We often talk about ourselves having a dark side. We might mention that we try to keep this part of our personalities in check or talk about the things our dark sides tempt us to do. However, it turns out that this part of you is extremely important, and has a lot to teach you… The process of using this dark side is known as shadow work.
Using the work of psychologist Carl Jung, we'll look at how to make use of this darker part of our minds.
Beginning with an explanation of what your shadow side actually is, we'll work through the key questions you might have about the significance of your dark side.
We'll look at the origins of our shadow side – when, how, and why they develop – and consider the costs of holding back these parts of ourselves.
Finally, we'll explore the most significant benefits of working with your shadow side, and offer two detailed exercises you can use to start this work.
In the simplest terms, our shadow side or shadow self is the part of us that is chiefly made up of negative feelings.
For example, emotions like rage and greed exist in our shadow self, along with our darker impulses, such as the thirst for revenge.
As Jung explains it, this dark side of our nature is extremely primitive, with its desires and feelings harking back to some of the earliest experiences humans had in the fight for survival.
We often find this part of ourselves uncomfortable to think about, and may feel guilty when we indulge it.
After all, we typically want to conceive of ourselves as good people.
However, we all have a shadow side, and access this aspect of ourselves can actually be a useful source of insight and empowerment.
Even with the above explanation in place, perhaps you're asking yourself “What's part of my dark side, exactly?”. The answer is that the shadow self consists of everything that you push away and reject in yourself.
Anything that you want, think, or feel that you label inferior or unacceptable will be absorbed into the shadow self. In other words, if we experience something that doesn't fit with our chosen idea of who we want to be, it is disowned and packed away into this dark part of ourselves.
While most of these things are negative, they aren't necessarily so – anything that we disown goes to the shadow part of us.
This means that even positive or neutral traits that we reject can end up being integrated into our shadow side. For example, if you don't like being empathetic because it makes you feel weak, that ostensibly positive trait may be rejected.
And if you're not happy that you're attracted to a colleague because it's inconvenient and awkward, that neutral attraction may be rejected too.
Crucially, these bits and pieces that we disown can't really be annihilated. They live on in the shadow part of us, but we experience them as boxed away so that we no longer have to engage with them.
However, this lack of engagement can be to our detriment. The better we know ourselves and the more authentically we choose to live, the happier we tend to be.
So, in some cases, a failure to engage with a large and complex shade side can actually deny us the chance to be ourselves.
While many of us feel guilt and shame about our shadow traits, the truth is that they are out of our control.
They are not conscious, but unconscious – we no more choose our shadow selves than we choose the dreams we have at night.
We don't get to decide what is in.
These parts of ourselves, and ought not to blame ourselves for them.
However, we all differ in how “dense” our shadow selves are.
The more that you struggle with an inability to regulate emotions, the more likely you are to banish many thoughts, feelings, and impulses to the shadow side of your mind.
With time and work, we can become better at owning and regulating our own emotions, so that fewer things are perceived as threatening enough to be locked away in the shadow self.
That said, we'll never get rid of our shadow selves, and they serve an important function in even the most healthy, well-adjusted individual.
Now that we've answered the basic question “what is your shadow self?”, you might be wondering when this aspect of you came into being. For most people, the answer is a very early childhood.
All children experience love, joy, and kindness, but also rage, fear, and greed. Our caregivers send out cues about which parts of us are “good”, and which are “bad”.
We then accept the “good” bits as part of ourselves and send the “bad” parts to our shadow side.
Given the childhood origins of your shadow self, you might be tempted to think you can just ignore all of this in adulthood.
After all, you're no longer the disappointed kid who didn't get their basic needs met at some crucial moment, and who felt something so negative it had to be locked away.
However, ignoring negativity of the sort we find in our shadow side is a mistake. Our shadows persist, and if we don't give them conscious attention then they can influence our actions without our awareness.
Take rage, for example. If you're conscious of the anger in your shadow side, and the origins of that anger, you'll know when it might be triggered and can act to moderate it.
In contrast, if you refuse to acknowledge that rage, it may pop up unbidden in an argument with a loved one, leading you to say cruel things you don't truly mean.
There are other negative consequences of ignoring your shadow self. One of the most common is projection. Essentially, this is a psychological phenomenon where we see in others what we loathe in ourselves.
We then feel free to attack it once it is in another person. For example, suppose your ignored shadow side includes a disposition toward greed.
You may accuse your partner of being endlessly greedy when they are only a little greedy, and say that their greed disgusts you.
While this might sound like an odd way to deal with difficult feelings, it has long been documented in psychology as a way we deal with things we don't like about ourselves.
At this stage, then, we have a thorough picture of the shadow self and some of the ways we endure damage if we ignore that shadow.
Let's now look at the positive side – the benefits of exploring your shadow self, which can help you stop holding yourself back.
It's natural that people feel hesitant about engaging with their shadow selves. After all, it's more pleasant and affirming to think about our talents, our strengths, and the positive effect we feel about others.
It can feel daunting to look directly at the darkest parts of ourselves. You may be worried about what you might learn, or you might have a fear that looking at this side of yourself will cause you to somehow become a “worse person”.
However, in reality, shadow work techniques that help you explore your shadow side actually present tremendous opportunities for growth.
It can't make you a more negative person – it just gives you insight into negative thoughts and feelings you may have struggled with in the past.
If you're not yet sure that you want to engage in this kind of work yourself, read through these benefits and reflect on whether it may be worth trying.
