The process of learning to be a better person or be a happier version of yourself often involves introspection. Like with shadow work, which is a type of psychotherapy that has you look inward. At its core, the method is a way of uncovering your “shadow self” or true, inner self, to gain clarity and work toward self-improvement.
Shadow work refers to concepts based on the work of analytical psychologist, Carl Jung, says Peter Gradilone, M.A.T., L.M.S.W., a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy and Jungian analysis. “To become a fully whole individual, shadow work is critical,” he explains.
“As stated by both Jung and the mythologist, Joseph Campbell; ‘The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you are,’” Gradilone adds. “Not everyone desires deep answers. If you are looking for basic solutions, shadow work may not be for you.”
But what is shadow work and what are its major benefits? Here, experts explain the process and how to get started.
What is your inner shadow?
A large component of shadow work is getting to know your “inner shadow” or “shadow self.” It might sound like your dark side or something innately bad, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Your inner shadow simply refers to all of the parts of yourself that you are not consciously aware of, Gradilone explains. These unconscious elements can refer to personality traits, beliefs, behaviors, values, and so on.
What is shadow work?
“The term ‘shadow work’ has gained in popularity lately, likely due to social media, like TikTok,” explains Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in MA. “It is not a new concept and many therapists help clients identify their shadow side or help clients understand why their less-liked characteristics developed, come out, or are maintained.”
Gradilone explains that shadow work involves “the attempt to uncover elements that are not conscious to us,” which is understood as one’s “shadow self.” The idea is that everyone has parts of themselves that have been repressed or ignored, which make up our shadow self and influence the way we perceive the world just as our non-shadow self does.
These aspects of our unconscious can be positive as well as negative. “For example, not being aware of the positive elements of our nature, if we are too self-critical,” Gradilone notes. In bringing awareness to all of the parts of ourselves, we can better regulate our emotions and strive toward self-improvement.
What are the potential benefits of shadow work?
“Anyone can benefit from understanding more about themselves and the characteristics they possess (or think they possess), that they are ashamed of, or that they have received feedback about,” Chait explains. “Gaining better insight into why you may behave or react a certain way can help you develop the skills necessary to either change those behaviors or use them in a more adaptive way.” Some benefits of shadow work may include:
Better understanding of one’s self
Improved wellness overall
Better coping skills
How to practice shadow work
While it can be done on your own, it’s best to start with a professional. “Shadow work is best done in the presence of someone trained to do so, because the shadow is unconscious,” Gradilone explains. “If you are personally unconscious of the presence of something, how are you going to know where to look?” Gradilone adds that throughout therapy, the shadow self emerges.
Gradilone suggests selecting a mental health professional who is trained in Jungian analysis or has a Jungian approach since the concept of shadow work originated with Jung. However, Chait adds that there are many different ways to approach shadow work, and many therapists have the skill set to help.
“I do not advertise myself as someone who does shadow work,” Chat emphasizes. “I conceptualize the shadow side [through the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) lens] and the work I do with clients addresses their shadow sides without necessarily calling it shadow work or using the word ‘shadow’ at all. This is probably true of most therapists.”
How to start shadow work
Experts agree that seeking a therapist to help with your journey is a great place to start. However, “people who want to explore their shadow self but don’t feel like they are experiencing distress or mental health concerns and want to just explore this on their own, definitely can,” Chait says.
If you’d like to start shadow work on your own, there are a few practices that may help. Chait recommends journaling, which may increase mindfulness and help you process a myriad of thoughts, emotions, and experiences. “However, if people identify shadow sides that they struggle to accept or change, therapy can help,” Chait adds.
Another way to do shadow work on your own is to take note of your dreams, which can give you insight into your unconscious. “Dreams are usually symbolic and not concrete in meaning. Try actively imagining a dream or an incomplete encounter forward,” Gradilone says. “How would you finish an incomplete dream or encounter? Free write or journal—without editing—no matter how crazy!”
Sample shadow work prompts
Some individuals like to practice shadow work by utilizing various prompts. A practice like this “will vary by therapeutic approach and whether someone is working on this alone or with a therapist,” Chait says, but shares a few she likes to use with her clients:
What are some beliefs you hold true about yourself and/or the world?
What are your values; what is important to you?
What are some things you wish were different about yourself?
Are there traits or behaviors you notice in your family that you worry you possess too?
What you’ve received feedback on about yourself—do you believe these things to be true about you?
Ultimately, shadow work is a method that involves introspection, and may help you feel more self-assured once you try it. We recommend starting with a mental health professional and seeing what you uncover.
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