Do you ever feel like your personality has a dark side? Like there are things about yourself you try to ignore or purposely keep hidden from other people? While it may sound a bit sinister (and straight out of the Star Wars universe), these feelings are actually quite common. Some psychology experts believe there can be big emotional benefits to uncovering these buried truths about ourselves and confronting them via a process called shadow work. But what is shadow work, exactly? And how can you use it to improve your self-awareness and boost your overall well-being? Here’s an in-depth look at this popular practice, as well as some suggestions for getting started.
What Is Shadow Work?
Shadow work is a psychological practice based on principles popularized by noted Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung. Jung believed that all human beings have a “shadow self,” which is a part of the psyche that stores the emotions and traits we learned to reject and suppress in childhood.
For example, say you were scolded for having an angry outburst when you were a young kid. In an effort to behave in a more socially acceptable manner, you may have pushed down that (very natural) feeling of anger, unconsciously equating it with being bad. That suppressed anger would become part of your “shadow self,” along with other emotions you may have suppressed because you perceived them as negative, such as jealousy, selfishness, dishonestly, or greed.
The thing is, while negative traits and emotions are ones we aspire to avoid, all human beings experience them from time to time. Shadow work is designed to help you uncover and identify these suppressed feelings, forgive yourself for having them, and process them in an open, honest way that allows you to grow as a person. Essentially, it’s a comprehensive exercise in self-exploration, one that gives you an opportunity to heal past traumas and care for your inner self in ways that are more constructive and compassionate.
How To Enhance Your Shadow Work Experience
Because it involves digging deep into your psyche and tapping into areas of your personality that may make you feel comfortable, shadow work is not easy. It can be a very painful process, which is why most experts recommend enlisting the help of a professional therapist to guide and support you on your journey. Coupling shadow work with talk therapy can be extremely beneficial, as it provides a safe, judgment-free space for you to explore the painful memories and feelings as they come up and address them in a healthy way.
There are also non-talk forms of therapy that can help enrich your shadow work process, including art therapy, journaling, psychodrama, and dance therapy. In fact, studies show that body and movement-oriented practices such as yoga, tai-chi, and body-based somatic therapy are effective exercises for helping people work through trauma and improve their overall emotional well-being.
The Benefits Of Shadow Work
Jung once said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Proponents of shadow work believe its benefits are so numerous and profound precisely for this reason because it allows you to address suppressed emotions that may be affecting your life in ways you are not even aware of. While peer-reviewed research on shadow work is extremely limited, many experts believe these unrealized emotions can contribute to a wide range of emotional and physical problems, including low self-esteem, chronic illness, and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
- Healthier interactions with others. When you begin to develop a deeper understanding of the types of feelings that trigger you, it becomes easier for you to trust your instincts and protect yourself in your relationships with others. For example, you may learn how to speak up and advocate for firm boundaries with pushy people in your life.
- Learning how to trust your gut. If you were discouraged from using your intuition as a child (as in the anger example we mentioned earlier), it may have led you to become distrustful of your gut instincts in general. Shadow work can help you identify this distrust by allowing you to get back in touch with the healthy instincts that are closely connected to who you are as a person and designed to protect you.
- Getting your needs met. Our shadow selves can cause us to engage in self-destructive behaviors that can have a profound effect on the quality of our lives. For instance, if you had an unavailable parent who made you feel needy or overbearing for wanting more attention, you might become closed off and have trouble expressing affection in future relationships. Uncovering this behavior and learning its cause through shadow work can help you change it with less resistance and more understanding and compassion for yourself.
- Healing familial trauma. Suppressed emotions frequently stem from childhood trauma caused (often unintentionally) by a parent or caregiver. This includes hurts and behaviors that have been repeated and handed down within families for generations. Shadow work can help you break the cycle of these generational traumas by giving you the power to identify, process, and change these often unrecognized behaviors.
