Everyone has a part of themselves that they do not bring into the light but carry with them everywhere they go. This is known as the “shadow self.” It is also often referred to as a dark side: not because it is evil, but rather, repressed. However, acceptance of this part of the self is crucial in order to fully appreciate one’s self. The process of achieving this acceptance is called shadow work.

What Is Shadow Work?

The term “shadow work” is widely attributed to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. In his analytical psychology, Jung developed the concept of the “shadow” – the unknown or unconscious aspects of oneself, both good and bad. According to Jung, we deny or suppress parts of ourselves that we don’t like, deem incompatible, or bring up too much anxiety to face. The shadow thus represents our dark side – the negative traits we try to hide or overcome. Jung suggested that failing to recognize the shadow leads to projecting one’s darker qualities onto others. Integrating the shadow allows people to be more self-aware and accept all aspects of themselves.

Elizabeth Perry for mental health and coaching startup BetterUp explained that ignoring the inner shadow can have a negative impact on a person as this part of the mind wants to be explored and no longer shamed. Perry said ignoring the shadow causes it to persist in other ways to make itself known. This can lead to issues such as self-loathing or poor self-esteem, anxiety and depression, projection or offensive behavior toward others, problems with relationships, self-sabotage, self-absorption and more.

Some Of The Practices Shadow Work Typically Involves

  • Facing one’s fears, insecurities, shame, guilt, anger, sadness, and other difficult emotions that have been “put in the shadow”
  • Owning and accepting the parts of oneself that feel unacceptable or unlovable
  • Processing challenging life events and old wounds
  • Questioning and letting go of limiting beliefs about oneself that stem from early life experiences
  • Integrating disowned aspects of oneself into one’s consciousness and identity
  • Understanding oneself more completely by bringing light to inner shadows

Though Jung may not have directly coined the term “shadow work,” his in-depth exploration of the psychological shadow laid the foundation for the later conception of deliberately working with this unknown side as a path to wholeness. This therapeutic process of working to understand rather than suppress the shadow became what is now most commonly described as “shadow work.”

Some Of The Potential Benefits Of Shadow Work Include

  • Increased self-awareness and honesty with oneself: Illuminating inner blind spots and suppressed emotions leads to knowing oneself more fully.
  • Emotional healing and freedom: Processing repressed feelings brings relief and releases their hold over current patterns of thinking and relating.
  • Self-acceptance: Facing the parts we dislike or judge can cultivate self-compassion and ownership over the full spectrum of who we are.
  • Personal empowerment: Confronting inner demons and inner critics quiets their disabling voices and strengthens self-confidence.
  • Better relationships: As self-understanding grows, people often relate better with others once projections about them wane.
  • Resilience: Working to heal internal wounds builds emotional muscles to face life’s future challenges.
  • Direction for healing and growth: Seeing clearly where more wholeness is wanted guides what further inner or outer work needs to be done to get there.

Shadow work leads to claiming both the dark and light inside us, lending to a deeply enhanced quality of life. It is embracing the negative and learning where it stems from in order to accept it and move on.

Shadow Work In The Work Place

Engaging in shadow work can positively impact work performance and one’s presence in the workplace. Kelley Kosow, CEO of The Ford Institute told Women Together, shared “As you own the qualities you see in other people, you become more whole and feel more complete. Just think of how competition in the workplace would end if we saw ourselves through the eyes of wholeness instead of being afraid that everyone else has something that we don’t.”

Kosow explained that feeling whole and satisfied with all the parts of oneself can positively affect other co-workers as well as you will likely encourage them to stand in wholeness as well. Team members engaging in shadow work collectively may foster a more supportive and understanding team environment. Additionally, the environment created through the compassion and authenticity you are able to have when embracing the shadow can become much more positive and can lead to improved productivity.

Other Ways Shadow Work Can Be Beneficial In The Workplace

  • Self-awareness: Shadow work involves delving into your unconscious mind to uncover hidden thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This increased self-awareness can lead to a better understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, and triggers, allowing you to navigate workplace challenges with more insight.
  • Emotional intelligence: Exploring your shadow can enhance emotional intelligence by helping you recognize and manage emotions effectively. This skill is crucial in the workplace for building positive relationships, resolving conflicts, and understanding the emotional dynamics of teams.
  • Improved communication: Shadow work often involves examining communication patterns and learning to express oneself more authentically. Enhanced communication skills can foster clearer, more open dialogue in the workplace, leading to better collaboration and understanding among colleagues.
  • Increased resilience: Understanding and integrating shadow aspects can make you more resilient in the face of setbacks or challenges at work. It allows you to confront and navigate difficult situations with greater emotional stability and adaptability.
  • Leadership development: For those in leadership roles, shadow work can contribute to authentic and effective leadership. Leaders who have a deep understanding of their own motivations and fears are often more empathetic, adaptable, and capable of inspiring their teams.
  • Conflict resolution: By addressing personal shadow elements, individuals may become more adept at handling conflicts. This could involve approaching disagreements with a clearer perspective, managing emotions during conflicts, and finding constructive resolutions.
  • Increased motivation and engagement: As individuals confront and integrate aspects of their shadow, they may experience a greater sense of purpose and motivation in their work. This can lead to increased job satisfaction, productivity, and overall engagement in the workplace.

How To Do Shadow Work

Registered Psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP for Cleveland Clinic explained it is helpful to start keeping up with what people or things around trigger a strong mental, emotional or physical reaction in you.

“Journaling your experiences is a really good start because once you begin to notice what you’re dealing with, you can’t un-notice it,” Duke said.

Unpacking these triggers with a therapist and figuring out your goals for doing shadow work is usually what is initially done in shadow work. Additionally, Duke said shadow work often involves a thorough look into one’s childhood, family dynamics and past experiences. This is important as passed down generational trauma can be what first affects the shadow self.

“What traits were you told to embrace? What traits were you told to avoid? What were your ideas of good and bad behavior and good and bad traits? What were you rewarded for? What were you punished for?” Duke asked. “These can all be good starting points in looking at what the shadow might be hiding.”

Duke said the rest of shadow work involves the therapist helping the client identify the parts of the shadow, as they are blind spots in the subconscious. Once the client is aware of them, they can start unpacking them and learning to accept them with the therapist. Some other methods that may be implemented in shadow work include meditation, art therapy, stream-of-consciousness writing, dreamwork and more.

Remember to be patient and practice self-care in between doing shadow work. Duke explained that this can be very helpful as shadow work can make things feel worse before they feel better.

Shadow Work Is Transformative

Ultimately, shadow work refers to the inner emotional and psychological work someone does to integrate and heal aspects of themselves that have been repressed, hidden or run from. With common shadow work practices including journaling, meditation, dreamwork, art therapy and counseling, the goal of shadow work is increased self-awareness, inner peace, emotional honesty and freedom. It’s based on Jungian psychology and the idea that we hide away parts of ourselves that we don’t want to confront. Consciously working with those lost aspects can lead to greater wholeness and understanding of who we really are.