While it might sound odd, there is compelling evidence that Jungian Shadow work can actually increase your energy.
Why would this be – why would looking at the darkest parts of yourself boost your energy levels?
To understand this, think about how much energy is used up when we're carrying unresolved issues.
When we push down beliefs, feelings, and anxieties because we don't like them, it's like we're hauling a huge suitcase behind us everywhere we go.
The result can sometimes be unexplained lethargy, sometimes also including disturbed sleep. Further, when we get tired own this way, it naturally starts to drag our mood down as well.
We may start to struggle with symptoms of depression, and a sense of dissatisfaction with our lives.
In contrast, when we do shadow work we look through that heavy suitcase and organize it so that it doesn't need to be so heavy. This helps us restore lost energy and can improve mental health as a result.
When you think about how to improve relationships, looking at your shadow side probably doesn't immediately spring to mind.
Indeed, you might think that your darkest parts can only harm your relationships, giving you even more reason to hide from them.
On the contrary, shadow work seems to help all our significant relationships – friendships, family bonds, and romantic partnerships.
This is because shadow work is all about coming to terms with this darker part of us and integrating it into us.
This means we know ourselves better. And when we know ourselves better, we're better able to voice our needs in relationships with others.
As a bonus, learning to accept our shadow side helps us accept the shadow side of our loved ones. We're more understanding, more empathetic, and more realistic about others.
Shadow work teaches us we're all worthy of love and care even though we all also carry pain and anger.
Finally, shadow work is also a wonderful recommendation for anyone looking to learn how to improve creativity skills.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
For one thing, in spite of stereotypes, the mentally healthy consistently test as more creative and productive.
Secondly, if you learn how and when to engage with your shadow self, you have much more to draw on in your creative work.
In other words, nothing is too scary to explore.
While you're hiding from your shadow self, you'll unconsciously put up walls that limit where your creativity is allowed to go.
For example, if you're a writer, you may veer aware from certain themes that spark repressed rage in you.
Or, if you're a musician, you might find yourself stuck when composing because you begin to engage with buried emotions that feel too overwhelming. In contrast, after shadow work, you can lean into this darkness and even find the beauty in it.
If you now feel ready to start doing your own shadow work exercises, there are two basic techniques that you may want to try.
Suitable for beginners who want to dip a toe into connecting with their shadow, these exercises are easy and practical.
This first exercise draws on the importance of emotional intelligence.
To begin, consider that your shadow self is deliberately evasive. We're very well practiced at repressing it and keeping it distant.
However, the more often we focus on our feelings, thoughts, and actions, the more likely we are to notice the presence of our shadow. There are lots of ways to do this, but the current techniques ask you to focus on how you react to people around you.
Notice your strongest reactions, and take note of them. One way to do this is to take five or ten minutes at the end of each day to make a quick list of the biggest emotions you felt around people that day.
For example, perhaps your friend was late and you almost wanted to walk out of the restaurant. Alternatively, maybe you felt furious at your colleague when they seemed to be bragging about how well their recent presentation went.
The next step is to look at the items on this list and ask yourself this honest question: what do these reactions say about your shadow self? Remember the lesson that we project things we hate about ourselves onto other people.
Our biggest negative responses are often, deep down, negative reactions to ourselves. So, to return to one of the examples above, you might admit to yourself that part of your shadow self is pridefulness or smugness about certain achievements. This, really, is why you reacted to your bragging colleague.
The second key approach to shadow work is all about connecting with your inner voice. You might already have some experience of connecting with a spiritual inner voice, for example when doing certain types of mindfulness.
However, this new spin requires harder work – you have to be willing to hear the voice of the most disliked part of yourself. Note that Jungian experts aren't saying that you have to talk to yourself, as such.
Rather, the idea is that we all have multiple “parts” to our personalities and that we can engage in dialogue with all these bits of ourselves.
When we don't listen to some parts of ourselves, they can influence our behavior when we don't want them. For example, failing to listen to the angriest part of ourselves leads that anger to build and build until it comes out – perhaps at an undeserving target.
We can all think of times when we spoke or acted in a way that led us to ask “Why did I do that?”. Most times, the answer is that your shadow self was briefly in the driver's seat. And the only way to prevent this is through active dialogue.
One relevant technique involves keeping a “shadow self journal”. Try to connect to this darkest aspect of you at least once a week, and let that part write an entry about its negative thoughts and feelings.
Then, with a compassionate eye, read these entries and try to understand where this negativity comes from in your history.
In this guide, we've given you an introduction to the importance of your shadow side. We've looked at how you can work with that hidden part of yourself to improve emotional health, build self-awareness, and live a more authentic life.
However, there are limitless ways to take this self-development forward. One of the most effective ways to improve mental health is self-hypnosis – and we offer a wide range of programs aimed specifically at improving our emotional health.
Hypnosis only helps you change in the ways you want to, and self-hypnosis allows you to experience these transformational sessions in the privacy of your own home.
Self-hypnosis and shadow work have something significant in common. Specifically, they both help you to tap into your subconscious thought processes, making changes that promote healing.
Self-hypnosis guides you into a deep state of relaxation, where you become susceptible to suggestions that can help you feel better about yourself and your life.
So whether you struggle with anxiety or a phobia, constantly battle low self-esteem, feeling overwhelmed by stress, or just have a sense something is holding you back, self-hypnosis can help you take a huge step forward.