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Shadow Work: Why? How? What?

Updated: May 18, 2023



The shadow is always with us, even if we are not aware. In fact, it is only when we are unaware of the shadow that it is, in fact, shadow. The shadow is the Unconscious. It is the piece of ourselves that is motivating and directing us without the knowledge of the conscious mind. The most widely influential authority on The Shadow is Carl Jung. I am no Jung scholar, but his most influential work introduced concepts like archetypes and the collective unconscious, as well as The Golden Shadow.


Jung describes the Golden Shadow as the version of yourself you are afraid to become. It is you at your most authentic, shining with resplendent glory. Deep down, you are afraid to shine. Our shadow is composed of parts of our unique self that lie unclaimed.


Your shadow is an integral part of your unique Identity.


Ken Wilber describes shadow work as Cleaning Up. Ken Wilber has breathed fresh air into the discussion on the shadow, as he synthesizes Freud, Jung, and more to help us understand that shadow work is actually different from our formal spiritual work. Cleaning up does not equal Waking up, at least in the way that Wilber views it.


WHY?


If you are ever asking yourself, "Why do I keep sabotaging myself?" "Why can't I stop myself from repeating the same old cycles?", there is a good chance you have some unresolved shadow material that is keeping you trapped.


Shadow work empowers confidence and clarity.


Through shadow work, you develop an intimate understanding of who you are, what you value, and why you do what you do. You will act confidently and be able to give yourself fully to relationships, your work, and your family.


Shadow Work allows us to be conscious of that which is already happening. Whether you are aware of it or not, The Shadow is pulling you in one direction or the other. When we have awareness, we can take responsibility for our reactions to the shadow when we encounter it. From Integral Life Practice (Wilber et al 2008 ):

You can recognize shadow in two ways. Shadow material either:

  1. Makes you negatively hypersensitive, easily triggered, reactive, irritated, angry, hurt, upset. It may keep coming up as a negative emotional tone or bad mood that pervades your life.

  2. Makes you positively hypersensitive, easily infatuated, possessive, obsessed, overly attracted, or perhaps it becomes an ongoing idealization that structures your motivations or mood.


HOW?


When we are projecting our emotional state onto another, that is evidence of The Shadow. When we say things like "this person makes me angry", what we are doing is externalizing a feeling we are experiencing on a personal level. A more emotionally empowering way of saying this would be "I feel angry when this person does this". You are not a victim.


See what we just did there? We owned our emotional responses and took responsibility for our emotions. Shadow work is the process by which we become conscious of our emotional responses so we can own our projections. This does not absolve the other from any wrongdoing, but it does free us from an adversarial relationship dynamic, allowing us to transcend our shadow responses and break the cycle.


Shadow forms during an intense high or an intense low; it is birthed from moments of love and pain. Our psyche, often lacking context and skills to make sense of what is happening, fragments at that moment, and a separate self is created. Very, very few people escape childhood without some conditioned shadow responses. This separate self is then arrested in development at a lower stage of development. If you have a separate self, that you are totally unconscious of, who is selfishly attempting to satisfy the needs of a 2-year-old (the fragmented separate self), that is going to take a toll.


You might have unresolved shadow material due to emotionally unaware parents, a school system that did not recognize your uniqueness, embarrassment, the death of a loved one or a pet, confusing or abusive sexual experiences, or even something you did to someone else (maybe you were cruel to a friend or a partner) - just to name a few potential sources.


Shadow work frees up that energy to continue its evolution up The Spiral, resulting in a more whole and conscious expression of who you are.


WHAT?


Shadow work can be done in a few different ways, but my preferred technique is the 3-2-1 Shadow Process (also linked above). This technique is effective both through journaling and mindfulness. Essentially, you describe the disturbance, you talk to the disturbance, and you become the disturbance.


Skilled psychotherapists using Integral Frameworks can unearth and integrate shadow material. My caution here is that not all therapists are aware of their own shadows. Most therapists are taught things like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in school, which, while "based in evidence", does little to work with actual shadow material. Working with someone who specializes in Depth Psychology and is aware of Integral Frameworks would be my recommendation if you are determined to work with a therapist. Skills-based work like CBT is little more than a band-aid if the shadow is left unaddressed.


Meditation and psychedelics can be useful catalysts for shadow work, provided there is an appropriate framework to contextualize what arises. They are not, however, shadow work in and of themselves. In fact, both of these tools can easily become a bypass for NOT doing shadow work. If you are utilizing either of these tools in your journey, it is vital that you be aware of traps like Spiritual Bypassing.


For example, many people are able to unearth shadow material from these psychedelic experiences, yet they do not do the work for you. Without a framework for truly examining childhood experiences, most people end up counting the days until their next psychedelic experience, rather than contemplating the significance of the memory which resurfaced or doing something like 3-2-1.


Shadow work participants have reported profound shifts in just one session. For example, one attendee who had been in an abusive partnership, over the course of one 3-hour session, was able to feel empathy for their abuser and detach from the trap of an adversarial dynamic.





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