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 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 unskilful 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 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 and 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 judged behaviours create a shadow within you (Milton, 2012). Once you find the answers to these questions, they will lead you to see the shadow aspects of yourself. Sometimes, a qualified and experienced therapist needs to support this work.
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. 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 makes 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 from working through and integrating shadow.
Observe without judgment
One of the biggest missteps 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 reject it all over again, 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.
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I’m 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 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 and accept our shadow self, the more embodied we are as conscious beings, with more agency over self and life. It also helps us see the shadow’s effect on others when it impacts us – hurt people hurt people. While it doesn’t excuse poor behaviour in ourselves or others, it contextualises and helps us encounter it 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, leading to a closer sense of wholeness and mastery. This pattern appears in Buddhist texts from the 12th century, countless other parables from cultures and countries worldwide (Stein, 2014), and Jung’s Red Book. Individuation is a life’s internal work, a quest to understand oneself honestly, with less delusion about the external façade.