“That wasn’t me,” we say after snapping angrily at someone we care about.
“I wasn’t myself,” we claim when someone tells us that we hurt them.
Maybe we don’t understand where our bad behavior comes from, but not understanding it doesn’t mean it isn’t ours. Relegating unsavory parts of ourselves to the darkness of our shadow doesn’t make them go away. Quite the opposite: The more we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t like, the more pressure builds up for a release—and often, to our chagrin, at moments we least expect it.
What Is Shadow Work?
Every single one of us has a shadow, where all the denied parts of ourselves live. The shadow holds traits, behaviors, characteristics, longings, desires, and secrets that we’ve denied or suppressed. Anything we’ve not fully accepted as part of our humanness—including greed, selfishness, arrogance, pridefulness, and impatience—lurks in the shadow of our consciousness.
But what’s important for us to understand is that when traits and behaviors get buried in the shadow, they still seek expression. This is why, to us, our sudden snappiness or rudeness might seem to have come out of nowhere. In truth, it was only a matter of time.
It might take humility to say, “Yes, I take responsibility for my behavior; I apologize.” But it takes a whole new level of awareness to add, “And I will be looking into where that came from and heal that part of myself.”
How We Feed Our Shadow
In the Jungian perspective, the most important part of the process of growing up is to establish a healthy ego. It matters to our psychological health that we feel we fit in with our families and are accepted by our peers. To this end, we send the parts of ourselves that are mocked, belittled, misunderstood, or not allowed in our community to the shadow of our consciousness.
If we were told that anger was unacceptable, then anger was sent to the shadows, emerging later as passive-aggression, judgment, or criticism toward others.
If we were shamed for feeling envy or desire, then those emotions were relegated to the shadows, only to emerge later, perhaps, as an addiction to shopping or indulgence.
If we grew up in a household that shamed natural human behaviors like hunger and sexuality, those feelings got sent to the shadow and often return in the form of addictions or secret behaviors.
But the lesser-known secret of the shadow is this: The same place that holds all the unsavory parts of ourselves also carries our lost and denied light.
How We Lose Our Light
Maybe we were told by an elementary school teacher, relative, or peer that we weren’t creative. Or perhaps we overheard a group of adults mocking creative activities as a waste of time. We would either have to have the strength to rebel against this message (and few children would be capable of this), or we would let our creative instincts gradually retreat into the shadow.
If our natural leadership abilities were laughed at or we were called “bossy,” these skills would be sent to the shadowlands.
If our compassion was mocked as a weakness, our ability to feel for the plights and experiences of others got buried, too.
In other words, we were taught to repress parts of ourselves—positive or negative—that did not conform with the world around us. If it didn’t entirely feel like a matter of survival to do so, it certainly felt like a matter of belonging.
But there is a point in our lives where we might ask: Why don’t I sing anymore? What happened to my love of writing? I used to be very outspoken—why do I hold back? I once thought of myself as an athlete—when did that stop?
The good news is that it doesn’t matter how long we might have rejected these traits—they never disappear. They simply live in the shadow. And that’s where we must go if we want to get them back.
How to Retrieve Light From the Shadow
There are three main steps to consider as you walk into shadow work: acceptance, reframing, and embodying.
The first step to integrating the shadow is accepting that we have one. We must accept that while we were growing up, we did what we had to do to survive and adapt to the world around us. This step usually includes sub-steps of forgiveness, letting go, and wound healing. In this process, we acknowledge that the shadow served a purpose, even as it cut us off from aspects of our wholeness.
Carrying around the unconscious shadow side of ourselves as adults prevents us from experiencing things in new ways. The shadow, working in the unconscious corners of our minds, can keep us caught in the web of our own prejudices, delusions, and victimhood. And, as we’ve seen, it can keep us from enjoying and sharing our light.
Growing up, we were taught that some qualities and behaviors were good and right, while others were bad and wrong. In some families, grief is allowed and healthy; in others it is a sign of weakness. In this step, we reframe qualities as neither good nor bad, but simply part of what makes us human.
For instance, once we reframe perfectionism as a healthy attention to detail, we can notice when this compulsion arises and practice letting go. Once we see that our stubbornness is a gift that helps us stay aligned with our values, we can stop allowing it to keep us from trying new things. And once we see the source of our anger as passion and intensity, we can begin channeling it into our work in a healthy way.
Now that our shadow qualities have been accepted and reframed, we can incorporate them into our lives and experiences. No longer worried about unwanted behaviors emerging out of “nowhere,” we can tap into a full arsenal of abilities.
As the shadow is integrated, we mature out of knee-jerk actions and begin to respond—rather than react—to life. We learn about our vulnerabilities and strengths and pair them up in such a way that they keep us humble, curious, and forward-moving.
Shadow work is a practice of getting to know ourselves as best as we possibly can. The more we own aspects of ourselves, the less likely these things can sabotage us or keep us in denial, projection, or limitation. Bottom line: For every part of ourselves that we coax out of the shadows, we strengthen our light.
Learn how to outsmart your Saboteur archetype.