I want to talk about shadow and shadow work today. This topic is something that I keep bringing up in the last couple of weeks, maybe the last couple of months. And it is a concept that has gotten a lot of popularity, including viral attention recently. Furthermore, most people I come across in the general population need help understanding what it is.

What is Shadow Work?

Carl Jung originally formulated the theoretical construct of the psychological shadow. However, popular psychology has divorced the concept of “shadow work” from its original context.

Misconceptions About Shadowgirl in mirror frowning, with text "shadow work is not the parts of yourself you don't like."

The common usage presented in social media or when I have friends or clients that use it is that shadow is something that you don’t like about yourself. It may be a bad habit. It may be negative self-talk, something that you consider impermissible or not acceptable by the general population, or something that you hide or are ashamed of.

Defining the Shadow

That is not what shadow is. So when Jung started using this term, what he was saying was that if consciousness is light, the things that you can see, the things that you’re aware of, then the things that fall outside of the light and are in the dark are, they’ve fallen in shadow.

James Hollis in his book, the Middle Passage, shares the following about the shadow:

One aspect of the middle passage is a radical alteration to the relationship to our persona.  Since much of the first half of life is involves the construction and maintenance of the persona, we often neglect our inner reality.  Enter the shadow which represents everything that has been repressed or gone unrecognized. The shadow contains all that is vital yet problematic.  Anger and sexuality to be sure, but also joy, spontaneity, and untapped creative fires.

How Does One Become Aware of Their Shadow?

So, it’s the things that you are not consciously aware of. I talk to myself if I know I have this terrible habit, whether it be a negative way—feelings of guilt, a bad habit. If I’m aware of it, it’s not the shadow.

So how did Carl Jung become aware of these shadow aspects if they weren’t consciously knowable?

Unconscious Patterns and Projection

They aren’t usually consciously aware of the person that has them. Still, there are these kinds of pitfalls or stumbling blocks or something triggering. And usually, the people in your life know you do it.

It’s just you aren’t aware of it, for example, if I act emotionally when something in the environment triggers me or if I always feel like somebody is out to get me. It may be one person I’m thinking about in one situation, but it’s another person in another. This repetition of the behavior pattern shows that I’m projecting on that person something I can’t see in myself. How am I out to get myself in the way that I think it is the other person? That would be an example of shadow, where there’s this kind of paranoia because a part of me is out to get me that wants to be able to fight against something outside of my ego, outside of my frame of reference.

How Do I Become Aware of My Shadow?

Other than asking your family and friends, how do you become aware of these issues?

In general, when people start to ask those kinds of questions of their families and friends, it turns into arguments. “What do you mean that maniac politician has aspects that are a part of me? He’s evil!” It’s the part of yourself that you are very sensitive about and don’t want to look at. It’s just not the way you see it consciously.

Yeah, I’m not a barrel of monkeys at parties.

Your ego consciousness isn’t comfortable with it. It feels very foreign and alien. People immediately get defensive when you go on this type of thinking.

So, a person will start to feel like they’re being attacked because their ego feels attacked by an unconscious part of them. Your consciousness feels assaulted because it’s part that the ego has shoved out of consciousness.

So, for the ego to be able to protect itself and say, no, that’s not me. This situation arises in dreams, where the ego has a particular orientation to what’s happening. And the rest of the dream is trying to say something else. And the ego is at odds with it. It’s like responding in a stressed-out way to protect itself, but it contrasts with the dream because it brings up the unconscious aspects.

That is outside of the ego consciousness.

Dream Analysis and Shadow Work

Carl Jung designed the theoretical concept of the shadow as something patients work through in psychotherapy with a Jungian analyst. It is so complicated that it has to be something other people see in you that you’re defensive about if they bring it up.

But it can also come up in the context of therapy and dream analysis. That would lead me to think that shadow work is not something people should be tackling as individuals without the aid of a therapist. I would agree with that. I’ve done most of my helpful shadow work with the assistance of an analyst’s perspective. After all, they’re able to see it from a larger standpoint because they’re outside of my ego consciousness and being informed by the dreams.

These also continue to give us a broader context than the ego consciousness. There’s something about the therapeutic relationship where there’s an agreement that the therapist will bring things to broaden consciousness. A Jungian analyst proceeds very securely and slowly so that people can wrestle with difficult things rather than feel like this alien entity is attacking their ego consciousness. It will feel overwhelming and like it’s swallowing you whole if you try to do something like that on your own. Think of a little tiny raft out to sea.

A lot of times when we have things like trauma histories and negative things that happened in our childhood. Our ego is trying not to deal with that. So, suppose you’re seeing a pattern that keeps coming up in your life repeatedly. That’s related to trying to work out this unconscious aspect by projecting it onto others and the collective world.

So, going through that in therapy, you can start seeing what that pattern is and broadening that perspective.

The Dangers of DIY Shadow Work

There is a current trend of people attempting to do shadow work via self-help books and the guidance of influencers who don’t have actual master’s level mental health degrees. It’s terrifying. And what we found from how some people are responding to this is they’re opening up material that they don’t have the support they need to process it. That’s why so much of therapist training focuses on trauma-informed care!

The Importance of Doing Shadow Work in Therapy

One of the main things we do in-depth therapy is look at the symbolism in the dream. That is unraveling and unfolding. We’re also looking at how much the client is consciously aware of it or not, as well as how the ego in the dream responds to things the client can handle.

The Trauma-Informed Safe Pace

At any given time, we’re constantly assessing the ego strength of the client, the resiliency of the client, how stressed the client is to be able to adjust how much support they get, how much we are challenging the client so that the client doesn’t become completely overwhelmed, or have something that is potentially very dangerous to a person.

The Potential Dangers of Shadow Work on Your Own

You could open Pandora’s box, need more support, and make your condition worse. Absolutely. Especially when there are aspects in there that you weren’t aware of. A good example is when people said, Oh, well, my childhood wasn’t that bad. I was mostly happy. And then you realize that some of the patterns you’re playing out in your current relationships are actually because of.

Doing Inner Child Work with Shadow Work and Dream Analysis

Negative, unspoken rules in your family or weird family dynamics between your parents with each other or your parents with you are influencing this. Still, you have yet to see it directly. You don’t realize how traumatic it actually was and how much influence it’s having on your life now, so if you’re not ready for that, it can be not just an existential crisis but, you know, the concept of having a nervous breakdown over it.

So, it’s not the kind of thing that should be done outside of a therapeutic context. Jung was experimenting on himself to some extent because there was no Jung to analyze Jung. And from that, he came up with the quote that. “thinking is hard. And that’s why most people judge.”

He had an incredibly great mind and could do things at his peril that most of us can’t do, and that’s why Jung intended for individuals to do shadow work in the safer environment of psychotherapy.  Therapy done too quickly, or infrequently or therapy done from a manual can be harmful.  Shadow work can be incredibly fruitful, done with a skilled Jungian.

Ready to Do some Serious Shadow Work?

You can learn more about how depth therapy works on my depth page.  Ready to do some shadow work and shine some light on those uncomfortable dreams or dark places within yourself?  Reach out for a consultation.