In this article, I am going to dive into everything you need to know about the shadow. How to face it, own it, integrate it, and use it as your rocket fuel.
Ignore this advice, and your shadow will own you. It will wreak havoc in your relationships. Left unfaced, your shadow becomes the anchor being pulled behind the boat of your life, dragging along the ocean floor and slowing your progress in all that you attempt to accomplish.
After releasing my recent article 7 Of My Favourite Quotes That Will Turn You Into A Better Person, one of my readers asked me what I thought Carl Jung meant when he said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
To me, shadow work is the epicentre of this painful self-discovery process. It takes courage and grit to be willing to look into the darkest, most repressed parts of our psyche. Enter: shadow work.
What Is The Shadow?
The shadow is a concept that Carl Jung (a genius dude, way ahead of his time) coined.
Simply put, our shadow is the so-called dark side of our personality.
We all feel fine presenting the bright, shiny, nice parts of ourselves to the world (kindness, benevolence, generosity, thoughtfulness, etc.)… but the parts of ourselves that we fear society would deem unsavoury often get relegated to the shadow.
How Does Your Shadow Come Into Existence?
No matter how healthy and positive some people’s childhoods are, everyone experiences invalidation at some point in time.
Say you displayed a specific character trait (like rage, envy, or greed) when you were a toddler and one of your parents shamed you for it. You would then infer, “When I show these parts of myself to the world, I am less lovable. I am less safe. Therefore, it is not safe to show these parts of myself to the world. These parts are less lovable than the rest of me.”
When this occurs, we cast these seemingly less lovable things into the discard pile of our own personal shadow.
Compound this trend over time, and we learn to make certain parts of ourselves so ‘wrong’ or unlovable that we never give them any time to come out and play. And the longer we suffocate these parts of ourselves, the more power those traits gain over us (while lurking in the shadows of our subconscious mind).
In short, the things that we are in rejection of are the things that come to form the building blocks of our shadow self.
What Happens If You Aren’t In Right Relationship With Your Shadow?
If you haven’t done conscious shadow work to face into and integrate your shadow, some of the most common side effects are:
– Difficulty in relationships (friendships, intimate partners, familial, business/colleagues, etc.)
– Persistent feelings of distance, separation, and isolation from others
– The same frustrating lessons appearing in our lives over and over again (for example, thinking that you’ve finally met a romantic partner who is completely unlike your last five and then finding out they’re the exact same – in the most frustrating ways – as the previous ones)
– Misalignment in your career and relationships
– Lashing out at people with anger, jealousy, or being manipulative, in ways that are seemingly completely out of left field and incongruent with who you think yourself to be
– A lack of passion and energy throughout your life in general
Someone who hasn’t integrated their shadow is also a risk factor (to themselves and to the world).
People who perpetually suppress aspects of themselves and have an increasingly large shadow side are at a greater risk of turning into rapists, murderers, suicide statistics, and mass shooters. This might sound dramatic, but it isn’t. When parts of the psyche are hidden away for too long, those suppressed emotions convert themselves into demons – and those demons need to find a way out, one way or another.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas
Why Is It So Difficult To Face Into Your Shadow?
The things that you suppress into the shadow were once put there for a reason. In many cases, these reasons may have literally felt like they were a matter of life or death.
It’s not uncommon for children in multi-sibling family systems to fear that if they don’t suppress the seemingly less lovable parts of themselves, that they will lose love and/or be cast out of the family.
“Do mom and dad love my brother/sister more than me? Are my parents glad they had me? How do I earn my place in this family? Do I ask for too much?”
Even if these thoughts have no basis in reality (i.e. the parents were never on the precipice of throwing their worst behaved child out on the streets) fears like these can still propagate in the ego-centric minds of children.
When one begins to truly look into their shadow, there is much psychological resistance.
Especially around our most painful thoughts, memories, and layers of self-rejection, there are often psychological buffers that keep us from knowing the exact parts of us that we would be the most set free by alleviating.
