I’m writing this first sentence and I can already feel myself wanting to run from this piece; it’s a difficult subject to tackle and one I’m still swimming in the depths with right now. I completed my final therapy session a fortnight ago and I left that session feeling somehow both calm and ecstatically motivated, feelings that had been lost of me for the last little bit. This last year and a half has been difficult for many reasons, if you’d have told me at the start of 2020 what I’d end up going through, I would have jumped a plane and moved countries to escape it (with the blessing of hindsight, probably to New Zealand). But I was undertaking some really deep (and necessary!) healing, even if it didn’t look that way to me at the beginning. The process I want to talk through today is a deep and difficult one, but a journey I’d really encourage you to take: how to do shadow work.
“Now is not the time for a fanciful dip into our shadow work because it is sexy or fashionable. It is essential, now more than ever, to bravely gaze into the darkest chambers of our hearts. It is only with an honest appraisal of the seat of our souls that we can mend ourselves individually and collectively.” – Sasha Graham
What is shadow work?
Shadow work is learning to understand and integrate the parts of ourselves that we’ve decided are bad, shameful or unwanted, into our accepted being. It’s catching and dealing with your shadow habits, which can manifest in the form of resentment, defence mechanisms, bad habits, destructive tendencies, mean-spirited external or internal voices, anything of the sort.
It might sound all doom and gloom, but the benefits (more on that later) are endless. Integrating with your shadow is your life’s work, and a fight you have to face someday. If you need to face it and don’t, life will keep throwing opportunities (or as you may call them, disasters) at you until you do. I learnt this one the hard way.
Important!! Please remember as you read this that I’m just a girl with some ideas tapping away on a keyboard, I’ll be sharing some of the lessons and ideas I learned during my own therapy which may be helpful to you, but if you need extra help or feel you aren’t functioning in your daily life, please reach out to a professional. They’re the experts and they will (even if you’re doubtful!) be able to help.
Where does your shadow come from?
Most of us, by the end of our child/teenhoods end up with a lot of bottled feelings, suppressed personality traits, and make-do mechanisms. Your kid-self will have done the best they could to survive with whatever they had (it’s important to thank them for this) and your parents did the best they could with all the issues they themselves were still carrying (it’s important to forgive them for this). But now, in the big wide world, a lot of those mechanisms aren’t going to work so well and you’re stronger, more aware and better equipped to learn some healthier, more effective ones.
So that’s the deal. If you want to unlock the brilliant things that make you you, you can. If you want to improve your coping mechanisms, free yourself from past hurt, resentment and trauma, you can. If you choose to, you’ll be on your way to becoming more truly aligned, better able to make decisions, deal with whatever life throws at you, and grow yourself into the best person you could possibly be.
How to do shadow work
1. Feel the original pain
It’s an uncomfortable thing to admit on the interwebs, but I cannot tell you how much I’ve cried in the last year and a half. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience to go through, but I honestly wouldn’t change a second of it (that’s how good being on the other side feels). Now I have all that pain out, nothing seems quite so heavy.
I could write a whole blog on how to truly feel your pain (and I probably will – keep an eye out for that!), but for now, here are some ideas.
How to truly feel your pain:
- Journaling: Let your thoughts spill (unfiltered!) onto the page and allow yourself to feel and sit with whatever feelings come up
- Stop using distractions/methods of quickly feeling better all the time, allow yourself to sit with your pain to feel and observe it
- Talk and cry it out with someone else whenever you can – tell them about your fears and thoughts, even (and especially!) when they seem irrational
- Write letters to people who you need to confront/forgive/let go of
- Use visualisations and breathing techniques
- Remind yourself often that negative emotions are NOT inherently bad, they are necessary and healthy to feel (although if they start to take control of your life, I really recommend that you seek professional help to help you through 💜)
- Give yourself a genuine pat on the back every time you feel something through
Allowing yourself to observe these feelings will help you understand them better, pinpoint where they come from and free yourself from the weight of carrying them around. Especially with old, bottled pain, you might find feeling the pain, crying it out and talking about it a few times takes the sting out of the issue and allows you to move on. It’s magic.
Not to mention that this practice is teaching you to lower your defences so you can better feel and deal with situations as they happen from now on. No more bottling, okay?
2. Notice what triggers you
What makes you feel ashamed? What makes you feel scared? Which negative comments from others have stuck with you? What makes you feel embarrassed? Which parts of yourself do you never show other people?
