What is Shadow Work and How to Preform It

I talk about Shadow Work. A lot.

It’s vital to not only my practice, but my well-being. In fact, I’d say that it’s why I am who I am, and why I believe in magick and energy the way I do.

Coined by Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, the “shadow” is the unconscious aspects of ones self or personality. In Jungian philosophy, it’s said that we all carry every characteristic of man, yet, most of us are only consciously accepting of the traits we consider “good”.

The definition of “good” is derived not only by social standards, but by our very survival as an individual. From early childhood, we’re taught how to act, what to think, and what is expected of us- pushing natural and instinctive parts of us into the shadow to survive in a larger and greater world than our own.

However, in his philosophy, Jung proposes that the subconscious nature of man is projection- we see what we hide in ourselves projected onto people and automatically reject it (therefore rejecting our shadow). Because the experience of the individual, and what they’ve learned or survived, is wholly different than anyone else, I cannot begin to describe the many different ways a shadow may appear for each person.

It is always there, though, lurking.

Someone once said that when we judge someone there are two trains of thought: the immediate and the thereafter. The immediate thought, the first one to come to mind when you see or interact with another person, is what you’ve been taught. The thereafter is what you’ve learned.

In an example, it is a person having a racist thought when exposed to another person, but immediately telling themselves that was wrong and stereotypical.

The first thought is who you’ve been taught to be, whereas the second thought is who you actually are. Jung would say differently; they both are who you are, they are just different aspects of yourself.

The racist thought is a debased human emotion derived from hatred and primal superiority. Though in society it’s disgusting and shouldn’t be propagated, it is the instinctual nature to place ones self above ALL others in a race for genetic immortality. The thought that comes after is survival- it is what we’ve learned based on what we’ve been taught is acceptable and formidable behavior.

The former is our Shadow, while the latter is our Ego.

Which seems contradictory in a world that views Freud’s definition of Ego as supreme, but it is. Our Shadow is the part of ourselves we deny- in this case, the base instinct in which we value other human lives below our own. We are biologically created to perpetuate our own gene pool, and primitively speaking- we see our genes as superior.

Our Ego is the part of us that speaks out and leads us into survival and social acceptance. It’s the aspect of ourselves that denies the shadow, and tries to separate us from it. It is our chosen identity, judging everyone and everything around us that reminds us of our inner most subconscious beings.

This battle wages on inside us at all times, and for each person, it is significantly unique. What we’ve been taught, what we’ve accepted as lessons, defines how we see the world and what parts of us we allow to shine- hiding the rest away to be projected onto others.

Shadow Work is the process of waving a white flag between both sides and recognizing the “why” behind our judgments, our fears, and our hostilities. It is very much like being a clockmaker and seeing beyond the face of the clock into its inner gears and mechanisms- understanding why and how it works.

In Jung’s principal of Shadow, he claims that the only way we can overcome it is to face it- to assimilate it into our Ego. We do this by working through and accepting parts of ourselves that are in denial.

Let’s go back to the previous example of having a racist thought. As a white woman, I I have a privilege in this country. Even though I recognize that, there are times when I still don’t fully understand it; however, to deny that it exists entirely is not accepting the Shadow. I have power that others do not, whether I want it, or intentionally use it, is not up for debate. I don’t have to like it, believe its acceptable, or even agree with it to understand that it is still there.

However, contrary to popular belief, the Shadow isn’t just “bad”. There’s good there too that we cover up and hide in order to survive traumas or past abuse.

To assimilate our Shadow, we must preform what psychologists and witches alike call Shadow Work.

There are many, many, many different ways to going about this, and over the next couple of months I’ll be detailing several of those.

For now, I’d like to keep it simple- as this post has already gotten very lengthy.

Whenever we have a thought, or feeling, that doesn’t bring us contentment- it is possible that we’re experiencing a disconnect with our Shadow and Ego. When this happens, instead of shoving the uncomfortable feeling aside- we must explore it. To understand it, we must first acknowledge why it’s there.