The shadow is sneaky like this. It’s as if we’re walking through the snow… and our shadow compels us to walk in a direction our conscious mind wouldn’t want us to go. But when we look behind ourselves, we see no foot steps as to how we arrived there (because the unintegrated shadow hides our tracks, as we step, without our awareness).
It’s difficult to look into our shadow because it’s exactly these shadow aspects that we have been rejecting for years, if not decades. It has been their full time job to not be known by us.
Our shadow doesn’t want to be seen because the things that we cast aside long ago were too painful to truly be with.
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to face these aspects of ourselves and reclaim them (not at all). It simply means that these aspects of ourselves won’t be known by us without a fight.
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.” – Carl Jung
Examples Of Shadow Thoughts
There are an infinite number of thoughts that could fall under the category of shadow thoughts.
Before we get into the exercises that will help you excavate your shadow material, in order to demystify the shadow further, I thought it would be beneficial to list examples of what shadow thoughts can sound like. These are real life examples that I have either heard in group shadow work classes, from the mouths of my clients (anonymously, as always), and a few from my own journey mixed in for good measure.
– “I think I’m better than most people.”
– “I think I’m worse than most people.”
– “I hate men for ruining the world.”
– “I think that women truly are the inferior sex. They say they don’t need men, but I feel like they would flounder on their own and they’re actually afraid of how much they need us.”
– “My pain is more significant than the pain of others.”
– “I wish that there were wolves in the streets who would feast on the weakest people in my community. It would strengthen the gene pool and get rid of all of the talentless losers.”
– “I should have more money than 99.9% of the world because I will do better things with it than most people would.”
– “I think that people (over the age of 25) who accept minimum wage jobs have low self-esteem and deserve the societal position they have opted themselves into.”
– “I love the feeling of being completely in control of someone sexually. It makes me feel powerful.”
– “I love manipulating men into giving me what I want.”
– “I wish that my mom had died instead of my dad.”
– “I wish that the bottom stupidest third of the world would just disappear. Or at least that it would be made illegal for people under a certain IQ to procreate.”
– “I have fantasized about being raped.”
– “Sometimes I hate women for how much power their sexual energy has over me.”
– “I love the idea that I could coast through my entire life on my looks and my charm alone.”
– “I have fantasized about marrying and divorcing several rich men and never working a day in my life. I believe that putting my effort into my looks pays more significant dividends than investing in my mind and education.”
– “I feel like my gender/race have held me back in life and I wish I could change who I am.”
– “I hate money.”
– “I wish I could travel back in time and slit the throat of my high school bully.”
Not exactly the kinds of things you would proudly say into a microphone at your kids parent/teacher meeting. And yet, those thoughts can live inside of us and we can still function in society like normal people. Go figure!
And remember… you don’t have to 100% believe in a thought in order for it to qualify as a legitimate shadow thought. You can believe in it 1% and it would still count. The fact that it’s part of your shadow has more to do with your resistance to the thought (the degree to which you make the thought wrong) than the thought itself.
Benefits Of Being In Right Relationship With Your Shadow
The benefits of facing and integrating your shadow are innumerable, but here are a handful of what I believe to be some of the most exciting and rewarding ones.
– Better intimate relationships
Our unintegrated shadow causes a lot of chaos in intimate relationships. Relationships, by nature, bring up our deepest wounding because we’re allowing someone to get so close to us. When we have come to know all parts of ourselves and accept them, it then becomes that much easier to get to know all parts of another and accept those things as well.
– Increased creativity
Suppressing various parts of ourselves stifles creativity. Conversely, letting go of being at war with long-suffocated parts of ourselves frees up an incredible amount of energy. In fact, dozens of times over the last few years I have been on coaching calls with clients who described feelings of tangible energy surging through their bodies mere seconds after naming and owning a significant, and long-held shadow thought.
Naming and owning a shadow thought can feel akin to pulling the plug in a filled up bathtub. As soon as the block is removed, the water starts flowing again.
