Introduction to Shadow Work

by Micaela Lydon 

Hello! Welcome to the wild world of shadow work. In this document, I attempted to bring together a diverse group of voices to provide an introduction to this powerful method of healing. I feel very passionate about sharing shadow work because it has helped my growth immensely. I feel freer than I have in a long time, and I would love nothing more than for this feeling to reverberate. I also share because, not only did I come across a lot of great resources, I came up against plenty of roadblocks and examples of how not to do things, which is equally valuable! You’ll find bulleted references to books, podcasts, articles, and YouTube videos at the end of each section. As you continue delving into shadow work, I encourage you to explore varying philosophies and practices to figure out what resonates with you. Strong emotional reactions are a good indicator of information that’s worth investigating further. You can skip around or read from beginning to end. Above all, listen to your gut. You are the expert of your own life, and your intuition is your greatest tool.

I love diving into the nitty-gritty of internal work because, truly, healing yourself helps the world! As you heal, you show up in your interpersonal relationships in increasingly healthy ways – reclaiming wholeness, authenticity, and trust. Jack E. Othon, creator of the blog Radically Enlightened, points out the ripple effect this causes: “When two people connect, they form a relationship. A group of relationships forms a community, and the place where communities intersect is what we come to know as society.” We can shift the world from the ground up with small actions every day. Thanks for showing up for yourself and embarking on this journey. The world needs you!

I’m still learning about shadow work, and I welcome any feedback so that I can continue to evolve my approach. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns as you read this, or want to add resources to the list, feel free to reach out. I’d also love to hear about your personal experiences with shadow work or making shadow boxes! You can connect with me on IG @cosmicaela or via email at connect@cosmicaela.com. If this information helps you on your journey, I encourage you to share it. 

I put my whole heart into this, and I hope it serves you well. 

Table of Contents: 

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER

WHAT IS THE SHADOW?

WHAT IS SHADOW WORK?

HOW TO BECOME AWARE OF THE SHADOW

WHY DO SHADOW WORK?

SHADOW WORK EXERCISES

IDEAS FOR SELF-CARE PRACTICES

MY STORY

USA National Emergency Helplines

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER

*I’m not a medical professional – all resources and information shared as a friend. This work does not take the place of licensed counseling/therapy. Especially if you suffer from mental or physical illness, you may want to consider seeking professional help.

Shadow work can be tough. Internal work can trigger uncomfortable feelings. While there are creative and loving ways to approach it, it is a process of recognizing the hidden parts of ourselves, and sometimes we shove that stuff down deep! We may not like everything we see. We must face the ways we have been hurt and also the ways we have hurt others. For many people, past traumas will surface in these murky depths, so it’s important to be prepared with healthy coping strategies. Healing takes time, and it requires practicing patience and compassion with yourself. I highly suggest cultivating self-love and self-care in tandem. Having a foundation of practices that nourish you will provide balance as you do this deep internal work. I’ve included a list of self-care ideas to help inspire! 

Remember to take breaks. Too much self-reflection can become obsessive, especially when paired with self-criticism. Come up for air. Give yourself permission to take things a little less seriously. Shake it out, dance, or make funny faces in the mirror. Get out of your own head sometimes. Another great way to balance self-help is with service to others. Voluteering is a wonderful way to get perspective. Shadow work isn’t a quest for perfection, nor is it a means of punishing ourselves. This is an act of radical self love. It can release waves of understanding and relief. By bringing awareness to our rejected parts, we can stand in our full power, more vast than we had ever imagined! But like Gloria Steinem says, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off!”

Remember that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! I encourage you to maintain connections with friends, family, and partners, especially if you tend to isolate during periods of stress. Shadow work doesn’t have to be a solo journey. In fact, much of the healing takes place through our connections with others. When I embarked on my shadow work journey this year, I found myself hitting a few low points, and it was through connecting with loved ones that I was able to see light peeking through the cave I felt stuck in. There’s zero shame in seeking professional help. I myself have benefitted from therapy, and suggest it to anyone who is interested. If you feel for any reason that you are in a hopeless place, you can also call any of the hotlines included at the bottom of this document. Trained professionals will answer your call and lend an ear or offer further assistance. They can even connect you with free and low-income services in your area. The Crisis Center of Tampa (crisiscenter.com) and the Suncoast Center of St. Pete (suncoastcenter.org) both offer free and low-cost trauma counseling.

This whole process is an adventure in learning to know thyself, and that takes a lifetime! There’s no need to rush it. As healer Naomi Love said, “You don’t reach the end of your life healed. It’s an ongoing process.” Wishing you lots of love on your journey! 

WHAT IS THE SHADOW?

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” -Carl Jung 

Light, like that of the Sun, has been used by cultures throughout the world to describe consciousness (awareness). Thusly, shadow is formed whenever something blocks this light. Because we humans are imperfect organisms, experiencing the world through the filters of our bodily senses and mental perceptions, there are understandable limits on our capacity to experience the universe in its entirety. The shadow is simply the parts we aren’t aware of. The shadow is not bad, in the same way that darkness is not bad. Without darkness, we wouldn’t see the stars. Night is the time for nocturnal animals to thrive and us humans to begin the detoxifying process of sleep. Darkness is powerful and restorative, as is the shadow. While light certainly brings illumination, it is the shadows that create form. The reason our eyes can make sense of the world is because shadows build depth and shape. Light without shadow would be blindingly bright, empty space. Despite the absolute necessity of darkness, there is a problematic theme through history of equating light to goodness and seeing darkness as bad. It is not only polarized thinking, it also breeds dangerous racism and colorism when this negative association is applied to skin tone. So, in embarking on shadow work, its important to note that this is simply a matter of the seen and unseen, not good and bad. Light is very important, but without shadow we have an incomplete picture of ourselves. The shadow is a powerful and valuable part of our growth and development. The task of shadow work is to integrate our darkness and restore a natural state of wholeness.

