*This post is not meant to replace mental health care – if you have mental health needs, please seek the counsel of a trusted healthcare professional. As always, I acknowledge that my writing is imperfect – there’s always more to learn, edit, engage. My posts are meant as a starting point, not an end point*
What is ‘Shadow work’?
A friend of mine and I have been discussing our shadow work recently, and I (accidently) dropped that term in new company, only later to realize that they likely had no idea what I was talking about. “Shadow work” isn’t common vernacular, though it is a regular feature in my current reading.
The shadow, in psychology, is considered aspects of the personality that are unconscious, hidden, or rejected by the self (typically “negative”). Everyone is thought to have a shadow (or shadows), and these shadows can be personal or reflective of society. Shadows are typically examined, integrated, and released through dream analysis, Jungian "active imagination", and/or counseling work, but also through meditation and contemplative inquiry (see more here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_(psychology) ). Examples of shadows might be depression, shame, anger, disordered eating, addiction, wrath, destructive tendencies, anxiety, illness, the taboo, theft, wounds both societal/cultural and personal, etc. Shadow can be expanded to include place in analogy or metaphor, described as no-man’s land, a space of becoming or held breath, or the Wasteland (see Burning Woman by Lucy H. Pearce and If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie for more discussion of shadow as place).
As mentioned in Women Who Run with the Wolves (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes): Shadow elements are “aspects of oneself which are considered by the ego to be undesirable or not useful and are therefore relegated to the dark. On one hand, shadow material can be quite positive for often a woman’s gifts are pushed into the dark, hidden there and waiting to be discovered. On the other hand, negative shadow material – that which busily kills off or detains all new life – can also be turned to one’s use……. When it erupts, and we finally identify its aspects and sources, we are made all the stronger and wiser” (pg 88; note that I discuss gender below).
In Wake the Witches (Lisa Lister) , shadow is compared to a woman’s wildness, re-wilding, and instinctual self and is metaphor for the dark side of the moon. “The only way that we, as women, will ever be fully whole is by acknowledging the dark” (pg 99). The author continues:
“when you say yes to the rewilding, you no longer look up to a higher being or go outside yourself for guidance. Instead you make the conscious choice to turn inwards – to face yourself. You meet yourself eye to eye, boob to boob, womb to womb. You meet the shadows and the truths…….You have to look at all the habits, the behaviors, the things that you do to mask and medicate suppressed feelings. You have to meet the wounds – not just yours, but the collective wounds…….When we acknowledge our shadow, it’s wise, self-healing, and healthy. Suppressed shadow, however, distorts and manifests as imbalance. And the imbalanced shadow is what leads to both emotional and physical pain and dis-ease. Most of us avoid our shadows, because that’s where shame, ‘issues’ and symptoms live. We think these symptoms are ‘bad’; but really, they’re just our body’s way of getting our attention and sending us signs and messages. In this way, our symptoms become highly revealing insights into what our bodies and psyches need in order to be in balance. Know that as a women, your shadow holds all the keys to what keeps you small and holds you back” (Pg 236, 241-242)
In Burning Woman (Lucy H. Pearce), the author recognizes that:
“In the Abrahamic religions darkness is equated with the absence of God…….And so began the battle between good and evil, dark and light, masculine and feminine……Our fear of the dark has been deeply ingrained. Dark– both literal and metaphorical – is bad, we are told. Stay away from it or suffer the consequences…..The light tends to be associated with logos – rationalism, logic, and order, and contrasted with the disorder and demonic qualities of the dark” (77-78). This polarization of opposites, dark vs light, masculine vs feminine, to Pearce, led to the domination of the wild, the chaotic, women, people of color and the medicalization or confinement of the emerged darkness (“madness or rebellion”) “We fear the descent of madness or depression, because in the masculine view of the dark they lead us away from the light, through complete disintegration (lack of control) and towards the ultimate darkness: death and hell.” (101)
“Our bodies can initiate us into the darkness when we lose control for a moment through illness, stress, or exhaustion…..But rather than follow this path into the darkness we put our focus on trying to do ‘normal’, patching up the cracks, medicating ourselves, rather than supporting the break-through process which is occurring….. the dark mind when seen through the lens of Feminine darkness offers a different perspective: the underworld as a place between the worlds, where healing and transformation can happen. Disintegration is necessary step to greater integration.” (101)
Shadow work is practice of non-duality (i.e. Awareness, interconnection of life), which is emphasized in shamanic, Buddhist, Hindu and other mystical traditions. From The Fruitful Darkness (Joan Halifax):
“we go into the darkness, we seek initiation, in order to know directly how the roots of all beings are tied together: how we are related to all things, how this relationship expresses itself in terms of interdependence, and finally how all phenomena abide within one another. Deep in the ground of being, they tangle and embrace. This understanding is expressed in the term non-duality” (137). Non-duality leads to awareness and “Awareness shows us who we really are, of what we are composed, and what we are actually doing at this very moment” (160)
Shadow work is healing. From Anam Ċara by John O’Donohue:
"When the unconscious becomes illuminated, its darker forces no longer hold us prisoner. This work of freedom is slow and unpredictable; yet it is precisely at this threshold that each individual is custodian and subject of their own transfiguration" (pg 89)
Shadow work, therefore, is a form of self-exploration and inquiry. It is getting curious, leaning in, asking those elements what they need, why they are there, sensing their quality and triggers, and accepting that they have something of value to your development, that they are your teachers. It is courtship and befriending of your inner being. It is inviting your shadow in, throwing open the doors to your closet and dancing with your skeletons. It is walking the edges of your interiority to learn boundaries, expand them, remap them, and build a container for these heavier states of being – for yourself and ultimately, for others.
