One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious – Carl Jung.
Shadow has a bad reputation. It’s where danger lurks, where the baddies hide, where it’s cold and where things don’t grow. No wonder most of us are scared by the thought that there is shadow inside us – what could possibly be waiting for us if we explore those dim and dark recesses?
Some people feel that if they go looking into the shadow, they’ll have to confront dark and difficult things about themselves – too hard, too sad. Some choose relentless positivity to cover their shadow; some are ignorant of its existence; some only acknowledge it when altered by alcohol or drugs (an unskillful time and place for shadow dancing).
But what is shadow work? It begins with awareness of the shadow, acknowledging how it has protected and hurt us, and being brave enough to start healing the hurt that caused it. Shadow begins in childhood, and those suppressed emotions may arise, sometimes painfully. But once they are befriended, they can reveal a whole new side of us that we didn’t know existed.
The goal of shadow work is integration – making the unconscious conscious and the unacceptable acceptable. The integration of the unconscious leads to increased awareness, bringing our shadow closer to us, making us fuller, more whole. But how to begin? There are five steps to start the journey.
Review your childhood
Ask yourself, “Was I completely accepted as a child? How did I feel most of the time? What was expected of me and what behaviours and emotions were judged by my people?” Those behaviors that were judged created some sort of shadow aspect within you (Milton, 2012).
Once you find the answers to these questions, they will lead you to see the shadow aspects of yourself. And it goes without saying that sometimes this work needs to be supported by a qualified and experienced therapist.
Become aware of your shadow
To become aware of something, you have to choose to see it. Once you see those rejected aspects of yourself, reflect on them. Are they positive or negative? If you find something negative, make peace with it and release it from the shadow. If it’s a positive aspect, reunite with it and call your power back.
Don’t shame the shadow
Once you become aware of your shadow self, don’t shame or blame it. Instead, give it your love, compassion, and acceptance. Shadow is born from non-acceptance and rejection in the first place, created in the moment you began to push it away (Burgo, 2018). The shadow is part of who you are, so look at it from a place of love.
Get to know your spark and sparkle
I prefer to use the word ‘spark’ instead of ‘trigger’. For me, I find it closer to what’s really going on internally. Just like electricity or wildfire, a spark is released in the body about a person, a comment, a memory, or a moment. Sparks are messengers and an invitation to delve deeper into unconscious things.
Naming what is making you spark up and/or sparkle allows you to step back from your emotional reaction and observe it, instead of living it. Sparks are reflections of unresolved wounds. The sparks come to open your eyes and awareness to those things that are suppressed and unresolved. Sparkle is the light coming through – a product arising from working through and integrating shadow.
Observe without judgment
One of the biggest missteps that’s made with shadow work is to judge the shadow once it’s spotted. If you let the harsh inner critic come up and judge the shadow, you are rejecting it all over again and therefore making it bigger and stronger. When you see your shadow, acknowledge and observe it without judgment. Observe it to understand it and then work to integrate it.
* * *
I’m really aware of my shadow, and I work hard to accept and love it, tempting it into the light of my good nature. It’s not easy. Some days are better than others. I experience sparks and I cultivate sparkle. Some situations enrage my shadow and make my whole disposition darker. Some days all there is is soft sunny light. It’s a journey that we’re all on, all of us experiencing the yin and the yang, the white wolf and the black wolf, the good witch and the bad witch, the god and the monster.
The more we become aware of our shadow self and accept it, the more embodied we are as conscious beings, with more agency over self and life. It also helps us to see the effect of shadow in others when it impacts us – hurt people hurt people. While it doesn’t excuse poor behaviour in ourselves or others, it contextualises it, and helps us to encounter it with more compassion. That makes the job of being human just a little easier.
This is the process of individuation (Stein, 2014): understanding that there are lost and hidden parts of self, we seek to discover and integrate those parts and the knowing of this new state leads to a closer sense of wholeness and mastery. This pattern appears in Buddhist texts from the 12th century, in countless other parables from cultures and countries around the world (Stein, 2014), and in Jung’s The Red Book. Individuation is a life’s internal work, a quest to understand oneself honestly, compassionately, with less delusion about the external façade.
As always, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above resonates with you in light of your own situation.
Burgo, J (2018). Shame: Free yourself, find joy, and build true self-esteem. Watkins Media Ltd. London. UK.
Milton, M. (2012). Diagnosis and beyond : counselling psychology contributions to understanding human distress. PCCS Books.
Stein, M., & Ebooks Corporation. (2014). Minding the self : Jungian meditations on contemporary spirituality.
Photo by Spencer Goggin on Unsplash
What a pic! I can just imagine the morning reverie. Walking in the quite, crisp, morning light. You can see the play of penumbra – where the shadow and light overlap and intermingle. This also makes me think of Polly’s writing last month about the need for deep time and moments of contemplation.
When I think of shadow, I think of light. The two are interlocked for me. I also see that shadow can sometimes be the thing that guides us. I know, it sounds like a contradiction, but it makes me think of that famous line in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”