Carl Jung (1875-1961), a Swiss psychiatrist, is one of the most famous pioneers of shadow work. He was a unique figure in modern psychology for bridging the worlds of spirituality and science. He recognized the human psyche as having unconscious and conscious aspects. Similarly, the ancient Huna teachings of Hawaii describe three selves- the conscious, the unconscious, and the higher self. Jung coined the term “shadow” to describe an aspect of the unconscious mind that houses the parts of ourselves we hide, repress, or deny. It includes the things we do not like about ourselves or don’t want to face. This is in contrast to the ego, which resides in the conscious mind and encapsulates what we know as our personality, which he called the “persona” (ego is not inherently negative either, when in balance). Some examples of the shadow are: jealousy, aggression, greed, selfishness, insecurity, power hunger, unworthiness, and addiction. Obviously, that’s a lot of tough stuff to delve into, but there’s also a lot of untapped potential in our shadow. When we face and integrate what we have rejected, we can tap into many assets as well. As Jung remarked, “The shadow is ninety percent gold.” We can find our inner motivation, confidence, and creativity in the shadow as well. Not everything we find will be a hidden gem, as there are genuinely unhealthy behaviors one may face. But in any case, the process of shadow work will provide us with a clearer, more honest, and more whole picture of ourselves. 

Jung also identified a collective shadow, deriving from the collective unconscious, a part of the psyche he believed to be inherited genetically. The collective unconscious is thought to hold the vast array of emotions, symbols, and experiences shared by all humankind. It is also believed to connect us to the animal instincts, fears, and survival impulses of our ancient ancestors, which may provide the raw material for the shadow. There are many ancient world views that share a belief in collective consciousness. Scientific research in the last century has begun to explore this phenomenon. There are exciting findings in biology which point to the incredible storage capacity and cellular intelligence of DNA, the genetic code found within all organisms on Earth. Study of the quantum world, the smallest particles of nature, seems to illustrate that the more we learn about the universe, the less we truly know for certain! I find this exciting, because it offers a beautiful reminder of the mystery of existence. Exploring our conscious and unconscious mind can be daunting, but we can take comfort in the fact that there’s no “right” way to do it. We don’t need to stress to come up with all the answers or try to figure ourselves out completely. Some things we will never fully understand, and that’s okay.

Jung was certainly a trailblazer in providing a framework for understanding the shadow in the modern age, and his vocabulary is used here, but he is not its inventor. This type of work has been practiced by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The shadow is considered primordial and innate to humanity. Ancient peoples embodied the shadow through figures such as the Hindu Kali, the Sumerian Lilith, and Greece’s Hectate. These Goddesses were considered both powerfully creative and destructive, which mirrors the nature of the shadow. Unaware of our hidden aspects, there is much potential for harm to be played out in our unconscious patterns of behavior. When made conscious, though, our shadow aspects may become integrated, resulting in restored empowerment and creativity. The Navajo people considered the shadow self to be a sacred part of natural wholeness, and not something that needed remediation.

Our own personal shadow is influenced by our conditioning (learning). We have each been influenced by our family, friends, and community, and on a larger scale by our society, belief systems, and institutions. As children we were taught, directly or indirectly, what was acceptable and unacceptable. For most of us, especially in the Western world, we are inundated with judgements on good and bad, right and wrong. Our natural impulses have been molded by the expectations placed on us. We learned the “appropriate” expressions and roles for everything from gender and sexuality to race and religion. We were given examples on how to express (or repress) our emotions. Beliefs regarding birth, death, sickness, and health influenced our development as well. All of the distinctions that we learned reinforced how we needed to behave in order to receive love, feel safe, and be accepted. As a coping mechanism, we tended to embrace the parts of ourselves deemed acceptable, and reject the parts deemed unacceptable. The parts we embrace contribute to the persona that we show the world. The rejected parts became part of our shadow. The shadow encompasses all of the hidden and repressed aspects of ourselves. Because our childhood conditioning helped mold our personality, it often continues to affect us in the present day. If we don’t pay attention to our shadow, we may find ourselves being driven by our unconscious influences.

As I mentioned, the shadow is not inherently negative. Having a shadow comes with the territory of being human. We are sensory beings, influenced by a full spectrum of universal emotions and impulses, none of which are harmful when in balance. But when we perceive certain aspects as negative, they get shoved down and shadowed from view. And like Jung said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” It’s important to recognize that all emotions, even anger and envy, can be expressed and channeled in healthy ways. Unhealthy behavior arises when we try to judge and repress our natural feelings, causing stagnation or blockages. Rather than judging the shadow in terms of good and bad or right and wrong, it may be helpful to consider a spectrum of healthy and unhealthy or processed and unprocessed. Our shadow may contain some of our biggest challenges, but it also holds a resovoir of potential. For example, in a family that doesn’t value assertiveness, a strong-willed child may become passive and people-pleasing because they think assertiveness is undesirable. Beneath the surface, they may be stewing in resentment and suppressed anger due to not being able to healthily express themselves. When they face their shadow, integrating their natural assertiveness, this may unlock increased confidence, balance, and newfound leadership ability. Another example to consider is a tendency for perfectionism. On the unbalanced side, it negatively affects self-worth and manifests in unrealistic expectations of self and others. But when harnessed healthily, it can hugely benefit creative persuits, resulting in stunning craftsmanship and detail-oriented technique. There is a balance to this work. On the one hand, we must take responsibility for and rectify our unhealthy patterns, and learn to channel the shadow in healthy ways. On the other hand, we must recognize our hidden “gold” and work to bring it to light. By integrating our shadow into our character, we can access our full potential. 

Resources:

WHAT IS SHADOW WORK?

“Shadow work is the path of the heart warrior.” -Carl Jung

Shadow work is the process of making the unconscious conscious. It is the journey of understanding the whole self, not just who we try to show the world. Farah Siddiq, an Afghan-American healer, put it beautifully, “The best way to describe shadow work is that it is a process of letting go of who you were to become who you actually are.” This work involves facing the repressed, hidden, and denied parts of ourselves. It’s like shining a flashlight into a dark cave, illuminating a vast and intricate network of caverns. We may find weaknesses, but we will also find strengths. No matter your background, we can all benefit from shadow work. We have all denied parts of ourselves in order to fit in. This act of severing our wholeness creates a schism that is in need of mending. Remember, the shadow will always remain a part of the self, as it is a natural aspect of being human. Shadow work is not an attempt to eradicate the shadow, but rather, it’s a process of acknowledging and integrating it. The ultimate goal of shadow work is to express our shadow in healthy and balanced ways.

