Can looking into the shadow help you find the light?

In the words of the renowned psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, "to confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light." Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? How can looking at your 'dark side' bring light into your life? Well, Carl Jung thought this kind of exploration was important in becoming 'whole' as a person. This is what is sometimes known as 'shadow work' or 'shadow therapy'. In therapy, shadow work consists of exploring hidden desires, emotions and behaviours in order to improve well-being and self-awareness.


What is the shadow or shadow self?

Jung described the shadow as the parts of your personality that are suppressed, undesirable and outside of your awareness (hence the terminology). 

As we grow up, we are taught how to behave and how to be in the world. These lessons are communicated to us through messages from family, friends and society. We mould ourselves into what we think is expected of us. This often results in suppressing the parts that we are taught are undesirable or unhelpful. The suppressed and hidden parts form our shadow (or the shadow self). 

How can shadow work help?

The idea of shadow work is to shine a light on these hidden parts; doing so will help set you on the path to understanding yourself better and growing as a person. 

Jung thought that at the bottom of frequent arguments, unsatisfactory interpersonal relationships and personal problems is the ignorance of the shadow. Understanding and becoming acquainted with the shadow can help unblock mental barriers and lead to becoming more whole. 

It might seem counterintuitive to explore the parts of yourself that you don’t like or are ashamed of, but doing so is part of self-reflection and self-awareness. Being more self-reflective can help improve your well-being, relationships and goal achievement. Awareness of flaws will also help in being able to manage them better and understand when they might be holding you back. 

In some people, positive elements (sometimes referred to as 'gifts') can also be hidden in the shadow. If being outspoken or confident was not welcome in your home when you were a child, they might have been buried in your shadow and consequently, you are unable to access those qualities as an adult. 

How can you discover your shadow self?

A psychotherapist or counsellor can assist you in exploring your shadow by looking at uncomfortable feelings, exploring the unconscious, engaging in dream analysis or journalling. 

It is possible to do this work on your own, but it is more difficult and not advisable for those who have experienced trauma or experiencing mental ill health.

Finding the shadow requires self-reflection and paying attention to thoughts, sensations and feelings. It is often found in strong reactions to others; notice people that set you off and anger you. What is it about them that results in strong emotions? Is your response appropriate or does it feel excessive? The answers to these questions will give you a clue to what your shadow self holds. 

The shadow is often also found in the opposite of what someone values. If you value being a team player, putting your head down and not making a fuss; perhaps your shadow contains a need to be outspoken and heard.

For example, there might be someone at work who annoys you whenever they speak up in meetings. On the surface, you might experience them as arrogant and self-serving. However, they might be triggering a repressed desire to share your thoughts and make your voice heard. Ignoring the shadow could result in resentment of this person and an aversion to attending these meetings. By acknowledging the shadow instead, you could start accepting that desire and find kindness towards that part of yourself. Consequently, such meetings may not be so painful anymore.

Exercises to get you started

If you want to explore shadow work and feel safe enough to do so, you can start by considering some of the prompts below:

  • Make a note of strong emotional reactions to others. What was the trigger? Are there any common patterns or themes?
  • Explore avoidance: Are there people or things in your life you are avoiding? What is it that you are avoiding specifically?
  • Don’t be afraid of negative thoughts and emotions. Take some time to observe them with curiosity. 
  • Think about the messages you received in childhood. What was valued in your household? What parts of you were accepted? What parts were not?

Shadow work can be the beginning of a deeper understanding of yourself and why you behave the way you do. By understanding and accepting all of yourself (even the parts you may reject or find uncomfortable), you will start to discover your intuition, inner voice and ability to improve your well-being.

It is important to remember that shadow work is most effective when guided by a professional who can support you in discovering new aspects of yourself. 

Are you ready to delve beneath the surface and gain a deeper understanding of yourself? As an integrative psychotherapist and counsellor who focuses on people with complex family backgrounds, I have a special interest in working with individuals who want to explore their past in depth to make sense of their present. Contact me to find out how therapy can help. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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