The benefits of shadow work and how to use it in your journey

June 13, 2022 - 24 min read

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What is your inner shadow? 

How your inner shadow affects you 

What is shadow work?

What is the goal of shadow work? 

8 benefits of shadow work 

Is shadow work right for you? 

How to start shadow work 

5 tips for starting shadow work

27 shadow work prompts to kickstart your healing journey

We all have traits that we’re proud of, and traits that we don’t feel so confident about. Some of these traits may trigger or embarrass us, so we hide them from public view. These parts make up your shadow self, and it longs to be heard. 

However, it’s not always easy to come to terms with our shadow selves. Many people tend to repress those hidden parts of themselves to avoid having to confront that darker side. Even though the shadow still exists, it gets pushed back and forgotten.

But repressing your inner shadow can have dangerous consequences. Most often, the shadow manifests as our triggers — emotional reactions that we haven’t fully dealt with, but bubble up to the surface under the right (wrong) circumstances. It takes training, self-awareness, guidance, and courage to help you face your shadow self in a healthy way.

This is exactly why shadow work exists. Shadow work is designed to help you integrate and accept every single part of yourself so that you can live and thrive with more clarity and authenticity. 

Let’s explore what shadow work means, how you can benefit from it, and how you can start practicing shadow work for yourself.

What is your inner shadow? 

Your inner shadow is composed of parts of you that you subconsciously reject.

The psychologist Carl Jung popularized the idea of the shadow self, or inner shadow. He defined the collective unconscious with eight different Jungian archetypes:

  • Self: The center of the personality or psyche — your conscious awareness
  • Shadow: The dark and emotional aspect of your psyche
  • Anima: An image of an idealized woman that draws people into their feminine side
  • Animus: A part of you that has the capacity for reflection and self-knowledge
  • Persona: The mask you wear to show the world while you protect your inner self
  • Hero: A part of your psyche that can overcome evil and destruction
  • Wise old man: A personification of the self that contains your wisdom
  • Trickster: A childish part of your psyche that needs gratification

Jung defined the shadow archetype as the dark and emotional side of your personality or psyche. He also defined it as inferior or immoral, but this isn’t always the case. 

For example, say that you were often teased for being talkative as a child. Believing that you “talk too much,” you start retreating within, weighing every conversation to see if you “did it again.” One day, someone makes an innocuous comment while you’re preparing for a presentation: “Be careful not to put too many words on that slide” — and you’re furious.

Why? It wasn’t the comment, the presentation, or even whether or not there were too many words on the slide. It was the part of you that was emotionally invested in not being a chatterbox. Anything that threatens the way you present yourself to the world (that is, brings your shadow self into the light) will be seen as a threat to your identity — and ultimately, your safety.

What makes up your shadow depends on what you subconsciously reject within yourself. We usually hear this come up as negative self-talk. Often, these rejected parts of ourselves are the result of childhood experiences.

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How your inner shadow affects you 

Your shadow side can have a negative impact on your well-being when you ignore or reject it. This part of yourself craves to be understood and explored. This is because it was ignored and possibly shamed throughout your life. Even if it was less dramatic, we don’t feel mentally and emotionally at our best when our shadow is not integrated into ourselves, which is to say — when the shadow and self are far apart. 

The effects of ignoring your shadow

When you ignore it, your shadow will find ways to make you aware that it exists. This can lead to issues like:

When you reject your shadow, you may also start projecting onto others. Projection happens when you see things in others that you subconsciously recognize within yourself.

Those parts can make you uncomfortable. As a result, you can seek to judge or punish others who reflect those traits.

What is shadow work?

The shadow work meaning is as follows:

Working with your unconscious mind to uncover the parts of yourself that you repress and hide from yourself. This can include trauma or parts of your personality that you subconsciously consider undesirable.

Anyone can do shadow work on their own. However, consider seeking out a licensed therapist for treatment, especially if you struggle with severe trauma.

shadow-work-woman-stretching-at-lake

What is the goal of shadow work? 

Your shadow isn’t a flaw or a mistake — instead, it’s a natural part of who you are.

Shadow work is, at heart, about developing self-awareness and ultimately, self-acceptance and compassion. Shadow work is often both therapy and more spiritual, helping you see the different parts of yourself. For people who have been especially good at avoiding their shadow — for instance, because it is too far different from your own self-perception or desired impression — shadow work is about acknowledging the existence of shadows and getting curious about exploring them. 

For those whose shadow is associated with trauma, this type of work helps you work through trauma to embrace the part of yourself that’s been suppressed or shamed throughout your life. 

By accepting your shadow self, you can start to see how your thoughts and emotions influence your behavior. When you’re aware of this, you can take control and empower yourself to live life more deliberately and consciously. You can start to show up as your authentic self.

8 benefits of shadow work 

You can benefit from practicing shadow work in several different aspects of your life. Here are just eight examples of benefits you can gain by implementing shadow work into your self-care practices.

