Just like a coin has two sides, humans also have both positive and negative tendencies. Typically, we wear our positive personas (or masks) and reveal only this side to the world. However, there is another persona, what Jungian psychoanalysts call the personal shadow. This side of humans remains untamed and unexplored for most of our lives. Every individual’s shadow holds negative emotions and behaviours such as rage, jealousy, shame, lying, resentment, lust, greed, suicidal and murderous tendencies.
Such tendencies are usually shunned and disapproved by the societies and cultures we live in. Since our cultures differ from one another and we also differ from each other, our shadows are also not identical. However, it is important to note that shadow does not only contain negative tendencies but also holds in it immense undeveloped and unexpressed potential that could transform one’s life.
How does the shadow manifest?
Typically, the shadow manifests indirectly in many ways such as humour, using which we express our hidden, feared or inferior emotions. Molly Tuby, an English psychoanalyst suggests six other ways of the shadow manifesting itself. The comments in the parentheses are typically received or expressed when one’s shadow is at play:
- In our impulsive and inadvertent acts (“I didn’t mean it that way.”)
- In our exaggerated feelings about other people (“I would never do what she did!”)
- In situations wherein we are humiliated (“I feel embarrassed by the way she introduced me at the party.”)
- In our exaggerated anger about the faults of other people (“She is just so irresponsible about her flat situation.”)
- In negative feedback from others, who are serving as our mirrors (“This is the third time you have not done the dishes”)
- In the interactions where we have the same troubling effect on many people (“Both of us feel that you have been isolating yourself lately”)
Such signs and tendencies serve as a warning sign calling for a slow pace of life. The shadow manifesting itself also comes as advice to listen to the cues of the body and calls for taking time off in solitude to understand oneself and the world better. The shadow also manifests itself as the collective shadow in today’s international conflicts where one social group is pitted against the other. Phenomena including racism and related persecution, religious wars, scapegoating, etc., are manifestations of the collective shadow, often done to dehumanize others and establish the superiority of one’s group or community.
Meeting and owning the shadow
The aim of meeting the shadow is to integrate it, thereby expanding our sense of self by balancing our one-sided perspective of our conscious mind with the depths of our unconsciousness. Having the right relationship with the shadow allows us to unlock greater potential latent in us. This is possible through shadow work.
Benefits of shadow work
Shadow work refers to the process in which one can develop a creative relationship with their shadow. Using this process, we can reap the following benefits:
- focused communication
- Healed relationships as a result of intense self-examination and
- More self-acceptance and a better understanding of who we are
- Release the guilt and shame associated with our negative emotions and actions
- Defuse the negative emotions in our daily lives in a positive and more acceptable manner
- Recognize if we engage in projection and how this defence mechanism shapes our opinion of others
- Enhance creativity using dreams, writing, drawing and rituals to own and integrate the disowned parts of ourselves
Practicing Shadow work
First things first, it is important to decide if you would shadow work on your own or receive guidance from a professional about the same. It is always recommended to receive support and guidance from a professional for shadow work. Here are some strategies using which you could also practice shadow work by yourself:
1. Journalling and meditation
In addition to art, you can use journaling prompts available online or in workbooks to introspect and bring your shadow to the surface. Meditation also helps in meeting your shadow, understanding the triggers and also in the integration of your shadow into your conscious self.
2. Recognize repetitive patterns
To start with shadow work, one must introspect and look into patterns underlying socially undesirable or negative behaviours, thoughts and feelings. While doing so, pay attention to your triggers. These triggers often connect back to past trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Your shadow is a result of those experiences and is developed to protect you from undergoing the same painful experiences.
3. Use art to express your shadow
Artists often use their art as a medium of expression to defuse their negative emotions. This is a perfect example of the creative potential of the shadow. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings, including the negative ones, and create art, even if they are dark. Feel free to use your medium of choice – it could be painting, dance, singing, sculpture or anything that you feel like using. After you have created art, look into it and introspect for deeper lessons and meanings.
4. Avoid shaming
Now that you have identified repetitive patterns, make it a point that you do not shame your shadow or be ashamed of any part of yourself. The shadow is that part of yourself that longs for acceptance. To shame it, therefore, is counterintuitive. Hence, accepting and being compassionate towards your shadow is an important component of shadow work. For this part, you can use positive affirmations such as “I trust in you”, “I believe in you”, and “You are enough” while standing in front of the work and looking into your own eyes.
Shadowwork can be intense and bring about emotions that are possibly distressing. While it is possible to practice shadow work by yourself, it is recommended that you practice this under the guidance of a professional. Nevertheless, shadow work is known for its life-changing benefits and is worth a try!
- Barry, A. (2008). Practically shameless: How shadow work helped me find my voice, my path and my inner gold.
- Davis, T. (2023, November 20). How to do shadow work. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/click-here-for-happiness/202308/how-to-do-shadow-work
- Mayer, B. A. (2021, July 27). A Guide to Shadow Work Plus 5 Exercises from Experts to Get Started. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/shadow-work
- Perry, E. (2022, June 13). 8 Benefits of shadow work and how to start practising it. BetterUp. https://www.betterup.com/blog/shadow-work
- Zweig, C., & Abrams, J. (1991). Meeting the shadow: The hidden power of the dark side of human nature. Penguin