Egads, I can’t believe it’s been over a month since I’ve written here on my beloved little pocket of the web. Rest assured I have been thinking of you all and not a day goes by that I’m not either mentally taking notes on how I can best serve you, or hand-scribbling on post-its my many and varied blog post ideas.
It’s the sitting down and writing and crafting something delicious for you that’s been the challenge of late. This is my year of expansion and the universe is certainly serving that up (joyously) in spades – I’ve been out in this beautiful world of ours playing, exploring, reaching and loving. I hope you have been too.
A topic that’s been itching to be unpacked here is shadow work. I’ve briefly alluded to the considerable work I did integrating my shadow last year here, and I also recently wrote a feature piece for Happiness and Wellbeing Magazine on embracing our shadow traits.
I feel so strongly that identifying and acknowledging our shadows is a crucial piece in our personal healing puzzles, that I have to share it with you in depth. This post has been divided in to two, because it’s incredibly long!
In this first post, I’m going to define what the shadow self is, and answer / myth bust a few curious questions I receive most often when people ask me about integrating their shadows.
If you have any additional questions, please post them below in the comments and I’ll answer them in the comments and include them in my next post. Part two will cover how to integrate and accept our shadow aspects.
In to the darkness
I know it can sound as though shadow work is heavily dark (by virtue of the term), or involves enormous amounts of processing. And it does bring you in to the darkness, in order to illuminate it.
But it’s actually over pretty quickly. Doing shadow work can (and does) make you feel lighter than ever. Light cannot exist without contrasting darkness, and it’s about time we acknowledged the importance of polarity in our human experiences (it’s critical!).
Shadow work is really about owning and integrating the repressed parts of ourselves we’ve deemed as ‘not safe to be’, and disowned for fear of not being accepted. Although the term was first coined by Dr. Carl Jung, my favourite definition of the shadow is by the expert of shadow work herself, Debbie Ford:
“Our shadow, formed long ago, contains all the parts of ourselves that we have tried to hide or deny, the parts we believe are not acceptable to our family, friends and, most importantly, ourselves. It is made up of everything that annoys, horrifies or disgusts us about other people or about ourselves. It holds all that we try to hide from those we love and all that we don’t want other people to think about us or find out about us.“
In her book, The Dark Side of the Lightchasers (a must read), Debbie uses an excellent metaphor for how we come to repress aspects of ourselves (especially during the impressionable years of our youth). She describes us (human beings) as large castles, and the various aspects of ourselves as rooms within that castle.
We walk through our castles (getting to know ourselves in this world) and when we inhabit a room where we are made to feel shame, rejection or ridicule by people we hold in esteem (family, teachers, close friends), we firmly swing shut the room to that door and never open it again. An aspect of ourselves is thus locked up in that dark room, frozen in time, repressed and ignored.
As an example, take the emotion of anger in a young girl, who is told in no uncertain terms by a teacher that it’s unbecoming for a girl to exhibit angry tendencies. Anger is an emotion that many are not taught to deal with healthily, so discouraging it is often the default. This little girl will close the door to her room called ‘anger’, and keep it shut for fear of being admonished again. She may even paint over the door with happy smiles, just to put anyone off the scent.
As she grows older, she will find herself emotionally triggered by anyone exhibiting anger. She’ll find it abhorrent, unbecoming, distasteful and want to distance herself from it as quickly as possible. And she’ll do it without knowing why she feels so triggered. The reason being that whenever another person emotionally triggers us with one of their traits – it’s a sign we have that trait within ourselves too, still unintegrated and long denied or repressed.
Does needing to do shadow work make me ‘bad’?
Not at all. The point of shadow work is to acknowledge that we all (each and every one of us) have every possible negative and positive trait within us (or have the potential to, at least). We possess the entire spectrum of humanly attributes within us – and integrating those that have been repressed within us (our shadow) is simply a process. It doesn’t mean you’re bad – it means you’re interested in being a conscious human, and expanding in to your highest self. Integrating your shadow is one of the singularly most powerful processes (and aspects of radical self care) that you can undertake.
How do I know if I need to do shadow work?
If you haven’t done it. (Winky smile.) Honestly though, if you find yourself being tripped up and triggered by certain people or situations, and they really get your goat – signs are pointing to there being an aspect of you that’s been repressed, and it’s being reflected back to you by your deep-seated reaction to this external thing. Have you ever been with a friend and you both met the same person (known or unknown to you) and had completely separate experiences of that same person? This is because your interactions with anyone are subjective – and are based on what has (or hasn’t) been integrated within yourself. This results in you each perceiving that person through a very different lens.
Also, just quietly, if you’ve been drawn to read this post, it’s likely that shadow work is something your soul is keen for you to get on down with at some point.
Is the shadow your ego?
No. Although it can be easy to confuse them. Jung’s writing will be able to far more adequately address this than I can, but from my experience, our shadows are quite separate from our ego. They are repressed aspects of ourselves that we often cannot or will not see. Their repression however, can be ‘acted out’ via the ego. When we don’t know where a negative triggering reaction comes from (it ‘just appears’), it will often be fed through the funnel of the ego, and an egoic reaction ensues.
However once we’ve acknowledged an aspect of our shadow, and actively integrated it in to the fullness of our being, its presence and hold over us is severely diminished – and eventually fades away.
Is shadow work scary?
It depends on your definition of scary. If meditating is scary for you, then yes, shadow work may be scary. It’s a conscious reckoning with your essential truth, a lot of which isn’t ‘pretty’.
For some this is frightening, and for some this is liberating. But just because something is potentially scary for you, does that mean you don’t do it? Public speaking, declaring your love to someone – these can be scary things to do. But we know our points of growth do always tend to be outside our comfort zones, don’t we? And we tend to feel brilliant afterwards, right? Right.
Is shadow work just about integrating our ‘negative’ or ‘undesirable’ traits?
Not at all. We can and do have ‘light’ shadow aspects too. These are traits you admire, adore and often idolise in others (e.g. putting them up on a pedestal).
These are aspects of you that are yet to be completely acknowledged and integrated, in to congruence with your whole and highest self. So the beauty, kindness, compassion you see (and maybe envy) in others, is also absolutely within you.
Why would we repress a positive aspect of ourselves? For many reasons! Maybe as a child you were admonished by a sibling for succeeding in something.
Doing well and outshining others can often be perceived as a threat to being loved and accepted by the tribe. “Don’t make Ethel feel bad that she didn’t get straight A’s!”, or, “You have such tickets on yourself, don’t you?”. Words like this can make a child feel unsafe and unloved, so positive traits of theirs become repressed. They then become able to see it in others, but not in themselves.
Stay tuned for part two of this post, which will be about identifying and alchemising our shadows by finding the true gold in them (aka turning our shit in to compost!).
Have you done shadow work? Does it interest you at all? Have you identified any traits you may need to integrate after reading this? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!
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Photo credit Emma Kate Codrington