In order to do this, we must ask ourselves “why” until we get down to the most base issue causing the projection. When asking, we don’t spend time thinking of the answer, it’s a rapid fire questionnaire that leads to our basement thoughts peeking through.

I’ll show you a basic exchange, from my own life.

I have social anxiety. It’s awful meeting new people. I get clammy, I get tense, and I have this overwhelming sense of fear.

Why do I feel this fear?

I think they’ll hate me.

Why will they hate me?

Because they’ll see I’m not as cool as I wish I was.

Why will they see I’m not as cool as I wish I was?

Because I’m not cool.

Why am I not cool?

Because I’m a loser.

Why am I a loser?

Because I hate everything about me.

Why do I hate everything about myself?

Because I was taught I’m worthless.

Why was I taught I was worthless?

Because my parents didn’t want a child.

Why didn’t they want a child?

Because they weren’t capable of being parents yet.

In the above, the italic answers are superficial, they are based on fear. The bold answers are digging into the Shadow. I realize I feel like a loser, meaning everyone else will automatically see me as a loser. I feel this way because I was taught to feel this way about myself- I’ve survived by placing this label on myself as worthless. Because of this, I cannot love myself and therefore cannot expect anyone else to love me. When I go further, I realize it comes from my parents’ own inabilities that have pushed me into feeling this way.

In order to assimilate it into my ego, I must accept that I have worth. I am a kind person who loves emphatically. Therefore, if I have worth- my “teachings” were wrong. If that is wrong, then the entire Shadow surrounding my social anxiety starts to glow with enlightenment. I am not worthless, therefore, I shouldn’t hate everything about myself.

So, the next step is to list all the things I love about me. I’ll give you a few examples:

I love that I’m a mom. I love that I’m a wife. I love my kind heart. I love my hair. I love my eye color. I love my passion for writing. I love my ability to make people feel comforted.

All of those things gives me value to myself.

Now, even though I cannot change how my parents taught me, or what I learned from them, or even how they felt about me- I can change how I let it affect me.

If I have value to myself, if I love myself, then I am not a loser. If I am not a loser, then I have potential to be cool. If I am cool, then I have the potential for people to not hate me automatically. If people don’t hate me, then I have no reason to fear.

Sure, it’s a conscious every-day talk I have to have with myself, and it’s one that I constantly have to work on. I shared the other day that I am not the type of person to always reach out first because I feel as if I’m a burden to people- meaning, I have more lingering issues in the Shadow.

By bringing them forward, I can start to understand them. I’ll understand that my social anxiety isn’t based on people actually hating me, as that’s rarely happened, it’s because my parents hated me. My parents are not the world, and even though they developed my survivial instincts to assume everyone was like them, by realizing where these feelings come from I can start to disassemble them one by one.

When you’re doing your own Shadow Work this way, you’ll know when you get past the superficial because two things will likely happen. One, it will surprise you. The first time I realized I hated myself, I cried. It came out of nowhere, during the rapid fire questioning, and I was shocked. It was such a cathartic cry, however, as the realization that so many of my issues stem from my inability to love me the way I need to allowed me to start seeing things for what they were. Second, you will feel the weight of that Shadow lift as you also realize how heavy it was to carry.

I wasn’t angry with the man who called me ugly, necessarily, I was hurt that he echoed my own feelings about myself.

Those awful feelings we have are based on something else. It’s that cliche that when you’re arguing about nothing, it’s because there’s something you are trying to avoid.

That’s Shadow.

Shadow Work is getting past the superficial nothing to work through the thing we’re avoiding so we can stop being pestered by it.

Again, we’ll be going over more ways over the next few months, but I wanted to give you a simple way that I do things- in hopes that you all would like to continue on this journey of self-discovery with me!

What thoughts, or ill feelings, plague you? Do you find that you’re quick to judge someone else? Why?

Get deep until you hit that darkness, and then keep going. You will find your Shadow, and just maybe, you’ll learn to love it as I’ve begun to.

Until next time, my friends…