Shadow Self & Shadow Work
Updated: May 16
Have you ever heard of the term "shadow self"? Our shadow self refers to the part of ourselves, or the part of our personality, that we repress. The idea of the shadow self was popularized by Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who believed that the unconscious mind is filled with feelings and thoughts we do not want to acknowledge because they're too painful. These hidden parts of ourselves are mostly negative, however there are aspects of our shadow selves that are positive but hidden. These hidden parts could be feelings (like fear, anger, and sadness), pain, traumas, and unspoken truths (Caraballo, 2022).
Persona vs. Shadow
Our persona is who we show to the world. It's the mask we put on daily, and it's what people think of when they think of our personality. If you ask someone you know well to describe you, the adjectives they use reflect your persona and not your shadow, which consists of your deepest inner feelings and thoughts. It's natural for us to hide certain parts of ourselves from others, and when deep denial and pain come into play, those parts can even be hidden from ourselves. But just because this is a normal part of our existence as humans doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy. We can protect certain parts of our shadow from people who are not safe, but that easily can become us never showing our shadow and living in denial, which is a false reality.
What's in my Shadow?
For the majority of people, our shadow self is where we store our deepest insecurities, fears, and hurt. The core of our anxieties exist in our shadow, and can even include darker emotions such as rage, frustration, and anger; emotions people struggle to express in their every day life.
However, the shadow self also has some positive qualities! Young children who display sensitivity and/or assertiveness may become adults who push these qualities into their shadow self. We usually view these qualities as positive, so what would cause them to be stored in the shadow? Here's why: when you receive critical feedback in your younger years about natural parts of your personality, like being sensitive and/or assertive, you learn to internalize those parts and hide them, feeling shameful. As you become an adult, you may find yourself living in the tension of showing only your socially acceptable qualities to the world (persona) while minimizing the parts you were told were not okay. The confusion of living in that tension can cause inner turmoil as you experience connections and life.
But it's not just what you experience as a child that creates the shadow self. Adults also can minimize painful experiences, like losing someone the love, losing their job, living through a pandemic cough cough COVID. No two people experience trauma the same way, but we all do tend to minimize our reactions, feelings, and thoughts pretty immediately. Sometimes, we have to minimize those things because we do not have the time or capacity to face them when they occur, or maybe we choose to minimize them because we do not have the tools we need to sort through how overwhelming it all can be. Dealing with the deepest parts of ourselves can feel scary, so even though we know something is internally begging for our attention, we repress it because we're too scared to go there.
Why Do I Need to Go There?
Two of the most important tools for wellbeing and mental health are insight and awareness. If you think of people in your life who are toxic or abusive, I can guarantee that the two things they lack are insight and awareness. When we do shadow work, we're increasing our understanding of ourselves while also creating an effective way to increase your understanding of your fears and hopes.
When we have a lack of insight into ourselves, we experience pretty unsettling emotions almost constantly, like guilt, confusion, and shame. Gaining deeper clarity on our traumas helps us heal. And when we heal, we have greater mental health because the shame, guilt, and confusion we're almost constantly living with is released. We experience freedom from harmful patterns in our lives, such as toxic relationship patterns or jobs that constantly leave us feeling unfulfilled. When we take the time to go there, to go deep into our shadow self, we're able to make more informed decisions about how we need to address our pain and our needs. If we lack this type of deep insight, there's a high probability that we'll continue to remain stuck in the same challenges, issues, and patterns.
Beginning Shadow Work
Choosing to learn more about ourselves is a very loving thing. Thanks to the work of Caraballo's workbook, The Shadow Work Workbook (2022), here are a few tips you can use to begin exploring and learning about your shadow self:
Take your time. This is hard, deep psychological work, mostly because it almost feels natural for us to reject the parts of ourselves that aren't so wonderful. It can be exhausting fighting your way through the internalized messages we've received throughout our lives, or the anxious and depressing thoughts or feelings. This work takes a lot of energy, so give yourself permission to move at a slow pace.
Be patient. You probably won't get revelations about yourself immediately after starting. You might start gaining some insight in some areas of your shadow self more easily than others. Acknowledge the progress you make, but also know that there are other areas of your shadow self that will take more time and patience. Shadow work is an ongoing process; you'll never fully arrive. Rest in the joy of the journey.
Have a strong support system. Whether that's safe people or activities you love, it's important to incorporate your support system into your daily routine of doing shadow work. Don't get so lost in "doing the work" that you forget you're a real person who needs things to do that are fun, light, and easy. Surrounding yourself with friends and loved ones can also be helpful because they can provide validation and serve as sounding boards as you process.
Be compassionate towards yourself. We all struggle with being kind to ourselves, some days more than others, but we all could use more self-compassion to be emotionally healthy. This can look like reframing your thoughts or using affirmations. Self-compassion and self-acceptance are important tools on the road to healing.
If you're interested in exploring your shadow self, this workbook is an excellent place to start! You can find it here.
Caraballo, J. (2022). The Shadow work workbook: Self-care exercises for healing your trauma and exploring your hidden self.
At Root Counseling, we work with clients to help them explore their shadow self and continue moving forward on their healing journey. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.