Shadow work involves getting to know yourself. Becoming more aware is the first, and most important, step. You do this by noticing your thoughts, behaviors, impulses, and emotions without judgement. To observe without judgement is easier said than done, since we are often our biggest critic, but it is necessary in order to see things as they really are. You can then begin to review your actions and patterns of behavior with honesty. By taking responsibility for your actions, and understanding the part you have played every step of the way, you gain self-actualization. Shadow work does not mean excusing or forgetting the ways you have been hurt, and it doesn’t mean that trauma or injustice is your fault. It simply means that you see how the world has affected you, and begin to recognize any unhealthy behaviors that you may have adopted along the way in order to survive. We have all been undoubtedly influenced by things that are out of our control, but we have the power to reclaim a healthy mindset and behavior. By facing our fears and insecurities, they hold less power over us. We can break free from our past cycles, release the heavy weight of blame and resentment, and start the process of forging conscious, healthy patterns. 

You must face your darkness as well as your light. That is why shadow work is so important – it creates balance. If you avoid confronting discomfort, you’ll miss out on a lot of life’s powerful lessons. But in a Western culture that’s obsessed with happiness and ease, it’s easy to fall into the trap of avoiding what we fear. “Good vibes only” can become an excuse to invalidate uncomfortable emotions. Labeling people as “toxic” may be used to absolve our own behavior and avoid the complexities of conflict resolution. The impulse to “cancel” someone might deny their ability to learn and change. (Severing contact or instituting strong boundaries is certainly appropriate and necessary in some cases, I’m simply making the point that there are instances that we might miss out on growth by being too quick to judge or dismiss). Focusing on the positives is a wonderful tool, unless it’s being used to avoid uncomfortable truths. Sometimes, it is the attempt to be perceived as a “good” person that keeps us from seeing our shadow. If we overlook our hidden motives, deny the ways our own behavior contributes to conflict, or skip right to acceptance instead of processing grief, the issues don’t magically go away. It simply builds up below the surface. It is important to face discomfort, and confront what we are avoiding, in order to get to the root. As much as we wish things were smooth all the time, discomfort and challenges are inevitable in life. What we can control is our reaction, and that’s empowering! It’s possible to begin to cultivate an inner balance that is not dictated by the people, places, and situations around us. 

Focusing on your shadow will not create more shadow. While it may seem like our fears and insecurities are amplified when beginning our shadow work journey, this is merely a process of becoming conscious of what was already present. It can be a struggle to bridge the contradictions between who we think we are versus who we actually are. Being human is complex! Be patient with yourself. Remember that you are not any better or worse than anyone else. Flaws and contradictions are normal. No human is perfect, and that’s not the goal of doing this work. I encourage taking breaks. Balance work with rest and play. Pay attention to your triggers and what your body is telling you. Trust yourself, and ask for help when you need it. You’re not alone. If you do have a lot of trauma or rejected parts of yourself to process, consider seeking professional assistance. Tapping into repressed memories can bring up a lot of emotions.

This brings us to collective shadow work. Collective shadow work involves facing the aspects of humanity that are hidden, which means recognizing our atrocities and well as our potentials. We must acknowledge the fearful, destructive, and dominating impulses that contribute to racism, war, oppression, and poisoning of the planet. We can’t ignore or deny the inequalities and injustices of the world. Big societal problems are not somewhere out there far away, they are the combined actions of many individuals. We can begin this work by seeing oursleves as a part of the larger world, rather than just an outside or isolated observer. We can start to dissect our inner prejudices and practices of othering. We can examine the subtle hierarchies and “us vs. them” dynamics in our own psyche and social groups. We’ll notice the ways our conditioning contributes to and is a product of the collective. It’s okay to be uncomfortable through this process. Getting out of our comfort zone allows us to recognize our blind spots and grow. We all represent a microcosm, so it is our job to create the world we want by BEING the world we want. In nature, micro-ecosystems like trees show us that a thriving community relies upon interdependent diversity. We can emulate this by engaging in dialogue and mutual aid with people of different cultural backgrounds, races, ages, abilities, etc. Another great way to begin tapping into the collective shadow is by learning about your family lineage, allowing you to see the larger generational patterns of behavior that may influence your conditioning. Studying the cycles of global history is a great tool as well, as events always seems to repeatedly spiral. History shows us the might of people united in common purpose, such as the US civil rights movement. The outpouring of cooperation and support seen in commmunities affected by natural disasters reminds us of the human impulse to help. And the universality of art, dance, and music shows us humanity’s capacity for creativity. Humankind holds immense power. Perhaps through facing and integrating our collective shadow, and beginning to heal societal wounds, we can come together to channel this power in creative, rather than destructive, ways. 

Resources:

HOW TO BECOME AWARE OF THE SHADOW

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” -Carl Jung 

Simply noticing ourselves is enough when beginning shadow work. It’s important to get curious without judgement. You don’t have to try to figure yourself out right away. Deep emotions will take time and compassion to feel, let alone integrate. So start by simply becoming more observant. Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, and habits. No need to analyze immediately, just get to know yourself. Try asking simple questions like “What do I need right now?” Caring for yourself is an important part of this process, as it will help you maintain balance. Remember what you’re grateful for, and remind yourself along the way. 

