Shadow Work: How I’m Using It To Improve My Life
Sometimes I’m not the brave leader I try so hard to represent. At times I’m messy, flustered, anxious, insecure–and even, a “bad” girl.
Sometimes I say all the wrong things and I don’t always take my own advice. There are moments when I’m clingy—not cool, calm, or even an ounce of collected.
And my work, my personal journey currently, lies in accepting this side of myself. Accepting my shadows.
What is Shadow Work?
A spiritual and psychological practice that explores unconscious aspects of our being that have been repressed but still have a powerful impact on our daily lives.
The well-known psychologist, Carl Jung, calls this one’s “personal shadow.” Uncovering these hidden areas within ourselves helps to improve our authenticity and fulfillment in life.
According to Scott Jeffrey, “The shadow is the “dark side” of our personality because it consists chiefly of primitive, negative human emotions and impulses like rage, envy, greed, selfishness, desire, and the striving for power.”
Our shadows are the parts of ourselves we’ve deemed as unacceptable. We deny them in order to better assimilate into society and in doing so, we disown pieces of ourselves that are very real.
These qualities don’t dissolve because we push them away, but rather, remain an unexamined part of who we are. In repressing these tendencies, we push them into our unconscious mind but they still have a say in how we run our lives.
Where Do Our Shadows Come From?
In childhood, we learn that some emotions are good, while others are bad. For example, a good girl isn’t selfish or mean to others. A good girl is quiet, obedient, and selfless. But even good girls have wants and needs.
Growing up, we receive positive and negative reinforcement from our primary caregivers. Some behaviors and desires are acceptable, while others are not. When a certain behavior or expression is rejected or labeled as “bad,” we learn to repress them.
Many of these repressed needs create problems later in life. Just because we’ve put them where we can’t see them, doesn’t mean that they don’t still have an impact.
Our shadow self controls many of our unconscious behaviors, like when we agree to do something we don’t want to do, or when our facial expressions contradict the words that are coming out of our mouth.
Without exploring the depths of our psyche and the shadow within it, we play out old patterns that no longer serve us, we fail to get what we want, and we hurt the people we love the most.
Repressing Your Shadow
When we fail to acknowledge or accept the pieces of ourselves we’ve pushed into our unconscious, we unknowingly project those qualities onto others. This is our egos way of protecting our false identity, the one that makes us believe that we’re being “good.”
Projecting onto others creates a barrier between our own self-image and our actions. When one chooses to own their flaws, as uncomfortable as it may be, it opens the door to greater self-awareness, fulfillment, and maturity.
Relationships improve because when you accept yourself, flaws and all, it makes it much easier to accept and forgive the flaws in others. Communication flows more naturally and the actions of others become less triggering.
Energy increases too. It’s exhausting to try and be someone we’re not. Letting go of self-judgement and learning to accept everything about oneself, lifts the weights from one’s shoulders.
The energy that was previously being spent on protecting a false identity, is freed up to be used in more fulfilling ways. Mental, emotional, and physical health all improve as a result.
How I Repress My Shadow
Last year, my boyfriend and I broke up and I spent 3 months trying to figure out why I was unhappy.
After all, from the outside, my life looks pretty solid. I live in a beautiful city, I work out everyday, I eat healthy, I have an amazing education, I’m nice, I love my friends and family.
Shouldn’t I be on cloud9 here?
But I wasn’t. I was unhappy in my relationship and I didn’t know why. Tom is a good man, my best friend, my family member.
So why wasn’t I happy?
Did I have some self-destruct button set to deploy at the precise moment when I’d gotten everything I wanted? My finger on the trigger, was I just seeking escape to throw my life into turmoil? It felt that way.
No one could understand what was happening to me, least of all myself. I felt confused, tortured, bored, dead. And I still struggle with it, it’s not over.
But then I went on a spiritual retreat and met my shaman and I’ve been training with him once a week to learn about the things he knows.
This is week 3, and I’m beginning to see that my unhappiness and dissatisfaction all come from within me. The truth is, I haven’t been embracing my true self, I’ve been afraid of my dark side.
This week, I’m learning about shadow work. From what I’m learning, we all have shadows—wounds and traumas we’ve collected over the years. They are impossible to escape and they make us who we are.
I have many. One is the shadow of constriction, where I constrict the true expression of my being to fit into normative society. I used to pride myself on being counterculture but the truth is, in many ways, I’m not. I’m a slave to my society and the cultural values embedded within it.
As a kid, I learned that asking for what I wanted meant I was rude and selfish and bad. So I stopped.
Now I’m very out of practice and I don’t ask for what I want in my relationship. That is why I don’t get what I want all the time. I am constricting my own true self-expression for fear of being judged as “bad.” But if I can’t ask for what I want, if I can’t articulate my needs and desires, then no one can give them to me.
In working on this, I can see that what is required for me to be able to communicate in this way is acceptance. I must learn to accept myself, even if it means that other people will think I’m “bad.”
Because being a people pleaser and never speaking up about what I want, that might yield me friends and relationships but those relationships will never sustain me fully because I’ll always be searching for more.
Searching for the people that can read my mind. But, newsflash, they don’t exist so I’ll always be seeking if I don’t speak up.
Accepting myself is hard. Owning the reality that I might be selfish or rude or bad, that’s hard. But if I can’t be selfish, then I can’t live the life I want. I have to be selfish for myself. No one else can be selfish for me.
I Am the Bad Guy
And being “bad” well maybe I am bad. Maybe I am these things I’m so afraid of owning. Billie Eilish’s song “Bad Guy” resonates deeply.
If we all decided to be our own innate bad guy, would life be more satisfying? Who are we trying to please if not ourselves?
I am working to embrace my shadows, to love them for the depth they provide. I hope one day that embracing these facets of myself will lead to tremendous pleasure, contentment, and peace of mind.
For now, I can only continue on my journey and share my findings with you.
How to Explore Your Shadow
Pay attention to the behaviors that trigger you in others. They wouldn’t be irritating to you if they weren’t expressing something hidden in your own shadow.
Carl Jung says, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
What triggers you can offer clues about what you are denying inside yourself.