1. Gain more confidence and self-esteem

You can show up more confidently when you show up as the full version of yourself, shadow and all.

There’s no more hidden self-doubt about parts of yourself that you may dislike or even loathe. This means you can be more confident as you move forward to achieve your goals.

Most of the time, our shadow traits are actually valuable parts of our personality. But if they are truly weaknesses, you’re better able to address them when you bring them out into the light so you can understand (and maybe better manage) them. Our shadow is most problematic when we aren’t even aware of it.

2. Improve your creativity

Your shadow doesn’t just hide traits that people consider undesirable. It can also hide amazing parts of yourself, like creativity.

Accepting your shadow means you get to embrace your creative side. Instead of suppressing your darker self, you can fully tap into all of the unique expressions it hides.

3. Build better relationships with others

Only when you fully love and accept yourself can you fully love and accept others.

When you tame your projections, you can see others for who they really are. You no longer see them as projections of the side of you that you dislike.

As a result, you can build stronger bonds with them.

4. Practice self-acceptance

You can get rid of the self-loathing you may unconsciously have when you repress your shadow. But you can only do this by fully accepting that side of yourself and practicing self-awareness.

Accepting your shadow means accepting and feeling self-compassion for every aspect of yourself. It won’t necessarily come easily and automatically. But beginning shadow work opens the door for you to get there.

5. Discover your hidden talents

You can use shadow work to uncover what some people call the "gold in your shadow bags" — in other words, your inner strengths and resources that you didn’t realize you had before.

Some people may fear that their shadow contains too much darkness for them to overcome. But in most cases, this golden shadow takes up most of the space. It just never had an opportunity to thrive before.

Shadow work can tempt this side of yourself out of hiding and allow you to step into everything you can really do.

6. Improve your overall wellness

Repressing your shadow can lead to all sorts of problems. You may not even realize these problems stem from a repressed side of yourself until you’re ready to face that shadow. 

Shadow work can help you take control of your wellness journey by starting at the root. Instead of addressing specific wellness issues, like anxiety or unhealthy relationships, shadow work tackles their root causes.

7. Increase your compassion toward others

Shadow work helps you reduce projection when you interact with others. You’re less likely to be triggered by other people’s personality traits and quirks.

In turn, this can help you feel more compassionate toward others. You no longer see the dark side of yourself reflected in others. Instead, you can see them as whole people who likely have their own inner battles to face.

8. Have better clarity 

Shadow work gives you better clarity on how your thoughts, emotions, and feelings lead you to act the way you do.

When you have this information, you can show up with more clarity and authenticity.

shadow-work-woman-lying-on-couch

Is shadow work right for you? 

Everyone has a shadow, even if you may have heard about it through a different name. It doesn’t have to be associated with something traumatic. But the more you can integrate your self and shadow, the more healthy you will feel

Shadow work is crucial for your personal development to help you become the best version of yourself. Not all approaches to shadow work may be right for you, however.

If you’re not sure whether shadow work is right for you or not, consider trying some of the shadow work prompts below and see what comes up. If it feels at all difficult to answer these prompts, it means shadow work could be good for you.

How to start shadow work 

If everything above resonates with you, you can start practicing shadow work. It requires a lot of Inner Work®, but it’s possible for you to do it successfully, even on your own. Here’s how to do shadow work, no matter where you are right now.

1. Decide if you’ll seek therapy or do shadow work on your own

You don’t have to seek out a therapist to do shadow work. However, it can be helpful to have someone else to guide you through the process.

A trained professional can spot patterns within you that you may not be aware of. They can also give you the tools you’ll need to deal with any triggers you may uncover.

Plus, therapists can provide you with personalized prompts to guide you through your shadow work journey. 

2. Practice spotting your inner shadow

To start shadow work, it’s important to spot your inner shadow. 

To do this, you can start by spotting habits you may have. Habits can be good, but they can also be bad. What patterns do you tend to replicate repeatedly in your life that you feel are holding you back? 

You should also pay attention to your triggers to spot your shadow. Triggers remind you of past trauma, which is usually associated with your shadow. Those triggers are messages to help you realize your shadow wants to be seen.

Finally, you can spot your shadow by noticing yourself projecting. One way you can do this is by using the mirror technique. This technique can be uncomfortable at first. However, it can allow you to uncover who your shadow self really is.

To practice the mirror technique, pay attention to how you think and feel when you interact with others. When negative feelings come up, ask yourself if you may be projecting.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re talking to a friend, and they start taking over the conversation. You’re struggling to put a word in. You may start to judge this behavior and get upset. But perhaps this could be a projection of the shame you feel when you want to speak up and don’t.

3. Think back to your childhood

Explore what parts of you may have been treated as bad or lesser when you were a child.

Which emotions were you punished for having? Many children get told to “get over” their anger or sadness. As a result, those emotions get repressed. We grow up believing they’re bad and that we’re bad for having them.

shadow-work-mother-with-child-at-table

4. Avoid shaming (or being ashamed of) your shadow

Some people might say that your shadow longs for acceptance. But really, your shadow is you and we all long to feel whole so it is more that we long to feel integrated, whole, and complete in our lives. Embrace your shadow and have some compassion for yourself. Remember that it’s tough not to feel accepted, including (or especially) by yourself.

