Shadow work: Embracing your true self

Shadow work is about meeting and acknowledging all the lost parts of ourselves – the parts that we have been conditioned to deny, suppress, or disown. These aspects often stem from experiences where expressing certain emotions or traits was discouraged, shaping our unconscious beliefs and behaviours.

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How do we develop our shadow/unconscious beliefs?

During our formative years, such as childhood or adolescence, we create our identities and belief systems based on the environment in which we have grown up. Our family, caregivers, and parents are the primary influencers, providing the information field from which we learn how to be, act, and behave to have our needs met. As babies and children, we are dependent on our parents, so to meet our needs, we develop certain behaviours and adapt.

Here's an example:

Imagine a scenario where a child's cries for attention are consistently met with dismissal or rejection rather than understanding and support. Based on this experience, the child learns to suppress their emotions to avoid rejection and internalises beliefs such as "I am not important," "To be loved, I must remain silent," or "I am not safe to express my feelings." These unconscious beliefs shape our behaviours and interactions later in adulthood, forming our identity based on different experiences.

Unconscious beliefs are not solely derived from our families but also from society, religion, schooling systems, and culture. These factors collectively shape our worldview and self-perception. While these beliefs don't always have to be limiting, we may also develop encouraging and empowering beliefs.

To connect with our true selves, it's important to first acknowledge what limiting beliefs we have and what shadow parts of ourselves we have to suppress. This makes it easier for us to reconnect with our authentic selves. These limiting beliefs often represent our false selves.

How do our shadow parts manifest in our lives when we're unaware of them?

Shadow parts can manifest as triggers, low self-esteem, eating habits, anxiety, depression, addictions, self-sabotaging mechanisms, perfectionism, passive aggressiveness, and challenges in relationships and career pursuits, among other ways.

For instance, imagine a girl growing up in a family where her father is emotionally unavailable. Father figures serve as examples of how men behave, and as children, we tend to accept these behaviours as norms. Consequently, growing up with an emotionally unavailable father becomes natural for her. As an adult woman, she may unconsciously find herself in relationships with emotionally unavailable men because this dynamic feels familiar. Although she consciously desires deep emotional bonds, her unconscious draws her to what is familiar. The process of shadow work begins when she questions her behaviour and beliefs and brings them into conscious awareness.

To reconnect with our true selves, we must question our beliefs to discern whether they are truly ours or conditioned beliefs. Our natural intelligence or what we can call true potential is blocked because we have been conditioned to be a certain way.

How can we work with our shadow parts of ourselves?

First, let's recognise why you want to engage in this work. There can be purer or less pure motives behind delving into self-discovery.

  • Purer motives include: "I am doing this work to deepen my self-understanding."
  • Less pure motives may involve: "I am doing this work because I want to change myself, to become different, to fix myself."

Now, I invite you to take a few deep breaths and centre yourself in your body. Notice how each intention feels to you. How does it feel when your intention is "I want to deepen my self-understanding" versus "I want to become different"? Take a moment for your own observation. If you'd like, you can jot down any feelings or insights that arise for you.

You can engage with your shadow in various ways: through journaling, self-observation, somatic exercises, and most importantly, through therapy.

Working with our shadow is a journey of self-discovery and integration, and each person's path is unique. By exploring the hidden aspects of ourselves with compassion and curiosity, we can uncover profound insights and foster greater wholeness and authenticity in our lives.

If you would like me to create a safe space for you and guide you through the whole process, please feel free to reach out.

I am looking forward to hearing from you.

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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London N10 & E14
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Written by Barbara Josik, Counsellor & Psychotherapist MBACP
London N10 & E14

I am psychodynamic, integrative therapist working with clients in private practice. I have worked in a variety of mental health and therapeutic settings, supporting individuals struggling with a range of issues, including anxiety, depression, abuse, social anxiety, childhood trauma, relationship issues, family issues and many more.

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