The Cons Of Shadow Work
Most experts agree that there are a few downsides to shadow work. In general, it’s a highly beneficial therapeutic practice that can help you improve your self-awareness and become more connected with your true inner self. In fact, some professionals believe that denying or ignoring the negative aspects of your personality (which is sometimes referred to as “shadow repression”) can be dangerous because it may increase trigger anxiety or depression, and/or lead to maladaptive self-soothing behaviors such as drug or alcohol misuse.
That said, shadow work is not something that should be taken lightly. As previously mentioned, it’s recommended that you seek the guidance of a mental health professional to help you walk through the process with adequate support. This is especially true if you already struggle with mental health or substance use disorders. And if you are going through a particularly tough time in your life, such as a breakup, a divorce, or grieving the death of a loved one, it may be best to hold off on trying shadow work until you are in a less vulnerable emotional state.
Shadow Work Prompt Samples
One of the easiest ways to get started with shadow work (and gain a better understanding of the types of behaviors and issues you’ll be exploring within yourself as part of the process), is to work with shadow work prompts.
This practice, which is sometimes referred to as shadow journaling, involves answering a series of questions designed to serve as starting points for self-exploration. In addition to providing you with a general guide, shadow journaling can help you get into the habit of doing this type of work on a regular basis, which can help make the process feel less overwhelming.
For example, you can dedicate 10 to 15 minutes a day to answering a couple of questions on the list. This will keep your practice consistent while also preventing you from obsessing over them or neglecting other important areas of your life.
We recommend using a diary or notebook that’s completely dedicated to your shadow work practice. This will help keep you organized and allow you to easily look back at your answers as you move forward in the process. The journal can be as ornate or plain as you like—the trick is to use something that you’ll want to write in each day.
To help you get started, here are some shadow work prompt suggestions. These questions are designed to get you thinking about aspects of your personality and areas of your life that you may not typically take into consideration.
- What are some of the goals you wish to achieve by doing shadow work?
- Have you ever tried self-improvement exercises such as therapy? What was the result?
- When you’re angry, how do you typically react? Do you lash out at people or tend to bottle your feelings up inside?
- Has your reaction to anger always been this way, or do you remember a time when handled the emotion differently?
- Do you have memories of feeling angry during your childhood? What were the reasons for your anger?
- Did your parents or caregivers often express anger toward you when you were growing up? How did it make you feel?
- Are there traits in your parents or caregivers that you now see in yourself, negative or otherwise? When did you begin to notice these traits in yourself?
- Who did you look up to the most when you were growing up? What traits about them did you admire?
- What are the worst traits you believe a person can have? Can you recall a time when you’ve demonstrated these traits?
- Write about a time you felt betrayed by someone you trusted. What feelings did the experience trigger in you?
- What do you wish you could change about yourself? Do you believe there are steps you can take to do so?
- Are there positive traits about yourself that you think other people frequently overlook? If so, what are they and why do you think people don’t easily recognize them?
- Describe one of your most upsetting childhood memories. Include details about who was there, how they played a part in the situation, and how it made you feel.
- Write down the beliefs and values your parents or caregivers tried to uphold as you were growing up. Do you still share these beliefs and values?
- Do you find it difficult to ask for help? Do you believe asking for help is an indication of strength or a sign of weakness?
- What are some traits about yourself that you like the least? How do these traits most frequently present themselves in your daily life?
- What are some traits about yourself that you like the most? How do they most frequently present themselves in your daily life?
- Do you find it easy to forgive people or do you tend to hold grudges?
- Are there people in your life you haven’t forgiven for hurting you? List who they are, what they did, and how you currently feel about them.
- Have you ever broken a promise to someone or otherwise let them down? How did it make you feel?
- Have you ever broken a promise to yourself? How did it make you feel?
- Do you find it difficult or easy to lie? How important is honesty to you in relationships?
- What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told? Do you believe you were justified in telling this lie?
- Do you believe self-care is important? What are some of the ways in which you practice self-care?
- Are there any questions you had as a child that you never got the answer to? Do you have the answers now?