It honestly scares me how casually we talk about shadow work.
Shadow work is a term that has become ubiquitous in new-age spiritual communities over the last few years, and has even begun branching out into the mainstream. You may hear it thrown out casually at your yoga studio or in a coffee shop or on an Insta post—“This self-care Sunday is going to be all shadow work for me!”
But shadow work is not self care. It isn’t journaling, it isn’t cleansing with sage. It isn’t “getting real” with yourself, or confronting your bad behaviors. Shadow work is not something you do in a day, or a week, or a month, or a year.
Shadow work is the lifetime process of slow, intentional integration of the shadow, which is not just your “dark side”. The shadow, first identified by Carl Jung, is a complex archetype that is not something to be fixed, healed, or erased with light. It is all that is unintegrated inside of us, all that have pushed away, good and bad, for a thousand different reasons. And so when we attempt shadow work, we necessarily break apart our identity to let in the countless truths we’ve been blind to, all that we’ve had to deny to save ourselves.
And here’s why all our talk of shadow work scares me, here’s the thing no one ever says. Shadow work can be seriously dangerous.
If you have a tendency to fall into despair, or depression, or self-hatred, or—most seriously—any form of self-harm, shadow work is something that can be deeply destabilizing. When you allow the shadow to rise to consciousness, you lose the groundedness of your ego, you lose the core of yourself, and you will inevitably question who you really are.
Shadow work is essential to our psychospiritual evolution, but it is also a great risk, and must be attempted with a sober caution so we don’t shatter. So I’ve put together five techniques for starting shadow work, safely and thoughtfully.
1. Notice your projections
Projections are things we experience internally, that we unwittingly cast on things or people outside ourselves. Often, we project our inner disgust on people we meet, recklessly judging them for being gossipy or lazy or shallow. But we can also project our deeper shadow-selves onto characters, such as the infallible hero or the redeemable villain.
When you feel the inexplicable draw to someone, the overactive trigger in yourself getting pulled, you know you’ve stumbled on a projection. Question how these feelings placed on others are actually mirrors for yourself. This is a safe way to open the portal to shadow work, because you can take an honest look at yourself without feeling overburdened. And make sure you don’t judge or shame yourself for what you discover. The first step is always awareness. Awareness, in and of itself, is change.
2. Brutal Honesty with Radical Acceptance
Once you start to open yourself to these deeper truths, you have to be prepared for the denial that comes after. This is a mechanism meant to protect our fragile egos, who tend to fall apart when they must suffer blame. If you witness your projections, realizing that while you blame others for being gossips, you yourself have cruel thoughts, you will try to protect yourself from shame by “explaining” your behavior or minimizing it. You will tailspin into an overprotective mode that inhibits the full rise of this aspect of your shadow.
Instead, accept. Once you get honest, acknowledging the truths you’re unearthing, then you have to instantly and radically accept them. This is because shadow work is integrating the shadow, letting it in. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to change, to do better. That will come in time, as you witness the truth your shadow brings up with it. But if you don’t accept, if you deny or justify or self-loathe, you unknowingly drag yourself deeper into the darkness, rather than allowing the shadow to rise to the light.
3. Name your patterns
Our patterns—in psychological terms, our complexes—are the psychic forces in us that develop deep in us, usually in childhood, to help us cope with living. They may look like anxieties with specific triggers, or strange behavioral patterns, or intense, confusing emotions. These complexes exist in us unconsciously, and then can control and overwhelm us if they never come to light.
So one of the best practices to illuminate our complexes is simply to name them. When you feel the pattern being activated, notice it and give it a name. For example, I named a complex the “Warrior” in myself, because when it was triggered I became very self-protective and harsh. By naming the complex, you can differentiate yourself from it, you can stop yourself from identifying with it, and eventually you can regain control. Then, with time and understanding, you can integrate that complex into yourself consciously and healthily.
4. Active Imagination & Dreamwork
As you dive deeper into shadow work, your shadow will begin to present itself more clearly in your unconscious. You’re likely to meet it in your dreams, and in your imagination. Perhaps you’ll meet characters in the dreamworld who sabotage or chase you, or you’ll find yourself caring for a wounded animal. When these images appear, take note. It’s a really good practice to keep a dream journal when you’re attempting shadow work, so try to be as thorough as you can.
Then, when strong images have come to you, I recommend trying active imagination.
This is another Jungian practice that brings the dreamworld images into the imaginal realm, by allowing your mind to explore the image without your ego-brain getting involved. It’s very much like lucid-dreaming, only in your waking mind. You can take a dream image and allow it to take you deeper into your unconsciousness, where the shadow lives. Just make sure not to get too thinky, to attempt to direct the unfolding story. Allow your instincts to guide the way.
5. Get help
This is the biggest and most important tip of all. Shadow work is serious work. It’s the slow, often painful, integration of your darkness so that you become your whole self. It’s the confrontation of everything you’ve had to deny, to repress. When I first began my shadow work, I was constantly heartbroken, utterly shattered, and honestly barely holding myself together.
Shadow work, by definition, makes us question the very core of ourselves, so if you know you have some real stuff to get through, don’t attempt it alone. Seek out a therapist or an analyst, or at least check in with a spiritual healer of some kind. Get regular, personal tarot readings, work with a life coach, set up sessions with a reiki practitioner. Basically take very active care of yourself in your daily life, so that you can maintain your mental health.