Shadow work involves getting in touch with the parts of yourself that you've repressed — or what many might refer to as their "dark side."

By Tonya Russell
June 08, 2021
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You likely have a dark side - psychology says that everyone does - but there's also a process that might help you work through that part of yourself. It's called "shadow work," and involves "diving into the unconscious material that shapes our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors," according to therapist Akua Boateng, Ph.D. The goal is to make those unconscious fixations - such as the pain of a traumatic event - part of your conscious awareness so that you can then work on them in therapy, says Boateng. Those unconscious aspects, which are responsible for your impulsive behaviors and a part of your so-called dark side, can result from painful experiences, trauma, and past memories, explains Boateng.

Dealing with your past is necessary for healing, says Boateng. "As a result, I encourage clients to form a new relationship with some of the unlikeable, unreasonable, wounded parts of their psyche in order to integrate new patterns into their lives," she explains. This is where shadow work comes into play.

What Is Shadow Work? Young woman leaning against red wall, creating dramatic shadow with scribbles inside
Credit: Getty Images

What Is Shadow Work?

Popularized by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, M.D., the "shadow self" is a side that you may have learned to suppress as a child. For instance, if you were scolded for throwing a tantrum, you may have stored that anger away and put on a more socially acceptable smiling face for the world. You were taught early on that being angry was undesirable. This anger, as well as rage, jealousy, greed, and selfishness, are feelings that everyone has, but not everyone is comfortable expressing them. These suppressed emotions or characteristics are a part of your shadow personality.

"Shadow work is all about the unconscious mind, which consists of the things that we repress and hide from ourselves, such as traumas," and shadow personalities, explains Danielle Massi, L.M.F.T. Your shadow self might show up when you're triggered, in your relationships, and through varying levels of anxiety and depression, she says. And when this seemingly dark side does rise up, it might reveal that something about your personality that's worth a closer look.

While anyone can do shadow work, a licensed mental health expert is the best option for treatment, especially for helping someone who's experienced severe trauma, such as surviving an accident or experiencing violence or abuse. That's because they're trained to know how to help you work through trauma without experiencing re-traumatization, aka causing additional emotional and biological stress, according to the Center for Health Care Strategies. For the last year, Massi has frequently practiced shadow work with many of her clients. "As a psychotherapist for a decade, I felt that my clients and I could only get so far exploring the conscious and the subconscious mind," she says. "In order to best help my clients, I moved away from traditional psychotherapy and into shadow work to help them heal at a much deeper level." (Related: How to Find the Best Therapist for You)

The Goal of Shadow Work

"In my practice, I have seen clients break patterns of self-sabotage, addiction, and codependency [through shadow work]," says Boateng. "Some have faced the subconscious patterns that stem from childhood, sexual, or psychological abuse. By opening up to the shadow that you were previously resisting, you can see how your thoughts and feelings influence your behavior and create your reality. You empower yourself as you take responsibility for your projections." (Related: Why Everyone Should Try Therapy at Least Once)

Many people who undergo shadow work are looking to "solve for why." This means figuring out the root of their patterns which, Boateng believes, contribute to their shadow selves. "Instead of distancing themselves from learned behavior, leaning in with empathy brings about revolutionary change," says Boateng. "We all have the tendency to adapt to our circumstances and sometimes those circumstances require us to protect ourselves in undesirable ways." Translation: Your responses can often be a form of self-preservation. For instance, shutting down emotionally may have been a way for you to stay safe during childhood, though it may hinder your relationships going forward.

Seeking Shadow Work In Therapy

To determine if you should try shadow work, Boateng recommends paying attention to your relationship dynamics and, more specifically, any patterns that you tend to get stuck in (i.e. calling off a good "thing" the moment a potential partner starts to open up and wants you to do the same.) And if you decide this type of treatment might be worth a try, Massi recommends "working with a therapist who is trained in shadow work." That person may have taken accredited courses and received a Shadow Mastery Diploma, which is recognized by the Complementary Medicine Association. (More on how to find these types of pros below.)

A trained therapist might begin a shadow work session by having you enter into a meditative state - something Massi does, for example, by encouraging her patients to relax and breathe deeply. "When we're away and active, we're in a beta brain wave state," explains Massi. "When we're drifting off to sleep, we're in a theta [state]. When we're in a meditative state, we're also in a theta state. So a great way to think about being in a meditative state is to think about how you are when you're drifting off to sleep; conscious and aware, but a bit drowsy from the slowed frequency of the brain waves." This leaves you between states of consciousness. (Related: Why You Physically Feel Like Shit After Therapy, Explained By Mental Health Pros)

After guiding her clients into a completely meditative state, Massi uses specific lines of questioning to help them access repressed memories. She encourages them to use "all of their senses so that the information comes through vividly - as memories are encoded using multiple senses - and then I allow them to take the lead," she says. "I ask them to share what they are experiencing [while accessing a memory], and I just keep them moving forward through the process," by asking questions to probe deeper into the memory.

Sound familiar? It's possible that your therapist is already using some elements of shadow work in your treatment. "Some therapists might put it under [the umbrella of] 'self-awareness work' or 'emotional intelligence,'" explains Boateng. "Often psychoanalytic- or psychodynamic-trained practitioners [therapists or psychiatrists] incorporate shadow work," but they pair it as a technique with other forms of therapy, such as attachment and trauma-based work.

Unfortunately, there isn't a directory of practitioners who specifically focuses on shadow work, and Massi says that it's still considered more of a "new age" spiritual practice. However, the therapist database on Psychology Today lets you sort for Jungian-style therapy, which is the broader practice of bringing the conscious and unconscious mind together, and from there, you can inquire about shadow work. Also, a Google search for "shadow work near me" may be helpful. (Related: Why Is It So Hard to Make Your First Therapy Appointment?)

Trying Shadow Work On Your Own

Though it's best started with a therapist, many people may choose to undergo shadow work on their own, says Boateng.

Jenny Sarah, 32, of Milwaukee is currently going through her own transformative experience with shadow work through her own research and application. "I feel like it's worth the effort to understand more about some of the choices I've made that may not be healthy - particularly in relationships," Sarah tells Shape. "I've noticed over time I tend to try to 'fix' my significant others, even if they don't need it or ask for it." She believes that this pattern of being a "fixer" was a sort of coping mechanism from childhood.

To begin your own practice, "I would recommend beginning to practice meditation," says Massi. "When we meditate, our minds relax into an altered brain state where the unconscious mind is easily accessed." (Related: The Beginner's Guide to Meditation)

Massi recommends trying to relax by listening to soothing music and staring at a lit candle for at least five minutes to help focus your mind. She suggests noticing where your mind wanders and journaling your experiences and if any negative thoughts come up. "Instead of trying to force thoughts out of your mind, invite them in," she says. These thoughts can be revealing, explains Massi. Ask yourself what your thoughts are telling you, and that can help you to uncover your shadow self.

It's also worth paying attention to what triggers you on a daily basis and why. A good place to start is paying attention to relationship dynamics, according to Boateng. "Do you find yourself getting angry at certain types of conversations? Or feeling sad when seeing others succeed? These are signs of internal reactions that tell a story of your past experiences," she says. Massi has also created a shadow work journal that you can buy online with shadow work prompts to help guide you deeper into your shadow.

As with all forms of therapy and self-reflection, shadow work takes time and intention, and at times it may be painful. It's important to go through the process with self-compassion, says Boateng. "We mustn't judge ourselves for the behavior, but hold ourselves accountable for healing from the experience."