How to Practice Shadow Work
There are many Shadow Work techniques and practices out there. In this guide, I will provide a few to help you start off. I’ll also share a few examples from my own life:
1. Pay attention to your emotional reactions
In this practice, you’ll learn that what you give power to has power over you. Let me explain:
One Shadow Work practice I enjoy a great deal is paying attention to everything that shocks, disturbs and secretly thrills me. Essentially, this practice is about finding out what I’ve given power to in my life unconsciously, because:
what we place importance in – whether good or bad – says a lot about us.
The reality is that what we react to, or what makes us angry and distressed, reveals extremely important information to us about ourselves.
For example, by following where my “demons” have taken me – whether in social media, family circles, workspaces and public places – I have discovered two important things about myself. The first one is that I’m a control freak; I hate feeling vulnerable, powerless and weak . . . it quite simply scares the living hell out of me. How did I discover this? Through my intense dislike of witnessing rape scenes in movies and TV shows, my negative reaction to novel experiences (e.g. roller coaster rides, public speaking, etc.), as well as my discomfort surrounding sharing information about my life with others in conversations. Also, by following where my “demons” have guided me I’ve discovered that I’m being burdened by an exasperating guilt complex that I developed through my religious upbringing. A part of me wants to feel unworthy because that is what I’ve developed a habit of feeling since childhood (e.g. “You’re a sinner,” “It’s your fault Jesus was crucified”), and therefore, that is what I secretly feel comfortable with feeling: unworthy. So my mind nit-picks anything I might have done “wrong,” and I’m left with the feeling of being “bad” – which I’m used to, but nevertheless, this is destructive for my well-being.
Thanks to this practice, I have welcomed more compassion, mindfulness, and forgiveness into my life.
Paying attention to your emotional reactions can help you to discover exactly how your core wounds are affecting you on a daily basis.
How to Pay Attention to Your Emotional Reactions
To effectively pay attention to your emotional reactions (I call it “following the trail of your inner demons”), you first need to cultivate:
Without being conscious of what you’re doing, thinking, feeling and saying, you won’t progress very far.
If, however, you are fairly certain that you’re self-aware (or enough to start the process), you will then need to:
2. Adopt an open mindset
You will need to have the courage and willingness to observe EVERYTHING uncomfortable you place importance in, and ask “why?” What do I mean by the phrase “placing importance in”? By this, I mean that, whatever riles, shocks, infuriates, disturbs and terrifies you, you must pay attention to. Closely.
Likely, you will discover patterns constantly emerging in your life. For example, you might be outraged or embarrassed every time sex appears in a TV show or movie you like (possibly revealing sexual repression or mistaken beliefs about sex that you’ve adopted throughout life). Or you might be terrified of seeing death or dead people (possibly revealing your resistance to the nature of life or a childhood trauma). Or you might be disgusted by alternative political, sexual and spiritual lifestyles (possibly revealing your hidden desire to do the same).
There are so many possibilities out there, and I encourage you to go slowly, take your time, and one by one pick through what you place importance in.
“But I DON’T place importance in gross, bad or disturbing things in life, how could I? I don’t care for them!” you might be asking.
Well, think for a moment. If you didn’t place so much importance on what makes you angry, disgusted or upset . . . why would you be reacting to it so much? The moment you emotionally react to something is the moment you have given that thing power over you. Only that which doesn’t stir up emotions in us is not important to us.
See what you respond to and listen to what your Shadow is trying to teach you.
2. Artistically Express Your Shadow Self
Art is the highest form of self-expression and is also a great way to allow your Shadow to manifest itself. Psychologists often use art therapy as a way to help patients explore their inner selves.
Start by allowing yourself to feel (or drawing on any existing) dark emotions. Choose an art medium that calls to you such as pen and pencil, watercolor, crayon, acrylic paint, scrapbooking, sculpting, etc. and draw what you feel. You don’t need to consider yourself an ‘artist’ to benefit from this activity. You don’t even need to plan what you’ll create. Just let your hands, pen, pencil, or paintbrush do the talking. The more spontaneous, the better. Artistic expression can reveal a lot about your obscure darker half. Psychologist Carl Jung (who conceptualized the Shadow Self idea) was even famous for using mandalas in his therapy sessions.
3. Start a Project
The act of creation can be intensely frustrating and can give birth to some of your darker elements such as impatience, anger, blood-thirsty competitiveness, and self-doubt. At the same time, starting a project also allows you to experience feelings of fulfillment and joy.
If you don’t already have a personal project that you’re undertaking (such as building something, writing a book, composing music, mastering a new skill), find something you would love to start doing. Using self-awareness and self-exploration during the process of creation, you will be able to reap deeper insights into your darkness. Ask yourself constantly, “What am I feeling and why?” Notice the strong emotions that arise during the act of creation, both good and bad. You will likely be surprised by what you find!
For example, as a person who considers myself non-competitive, that assumption has been challenged by the act of writing this blog. Thanks to this project, the Shadow within me of ruthless competitiveness has shown its face, allowing me to understand myself more deeply.
4. Write a Story or Keep a Shadow Journal
Goethe’s story Faust is, in my opinion, one of the best works featuring the meeting of an ego and his Shadow Self. His story details the life of a Professor who becomes so separated and overwhelmed by his Shadow that he comes to the verge of suicide, only to realize that the redemption of the ego is solely possible if the Shadow is redeemed at the same time.
Write a story where you project your Shadow elements onto the characters – this is a great way to learn more about your inner darkness. If stories aren’t your thing, keeping a journal or diary every day can shine a light on the darker elements of your nature. Reading through your dark thoughts and emotions can help you to recover the balance you need in life by accepting both light and dark emotions within you.