Why you should get to know your “shadow” self

Experts explain how confronting your darkest impulses can help you grow as a person.

Illustration of a person with a heart on their chest
Maxine McCrann
Mental Health
Originally Published: 

These past few years have felt like an unrelenting confrontation with the darkest facets of human nature. Multiple quarantines and the inescapable news cycle have left us with precious little respite from the complexity of our emotions. We have been faced with disease, systemic oppression, climate disaster, and a government that has often seemed to be veering closer and closer to fascism. Add to that the mundane rollercoaster of daily life, and what you have is the perfect conditions for forced reflections on the state of humanity.

The thing is that most of us can’t think about humanity as a concept without including ourselves — nor should we. When George Floyd was murdered, we all asked ourselves how we have been personally complicit in the white supremacist worldview that allows such atrocity. COVID has made us very aware of how much we are — or aren’t — willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of others. Basically, a lot of us have ended up asking ourselves not just whether humans are good, but whether we ourselves are good.

Binary notions of good and evil, though, are unfortunately limited — not to mention problematic. The truth is we really do contain multitudes, and much of what’s inside us isn’t easy to neatly label. The best we can do is get to know ourselves, honestly and with compassion. That’s where shadow work — a tool for dealing with our less palatable human emotions — comes in. I asked psychologists to help me understand what shadow work is and how it can help us move toward great self knowledge and acceptance, and to provide shadow work prompts we can all use to get started.

The truth is we really do contain multitudes, and much of what’s inside us isn’t easy to neatly label.

What is shadow work?

“Shadow work” is a term that was first coined by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, that’s recently become something of a pop psych catchphrase. “Shadow work involves delving deeper into the ‘darker side’ of ourselves — aka the shadow self,” Charlotte Kirsten, a psychotherapist in London, tells Mic. Your shadow self, Kirsten explains, is made up of everything about yourself you’ve repressed — in other words, made unconscious — as a way to fit in, feel loved, or be appreciated.

“Therefore, [your shadow self] can harbor everything from intense embarrassment to bitter sadness to profound rage; the full spectrum of emotions,” Kirsten says. Shadow work, then, is the emotional and intellectual labor you do to get to know your shadow self in all its potentially messy glory. For many people, doing shadow work means excavating our psyches to bring the parts of ourselves we’ve been hiding — even from ourselves — into the light.

What’s the point of shadow work?

Why would you want to dredge up all the ick and muck that your conscious mind has so skillfully buried? Well, the whole good/bad binary really falls apart when it comes to emotions. “A ‘shadow’ is a part of an individual and should not be judged as a mistake or flaw,” Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in NYC, tells Mic. “The work itself is about cultivating self-awareness to arrive at compassion and self-acceptance. Although it entails therapeutic aspects, it has a more spiritual aspect and encourages people to explore all different parts of themselves.” In a way, shadow work is a psychological project with pretty metaphysical intimations, since the whole idea of “bad” comes to most of us through the — essentially Christian — values that most Americans have been milk-fed.

The intention of shadow work is to find a way to get right with the parts of you that you think are flaws, by trying to uncover the “why” behind them. That’s no small task. “Many have become very adept at avoiding their own ‘shadows’ in a desire to put forth the best possible impression,” Hafeez says. But by doing this work, he says, people become aware of their “shadows,” learn to acknowledge them without criticism, and begin to improve them to become their highest selves. All that effort can result in significant healing.

“[Shadow work] can help to bring repressed trauma to the surface, negate shame, and help the person to move through life more happily and productively,” Hafeez says. Overall, doing this work can help form better relationships with others, enhance creativity, uncover hidden talents, have more compassion for others, and improve their mental health, he says.

“Shadow work is meant to be a tool for self-reflection, not self-destruction.”

How do you do shadow work?

“People can embark on shadow work on their own,” through journaling or self-reflection and meditation, Hafeez says. But, he adds, “For those who have experienced severe trauma, it is best to seek a licensed mental health specialist.”

Kirsten agrees on this point and adds that, before you start digging into the recesses of your brain, you need to check your intentions. “Shadow work is meant to be a tool for self-reflection, not self-destruction,” she says. “If you’re using it to highlight all your flaws and ‘prove’ just how ‘terrible’ or ‘unworthy’ you are, this is no longer shadow work. This is artificially creating evidence to further wound your psyche.” Basically, shadow work should be a tool, not a weapon.

In my personal experience with shadow work, I’ve found that writing is one of the best ways to go deep. That said, I’ve also found that it’s remarkably easy to get triggered, even if you’re just scribbling in a notebook at home alone. So before you get out your journal, figure out where you’re going to be most comfortable and what you will do if you do get triggered. If you’re scared to do this work alone, you don’t have to. Ask a friend if they want to co-journal with you, or make sure you have someone to call if you get spooked.

Shadow work prompts

Here are some great shadow work writing prompts from Kirsten:

  • Which emotion is the most uncomfortable for you to sit with? Why?
  • “I love and accept myself exactly as I am.” Explore this statement.
  • What is the greatest lie you keep feeding yourself? Where has this come from?
  • How important are you to yourself?
  • “I often downplay what I’m thinking or feeling for the sake of others.” How true is this?
  • Do you punish or self-sabotage yourself?
  • Do you allow yourself to be vulnerable?

Hafeez also has some great suggestions:

  • In what ways do you negatively or unfairly judge others?
  • What memories cause you shame?
  • What are the most negative traits a person can display? When have you been “guilty” of these?
  • Who/what are you jealous of and why?
  • Write a letter (without sending it) to the person who has most hurt you in your life. Think about the key bullet points you want in the letter and express them.
  • What are you most scared of? How could you safely challenge these fears without putting yourself in harm’s way?
  • What emotions/situations are your Achilles heel and bring out the worst version of you? How can you change your reaction to them?
  • Who are you holding resentments for and why?

Both Hafeez and Kirsten stress the need to be gentle with yourself when undertaking shadow work. “You can think of the shadow self as the wounded inner child that longs to be heard and seen,” Kirsten says. “Or more helpfully, you can think of it as you as a physical child.” So, if you choose to embark on this difficult work, try to remember that child is you and that you deserve all the care and compassion that you would offer any hurting human.