Because our shadow encompasses the aspects of ourselves that we try to hide, it may be hard to see it directly. We can begin to get clues about our shadow through a process of projection. We tend to project our repressed qualities onto the world around us. We project onto friends, family, partners, and even strangers. This applies to anything really, so it could also be an object, idea, or institution (a certain style of music or art, for instance). When we have a strong emotional reaction to someone, this is usually an indication that we are witnessing a part of oursleves that we may not be consciously aware of. Of course, we react to the world around us every day, so it’s specifically the deep or intense reactions to look out for. This might include hatred, resentment, fawning, idolization or demonization. Keep in mind, our projections are not always an identical mirror, and the reflections aren’t always literal. Having a strong reaction to a murderer doesn’t make you a would-be killer. Being upset by abuse does not mean you’re an abuser. It’s quite normal to react to extreme examples of human behavior. It may simply be bringing up emotions that you’d rather not face, such as shame, anger, or fear. Everyone acts out their shadow to differing degrees and in different ways. This is why it’s important to use discernment, and delve further into the root causes of our reactions. Sometimes it’s simple, and the loud person we judge is revealing how we repress our vocal expression. Or our bossy coworker hints at our own controlling tendencies. Other times, our reactions may not be so easy to decode. It will take time to unpack these things, and your observations may change and evolve throughout the process. For the sake of keeping your sanity, don’t expect yourself to produce some sort of life-altering epiphany every time you notice a trigger. Trying to pry at your psyche with a pick-axe every day isn’t sustainable (believe me, I’ve tried). Not every moment needs to be taken so seriously. Sometimes reactions are simply an indicator of your present state. For instance, if you feel annoyed at the check-out line, it may not be helpful to dredge up and dissect every moment of your past while trying to pay for your groceries. It may merely be an opportunity to ask yourself what in that moment you need in order to feel more grounded. Cue self-care! Balancing self-critique and self-acceptance is important. When you uncover parts of yourself that you don’t like, remind yourself of what you’re grateful for. And remember that no one is perfect.  

When we find ourselves reacting to others, it’s important to dig in and ask questions. Could it reflect back to us something we’ve disowned in ourselves? Could it be a mirror of our least favorite qualities? Or might it show us our hidden talents? Judgement is a good indicator that your shadow is being triggered. Perhaps being repulsed by rich and famous celebrities reveals fears around success and stability. Judging someone who acts with self-assured confidence might expose a conditioned belief that acting with authority is arrogant. Or, it may uncover a lack of faith in oneself. Hating someone who is always keeping up with the Jones’ may reveal a similar desire to fit in with the crowd. By paying attention to our strong emotional reactions, we begin to piece together our shadow. Who do you hate? What comments stick with you? Who annoys and triggers you? Pay attention to what embarrasses you, or what you avoid. And on the other end of the spectrum: Who do you love? Who do you admire? Who are you obsessed with or envious of? These associations can point to the hidden abilities within our shadow. Idolizing people who courageously speak their truth may indicate a latent ability to do the same, blocked only by an unconscious belief that your perspective has no value. Being jealous of someone who travels may expose your inner adventurer. Envy of a talented musician may be calling you to pick up an instrument yourself. We may look up to our heroes as somehow better than ourselves, but the qualities we admire outside of us are often within us too. If your hero has strong self-discipline, it might reveal that you have the same determination hidden beneath a fear of success. The attributes we chase after may be an unconscious seeking of those very parts within ourselves. If we think we aren’t adequate, we may look to supplement that feeling outside ourselves. But our true contentment will only be found within. Shadow work may seem scary because it involves taking a dive into unknown territory, but it may uncover peace and power you didn’t even realize you possessed!

If it feels safe, you may wish to explore from the point of view of someone you have a strong reaction to. You could try acting out a dialogue with them in order to ask them questions about their behavior. Were they acting out of fear? Were they possibly hurt or ignorant? There is a lot of truth to the old adage, “Hurt people hurt people.” This does not excuse unhealthy behavior, this is simply a process of understanding another perspective. Our projections are not an exact science. Shame and agression, for example, are often at the root of unhealthy behavior, but the spectrum of how these behaviors manifest in different people is vast. Simply dig into why you are reacting. What feelings are coming up for you? It may be uncomfortable to confront these things, so go at your own pace. This is a lifelong process. Carl Jung calls shadow work “the path of the heart warrior” for good reason. Thank yourself for being willing to go on this brave journey of healing. In the process of uncovering the more unsavory parts of our psyche, it is extremely helpful to remember that you have wonderful qualities too. Be gentle with yourself. We all have strengths and weaknesses. 

Caveat: Triggers may arise from traumatic experiences, so proceed with care and explore what feels safe. For those who have experienced trauma, there is usually a whole lot of blame and anger at oneself at the root. Remember that whatever happened to you was not your fault. Be patient and kind with yourself. You’re not alone. 

Becoming aware of our inner child can assist us in uncovering our shadow. Our inner child is the culmination of our childhood experiences, which shaped our personality. Inner child work involves looking back at the way we experienced the world and oursleves while we were growing up. By viewing our past through the eyes of the child-self who experienced it, we can begin to notice the origins of our shadow. We can see all the ways our family, friends, and society affected our development. We begin to retrace our steps back to the moments we repressed or denied parts of oursleves in order to fit into the world. The parts of ourselves we rejected as children may be thought of as a “wounded” inner child. We can see the ways this inner child still affects our thoughts and actions now. Some of the behaviors we adopted as children may manifest in unhealthy ways, but by remembering the innocence of the child within the adult, we can be reminded to approach ourselves and others with compassion. This is simply another way of understanding the shadow self. The added benefit of inner child work is that we are also reminded of our early joys and interests. By acknowledging and nurturing our inner child, we may be reconnected to our natural playfulness, curiosity, and creativity. The uncensored, wild, and expressive nature of the child is often tamed by polite society. Reconnecting to this raw, authentic way of being may be the key to creating a more liberated world. For some people, inner child work can be heavy, because it may mean revisiting painful memories. Seek the help of someone who can guide you through the process if you feel you need it. 

As we begin to unpack our conditioning, we can also address the ways we hurt, abandoned, or neglected ourselves along the way. Often, the wounds we inflict upon ourselves are the deepest. We can look to patterns that have repeated throughout our lives and in our relationships. Recurring themes are important to explore. We will begin to see ourselves from a bird’s eye view. Archetypes, such as those described by Jung or those found in the Tarot, are another way to understand our internal themes. Jung believed that the archetypes arose from the collective unconscious and represented universal, innate models of human behavior. The archetypes have been challenged by some psychologists as over-simplified or stereotypical, so above all, it’s important to remember that these are simply tools. The psyche is far too profound to be summed up by any one thinker or school of thought. I think that with discernment, one can use any symbol as tools of understanding. Doing shadow work doesn’t require any knowledge of psychology. It simply requires observation and a bit of courage. You are the premier expert on your life. 

