Shadow work is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on the “shadow self,” which is the parts of the psyche that people often keep hidden, such as trauma and resentment.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung first developed the concept. Jung used the term “shadow self” to describe the things people repress or do not like to acknowledge. He theorized that it is a counterweight to the persona, which is the self that people present to others.
Although the shadow self can include negative impulses, such as anger and resentment, Jung believed that it also held the potential for positive impulses, such as creativity. He felt that the shadow self is integral to a person’s experience of the world and their relationships.
He also thought that a person could gain a better understanding of themselves and become more balanced by working with their shadow self.
Read on to learn more about shadow work.
Shadow work comes from the concept of the shadow self, which originates in Jungian psychology.
According to Jung, a personality includes the persona, which is the personality that people show to the public, and the shadow self, which remains private or hidden. Unlike the persona, the shadow self often includes traits that a person does not like to show.
However, Jung did not view the shadow as a negative or shameful part of a person’s personality. To him, it was an important part of their psyche.
The goal of shadow work is to assimilate the shadow and the persona so that a person can learn how to manage impulses they usually ignore, such as anger or greed.
Jung also believed that the collective unconscious influences the shadow. The collective unconscious is a Jungian idea that refers to the collective memories and impulses of society as a whole. As a result, systemic issues such as racism also fit into Jung’s idea of what the shadow self comprises.
Just as shadow work might help a person confront the parts of their personality that they usually avoid, Jung thought it might allow them to address prejudices and impulses resulting from broader social ills.
As the shadow is a concept, it is not something that scientists can tangibly measure. It is also subjective and varies based on context. For example, something that is acceptable in one culture might be taboo in another, which affects whether it becomes part of the shadow self.
As a result, there is not much scientific research on the effectiveness of shadow work. Instead, most research on this approach emphasizes how a person might use it to solve specific challenges.
For example, a 2022 paper argues that creative writing may help a person process trauma and that drawing on Jung’s understanding of the unconscious may be particularly helpful.
Anecdotally, practitioners of shadow work say that it helps them with:
- identifying and countering negative personal traits, as well as negative traits that society has instilled in them
- learning to be more accepting of themselves
- understanding the challenges other people face with their shadow selves
- confronting trauma, grief, and other challenging emotions
- understanding how society, childhood, and various relationships influence their lives and interactions
In some cases, components of the shadow self may motivate good acts. For example, a person may find that confronting their implicit biases, which they may not usually think about, can help them work to change them.
Similarly, being more aware of their anger may help a person channel that anger for good, such as by fighting for a just cause.
Shadow work is not a common practice, and few people are trained in this type of psychotherapy.
It begins with a willingness to explore the shadow self, even if a person finds doing so scary or uncomfortable. Some specific strategies include:
- Dream analysis: Jung highly valued dreams as tools for accessing the unconscious and the shadow self. A person can log their dreams and look for repeating themes or symbols to see whether they notice aspects of their mind that they usually ignore. A person may also want to seek insight from a Jungian analyst.
- Journaling: Journaling can help a person explore their unconscious thoughts and desires by looking for patterns and themes. A person may follow prompts, tell stories, talk about their day, or engage in free association.
- Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis was, according to Jung, the ideal avenue for exploring the shadow self. In psychoanalytic psychotherapy, an analyst helps a person interpret dream archetypes, symbols in their unconscious mind, and the true motives behind their actions.
- Sand tray therapy: Sand tray therapy uses sand trays to promote meditative mindfulness and to encourage a person to create scenes that accurately depict their inner life. This may help them explore their unconscious mind and shadow self.
In Jungian psychology, shadow work involves the assistance of a psychoanalyst who guides a person through their shadow self.
Beginners may find it beneficial to seek advice from a trained practitioner — either a Jungian psychoanalyst or someone practicing a more contemporary version of shadow work. However, it may be difficult to find a specialist, as the practice is uncommon.
Some other tips for beginners include:
- going slowly
- being mindful that shadow work can be difficult and upsetting
- practicing self-care and compassion when unexpected thoughts or feelings come up
- approaching the shadow self with a spirit of curiosity and acceptance
It is also worth noting that shadow work is just one way to explore the characteristics that a person perceives as shameful or undesirable.
Many types of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, can help a person better understand their self-perceptions and make their implicit beliefs more explicit.
Shadow work exercises focus on helping a person bring into the light that which was previously hidden in the dark.
If a person wants to begin the process alone, they can consider these journaling prompts:
- What things do you most fear others discovering about you?
- Do you ever feel shame? Why?
- What are your biggest triggers, and where do you feel they come from?
- What are your negative self-images or thoughts about yourself?
- When you are very angry at others, what things do you think about them?
- What do your recent dreams tell you about your fears?
Shadow work has influenced various types of spirituality, including astrology and other New Age beliefs. Some people believe that doing shadow work can result in a spiritual awakening or a connection with a spiritual world.
Jung himself did not rule out the influence of spirituality on the psyche, even though most of his theories focus on biological explanations for why humans think and behave the way they do.
As people have mixed and combined Jung’s ideas with those of many other belief systems, there is no single model of shadow work in spirituality.
Shadow work draws on philosophical and psychological concepts that Carl Jung developed in the 20th century. Its aim is to assimilate the parts of the self that a person considers undesirable into the rest of their personality. In more recent years, it has also become a part of some spiritual traditions.
Many types of therapy can foster self-awareness, better relationships, and emotional health. A person considering psychotherapy can interview different therapists to assess their approaches. They can then select the therapist they feel can best support their needs.