[5 Minute Read]
The practice of “shadow work” has been increasing in popularity across psychotherapy and spirituality in the last few years, with its emphasis on exploring your subconscious and diving deep. A greater movement towards wellness and de-stigmatizing mental health care has created awareness around this unique practice.
It originated in the personality theories of Carl Jung (a psychoanalyst and colleague of Freud), who studied the "dark side" of human nature.
Jung's model of the psyche referred to the undesireable, repressed parts of our personality as our Shadow; in Jung's own words - "the thing a person has no wish to be."
In analytical psychology, the “Shadow” is an unconscious aspect of the personality that has not been brought to awareness (such as destructive patterns). It may also refer to an individual’s subconscious as a whole. This kind of work — diving into the subconscious — is commonly referred to as shadow work (and it inspired our best-selling Shadow Seeker card deck).
Let's dive into a few tips that will help you along your shadow work journey.
1. Find Your Tools
Preparing your space for healing work is always a good first step. You can do this in a number of ways, and what is most effective really depends on the individual. It may be helpful to devote a quiet corner or room in your home for your inner work — a space where you can journal and reflect in peace. Decide on whether you want it to be in the same room as you sleep (you may feel more comfortable separating your shadow work space from your sleeping space, since being in the same space may stir feelings associated with shadow work rather than rest). Consider exploring tools such as crystals, herbs for burning, soothing aromatherapy oils, or incense. Crystals that support grounding (such as obsidian) and self-love and compassion (such as rose quartz) can be soothing to have in your space.
Black sage (also known as mugwort) is often recommended for introspection and reflection and can promote restful sleep. Burned in preparation, it can complement your shadow work beautifully.
Ultimately, whatever helps you get in a good headspace for healing work is dependent upon you. Perhaps you're less inclined to use material objects but you're very soothed and centered after being out in nature. You can start and finish your shadow work with a walk somewhere calming and quiet.
2. Respect Your Pace
Go at whatever pace feels comfortable. Do not rush yourself through this (or any) healing work. Practice mindfulness and listen to your own personal cues on when it feels like it's time to do some shadow work. It's an ebb and flow. It's common for people on a healing journey to at times see inner work as a road to some kind of specific destination. You do the work, you get "there", you're healed, and life is easy breezy.
That's not the case. Personal growth and navigating life's struggles is simply part of the everyday experience, a facet of the human condition. It's a very beautiful thing when you step back and look at it from a distance. Respecting the ups and downs is just another way to respect your own rhythm and humanity.
There may be days where you're doing a lot of journaling and feeling a lot of emotions. There may be days where you're just burnt out and tired and you don't want to do much work. Being very compassionate towards yourself and your feelings throughout the whole process is key. Speaking to yourself kindly, asking for help when needed, and knowing that you're safe with yourself slowly builds your self-trust that you are your own safe space.
3. Have a Support System
It helps tremendously to have a support system that you trust and can rely on. Good friends, mentors, a supportive online community, or a therapist. Don't isolate yourself during the work, even if shutting down or withdrawing may be a natural response for you.
A lot of shadow work is rooted in adverse experiences or things that originated in your childhood, which can be difficult to address. So my biggest recommendation to people is always to seek the help of a mental health professional. Not because you have to, but therapy will help you create a safe and secure space within which you can explore all the different topics that shadow work addresses. My therapist is my go-to when I'm struggling the most with trying to process certain feelings or if I'm in a "funk" or feeling stuck.
Self-soothing just means ways to keep yourself emotionally regulated when strong emotions arise. It differs for everyone. If you're not sure where to start, think of a young version of yourself. What kinds of things would have been comforting or soothing to you when you were distressed? You may enjoy warm baths or hot showers, repeating positive and calming phrases to yourself, being alone for a little while, or wrapping yourself up in a blanket and watching a feel-good movie.
Many people struggle with self-soothing because they didn't really have good models for it growing up - no one who could be present with them while they had their feelings, to help them "come down" from those feelings in a secure environment. Being told to "grow up", "stop being sensitive", or that you're throwing a tantrum or overreacting is not an effective way to teach someone to sit with their own feelings. If this sounds familiar — you're not alone. Take comfort; it's a learned skill, which means you can start learning it now!
I'll also share a technique I learned through therapy called the Butterfly Hug. You can see a more detailed post and video about how to do it here on the Vox Intra instagram:
Our Shadow surfaces when we try very hard to push certain parts of ourselves down – things that we may consider “bad" or even scary...But the best parts of ourselves and the parts we're trying to change are often one and the same.
Shine a light on these parts. Embrace your Shadow and all of who you are. You are beautiful and worth loving.