When you integrate more aspects of yourself, don’t be surprised to find that your creative energy will pour through you like never before (even if you hadn’t previously considered yourself a creative person).
– More energy
Self-rejection is heavy and taxing. When you let go of the one-tonne bag of wrong-making you’ve been dragging behind you for decades, a lot of energy is freed up to be utilized in your life.
Every potent, powerful bad ass I know is in right relation with their shadow side. This process is a necessary precursor to being your most embodied, creatively expressed, full-spectrum self.
– Greater feelings of connection with everyone you meet
As you come to know, love, and accept more parts of yourself, it then becomes that much easier to do the same, as your default, for others. Regardless of whether you interact with them or not, it will be that much easier for you to assume the best in others, and you will be more compassionate, understanding, and patient with others.
How To Face And Integrate Your Shadow: 7 Exercises
Serious work on the self (and, in particular, engaging in shadow work) is an ongoing process. There will always be more layers to be revealed. I have had clients who had major breakthroughs and realizations about themselves, or about their families of origin, well into their 60’s and 70’s.
That being said, if you are newer to shadow work, then you can move the needle a lot in a short amount of time, by giving a few of these simple exercises a genuine effort.
1. Track your most consistent judgments of other people
The aspects of our shadow that we are least in relationship with are the things we are the fastest to perceive and judge in others.
If you’ve heard of the concept of projection, this is what we’re talking about in this section. When you aren’t facing an aspect of yourself, you (much like a film projector) project that aspect of yourself on to others and see it on them. That aspect very well actually be a part of that person… but if you are quick to see something in others, over and over, then it is likely your psychological content that you are simply placing on to another.
Here’s a personal example.
For years, I was quick to either see someone as absolutely brilliant and super-intelligent (when in reality they weren’t very traditionally intelligent) or completely stupid. It was very black and white. In my eyes, you were either a genius or you were an idiot. I eventually came to realize that this pedestalization and/or judging of others was a symptom of me not facing and owning my own intelligence. Because I once thought that I was stupid in my childhood, I suppressed my relationship to my own intelligence and relegated it to my shadow.
Once I came to see, accept, and honour my own intelligence, the weight of this pattern dissipated rapidly. This propensity to judge others on their intelligence hasn’t left me entirely (I am still quick to grow impatient with people who I perceive to be less intelligent than me), but at least now this pattern doesn’t own me in the same way that it used to. I can see the humour in it, even while being in the middle of it.
2. Notice the people and things that piss you off the most
If something triggers you, it’s because that thing is a part of you and you are not in right relationship with it.
Do lazy people make you red with rage? Look at the ways in which you can be lazy.
Do racist or homophobic people send you into a blind rage? Think about the ways that can you be intolerant or dismissive of others.
Do highly expressive creative types infuriate you? What things are in you that you wish you could be expressing and sharing with the world?
These emotional triggers could show up in your life as people, ideas, objects, or any other source. The point is to notice these triggers as they are occurring, ask yourself, ‘How am I like that?’, or ‘What is this response showing me about myself?’, and then integrate the lesson.
It’s all too easy to see all of the evil ‘out there’ in the world. But nothing could be further from the truth. The more you waste precious mental energy on believing that there are some unknown evil doers out there in the world, the less capacity you will have to look for the evil, malevolent, and vicious parts in your own heart. And there is no coming to true consciousness without first observing your own capacity for the evils that you perceive in others.
Stop blaming ‘the man’, the president, or conspiracy theories for how the world is, and instead look inwards and observe your own capacity for evil/greed/hatred/etc.
Wake up, on an individual level, and you will have moved the world further forwards than if you had spent that same energy blaming others for the state of the world.
3. Free writing
Self-observation is key when it comes to digging into our own blind spots.
Free-write (aka writing without stopping) three pages of notes in your journal every day for a week and see what starts to fall out of you. For this practice, I strongly recommend pen to paper writing over digital writing.