“Learning to be in the dark requires that we hold space for ourselves. And find others who can hold space for us as we journey” (Burning Woman, 102).
Shadow work is courageous belonging, self-compassion, and using a “loving eye” (self-love) – belonging to yourself, making room for acceptance, unlearning the shutting down and silencing, creating relationship with our emotional and interior lives, and BEING with your WHOLE self. It is acknowledging that healing and spiritual work are not all LOVE and LIGHT and PEACE or stuffing down parts to “rise above”. Shadow, instead, represents those ‘negative’ or more challenging elements and invites these expressions in, rather than freezing, turning away in fear, running from them, or cutting them off prematurely. The ‘getting curious, inviting them in, and allowing them to belong’ - this is the meat of personal development, transformation, and growth. Rather than spiritual bypassing and avoiding or shutting down the uncomfortable, it is the courage to BE with ALL of YOU, it is an integration of BEING.
“The loving eye can even coax pain, hurt, and violence toward transfiguration and renewal. The loving eye is bright because it is autonomous and free. It can look lovingly upon anything…..It rises above the pathetic arithmetic of blame and judgement and engages experience at the level of its origin, structure, and destiny. The loving eye sees through and beyond image and effects the deepest change” (Anam Ċara by John O’Donohue, 65)
Shadow Archetypes – Brief Review
There are several archetypes that are representative of our shadow selves including the Death Mother (see Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home by Toko-pa Turner), Burning Woman and Burning Man (explored in Burning Woman by Lucy H. Pearce), and the more familiar, Wounded Healer. The Wounded Healer is particularly applicable to shadow work in that this person had some illness or mental health difficulty, and by way of healing and addressing those “shadows” and transformation, they now have a new Awareness or medicine that they can use to help others.
Shadow in Video Exploration
Chameli Ardagh, creator of Awakening Women (https://awakeningwomen.com/) does a great job exploring feminine rage, a shadow element, in her TEDx talk Fierce Face of the Feminine (https://youtu.be/6cRws7dKJPg). Here she describes the relationship of Kali and Shiva as that of rage and consciousness - the ability to contain rage and stay present with and accepting of your more difficult emotions, recognizing that they too have value. In another dissection of shadow, Tracee Ross explains the wisdom of women's fury (shadow and cultural wounding) in her TED talk and the impact it holds over generations of women (https://www.ted.com/talks/tracee_ellis_ross_a_woman_s_fury_holds_lifetimes_of_wisdom). One of my favorite poets, Daniel Beatty, explores a black, masculine version of shadow side in his poem, “Duality Duo” (NSFW - language https://youtu.be/1INMYz0AMSI). Beatty’s poem concludes that we need to be our WHOLE selves, not shunning or hiding components, so all of us can heal.
One poignant though possibly banal exploration of shadow work was presented by Disney in Moana’s ‘Know Who You Are’ scene (spoilers https://youtu.be/sHToFOt6OKc; if you haven’t seen the movie, please do – so many gems of goodness). Here, Moana calls forth Te Kā, depicted as a fiery demon of sorts, facing this being down rather than running or resisting; Moana recognizes that this being needs something (a heart, love, compassion) and is able to help Te Kā transition and, literally, bloom into Te Fiti. This scene easily serves as metaphor for shadow work – inviting the shadow elements of ourselves home (Te Kā), giving them heart and hearth, space to be, and potential to heal, to integrate.
Shadow and Social Justice
Shadow sides and emotions are typically seen as ugly, abhorrent, repulsive. If you sense this in your own explorations and bias, it is time to decolonize your concept of beauty (i.e. what does beauty mean? How do you partition it or limit it? Why?). For example, in the above Moana scene, though Te Kā is fire, ash, heat, she is no less beautiful than Te Fiti; don’t be fooled by the significance of the visual transformation – her inner transformation was the source of “beauty”. The same applies to your inner and exterior being. Seeing beauty where you have been taught to find none is a practice in maturity, growth, inclusivity, and unfolding. For more information on decolonizing beauty, which is a feminist, social justice, and human rights issue, see http://www.milleworld.com/time-we-decolonize-our-beauty-standards/ as a great starting point.
