What is shadow work?
Shadow work is a process of learning to really see, understand, befriend, learn from and integrate aspects of ourselves that we may fear, despise, or wish to rid ourselves of. Often times shadow aspects are ones that are deemed ‘bad’, ‘negative’, ‘weak’, ‘evil’, ‘undesirable’, etc. We are taught that we should suppress, cut off, overcome, repented of, and get rid of them from ourselves.
Conversely, the process of shadow work operates on the premise that all parts of us are just that; part of us. And thereby there have a purpose in our soul’s evolution. Often, the parts that challenge us, or elicit strong emotions, are parts that have the most to teach us. If some aspect of us causes pain or fear it usually is trying to get our attention and help us see a part of ourselves that needs some attention, love and integration.
Shadow work may involve shedding, letting go of, and evolving ways of seeing/thinking/acting, but it never comes at the cost of eliminating some part of us. More often than not it involves just learning to accept and love that part of ourselves.
The purpose of shadow work is to know ourselves. Fully. Without any filters. And in that knowing to experience deep love and comfort in our own being. This is the work of our soul’s evolution. Our culture seems to teach that growth comes only from light & love. But the darkness/shadow is just as vital to our growth. The goal is wholeness. Completion. The more we know ourselves the deeper our self love. The deeper our self love the stronger our intuition. The stronger our intuition the greater our power from within. The greater our power from within the more we can help others.
Physical Shadow as a Metaphor:
Shadows are dark areas that are produced when light is shining on an object.
Any and all parts of us are in shadow at various moments throughout our day.
Shadows are not permanent. They are fleeting, changing, and move with the light.
Shadows grow and shrink.
Shadows offer relief from the bright heat of the day.
Shadows are where we (and all living creatures) go to cool off, rest, eat, sleep, and recuperate. Being in the full sun is exhausting and can feel searing. We cannot stay there forever, or even all day.
Think about what would happen to plants, animals, us if we were in full sun all the time.
We are never without shadow, never at any point is every part of us fully in the light.
Visually, shadows give dimension and shape.
When we are in the shadows we can often see more clearly then when we are in full sun.
Shadow is helpful, healing, and necessary.
The Moon is the most beautiful teacher about balancing shadow and light
Remember how devastated Peter Pan was when he lost his shadow. We may think we want to be rid of these parts of ourself, but in reality they are integral to us and we would miss them so dearly.
What Are Our Shadow Parts?
Shadows are our constant companions and reminder of the death part of the life/death/life cycle.
Life/death/life = Light/shadow/light
Shadow can manifest as sadness, grief, anger, rage, regret, loneliness, fear, discomfort, irritation, frustration, despair, longing, disappointment, jealousy, dissatisfaction, hopelessness, apathy, lethargy, avoidance, panic, anxiety, feeling empty, suspicion, shame, annoyance, selfishness, cruelty, meanness, pettiness, paranoia, insecurity, judgement, self-loathing, etc.
Generally, shadow parts are any part of us that elicits a strong urge to avoid or escape.
Shadow parts can be life long companions that we dance with over and over, or fleeting shadows cast by something outside of us that help us learn important lessons.
How do You Find Your Shadow?
Pay attention to your feelings/emotions, especially difficult ones. Notice patterns, frequency, intensity, and circumstances.
Notice things that really bother you in others, they are usually a reflection of some shadow aspect you despise
Notice when anything (TV/film, music, others, etc.) make you really uncomfortable or you have a strong emotional reaction to something.
Pay attention to your dreams
Notice when repeated topics/ideas/emotions keep coming up
Begin to gently ask for shadow areas that are ready to teach you, and/or be integrated to be made known.
Observe and study yourself with curiosity and a desire for evolution/healing.
How to Approach the Shadow:
Gently, like a small child (who may be throwing a tantrum, or inconsolable)
With curiosity and the desire to listen and understand
Without judgement or a preconceived idea of what you will find
Vulnerable and open - without a weapon
In a supported state (enough food/water/sleep, and in a safe space)
When you’re ready, don’t force it
As a student & teacher
Like a wild animal, it is often best to begin our work with our shadow obliquely, creating a safe non-direct space and gently inviting it to come out and play. For many of us our shadow parts are used to being criticized, scolded, or cut off. They are wary of us and it takes time to build trust between our conscious and subconscious minds.
Be with your shadow part
Listen to them
Feel all the feelings
Let memories and associations come up, experience them
Once you have fully listened to the shadow part and understand the wound, begin to heal
Assure them that you understand, that you love them, that they are safe
Remember, the purpose of shadow work is not to get rid of this part of yourself, it’s to help heal what is wounded, and integrate this part of yourself into the whole.
Let them know they are heard, and that you love them and care for them. Let them know what the plan is moving forward and invite them to be a part of your growth. Consider giving them a new job. Example, a part of you has been feeling anger for decades over something that happened to you when you were 12. You finally get in touch with this part, listen to it's pain and anger. Give it love and healing, and then invite it to take all the energy is has used for years in maintaining that anger and now use it to help create better boundaries for yourself.
Tools to Help us Meet & Work with Our Shadow Parts:
Divination tools (Tarot, Oracle Cards, Runes, Scrying, etc.)
Astrological natal chart and current transits
Tapping into deep emotions (watching a movie, reading poetry, listening to music)
Crying, screaming, laughing, beating our fists, shaking our body, breaking something
NATURE. Always nature.
Journaling - write letters to your shadow parts and let them write back, or vice versa
Spending time with an animal
Bathing, or being in water
Making art - make a portrait of a shadow part, or just express how it feels in images/objects
Sweating (sauna, sweat lodge, Bikram Yoga, intense exercise)
Good Times for Shadow Work:
When you’re bleeding
Any time you feel like it
There are not rules, no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do shadow work
Trust your intuition and what feels right
Don’t push/punish/force yourself to do shadow work.
Let there be grace and ease to the process. It will stretch you but should not rip you asunder
Shadow work is a constant part of our life. It is not something we complete and then never do again.
Your shadow work will not look like anyone else’s shadow work
Shadow work can take a long time, and it can also happen quickly
Protect yourself, boundaries are crucial. Support yourself.
Put your oxygen mask on first
You can’t do shadow work for anyone else
We are like the moon, we have phases we cycle through continually
Ask for help (from any and all sources; friends, partner, family, therapist, healer, God/Goddess, guides, ancestors, earth spirits, angels, etc.) You aren’t limited to just one source of help.
You know how to do this better than anyone else
Your body holds the keys
Oblique is best
The Uses of Sorrow | Mary Oliver
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.