Also, what tends to anger you about other people? What traits and habits can’t you stand? Carl Jung, an incredible psychiatrist and psychoanalyst wrote widely about the shadow and made the interesting point that “everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Maybe someone’s confidence makes you feel insecure. Maybe you once cheated in a relationship, and now if anyone ever discusses the morality of cheating, you get defensive and aggressive. Our shadow traps the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of and we hate to see those things walking around freely in the world.
Try to notice these patterns. When you look back on a situation, ask yourself why you acted the way you did. Talk it through with someone else or journal about it to try and dive deeper into understanding your own patterns.
Recommended for you: How To Kick Bad Habits (And Replace Them With Good Habits!)
3. Talk about it
Your shadow is full of traits and habits you feel ashamed or scared about sharing. Maybe you’ve been told you’re too loud or outspoken, so now you feel afraid to speak too much. To get back to the root of where that comes from, you have to face your fears by putting yourself in that situation and feeling and allowing the honest reaction it brings out in you. You’ll probably feel shaky doing it, you might get a lump in your throat or a sick feeling in your belly, you might not actually be able to do it the first few times, but trying and bringing those feelings to the surface allows them space, acceptance and slowly heals them so you can move on.
I never liked confrontation. I’d always back away from it, but feel a lot of conflict after because I knew deep down that I had had things I’d wanted to say. When I started to try to speak up in arguments I’d get shaky, panicky and tear up, even if the other person was listening and not being overly confrontational. By explaining the reaction to the other person, I was able to feel through the reaction as it happened and speak as much as I could. Over time, the reaction started to lessen and sometimes I found myself speaking up automatically with no reaction at all. Your body believes this situation is a threat, you need to prove that it’s not and that if it turns out to be, that you’re strong enough to handle it.
4. Recognise your flares
When our ego feels threatened or our shadow starts to break free, you might find yourself suddenly becoming very angry and defensive. This is a standard defence mechanism and takes a lot of humility, awareness and honesty to work through. Recognising and admitting to what’s happening inside of you is one of the best ways to start recognising your behaviours and allowing your shadow to breathe.
Say someone comments on the fact that you’re late and because you’re mad at yourself (your shadow has internalised the belief that tardiness is a terrible thing) you snap back with a mean comment about the other person. Now you have three options, you can stew in your anger, feel terrible about making the comment, or take a step back, realise you were being overly defensive, apologise to the person and if you want, admit that tardiness is a bit of a sore spot for you and that your embarrassment got the better of you.
By repeatedly recognising and naming your reactions you’ll start catching yourself quicker, accepting the feeling, and choosing your reaction more intentionally. This acceptance will in turn give you the mental space to work on other things, like being late a little less often. Funny circle, isn’t it?
It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, throwing your hands up over and over to admit your faults, it’s something no human is naturally good at, but the work you put in now will serve you well for the rest of your life, believe me
5. Unlock your strengths, as well as your weaknesses
A shadow is where we hide the things we’re ashamed of, but these might not always be bad things. Especially for people with self-esteem troubles, positive traits and achievements can often become part of their shadow when they feel unworthy of them.
I remember at school, having people sneer at me when I spoke about going on nice holidays with my family so I’d end up feeling guilty for having those opportunities. Similarly, I’ve always been quite academic and had similar experiences when I spoke about my grades. Even when I was struggling or not hitting my personal goals, I’d get comments like “you should be grateful” and “well you must think I’m terrible then”. In the end, I stopped talking about my achievements and opportunities and felt guilty and conflicted if they were recognised by others.
Shadow work applies to these things as much as it does to the parts of us we’d usually call negative. You can work to reclaim your gifts and your achievements and be proud of them, no matter what anyone else thinks.
This isn’t a journey I’d say is over for me, I don’t think anyone can ever truly say they and their shadow are entirely aligned – it’s a life’s work. But I’ve done a lot of the feeling and healing and coming out of almost a year and a half of that, I can smile looking back at it. It was a hell of a journey.
If you’re on that same journey, I’m rooting for you, and I know you’ll come out of it freer than a bird, more confident, empowered and honestly, happy. I’ll leave you with one last quote (because how else do I communicate?) that I think sums this whole thing up.
“If you are burning, burn. If you can stand it, the shame will burn away and leave you shining, radiant, and righteously shameless.” – Elizabeth Cunningham
So shine, radiant, and righteously shameless. Love, Ella-Rose xx