You may not be surprised by 70% of what falls out of you… general worries and anxieties that take up a lot of your brain space… to-do lists… random observations about your life. But there will be 30% of your output that will surprise you.
“Hmm… I didn’t know that was in there. Or at least not to that degree.”
Maybe you’ll realize how much simmering anger you have been sitting on about a recent conflict with a friend. Or maybe you will notice just how much stress you have been holding on to about some long-standing theme in your life.
Free-writing is like mining for gold (side note: I’m obvs a miner in my spare time so this upcoming analogy will be flawless). Most of what comes through you will just be rocks, soil, and rubble. But the nuggets of gold that you find via your efforts will be well worth it.
Meditation is another potent way to observe your ego-personality in real time.
Meditation doesn’t have to be a big daunting task. It doesn’t have to be sitting in total stillness and silence for an hour at a time on a firm cushion.
Your version of meditation can be dancing to sensual music for fifteen minutes every morning. Or sitting and looking at a lit candle for three minutes and breathing deeply. Or you can scream at the top of your lungs into a big pillow for thirty seconds, five days a week (RIP vocal chords).
Similar to the nuggets of gold that come through in the panning for gold analogy in the previous exercise, certain thoughts, biases, and shadow elements will creep through between the cracks of silence your mind will access during your meditation practice.
Catch them, keep them, and hold on to them for further processing.
5. Talk based therapy
One of the fastest ways to improve the quality of your life is to increase the time you spend around high quality mirrors. Not mirrors like the reflective surfaces that you look into while having sex with your partner (like, real-time porn starring you and your loved one… not in an American Psycho way), but mirrors in terms of people who are adept at validating your experience and reflecting your essence (and your blind spots) back to you.
The beauty, and frustration, with being human is that we’re all too close to ourselves. We can catch some of our little quirks and idiosyncrasies as they’re happening, but the majority of them we are completely blind to. That’s where having high quality mirrors comes in.
If you have emotionally intelligent, kind, non-shaming, non-bullshitting friends who can act as mirrors for you and have bandwidth for your process, amazing. Lean on those people and treat the relationships like gold. You are in the 1% of most lucky humans in the world.
If you do not have close friends/confidantes such as these in your life, I can’t recommend doing some form of talk based therapy (with a highly skilled coach or therapist that you have a good rapport with) highly enough. Obviously I’m super biased because I, personally, have benefited from this practice so much. I have spent good chunks of the last 15 years, on and off, in benefiting from having a coach or therapist on speed dial… and the value that I have derived form this practice is literally immeasurable.
If you want to come to know your shadow that much more deeply, I can’t recommend therapy highly enough. Especially if your therapist is actually someone who has walked the walk of looking deeply into their own mind and integrated their own shadow. You will know that they have done this work if they do not shy away from going into deeper themes in your sessions. Conversely, if they try to steer you away from talking about your sadness, grief, anger, hatred, envy, etc. during your early sessions, run. Run far away and never return. They’re a hack and deserve none of your time or money and you deserve someone who can actually hold space for the fullness of who you are.
6. Engage in group work
Similar to the last section, but featuring even more mirrors to reflect your stuff back to you.
In a 1-on-1 therapeutic relationship, you allow one person to get to know you deeply and see all of your peculiarities. In group work (whether you’re in a men’s group/women’s group/shadow work group/encounter group, etc.), you multiply the number of mirrors who can either witness you deeply, or trigger your stuff to come to the surface. The trade off often being that the average skill level of people in group work will drop (compared to working 1-on-1 with a highly skilled coach or therapist). But don’t let this deter you. If doing therapeutic shadow work in a group appeals to you, do it. And if the idea of doing shadow work in a group scares the shit out of you, all the more reason to do it.
All of this with the caveat of you want to make sure that you aren’t engaging in the work just to leech from the community’s energy. Don’t just go to make friends. If you’re going to show up, show up all the way. Be radically honest. Let people see you as you are, and you will reap the rewards of the process.
