Shadow Work

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They say that the most beautiful thing a person can wear is Confidence. We’ve probably all seen, if not have been, that person moving through a moment with grace and an air of absolutely knowing & valuing who they are.

In a society full of unobtainable standards for beauty, motherhood, womanhood, sexuality, and prosperity it can feel like any sort of self-confidence is a long way off. So how do we begin to feel aligned with grace in our moments of life? The answer is a lot easier to say than do: we do the work to accept our mistakes, our flaws, our successes, and love our perfectly imperfect selves.

We all have those things that we are constantly working on or working at. It’s the thing that we’re always planning on doing but we never actually get around to doing it. It might be losing that extra weight, shifting to a plant-based diet, transitioning into a new career, saving money for a future project. Whatever it is, as my Mama says, it’s time to shit or get off the pot.

The problem is we may not even know what’s holding us back or why can’t we get more than 2 weeks into a new habit or how to overcome it. One access point may be a type of self-love work sometimes called Shadow Work. In analytical psychology, the shadow is an unconscious aspect of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself, shadow work refers to “diving into the unconscious material that shapes our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors,” according to therapist Akua Boateng, Ph. D. Shadow work involves getting in touch with the parts of yourself that you’ve repressed — or what many might refer to as their dark side. “Unless we do conscious work on it, the Shadow is almost always projected; that is, it is neatly laid upon someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it,” says Robert Johnson. But this works both ways, we don’t accept blame for any negative aspects of our lives and we feel like an imposter when we experience positive things too.

Here are three ways of working with your shadow:

Exercise #1: Watch Your Emotional Reactions
Remember that the shadow is elusive; it hides behind us. Our defense mechanisms are designed to keep our shadows repressed and out of view. The more you pay attention to your behavior and emotions, the better chances you have of catching your shadow in the act.
We tend to project our disowned parts onto other people. One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people. Sure, your colleagues might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within you, you won’t have a strong reaction to their behavior. If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.
At the end of the day, it’s helpful to take five or ten minutes to reflect on your interactions with others and your related reactions. Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself. Get to know that part, accept it, make it a part of you, and next time, it may not evoke a strong emotional charge when you observe it in another.
Focus on what and who evokes an emotional charge in you. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is; it’s a clue you are denying something within you.

Exercise #2: Engage in Inner Dialogue
Many forms of inner work require you to engage in an active dialogue with your shadow side. At first, this might seem like a scary idea since we have a belief that only “crazy people” talk to themselves. Many different psychologies offer ways of working with these shadow parts, including Jung’s Active Imagination, Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems, Stone and Winkleman’s Voice Dialogue, and Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis.
When we don’t pay attention to these shadow parts they have a way of influencing our behavior. Have you ever done or said something and then wondered why you did or said it? A part in you was taking charge. Every so-called “accident” is a part of your shadow hijacking your behavior. It’s not trying to hurt us, but when we ignore or deny them, they often do.
By dialoguing with them in our imagination or in a journal, asking them what they are here for? or what are we supposed to learn from them? we can integrate these parts into our conscious selves. Then, they become our allies instead of our enemies.

Exercise #3: Challenge the Good Part
Many of us identify ourselves as being a “good person”. We were praised as children for being a “good boy” or “good girl,” and that identification stuck with us. This intensified the split between our conscious identity and our shadow.
Make a list of all of your positive qualities. Then, highlight the opposite. Try to identify the opposite within yourself. For example, if you define yourself as a disciplined person, you’re repressing your lazy part. The lazy part is hiding in the shadow.
The opposite is influencing your behavior and constantly challenging your disciplined part. So identify with this lazy part. See it. Accept it. Make friends with it. It’s okay to be lazy too.

Shadow work is simply digging deeper and becoming aware of what’s hidden and gradually healing those aspects of yourself. When you start shadow work, you may feel the way you felt as a child when you were forced to suppress those emotions. But once you overcome it, it may open your eyes to a whole new side of you that you had no idea existed.