teaches us to be with the entire ecosystem of ourselves, and how to tend to every important organism within it.
“I don’t know why shadow work is trending…but I’m glad that it is,” Frank said. “Imagine the world if we were taught from an early age, you don’t have bad parts. You have parts who do bad things and who think bad thoughts, but they’re not bad. And if you know how to help them, they don’t act out onto other people. That’s a world that I would love to live in.”