7. Be in an intimate relationship
Ahhhhhhh intimate relationships… nature’s therapy.
If you think that you have zero blocks to intimacy… that being loved deeply doesn’t bring up any sense of un-ease or unworthiness for you… and you never judge anyone, ever, I would tell you that you’re either 1) a phenomenal bullshitter, or 2) you’re single and you haven’t been in a relationship for a really long time and you’ve forgotten what your psychological baggage sounds like when love triggers it to the surface.
When we allow a deep, nourishing love relationship to enter into our lives, it is entirely common for the junkyard dog of our ego to get ready to pounce on any impending love intruder who dares to try to love us exactly as we are.
When love is offered to us, everything that is unlike love bubbles up to the surface in order to be cleared out.
As always, observational awareness and self-compassion is key.
Notice the things that bubble up for you… don’t judge or condemn those parts… and do the work of integration (name it, own it, embody it) to let it go.
Sentence Prompts To Help You Integrate Your Shadow
So, how does one integrate their shadow?
The short answer of healing and integrating our shadow is this: become aware of the parts of yourself that you are rejecting, and bring those things forwards into your life in a healthy and responsible way.
If you’re currently at a loss for what shadow themes are lurking behind closed doors in your psyche, allow these prompts to poke and prod a little deeper.
– What is my relationship to power?
– How much do I want to have power over other people?
– How much do I want to have power over my intimate partner?
– How much do I want to sexually control my partners?
– How much do I want to be sexually controlled by my partners?
– How much do I feel I deserve to be richer than other people?
– How much do I aspire to be financially wealthy?
– How much do I feel I am better than others?
– How much do I feel I am especially broken/fucked up/unlovable compared to others?
– How much do I want to use people?
– How much do I perceive other people as sexual objects?
– How manipulative can I be?
– What do I hate about men?
– What do I hate about women?
– How much do I enjoy being manipulative?
– How much do I judge people?
– How much do I hate people?
– How much do I wish certain people in my life/in the world would just die?
Did those questions bring up some intense thoughts for you?
Did you uncover any shadow thoughts that you feel uncomfortable with having had, or excavated?
Remember… the point isn’t to find new, creative ways to make yourself wrong for these new thoughts you’re discovering. Nor is it to let these shadow thoughts have total free rein without any interjection on your behalf. These thoughts ultimately mean absolutely nothing about who you are as a person. For now, the point is simply to be aware of them. “Oh, that’s in there. Interesting!”
Once you are aware of these thoughts, then you are able to be in a place of CHOICE… rather than simply living in a place of unconscious reactivity.
Integrating The Shadow
Integrating our shadow could be boiled down to this simple process:
1) Become aware of the aspects of yourself that are difficult to face
2) Name it out loud and/or have a dialogue with it
3) Step more fully into this trait that you are in resistance to (yes, embody it more fully)
4) Having stepped further into the trait, realize that you didn’t die and the world didn’t end
5) Benefit from a more integrated relationship to that once rejected trait.
We can’t eliminate our shadow (nor would we want to), so the point of facing your shadow is to accept it. See the humour in it. Come to see it as an ally instead of an enemy, and learn how to harness it for the greater good.
For the uninitiated, shadow work might seem intimidating (and, yes, totally valid… it is). But if you have made it this far in reading this article, then I trust that there is some important, unresolved psychological content that is begging to come forth and be integrated.
If you truly want to help the world to wake up, do your own inner healing work. Because everything that you perceive as being ‘wrong’ with the world, out there, also lives in you.
I believe in your capacity to find these shadow aspects, and bring them out into your conscious awareness.
And once you have done this… you, and the world, will benefit greatly.
Dedicated to your success,
Ps. If you enjoyed this article, you will likely also love checking out:
– Are You Willing To Be Awake In Your Relationship?
– The Shadow Doesn’t Want To Be Seen