On the path of shadow work, as with any healing path, it is important to remember that many of the theraputic tools we have access to were birthed by indigenous peoples, black people, and people of color. Many indigenous practices were forbidden or violently wiped out by imperialistic governments (including the USA), and are in the process of being reclaimed. It’s vital to center marginalized voices without disrespecting their sacred rituals. I’m not saying that we are limited to only the modalities that match our ancestry, because most healing practices are open to all! But there are certain closed practices, items, and rituals that are meant specifically for descendants of certain cultures. We must respect the history, lineage, and sacredness of spiritual practices. By staying humble and educating ourselves on the origins of our practices, we will continue to learn and grow. Gratitude and reciprocity are key. 

Resources:

WHY DO SHADOW WORK?

Here’s a list of potential outcomes of doing shadow work. The capacity for growth is immense when we become more aware of ourselves. As we know, growth takes time, so take baby steps. This is the journey of a lifetime. When things get tough, remind yourself why you’re doing internal work. By stepping into your wholeness, you can begin to see how truly powerful and expansive you are! 

-Discover hidden capacities and untapped potentials. Our greatest strengths may lie in our perceived weaknesses. For example, envy indicates the qualities we admire in others, which we can channel into the inspiration that fuels our development. 

  • Podcast: Happier With Gretchen Rubin “The Power of Envy” https://bit.ly/Powerofenvy

-Healthier relationships. When we operate from a place of self-awareness, we act less reactively and harmfully, resulting in more authenticity and smoothness in our relationships. 

-Empowerment. By facing our darkness with radical self-love, we can harness the power of our true potential. We are vast enough to contain all aspects of ourselves.

-Get out of our own way. We can become aware of the ways we engage in self-doubt and self-sabotage, freeing up space to maneuver and grow. 

-Enhanced creativity. When we are free to express ourselves without fear, the real magic happens! By releasing our limits and unworthiness, we are opened to engaging creatively. 

-Reparent ourselves. As children, many of us were wounded by those who were supposed to protect us. Though we can’t change the past, we don’t have to stay there. Showing love to the rejected parts of ourselves gives us the opportunity to be the parent we needed and offer the compassion and love we so desperately desired. We can free the wounded inner child from the chains of the past and embrace the present moment.  

-Forgiveness. By acknowledging the ways we have been hurt, the ways we have hurt others, and the ways we have hurt ourselves through unconscious behavior, we can begin the process of forgiveness. We begin to see the role we play in our own resentments. Someone once told me that when you don’t forgive someone, you keep them in a prison in your mind, and you are stuck there in the prison too, guarding them. You don’t have to stay locked up! Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. It’s important to remember that we all make mistakes and we all have a shadow. Every single one of us has been hurt and hurt others. Knowing this allows for more compassion and empathy. It’s possible to begin to heal our patterns. 

-Learn boundaries. Getting to know yourself will illuminate what you do and don’t want to experience. You can begin making efforts to ask for what you need and set boundaries for the kind of care you want to receive. Healthy boundaries will point out those in your life who respect you, and those who don’t. Setting boundaries for yourself is a great place to start. Personal boundaries may look like eating the foods that make you feel vibrant, setting a limit on social media, or waking/sleeping at a certain hour. They’re unique to you! Boundaries aren’t punishment, and sticking to them gets easier with practice. They can build a sense of value and pride as you learn to stand up for yourself. 

-Authenticity. When we see and know ourself, we show up authentically. Masks off! It’s vulnerable, but that’s what makes it so raw and beautiful. So human. When we live authentically, we release the weight of expectations. We are no longer trying to be who our parents, bosses, families, or friends want us to be. We are free to live our own dreams. 

-Healing. Healing is a continual journey. When you think of an  emotional wound in the same way as a physical wound, you wouldn’t expect a deep cut to heal by ignoring it. You would clean it and care for it, lest it get infected or badly scar. We can heal ourselves by becoming aware of our wounds. It is said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Though painful, the processs of treating our wounds can allow us to mend, and release the suffering caused by unprocessed traumas and unmet expectations. 

-Wholeness and Self Worth. You are not broken or defective. You are whole and human, which is to say perfectly imperfect. By paying more attention to yourself, you begin to respond to your wants and needs more effectively. This increases self-esteem. By integrating all parts of your psyche, you reclaim wholeness.

-Freedom from limiting beliefs. Our limiting beliefs tell us we can’t, we shouldn’t try, and we’d probably fail anyway. Shadow work allows us to begin identifying where these beliefs came from and whose voice is echoing in our mind. When we begin to understand ourselves and our true power, we begin to challenge these beliefs. We begin to see a bigger picture. 

-Improved health. “The issues are in the tissues,” as my Grandad often says. Mental and emotional health are directly linked with physical health through the nervous system. 

-Process grief. In reviewing our life, we are able to face, feel, and release our grief. 

SHADOW WORK EXERCISES

Here are a few examples of shadow work exercises. Many of the resource links, especially in the “What is the shadow?” and “What is shadow work?” sections, cover more examples. You can get creative and come up with your own way of doing things too! You may even realize that you were already unknowingly doing shadow work. Tools for cultivation are everywhere, and there are lessons in each moment. Shadow work is just one tool among many on the path of healing.

Make a shadow box! This one is obviously dear to my heart. This is my personal offering to the shadow work community. I believe that by creating a 3D representation of our shadow, we bring the internal world into the external, making it easier to see and explore. I suggest using used, recycled, found, and repurposed items – even trash. Transforming discarded and under-appreciated objects into something beautiful is a great metaphor for valuing the repressed and discarded parts of ourselves. You can put your shadow box on display, perhaps even incorporating a mirror, which will encourage you to face your shadow and begin to incorporate what was once hidden from view. Alchemy was the medieval science of transforming shit into gold, so harness this power of transformation, and find the gold hidden within your shadow! All you need is a box, glue, and your display items. You can use a cigar box, shoe box, shallow drawer, deep picture frame, or any container at least an inch deep. Hot glue works best due to the fast dry time, and I also love fast-grab tacky glue for smaller pieces. Slower-drying glues like Elmer’s glue will work, you’ll just need to keep the project horizontal until it dries completely. For inside the box, feel free to get creative! You can paint or stain the inside if you’d like. Here’s some examples of materials: dead flowers/bugs, heirlooms & trinkets, photos, small household items & electronics, fabrics/fibers, coins, craft supplies, etc. When choosing items from nature, I like to use bits that have already fallen on the ground, making the practice super sustainable. There’s so many treasures to find when you look down! If I am collecting something living, such as a flower, I approach with an attitude of gratitude, thanking the land and offering something in return (like picking up a piece of trash). I find this ancient practice of reciprocity to be a beautiful reminder of the interconnecteednes of life. You can approach your decorating with a practice arrangement to test out colors and textures, or just start intuitively glueing things in place as you go. Notice any emotions or themes that arise. How do you feel about your creation? Why do you think you chose your items? What metaphors might they represent? These observations don’t need to be fixed facts; decoding symbolism is simply a way to gauge however you’re feeling at a particular moment. Your feelings or associations may change over time. Explore whatever comes up. There’s absolutely no “wrong” way to do it! To finish, if your box isn’t covered by glass/plexi, then you can use a can of clear acrylic coating to spray a couple coats of protective finish on the inside of the box, sealing the natural materials inside. I like to use matte spray, but gloss is an option as well. To hang, there are various picture frame hooks to choose from. I like using simple, single-screw D-rings. 

