Shadow work. It’s all the rage these days—life coaches and relationship coaches everywhere are talking all things shadow work, shadow work, shadow work.
But what even is “shadow work?” How do you even start taking that journey, and more importantly, why should you start taking that journey?
This week, I’m here to talk about shadow work and how it’s related to you compulsively and impulsively doing things you don’t want to do; for instance, your bad habits you can’t seem to shake, or reacting explosively to certain things that shouldn’t evoke such a strong response.
It was psychologist Carl Jung who first used the term “shadow;” I’m sure the ideology didn’t start with him, but he coined the term. He identified the “shadow” as “the unconscious part of ourselves that the ego does not wish to identify with, or the unconscious parts of our personality that our conscious ego does not want to identify in itself.”
So that’s what “shadows” are, but shadow work is the process of making the unconscious conscious. It’s not the same thing as ego work, though the ego is involved in the process. Ego work is about looking at your limiting beliefs, looking at your values, what you’ve learned about yourself, and how you’ve learned to identify yourself.
Shadow work takes that even deeper. Shadow work is about discovering and exploring the things that are outside of our awareness; it involves all the parts we reject within ourselves or learned to reject in ourselves. These things get cast into the shadows, hence the term “shadow work.”
There are collective shadows, which are things that society as a whole has deemed taboo or nonexistent, but what we’re discussing today are individual shadows. And to me, shadow work is so beautiful because of the way that it helps us with behavior change. And that’s what I wanna talk about today because you can use shadow work for so many different things. You can use it for manifestations, radical self-acceptance, confidence, relationships, etcetera. There are dozens of areas of your life where you could benefit from doing shadow work.
I never approach doing shadow work with the energy of looking to “fix” myself, and I make sure to teach my clients the same.
We don’t do shadow work to fix ourselves. We do shadow work from a place of curiosity. We want to do shadow work to explore the reasons behind why we engage in a certain behavior, though process, or emotional response.
For instance, going back to the compulsive and impulsive behavior, I used to be a chronic procrastinator. That was one of my things I needed to explore. If there are things you do like procrastinating, being chronically late, overspending, or other things that are interfering with your life, you might need to sit down and interrogate these things. They’re interfering with your ability to live life from a safe, secure place, and to function with a regulated nervous system.
The impulse here is often to attempt to “fix” the behavior. However, if you try to stop the behavior cold turkey, you’re actually getting further and further away from being able to shift your behavior in a way that creates lasting behavior change.
For example, let’s say you decide you’re going to start eating healthier, so you choose to kick junk food out of your life. If you find that you try to do it for two days before running out of steam, and you can’t hold to that behavior change, you’ve just been acquainted with your shadows.
Every time you experience something preventing you from getting to the place you consciously want to get to, you’ve entered into the place where your shadows reside.
This sounds bad, but actually? This is awesome. Now that you’ve encountered those shadows, it’s an amazing opportunity to examine the parts of yourself that you’re unconsciously rejecting. You can look into what parts of yourself you can’t muster up acceptance for, and why they’re creating this block between you and what you consciously want.
Personally, I think doing shadow work is amazing. It’s not as scary as it sounds, but it can be emotional. After all, doing shadow work heavily involves examining parts of yourself that you’ve rejected, so it makes sense that it’s a painful process. Honesty can hurt, even if it’s us being honest with ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves are often put there to protect us from guilt, shame, or pain, and forcing ourselves to confront those lies? It’s not an easy thing to do.
Ultimately, if you are engaging in a behavior that you don’t like and it feels compulsive, remember this: you’re not doing this because it’s fun. You’re not waiting until the last minute to get things done because you enjoy stress. You’re not setting poor boundaries with your time because you like it. There is a root thing underneath it all, driving that behavior and keeping it going.
When it comes to doing shadow work, if you try to change a behavior without addressing the root, you’re not going to see a scrap of progress. This is why behavior change doesn’t last longer than a couple days at best without doing shadow work, because there is a very real shadow unconsciously driving those old behaviors.
Some examples of shadows that could cause procrastination: maybe you’ve rejected the concept of forming limits and structure in your life because when you were growing up, you had so much restriction over your life set there by your parents or guardians that when you became an adult, it was your time to rebel against the idea of structure. You didn’t want to feel trapped anymore.
That’s very real stuff, and that’s a big reason why doing shadow work is a beautiful opportunity: it gives you a chance to reclaim the parts of yourself that you rejected. The parts of you that you learned weren’t good, weren’t safe, weren’t allowed. And when you reclaim these things, you can finally create lasting behavior change so that you can live a life that’s supportive to you. So you can live a life with a regulated nervous system and stop feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious, constantly following these cycles of burnout and ignoring your need for boundaries.
So, how do you actually do shadow work?
If you’ve never tried doing shadow work before, I really recommend you learn from someone who has a great deal of knowledge in that area. You need someone to guide you that knows what they’re talking about.
I’ll actually be hosting an introductory shadow work masterclass at the end of this month, so if the idea of shadow work appeals to you, you can join that. There are also books that you can look into; for instance, Carl Jung himself has books. I actually haven’t read any of his books myself, but I’ve read some of the literature on his ideology and concept around shadows.
As for me, I learned most of what I know about shadow work from mentors, from my own experience doing shadow work, and a handful of books. There’s one really good book I tell my clients to look into all the time. It’s called Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliott, and I highly, highly recommend it. What I do not recommend is trying to Google your way through this process and doing it on your own, because we are working with the unconscious mind here. This is a very delicate, sensitive part of you, and if you don’t understand how to navigate your shadows properly, you can actually re-traumatize yourself. You can end up with somatic responses such as anxiety and other things that can mess with your daily life, so I would really recommend working with someone who knows what they’re talking about or educating yourself thoroughly before attempting to dive in.
Now you know what shadow work is, and how I recommend participating in it, but in the meantime, what steps can you take to prepare yourself?
To start, you can safely practice shadow work by approaching your behaviors with curiosity as opposed to contempt. Like when you become aware of the behaviors you’ve been practicing, approach it with curiosity rather than contempt. Rather than being angry at yourself for reacting poorly to something or engaging in a “bad habit,” get curious! Ask yourself why you did that. Start to gently dig for that root—but don’t try to pull it up yet. You don’t want to cause yourself any undue harm in the meantime. If you’re ready to start your shadow work journey with the guidance of someone who knows her stuff, sign up for my masterclass, THE OTHER YOU: https://beatricekamau.mykajabi.com/offers/UuJEETZf/checkout