[6 Minute Read]
Shadow work may sound frightening or intimidating, and people often wonder what this "spooky" sounding practice really is. Read on to find out.
Who created shadow work?
Shadow work is based on the psychoanalytical theories of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist and pioneer of psychoanalysis during the 19th and 20th centuries. Psychoanalysis is a set of theories and therapeutic techniques that revolve around the unconscious / subconscious mind. Jung's theory proposed that the human psyche has a part he called the "Shadow", which is representative of the individual's subconscious mind.
According to Jung, the Shadow is a collection of our deepest desires, drives, thoughts, and feelings; in other words, our "dark side". Some of these things are not at our level of conscious awareness (meaning we don't know they exist). Shadow work makes us aware of them and helps us develop compassion for them and integrate them into ourselves, cultivating a sense of wholeness.
In the 1950s, psychoanalysis was a popular form of therapy and the main modality (practice) of psychotherapy used by psychologists to treat patients. Since then, there's been a lot more research and advancements in treatments. Over time, psychoanalysis fell out of favor with psychologists and other practitioners. These days, it's been replaced by newer forms that have been found to be more effective, such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy).
However, many of the concepts from psychoanalysis (such as repressing memories or emotions, or defense mechanisms) still hold water. Freud (the father of psychoanalysis) was onto something. But, the field of psychology (like any science) is constantly evolving and psychoanalysis eventually became outdated and is no longer (commonly) practiced.
Is shadow work "real"?
Asking if it's real implies that there is some kind of "fantasy" element to shadow work. There isn't. Shadow work is simply a form of inner work. Due to the growing societal popularity of self-improvement, decreasing stigma around mental health, and the emergence of mainstream interest in things like self-care, tarot, mysticism, mindfulness, and self-awareness, different understandings of shadow work have popped up. Societal issues and the increasing "weirdness" of the real world can also contribute to a collective need to make sense of things both within and without, and applying a mystical, magical varnish to our "unprecedented times" can be soothing and even healing.
However, in the context of Vox Intra decks, shadow work is simply exercises that are meant to help you explore your subconscious and get to know yourself. The exercises are similar to work you'd do in therapy. There is nothing inherently mystical or "not real" about them. Assigning any mysticism or spirituality to shadow work is a purely down to an individual's choice and is shaped by their own experiences and preferences.
Is shadow work satanic, anti-Christian, or somehow related to the occult?
No, no and no. Shadow work is based off a psychological theory, and similar to things you'd typically explore in therapy.
It evokes "spooky" imagery and associations because it's literally called shadow work, and a lot of people have run with the idea of shadow work, spinning it into their own mystical version of self-exploration or applying various metaphysical "coats" of paint to it. While shadow work can enhance your spiritual practice, it has nothing to do with demons, the devil, the occult, or the arcane. It's not a sin, and it's not evil.
The only scary thing about shadow work is that you explore things you'd normally confront in therapy and those things are usually - well - scary. They're uncomfortable. Things like feelings, family dynamics, attachment issues, triggers, defense mechanisms, and fears don't make for light and easy conversation.
How do you DO shadow work?
Shadow work involves things such as journaling, deep reflection, or letting out emotions. It may involve looking at different "parts" of yourself and learning to understand or feel compassion for those parts (such as a critical inner voice or a hurt inner child). In my own therapy experiences doing shadow work, I learned to identify when my "Shadow self" was coming out and needed to feel heard. I developed a lot of compassion for this part of myself that I had long labeled as "bad", needy, or weak. I learned to listen to her with patience and kindness and let her have a voice. In my visualizations during therapy, one of the ways I did that was by inviting her to sit at a table with me and allow her to express her opinion (I only imagined this, but you could certainly try to act it out, if you wanted to). These kinds of activities increase mindfulness, self-awareness, and a deeper knowledge of who you are and what you need.
Is shadow work dangerous?
It's "dangerous" in the sense that it might bring up uncomfortable emotions or memories. If you don't have a good support system or therapist, or you really struggle with feeling emotionally overwhelmed or dysregulated, it's probably not a great idea to take the work on by yourself. But, that's a decision only you can make for yourself. Chances are that if you're wondering if shadow work is a good idea, you might be ready to start exploring it.
Does shadow work ever end?
Healing and growth isn't a linear process with a start and an end. When your body or mind needs to heal, it will signal it to you in various ways. It may be physical, or it may be emotional. Sooner or later, life finds ways to tell you that you need to look inward.
That being said, healing is not some endless journey. It's common for people to become fixated on it because they want to "fix" everything and it's simply not possible. That, in itself, can be one form of shame; a need to "change" or erase anything that brings us discomfort or pain.
Shadow work means getting to know the "ugly" sides of you, or the hidden sides, and practicing self-compassion for them. At first it might feel really hard. Gradually, it becomes easier. I would say that a "sign" that shadow work is ending (or at least not figuring prominently in your healing journey right now) is if you generally feel less emotionally disregulated, and you feel pretty at peace with yourself (I'm speaking to more of a neurotypical, non-disordered experience here; I realize that individuals with certain disorders or who are neurodivergent may struggle a lot more with a sense of peace, emotional regulation, or self-compassion, so please don't feel like this is a baseline state of mind that you "should" achieve). Again, if you fall into any of those categories, shadow work is best tackled with the guidance of a mental health professional.
I simply mean that you may feel (even just a tiny bit) "lighter". A little less burdened by previous feelings or experiences.
It doesn't mean you never have bad days, you never fight with your family, or you never experience "bad" feelings. All of those things are NORMAL and human. If you're wondering if your shadow work is taking too long - then take a break from it. Chill out. Don't journal and "heal" yourself into the ground. That's not healing. It's the equivalent of emotional burnout. If the idea of journaling or any other kind of shadow work makes you feel dread or exhaustion - don't do it. Give yourself a break.
Where do I start with shadow work?
Read my article here on 4 Tips for Navigating Shadow Work and check out our Shadow Seeker deck. It has 30 cards with 75+ exercises. 5 of the cards are "Star cards" which are great cards for starting your shadow work journey and give you a foundation before diving in. It's the perfect deck for shadow work beginners and people ready to start their shadow work journey.
Best of luck on it, and always listen for your inner voice <3