Projection/Mirroring. Notice your emotional reactions to the world around you. A good exercise to start is to think of your least favorite fictional character (from TV, books, movies, etc.) or a hated pop culture icon. Ask yourself why they bother you. This figure can give clues as to the aspects of ourselves that we reject or deny. Now think of your favorite fictional character or pop culture icon. Who you idolize can provide clues to your hidden strengths and abilities. You can then begin to explore projection/mirroring within your interpersonal relationships. Explore your views on what makes a “good” or “bad” person. You can refer to the “How to Become Aware of the Shadow” section for more info on this process.

Inner Dialogue. Create an inner dialogue with the people you have an emotional reaction to. Describe the qualities upsetting you, and ask questions. Embody their perspective if that feels safe. See if you can notice any of their emotions in yourself. 

Journaling. Keeping a record of your observations will help to track your journey. Find a safe place to process and explore your feelings in private. Take a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect on your emotional charges. Free-form, unprompted writing can also be helpful, allowing ideas and emotions to flow in whatever direction they choose, without judgement. 

Meditation/Mindfulness. Sit with yourself, in stillness if possible. Simply notice whatever arises. Become aware of the thought patterns and physical sensations without holding onto them or following them down the rabbit hole. Focus on your breath. The more you tune in to your mind/body, the more you will learn about yourself. The more mindful you become, the easier it is to notice your patterns and release them. Michael Singer refers to this process as watching the watcher. Who is it that is noticing you? Who hears the voice in your head? Tune into that. You can become mindful at any point of the day, and during any activity. You don’t need to be sitting or have any special knowledge of meditation. Being here now in the present moment, simply put, is all mindfulness entails. 

Create. Engage in the act of creation through dance, painting, poetry, music, drawing, collage, or any number of creative outlets. You can explore the shadow through any medium. Act out a monologue between your conscious and unconscious, do an interpretive dance that shows the process of discovering yourself, throw paint and look for symbols. Intuitive art made without a plan or end goal is a wellspring of information about ourselves. Creating is a vulnerable act, and involves sharing a part of ourselves. You don’t have to show anyone, this can be just for you. Notice the emotions that arise throughout the process. Do you love what you’re creating? Great, delve into that – why do you love it? Do you hate it? Great, ask yourself why. What does it trigger? You can create masks or characters that represent both the hidden shadow and the visible face you show the world. How are they different, how are they similar? You can try making a map of your body to catalogue where you feel different emotions (if you’d like to include the energetic body, the chakra system may be a helpful framework). Frida Kahlo used self-portait to express the self. Salvador Dali used highly-charged symbolism to explore the unconscious. There’s tons of examples and absolutely no rules, so explore!

Inner child work. Look at pictures of your younger self. Embrace play and revisit your favorite childhood activities, foods, and places. Hug yourself. Try speaking to your younger self with affirmations such as “I’m here. I see you. I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you.”

Dreamwork. Our shadows often show up in our dreams. Your dreams are associated with the subconscious, and operate in symbols. They may offer insights into your emotional states, and even provide lessons to ponder. It is believed that having a desire to remember your dreams can increase the likelihood of remembering them. Create this intention by putting a dream journal by your bed. Write down whatever you remember when you awake, even if its foggy or nonsensical. 

Integration. Try channeling what you find in your shadow in healthy ways. For example, if you notice anger and aggression in your shadow, try boxing, martial arts, sports, or some other physical way of expressing yourself. If you find people-pleasing within your shadow, try volunteering. If your shadow contains self-centeredness, try instituting a regiment of self-care and self-discipline. Get creative. 

Ritual. Acting out an internal process can help to ground it in the physical world. This makes abstract concepts more relatable and may strengthen your resolve to stick to your intentions. For instance, releasing an unhealthy behavior could be ritualized through cutting a thread, burning a piece of paper, submerging in water, or burying an item in the dirt. By elevating the action ceremoniously, you commit to it’s importance. 

Self Review. This stuff can be a deep dive! There’s lots of ways to approach a deep reflection of your life. You can write your biography, which can help identify patterns. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but try to include the main events that defined you. You can also list out your resentments to get an idea of your triggers. You’ll begin to notice how that pain manifests in your patterns of behavior, and see your part in the situation. I included a couple worksheets that offer differing examples of working through resentments. Forgiveness, of yourself and others, can also be a key to integrating the shadow.

Resources:

IDEAS FOR SELF-CARE PRACTICES

Here are some recommendations for self-care. There are many, many ways to care for yourself, so listen to your body/mind/spirit and follow that! Self-care isn’t all glam and bubble baths (though those are fantastic); it’s the daily process of meeting your own needs. It’s the sometimes monotonous tasks, like brushing teeth or making a budget. Or it may mean disciplining ourselves to avoid the things that harm us. Caring for yourself isn’t always easy, and it can be hard to stick to in times of stress. But those are usually the times we need it the most. Finding a simple routine that works for you can help prepare you for the low moments. You are worth care and love! Even if you don’t believe that yet, I encourage you to try showing yourself care and seeing how it feels. 

