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Do you sometimes do things you later regret and wonder what compelled you to act so out of character? Is there a marked difference between the “you” you share with your colleagues and friends and the persona you display at home among your most intimate? You might need to dig into shadow work.
According to Zen Buddhism, all humans contain the seeds of every emotion known to humankind, including ones we’d rather not acknowledge, like rage and hatred. If you ask Jungian psychologists, ignoring this reality is to your peril, as your dark side will surface, affecting your behavior and, thus, the trajectory of your life. How can you make its acquaintance? Here’s your introductory guide to what shadow work is and exercises to help you uncover it.
What Is Your Shadow and How Does It Affect You?
To Jungian psychologists, your shadow is the hidden, repressed, inferior and shame-ridden part of your personality. It embodies everything you don’t want to be, although ignoring its existence can ironically result in you becoming that which you most despise.
For example, you might think, “I could never kill another human being.” Then, someone asks what you would do if you caught the person responsible for torturing and murdering your child. Suddenly, you transform into a vengeful rage monster capable of the most depraved human atrocities, if only against the guilty party.
Then, imagine you later discovered you caught the wrong person. The intense shame you would feel and its impact on your life from that point forward also form your shadow.
Your shadow has grave implications for the world if ignored. On a personal level, doing so can result in narcissistic, even sociopathic, behaviors that lead to broken relationships, lost jobs and legal trouble. On a societal scale, ignoring the shadow allows horrors like the genocides in Nazi Germany and the evils still occurring in many parts of the globe.
What Are the Benefits of Doing Shadow Work?
The benefits of doing shadow work are immense and can be life-altering. For example, you might have learned toxic behavioral patterns from a parent that harm your present-day relationships. Part of your shadow work may entail identifying which behaviors make you feel shameful. From there, you can explore your triggers — what circumstances drive you to act out of character?
Doing a deep, mindful exploration of how you act and what motivates you to behave that way could bring up painful memories. However, they also clue you in that you’re becoming exactly like the caregiver you swore you would never act like. This recognition is power — what you bring into the light, you can change.
The world might be a better place if everyone faced their shadow. Imagine if world leaders had to spend a full day mindfully reflecting on the true realities of war before rallying troops to invade a foreign land. They’d quickly find less deadly and destructive means to solve conflicts if they were brave enough to fully recognize the impact despite the immense psychological weight.
Should You Do Shadow Work With a Therapist?
Because shadow work can be intensely painful, you might feel more comfortable working with a professional therapist. Doing so is advisable if you have the means.
However, you can do shadow work independently, which is good news if you’re among the many Americans who can’t afford mental health care. Your first order of business is to get comfortable sitting with uncomfortable emotions without acting on them. This alone could take several months, even years, of yoga and meditation. Still, it’s essential that you can feel negative emotions like shame without engaging in toxic behaviors like substance use.
If you think shadow work may trigger you too much, wait. Work on general mindfulness activities first, learning to sit with more pleasant emotions before moving on to your dark side.
5 Shadow Work Exercises to Uncover Your Dark Side
You’re ready to stare your dark side in the eye. Here are five shadow work exercises to help you uncover your dark side.
1. Embrace the Mindful Pause
This first exercise helps you identify your triggers but is much harder than it sounds. The next time you experience any negative emotion — be it frustration, irritation, reluctance, embarrassment, shame or fear — pause. Simply stop talking and stop doing whatever you are doing, stepping outside if you must. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What made me feel this way? It might not be obvious. For example, a whiff of the same cologne your father always wore could make you feel like a child cowering before punishment. Look, listen, explore your other senses of taste, smell and touch, even interoception — an upset stomach can trigger immense sadness if your parents always belittled you for being “sickly” as a child or accused you of faking your symptoms to avoid chores or school.
- What is my instinctive reaction? Here’s the part that takes time. Your nervous system trains itself to react and react quickly, especially if you have a trauma history. Your job is to stop that instinctive reaction before those harsh words fly out of your mouth, or you reach for the bottle. Instead, explore that reaction. Is it the correct one? The best one under these circumstances?
Keep in mind that shadow work doesn’t concern itself with whether or not a behavior is warranted or justified in a given situation. This exercise is about recognizing what sets you off and taking back the reins long enough to mindfully consider your response. You might later decide to let your anger fly but in a measured, controlled way that won’t hurt others around you. There’s a reason punching bags exist beyond boxing.
2. Create a Shadow Journal
A shadow journal is a fabulous tool for exploring your dark side in a tidy, secret place others can’t see. It can help you work through situations you might not experience that often in daily life but which nevertheless subconsciously drive your behaviors.
Choose a model that locks or a digital journal you can secure with a password. Then, begin working through these prompts and others you find online — there are hundreds available with a quick Google search:
- What is something people get wrong about you at work? What do you think causes the misperception?
- What’s something you’re often embarrassed to admit to others? What about it makes you feel ashamed?
- What core memory from your childhood makes you angry?
- What was your biggest fear growing up?
- What is one thing you hope your partner never finds out about you? What are the consequences if they do?
- When was the last time you realized you were wrong about something? How did you address it and what, if anything, do you wish you had done differently?
Check out these shadow work journals to find the best one for you: The Best Shadow Work Journals for Beginners
3. Express Yourself Through Art
Sometimes, it’s tough to put your dark side into words. That’s why art exists. There’s much more to human expression and emotion than what you can delineate in writing.
Your art can be as private as your journal. It doesn’t matter if you paint, draw, sculpt or even crochet a negativity scarf in angry colors. What matters is exploring your emotions and their causes through your creativity.
4. Talk to Your Mirror
A common cinematic trope is introducing a soliloquy where the main character reveals their innermost thoughts by talking to a mirror. Guess what? This method doesn’t only allow actors to show the audience what their character thinks. It’s also a good way to dig into shadow work.
The next time you do something that makes you feel anxious, guilty or shamed, hold a dialogue with yourself in the mirror. Remain nonjudgmental — instead of triggering yourself by screaming, “How could you be so stupid,” calmly ask, “why did you do that?” Listen to your response.
5. Question Your Goodness
This exercise can get scary, but you can start simply. Most people consider themselves “good” — but what does that mean?
For example, perhaps you consider yourself “good” because you never take a single day off work. If you asked your 8-year-old how they felt after missing their championship soccer match, would they say the same about your hard work and dedication?
This activity might make you feel guilty — but there’s a remedy. Remember, what you bring into the light, you can change. Your emotions are messengers, and your job is mindfully listening to what they mean. If you feel bad for missing your child’s game, be front in center in the stands at the next one.
You can start with easily correctable behaviors before moving on to deeper ones. For example, maybe you consider yourself “good” because you keep everything organized. However, your insistence on everything in its place at all times could grate on your family member’s nerves — would it kill you to leave a single dish in the sink overnight?
What Is Shadow Work?
Everyone is capable of darker things than they’d like to admit. Shadow work uncovers the hidden, shameful side of your personality.
While sometimes painful, shadow work is a necessary engine for personal and even global change. It’s well worth exploring your dark side and how it influences you if you hope for transformative change.
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