A big part of healing and finding more peace is doing shadow work. That is, facing those parts of ourselves that we'd rather shove in a box and pretend they didn't exist.
The shadow is a term coined by psychologist Carl Jung, and it refers to our deepest wounds. The wounds that have us believing we're flawed, unlovable, undeserving people.
These wounds are often created in childhood, but can sometimes develop later in life. Perhaps you were bullied or experienced a traumatic life event that created a wound. Other times, these wounds are cultural. They develop from prevailing social beliefs, such as the way money is tied to self-worth.
When left unattended, these wounds fester, leading us to live from this place of deficiency. Doing shadow work allows us live from a place of wholeness and expansion. We stop interpreting interactions from the lens of the wounded self. We understand that most things in life are not about us, but about the people who are acting unconsciously from their own unhealed wounds.
There's a lot of talk about love and light in the spiritual world, but to feel that love and light, we need to heal the deepest parts of ourselves, the parts we may consider ugly and unloveable. By doing shadow work, we shed light on the dark and become the light instead of pretending.
This practice expands our capacity for self-love, fulfilling relationships and the possibilities we see for our lives. But the work we must do along the way is down and dirty. Are you ready?
Key steps to doing shadow work
1. No emotions are bad
As we become more aware of our insides, it can seem we actually feel more, get annoyed more, because we're aware of even small reactions that probably went unnoticed before. Developing this awareness through meditation, we're able to identify even the smallest reactions to things.
This can be annoying, but is an important step to healing. Negative emotions are portals into the shadow. They help us illuminate the location of these wounds so we can better examine them.
For example, maybe you find people who are really good at asking for things annoying. This could be a projection of unmet needs or a secret desire of having the chutzpah to ask for help. Maybe you believe asking for help is wrong, or that you don't deserve to receive assistance.
When you feel an emotion, ask yourself:
- What am I feeling?
- Why am I feeling this?
- Stop, breathe and wait for answers. They may not come right away, and that's ok. Sometimes answers need time and space to arise. Don't force answers because they might be the wrong ones, ones from your ego and not the soul. Soul work happens on its own timeline, not a human timeline. So be patient and know that in time, the answers will come.
2. Identify the shadow
The shadow, by nature, is subconscious, and identifying it can be tricky. It's such an integral part of our psyche that it can be difficult to notice.
This also makes healing it difficult. The first step is to become aware of ongoing patterns in your life. Do you consistently encounter the same problems or experience recurring feelings? These patterns help to highlight the shadow.
Common shadow beliefs include:
- I am not good enough.
- I am unloveable.
- I am flawed.
- My feelings are not valid.
- I must take care of everyone around me (because I was never nurtured as a child).
- Why can't I just be normal?
3. Investigate with compassion
Doing shadow work with compassion is difficult. It's easy to fall into blaming ourselves or others. And while it's important to recognize key themes that have influenced us, particularly in childhood, we must forgive those who hurt us in order to move on.
Try to navigate that balance by recognizing how others' behavior may have influenced you while understanding they did the best they could, and were simply acting from their own wounds.
How to explore the shadow:
- Journal. Journaling is a powerful way to feel emotions and empty your head of the thoughts rumbling around. Getting thoughts from your head onto paper is a magical alchemy. If you're not sure how to journal, just start writing. Write whatever comes to mind. You can't do it wrong. You could also take the questions mentioned earlier — what am I feeling? why am I feeling this? — and use them as prompts to investigate on paper.
- Write a letter. You don't actually have to send the letter, but get all your feelings out on paper. Explore why you feel certain ways and tell the person in mind how you feel. This is a good way to validate yourself and your emotions, particularly if you grew up thinking that your feelings weren't valid. Consider burning the letter after you write it as a symbolic release.
- Meditate. Sometimes in meditation, we may have insights about why we feel certain ways. It's also possible to spontaneously heal by feeling our emotions. In my own practice, I find healing comes in layers. I heal a small amount and then must return later to dig deeper. However, sometimes people can have more profound, deeper experiences. You might try a forgiveness meditation. Visualize the person in your mind's eye and say, "May you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be free of suffering."
- Feel. Feel your emotions. Explore them. Write about them. Move. Make art. Experience yourself as whole, loved, and lovable. The shadow thrives on secrecy. Bring the hidden parts of yourself to light and bathe them in self-love. Even if the process hurts, know that it's okay and that everybody goes through the same thing.
- Inner child work. This one is lengthy, so I've explained more below.
4. Nurture your inner child
Childhood traumas, or the way we were parented, can result in deep wounds that in turn create behavioral and emotional patterns that even the most aware may be unaware of.
That's because we don't know what we don't know. Our world is our normal, and it takes a lot of effort to uncover the unhealthy patterns that we picked up. To us, they may be reality, while in truth, they're false beliefs. You may have beliefs that are causing you pain that you can't even see because they're so deeply ingrained in you.
And once you realize them, it can be difficult to understand how much pain you've caused yourself because of a simple, wrong belief. That's where copious amounts of self-love comes in. Just love and accept your journey. Forgive yourself and others, and then move on.
This is the crux of shadow work: Shedding light on those things we'd rather hide. Accepting it, all of it, and then having the courage to grow into healthier patterns and beliefs.
Many times, our childhood wounds are the most painful and persistent. These are the wounds that say we're not worthy of love, or that our feelings are wrong, or that we have to take care of everything because nobody was around to take care of us.
This is a long process that I personally am working through and that I will continue to write about. A good way to get started, however, is to visit your inner child.
Nurture the inner child:
- Imagine a time in your life when you felt most vulnerable. Maybe there's a scene you remember, or a time in your life. Hold the image of yourself in your mind's eye, and first stay aware, taking in any messages that arise
- Give that younger you compassion. Tell yourself, "I love you and I'm here for you. It's not your fault. You did nothing to deserve this. You deserve love and you have a wonderful life ahead of you." You may even imagine yourself giving the younger you a hug.
Traveling back in time to give yourself love like this is very powerful. Maybe it sounds hokey, but I guarantee you will feel shifts if you include this practice in your shadow work. This inner child work is another tool to have in your box.
Peace comes from loving every part of your journey, even the dark places.
Wherever you are along the path, know that the way to peace is not ignoring the shadows, but rather shining light in even the darkest corners, so you feel love and peace emanating from every part of your soul.
Once you become aware of shadow beliefs that are hindering you from living your fullest life, you can consciously change your behavior and, in doing so, change your life. Each discomfort becomes an opportunity to investigate more fully, to learn more about yourself, and heal on an increasingly deep level.
This, my friend, is true peace. And this is why we can be grateful for even the rough days. Because when handled appropriately, every dark day is an opportunity for even more healing.
What are your experiences with shadow work? Share your story in the comments below.