Gratitude! Gratitude is key, and studies show that feeling grateful boosts happiness and health. Notice the little joys, and remember those who love you. Simply by reading this, you have the opportunity to be grateful for your eyes and literacy. Listing the things you’re grateful for can shift your mood instantly. Some people express their gratitude through prayer to their higher power. You can express gratitude to yourself for being alive today. Thank yourself for undertaking a journey of growth, and for working to become more conscious and healthy. 

Remember to breathe! Your breath is always with you. Anxiety and stress can cause hyperventilation (fast, shallow breathing), so slowing down and deepening your breaths can greatly reduce feelings of panic. There are many breathing techniques to be found in Yogic traditions, as well as in meditation and fitness communities. Wim Hof is another interesting figure in breathwork that I admire. 

Ask for help! Call a friend, family member, partner, or helpline. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Counseling, and Emergency Help Hotlines are also available. There are MANY types of therapy.

  • Hotlines listed at the very end

Mindfulness! Allows you to slow down into the present moment and tune in to yourself. I elaborate on this in the “Shadow Work Exercises” section. 

Radical Self-Acceptance! Can you love yourself when you feel unloveable? Can you accept yourself in your wholeness, cracks and imperfections and all? In the moments you feel low, accept that you may not be where you want to be, but you’re willing to sit with yourself. Give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up. Allow yourself to be, just as you are. 

  • Book: Kimberly Simpkins “52 Ways to Love your Body”
  • Sonya Renee “Radical Self Love…” https://youtu.be/jyEq9eiIA0c

Joy! Connect to the music, imagery, and places that inspire joy in you. Imagine lifting your heart up like a cloud. I’m a big fan of looking at pictures of baby animals. 

Self-soothing & self-talk! Talking out loud can sometimes help to ground. Try positive affirmations such as “I’m safe. I’m loved. It’s not my fault. I’m gonna get through this.” Hold your own hand, hug yourself! Touch releases feel-good hormones, and so does crying. Allowing yourself to release can help you calm down. Hold onto or wear something cozy and comforting. Look at a calming image, look up funny memes, or visualize your favorite place. Eat if you’re hungry. Drink water! 

Grounding! Strategy to detach from emotional pain by focusing outward on the external world. Plant your feet on the ground. Place a hand on your belly. Name things you can sense (smell, hear, etc). Lots more great tools for grounding in this worksheet.

Keep a workbook! Momo, creator of a zine called Mapping our Madness, suggests making a workbook for navigating extreme states. Make a list of your favorite (and easy to make) foods, movies/shows, things that make you laugh, people you can talk to, spaces you feel safe, and activities that make you feel better. Keep it handy. Sometimes when we are spiraling, it can be hard to remember the things that lift us up. So preparing a DIY resource in advance for those moments can be super helpful. You can include daily things you like to do to take care of yourself. It may also be helpful to list your personal signs that indicate oncoming crisis (like eating or sleeping less, isolating, etc.) so that you can become attuned to your triggers and your bodily indicators. Including notes written to yourself when you’re feeling alright can also be a reminder that you are rooting for yourself, that you are cared for, and that this feeling won’t last forever. 

Nature! Try planting your feet on the ground, taking a walk, feeling the sun or rain on your skin, forest bathing, or hugging a tree (I definitely hug them! Now science confirms this ancient mood-lifting practice). Learning about how seasonal, lunar, and circadian rhythms affect your body may be helpful in your healing process as well. 

Body work & Movement: Stretching, Dancing, Exercise, Singing/Making music, Walking, Self-massage and Trigger Point Therapy, etc. 

Energy work

MY STORY

On a twisting and turning path of self-discovery, I’ve covered a lot of ground in the past decade. As a natural seeker, I’ve always been interested in the mysteries of life and death. The passing of a loved one in my early twenties further intensified this curiosity and catylized my spiritual journey. I wanted to heal, but my hyper-analytical approach left me with a lot of unprocessed emotions stemming from childhood. Wearing a suit of armor, which I thought made me strong, really only served to block my authentic vulnerability. So I began a fervent mission to face my fears and learn to love myself. Many amazing people along the way exposed me to a variety of healing practices – moon circles, transformational workshops, therapy, Yoga, Qigong, shadow work, meditation, Daoism, plant medicine, ceremonies, etc. – all of which helped to open my heart. Through most of my twenties, I was going a million miles an hour and trying to experience everything life had to offer. I was on a wild and beautiful ride, full of intense highs and deep lows. Then, after a personal crisis, I took a sharp turn, becoming quite ascetic in my approach. I instituted strict discipline and had a long list of self-imposed restrictions. I fell into the trap of trying to eradicate everything I thought was wrong with me. Worries about “toxic” relationships and fear of falling into old habits led to periods of isolation. I had finally recognized my light, but I was afraid of, and often ignored, my own shadow. Repressed grief and trauma began rearing up until I could no longer ignore it. 

2020 began with panic attacks, chronic pain, and burnout. Despite the stability of a good job and a healthy relationship, the support of friends and family, and the ability to provide for all my basic needs, I felt a stirring pit of chaos and discontent in my gut. I silently blamed the people, environment, and circumstances surrounding me. I felt stuck in a web, bound tightly by so many strings. By the time quarantine hit, I had decided to walk away from my career based on a calling that I couldn’t quite explain. Surrendering to the unknown was (and continues to be) the hardest path I’ve ever taken. I wasn’t sure what the next steps were, an uncertainty that I utterly hated, but I knew it was something I needed to do. My nervous system was screaming at me to pause, and my soul was asking me to turn inward. When I walked away from everything, including ending my relationship and moving in with family in a different city, I realized that the stirring pit in my gut came with me. No amount of changing my surroundings was going to fix the instability I felt inside. 

Going from years of constant grinding to an open schedule showed me how uncomfortable I was in stillness. I rushed to fill my time with productive activities. I noticed that I had a fear of being perceived as unproductive, and busyness allowed me to avoid facing myself in the aftermath of a major life change. Before long, I hit a good-old-fashioned emotional rock bottom. I was faced with the hard truth that I didn’t know myself. I had spent so much of my life either attempting to please people or trying to prove them wrong. I’d been so preoccupied with other people, I’d neglected my own needs, which is a hallmark symptom of codependency. I felt lost, fearful, and ungrounded, and wasn’t sure how I’d gotten so seemingly off track. I wasn’t living the way I’d always dreamed, and I realized that if I didn’t create that reality, life was going to continue to pass by regardless. In my most desperate moment, I fell to my knees in complete surrender and cried out to Spirit for help, something I’d never done before. To my surprise, I got an answer. I felt called to join a support group for cultivating self-love and healthier relationships, and began an in-depth examination of my life. Facing the parts of myself I didn’t want to see renewed my interest in the ideas of shadow work. 