In addition to ugliness, there is a recognized connection to shadow and racial prejudice/injustice (i.e. black is bad), and as such, some authors refer to shadow work as occult, though this is different than magick, black magick, voodoo, etc. Rather, occult here refers to working with the hidden. (see Jailbreaking the Goddess by L.A. Firefox). I chose to stick with the more familiar term of shadow; however, I urge the reader to consider what implicit bias this terminology may bring forth. There is a research group out of Harvard University (Project Implicit) that examines social cognition and implicit bias, such as word association with racial groups. For more information or to explore your own implicit bias, please see: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ and https://www.projectimplicit.net/index.html.
“In the dark we are not defined by our exterior – we are not defined by our beauty or bodily appearance, our money or worldly power which culture tells us are important. We become formless and fluid as our masks fall to the floor” (Burning Woman, 102)
Gender, Privilege, and Shadow Work
My recent reading has been focused on women’s healing and, as such, much of the derived quotes regarding shadow work are specific to women. Women do seem more comfortable discussing mental health and spiritual exploration than men. Whether this is from a je ne sais quoi or a potentiality of deeper inquiry, I don’t know, though I find that doubtful. Men are just as hungry for deeper personal work, and I would argue that they don’t have resources readily available (where is the male equivalent of Women Who Run with the Wolves?). From my own observations, there is a stigma against vulnerability, spirituality, and mental health in our men. As a society, we are more comfortable observing the limitations placed on women (ex. Rage not being acceptable for women) while we struggle to accept that modifiers are also placed on men (ex. Men must be stoic and cannot expose vulnerability or risk being ridiculed as a “girl” or “gay”). If you identify as male, or for that matter as non-binary, please accept my apologies that the above is female focused. By no means is shadow work only a woman’s tool.
Shadow work, like all spiritual work, is a privilege. Individuals who are pre-occupied with meeting basic survival needs will likely lack the time and desire to even consider these personal and cultural issues (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). However, collective change requires personal change – if you have the ability to do substantive self-work, please do – we will all benefit from kinder, more aware individuals.
I was initiated into shadow work following the birth of my first child, which is common for mothers – there is an increased Awareness or spiritual awakening of sorts that follows birth (a mother is born at each birth, in addition to her baby). Following the births of my children, I was told by some that I have the ability to “see in the dark”. That is, I can find my way out of the Unknown with my awareness, see differently outside of "ordinary vision", have an ability to allow for the “other”, and walk in both worlds, that is the physical and the spiritual (this ability to see in the dark is also referred to as the Medial Woman by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Seeing in the Dark; see also Toko-pa Turner's Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home). Part of this comfort in the dark and shadow is my acceptance of paradox (ex. light AND dark, invisible AND visible). While others might struggle with opposition and contradiction, seeing situations as only binary or dichotomous, I find it fascinating and enjoy being able to hold the tension and bridge the gap. Paradox IS shadow work by allows for a wholeness and a full spectrum of being, including the "shadow" components. According to Carl Jung, paradox is a valuable spiritual possession (http://jungiancenter.org/jung-on-paradox/), which gives me comfort.
To work with my own shadow elements, I utilize meditation and shamanic journeying techniques to get to know my inner world and nurture acceptance of my range of being. In addition to meditation, a specific tool that has been helpful when cultivating relationship with my more intense emotions is The Pause, a fairly well-known mindfulness technique. Rather than lashing out or being reactive when triggered (I identify with anger, passion, and fire, see my blog post on the fire element) , I pause and breathe, even if I can only do that for a moment. The pause, both in being and breath, allows the shadow emotions a presence but does not give them the driver’s seat. I am not perfect and will often forget The Pause, but, true to form, life offers constant practice.
My experience with shadow also revolves around the Wild Woman archetype – the instinctual, re-wilding woman that manifests differently for all who work with her. Recall that our instinctual selves tend to be shadow; She will also claim your shadow and bring you home. The Wild Woman is initiating me on the path of the midwife - the birthing of my own being and reclamation.
“Shadowing means to have such a light touch, such a light tread, that once can move freely through the forest, observing without being observed……The Wild Woman has been shadowing human women for years. Now we see a glimpse of her. Now she is invisible again. Yet she makes so many appearances in our lives, and in so many different forms, we feel surrounded by her images and urges. She comes to us in dreams or in stories – especially stories from our own personal lives – for she wants to see who we are, and if we are ready to join her yet. If we but look at the shadows we cast, we see that they are no two-legged human shadows but the lovely shape of something free and wild. We are meant to be permanent residents, not just tourists in her territory, for we are derived from that land: it is our motherland and our inheritance at the same time. The wild force of our soul-psyches is shadowing us for a reason. There is a saying from medieval times that if you are in a descent, and pursued by a great power – and if this great power is able to snag your shadow, then you too shall become a power in your own right…….Once the Wild Woman snags our shadows, we belong to ourselves again, we are in our own right environ and in our rightful home” (Women Who Run with the Wolves, 493-494)
I hope this helps the reader with some background information on shadow work. Have you done your own Shadow Work? If so, what was your experience?
May you find peace, WHOLE-ness, and a loving eye, even when in shadow. With love <3
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT)
RYT 500, reiki master
Contact me: email@example.com
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