Written by: Ashley Berry
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “shadow work”? If you’re not familiar with the concept it might conjure images of dark magic, the occult, or untoward mystical practices, but the truth is that there’s nothing nefarious about shadow work at all. In fact, it’s a vital part of any healing journey and something that we, both as individuals and as a collective, may need now, more than ever.
The practice of shadow work is rooted in the concept of “shadow self”, a term psychologist Carl Jung coined to describe the parts of our personality that our egos deny, reject, or experience shame around. This most often happens when we have experiences, particularly during our formative years, that lead us to believe that certain aspects of who we are or how we show up are unacceptable, unlovable, or dangerous.
This can take place on an individual level, for example, when a child learns to repress any expression of anger to avoid experiencing rejection or abandonment from caregivers who don’t have the skills or capacity to hold space for the child’s full range of emotional expression. But this can also occur on a collective level as well. An example of this might be the ways in which women often learn as young girls to be softer, more passive, and more accommodating to others to avoid being seen as “bossy”, “selfish”, or any other adjective that is considered socially unacceptable. These messages can be transmitted to us from people close to us, from media, or from institutions and, because a sense of belonging is so intimately connected to our primal survival drives, we push any aspects of ourselves that we fear might lead to our ostracization deep into the recesses of our beings--the Shadow.
So, why is it so important to explore our own Shadow, individually and collectively?
Well, as Jung says, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Denying the existence of the parts of ourselves that we feel shameful around is essentially like sweeping those aspects of our identity under a metaphorical rug. They don’t cease to exist just because we can’t see them, but because we are no longer consciously aware that they’re there, we’re much more likely to trip over them.
The most common way this shows up is in the experience of being triggered and this is one of the very best places to start if you’re interested in diving into the exploration of your own Shadow. More often than not, when we experience intense disgust, anger, or judgment around something someone does, there’s usually something there for us to investigate.
Questions that might be worth asking in these moments are: What stories do I carry around these qualities, traits, or behaviors? When did I first start feeling repelled by these behaviors? What does this experience remind me of?
As we uncover latent belief systems about who we and others are supposed to be, something incredible happens. We create space to explore who we truly want to be, outside of the stories and expectations that were placed on us. We get an opportunity to uncover the treasures buried within the parts of ourselves that we may have denied or rejected. And we develop a deeper sense of compassion and acceptance for both ourselves and others.
This, of course, isn’t to say that we should act out every impulse that we have or behave in ways that we know are harmful to ourselves or others, but every human quality lies on a spectrum from constructive to destructive. Anger, for example, can be destructive when we allow it to pour out of us unbridled. In its extreme forms it becomes aggression and abuse, but channeled mindfully, it can also be a powerful agent for creation and positive shift. It can infuse us with the courage to walk away from circumstances that don’t serve or honor us. It can be the inspiration for art and the fuel for social change movements. It is in this way that the parts of ourselves that we feel most challenged to accept can often hold some of our most potent, untapped gifts and potential.
As we begin to find healthy ways to express previously rejected parts of ourselves and develop a deeper acceptance for all of who we are, we expand our capacity for compassion, not only for ourselves, but for others as well. We begin to see that, underlying every unkind gesture or angry outburst, there is simply a human who is acting out of unconscious wounds. While this awareness in no way excuses harmful behaviors, it does empower us to be more intentional about if and how we choose to respond and that little shift can have a profound impact. It can be the difference between layering our wounding on top of another’s in a way that creates a never ending cycle of shame and reactivity or choosing to show up in a way that creates space for healing. In a world that is hurting on so many levels, more people choosing the path of compassion and healing is very much needed. And that’s the beauty of shadow work; it offers us the opportunity to create positive shifts in our world, starting in the one place we have the most agency--ourselves.
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