What Is Shadow Work? An Introduction to Your Dark Side
First coined by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the shadow represents the repressed aspects of the personality that are rejected by the ego. According to Jung, “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” It is a blind spot over behavior, sneaking up unexpectedly and sometimes leading us astray.
The shadow dwells nebulously below the surface of our inner existence, influencing our actions and coloring our experiences. It is the stuff that fuels nightmares, creeping through unnoticed by our conscious faculties, surfacing as neurosis or even inexplicable rage. It goes by many names: jealousy, fear, and anxiety to name a few.
In Tarot, the shadow is personified by The Devil, a maleficent goat-headed creature holding a nude man and woman captive. It’s as if a light has been switched on in the dungeon, and suddenly all of your deepest fears are revealed. This is a very triggering card for many people, and perfectly illustrates the power of the shadow. We fear it because we perceive it as evil.
The shadow most often surfaces in our judgment of others or in the mirror of our relationships. For example, a person in an unhealthy partnership can choose to blame their partner for treating them poorly, but chances are both play a part in the unhealthy behavior. Finding the shadow involves being critical of your own passive or aggressive behavior. These shadow aspects of the self go deep: they are created by our earliest experiences of relationships and further reinforced by culture and society.
Running away is not the best option with the shadow. Ignored, it will continue to exist. Acknowledging and assimilating the repressed aspects of the psyche is the key to understanding and working with the shadow. And in order to work with your own darkness, you must find it and give it a name.
The simple act of identifying and naming your shadow can be extremely beneficial. It is here that weaknesses start to become strengths, and where the roots of depression and anxiety are uncovered. There’s immense creative energy within these repressed parts of the self, and such primal instincts are powerful when harnessed correctly.
It’s also important to be cognizant of what angers you about other people’s behavior when you’re doing shadow work. You may notice your own deficiencies in others, or find yourself drawn to something, regardless of whether or not it’s in your best interest.
Your shadow may also surface as a frightening dream, taking the form of a symbolically potent figure that elicits the action or feeling associated with your shadows transgression. When such a dream occurs, looking deeper into the frightening nemesis and the emotions surrounding it can help shed light on the shadow aspect.
In order to come into our true power, we must fully know ourselves. Jung called this process individuation, where negative qualities are honestly faced and accepted. On this journey, the individual must be careful not to fall into their own traps, which they have laid for themselves through deeply ingrained patterns of behavior. It is finding a middle ground between the two opposing forces of light and dark within that matters. When in balance, the positive and negative traits find harmony and a healthy personality emerges.
As uncomfortable as it makes us, we must learn to live with our shadow. We must acknowledge it without letting it take control of our behaviors. When your shadow appears to you, observe it patiently and with compassion. It is part of you. Listen to its wisdom without becoming it.