Practice loving words of affirmation toward yourself (including your shadow). Some examples include:

    • I trust in you
    • I believe in you
    • I’m glad that you’re in my life
    • You are worthy of love
    • You are enough
    • You deserve to be happy
    • You have a lot to offer

5. Meditate to observe your triggers

Notice the triggers that cause emotional reactions within you.

Then, you can meditate on them so that you can step back and observe what’s happening. Observe without being judgemental. When emotions come up, allow yourself to have them.

6. Keep a shadow journal

A shadow journal is a safe and practical way to express all sides of yourself. You can let out your thoughts, both light and dark, using the written word.

Make it a daily practice to sit down and write in your journal. Don’t censor yourself. Write whatever comes up without overthinking it. At first, what comes up may feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to lean into it if you want your shadow self to feel heard.

7. Express your inner shadow artistically

Art is a powerful way to let your shadow self express itself. It can be especially beneficial if journaling isn’t the way you prefer to express yourself.

According to recent research, art therapy can even be used to treat pre-verbal trauma

Allow yourself to feel all the emotions you need to feel when you’re creating art, even if they’re dark. Express them while using the medium of your choice. This can be painting, sculpture, singing, digital art, music, or anything else you feel called to try.

Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. Create what your inner self wants to create, no matter what it looks like.

artist-working-outside-at-sunset-shadow-work

8. Start an inner dialogue

You can learn from your shadow by having an inner conversation with it. 

To do this, you can use a process similar to meditation. Ask your shadow some questions and wait for an answer.

Keep an open mind, even if it feels weird. Take note of the answer and make sure that you’re listening without judgment. 

27 shadow work prompts to kickstart your healing journey

Need an extra boost to start your shadow work? Here are 27 shadow work exercises and prompts you can use to kickstart the process.

  1. How do you believe people see you? How would they describe you to someone else? How does that make you feel?
  2. What are the worst traits someone can have, according to you? When did you demonstrate these traits?
  3. What tends to make you judgmental toward others?
  4. What memories are you ashamed of?
  5. Who do you envy, and why?
  6. Write a letter to the person who’s hurt you the most in your life, and tell them everything you’d like to say.
  7. What frightens you the most? What are some ways you could safely expose yourself to this fear?
  8. What emotions typically bring out the worst in you, and why do you think this happens?
  9. When was the last time you self-sabotaged? How were you feeling at the time? What do you think triggered this behavior?
  10. Which friendships make you feel safe and secure? Which relationships no longer serve you?
  11. What’s something you wish that other people understood about you?
  12. What are some lies you’ve previously told yourself?
  13. What’s your worst memory from childhood? What is the worst character trait that you have as a result of this memory or other events from your childhood?
  14. What are your parents’ best character traits? What about their worst?
  15. How do you feel when drama occurs? 
  16. What makes you self-conscious? 
  17. What makes you feel unsafe?
  18. Who do you currently have a grudge against? Why do you think you aren’t letting it go?
  19. Who’s let you down the most in your life? 
  20. What makes you feel the most valued?
  21. Describe a trait you see in other people that you wish you had yourself. Why do you not have this trait?
  22. What are your personal core values? Why are those values important to you?
  23. What were your parents’ or guardians’ core values when you were a child? How do your own values differ from those of your parents or guardians?
  24. At what moments in your life have you been the hardest on yourself? Why? 
  25. How do you define failure? How does failing make you feel? Are you afraid of failure? If so, why?
  26. What do you do with your time when you’re bored? What do you enjoy doing?
  27. Are there negative emotions you try to avoid? Why?

5 tips for starting shadow work

As you go through these prompts, be aware of how you respond. It’s easy to repeat bad habits when taking on new challenges. Try these tips to keep moving forward with your shadow work:

  1. Keep an open mind
  2. Practice self-compassion
  3. Be patient with yourself – both during the exercise and throughout your journey
  4. Carve out time to focus on your shadow work rather than multitasking
  5. Take time to reflect on your progress

Implement shadow work to improve your well-being

The only way to live authentically as yourself is to discover and accept your shadow self. By accepting yourself fully, you can not only improve your own wellness and mental health, but you can also be ready to accept others for who they are, too.

Shadow work is a key part of developing introspective skills and self-awareness, which are foundational skills for personal growth. It’s not easy work, though. Shame, frustration, and fear are difficult emotions to navigate alone. They distort our ability to see ourselves accurately and make us less self-compassionate — and self-compassion is key as you work with the shadow self. 

If you’re struggling to practice shadow work on your own, seek support from others, including professional help. At BetterUp we believe in the power of self-awareness and self-compassion to find clarity and build resilience and mental fitness in a challenging world. We also believe that no one should have to go through this journey alone.

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Published June 13, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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