I committed myself to healing body, mind, and soul. I’ve spent the past months intensively confronting my shadow, facing my self-sabotaging patterns and long-held insecurities, and recognizing the harm I’ve caused others. I had to take responsibility for the consequences of my unconscious behavior. I no longer wanted past trauma and fear to run my decision-making. I knew I had hurt people close to me, and I wanted to do better. I decided that I no longer wanted to be stuck in the past, holding onto so many resentments. I desired to live in the present moment, with honesty and gratitude. So I dove deeply into my darkness, attempting to uproot everything all at once, digging relentlessly until I felt quite bleak and unloveable. (This is why I recommend breaks and self-care so much!) Reaching out for perspective from my friends and loved ones lifted me up and brought me back to center, reminding me that  everyone has both shadow and light. Shadow work allowed me to notice my polarized thinking and tendency towards extremes, so I’ve now been opening up and welcoming all sides of myself, not good or bad. Balance is my goal. 

I am constantly growing, which I’d describe as heart-breakingly beautiful. There’s highs and lows, and it’s sure as hell not linear! I am re-learning how to show up for myself with genuine love and respect. I am learning my needs and boundaries. I’ve been showing up in my relationships in healthier ways. And I continue to embrace the unknown and my shadow. All of this work has released waves of suffering, resentment, and fear. I’m grateful for my newfound faith in Spirit, and the support I feel along the journey. The process of compiling this Introduction to Shadow Work has reaffirmed my commitment to being an advocate for healing in the world. I hope to do that by healing out loud. Thank you so much for listening to my story. Sending big heart hugs to you. I’m grateful that our paths crossed, and I wish you lots of love. 

-Micaela

Resources:

I’ve included some sources that were influential in the my healing journey. Though they aren’t directly on the topic of “shadow work”, they have helped me look within and see myself, which is what shadow work is all about.  

  • Melody Beattie “Codependent No More”
  • Michael A. Singer “The Untethered Soul”
  • Clarissa Pinkola Estes “Women Who Run With the Wolves”
  • Ram Dass “Be Here Now” 
  • Ian Cron & Suzanne Stabile “The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self Discovery” 
  • Jamie Sams & David Carson “Animal Medicine Cards” 
  • Thich Nhat Hanh “No Death, No Fear”
  • Michael Talbot “The Holographic Universe” 
  • Iona Marsaa Teeguarden “Acupressure Way of Health”
  • Don Miguel Ruiz “The Four Agreements” 
  • Laozi “Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way”
  • Jeremy Narby “The Cosmic Serpent” 
  • Sun Bear & Wabun “The Medicine Wheel”
  • Carol Schaefer “Grandmothers Counsel the World”
  • Rumi “The Illuminated Rumi” 
  • Podcast: Earth Speak with Natalie Ross & Friends 
  • Noble & Tenney “The Motherpeace Tarot Playbook”
  • IG accounts that I’ve found helpful in my healing journey: @farahmsiddiq @arjuna_oneal @moniqueruffin @theglobalblackgirl @aaron_doughty44 @artofloving @jaiyajohn @thetrapwitch @everestasher @davidchoe @ladyspeech @_tealswan @bunnymichael @werenotreallystrangers @pussywitch @lilychoinaturalhealing @pussywitch @oscartheserpentking @heavymetayogi

This document is totally free to share for educational purposes. 

I hope that it assists you on your journey!

If you feel inspired to make a love offering-

PayPal: cosmicaela@pm.me // Venmo: @cosmicaela // Cashapp: $cosmicaela  

USA National Emergency Helplines:

Adolescent Suicide Hotline 800-621-4000

Adolescent Crisis Intervention & Counseling Nineline 1-800-999-9999

AIDS National Hotline 1-800-342-2437

CHADD-Children & Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder 1-800-233-4050

Child Abuse Hotline 800-4-A-CHILD

Cocaine Help Line 1-800-COCAINE (1-800-262-2463)

Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233

Domestic Violence Hotline/Child Abuse 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800 422 4453)

Drug & Alcohol Treatment Hotline 800-662-HELP

Ecstasy Addiction 1-800-468-6933

Eating Disorders Center 1-888-236-1188

Family Violence Prevention Center 1-800-313-1310

Gay & Lesbian National Hotline 1-888-THE-GLNH (1-888-843-4564)

Gay & Lesbian Trevor HelpLine Suicide Prevention 1-800-850-8078

Healing Woman Foundation (Abuse) 1-800-477-4111

Help Finding a Therapist 1-800-THERAPIST (1-800-843-7274)

Incest Awareness Foundation 1-888 -547-3222

Learning Disabilities – (National Center For) 1-888-575-7373

Missing & Exploited Children Hotline 1-800-843-5678

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)

Panic Disorder Information Hotline 800- 64-PANIC

Post Abortion Trauma 1-800-593-2273

Project Inform HIV/AIDS Treatment Hotline 800-822-7422

Rape (People Against Rape) 1-800-877-7252

Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network (RAINN) 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)

Runaway Hotline 800-621-4000

Self-Injury (Info & referrals only- NOT a crisis line) 1-800-DONT CUT (1-800-366-8288)

Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-4673

Sexual Abuse – Stop It Now! 1-888-PREVENT

STD Hotline 1-800-227-8922

Suicide Hotline 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)

Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK

Suicide & Crisis Hotline 1-800-999-9999

Suicide Prevention – The Trevor HelpLine (Specializing in gay and lesbian youth suicide prevention) 1-800-850-8078

IMAlive– (online crisis chat) ImAlive.org

Teen Helpline 1-800-400-0900

Victim Center 1-800-FYI-CALL (1-800-394-2255)

Youth Crisis Hotline 800-HIT-HOME

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *