Is Shadow Work Dangerous & How Do We Do It?
I hate to break it to you, but shadow work has been given a bad name. Just look at the term - shadows are scary and we want to run away from shadowy, unknown things. And work? Who likes work? But what is shadow work really, and why are we so resistant to it? With spooky terms like "shadow work," It's no surprise there are still many stigmas surrounding mental health and therapy. More people than ever in the Western world consider depression + anxiety a part of who they are. Avoiding these issues, self-medicating, and distracting has become the norm, though it's not healthy or functional. As a culture, we need to start seeing shadow work as the fulfilling, fascinating, and transformative process it actually is -- ideally as soon as possible.
Of course, the deeper we get into shadow work, the more troubling and painful the emotions can be. But this doesn't make shadow work dangerous - in fact, it's far more dangerous to run from your shadow self.
What Exactly Is Shadow Work?
The short answer: Shadow work is processing your emotions without judgement.
The long answer: Shadow work is founded on the basic concept that there is a conscious mind, which you are very familiar with, and an unconscious or subconscious mind, which you are not familiar with. This is why self sabotage is such a common topic in psychology - there's a dichotomy (e.g. you may consciously want something, but subconsciously fear it).
As you can imagine, all sorts of problems can arise from this lack of self awareness. You may really want certain things in life, but avoid them because an experience taught you to fear them. You may grapple with chronic depression, apathy, phobias, or anger and have no genuine understanding of why. You may feel codependent in relationships and powerless to change it. All of these little things can impact your relationships, career satisfaction, family life, income, health, etc. In other words, the more gunk you have in your subconscious, the less happiness and self-empowerment you can access.
Having a slew of negative, repressed emotions is like having a ton of apps on your phone - You may not be consciously using them, but they are using up your data in the background.
Emotional healing is a natural byproduct of shadow work (although you can focus on it deliberately) because traumas are often stuffed down deep in the psyche. In other words, the bad things that happen to you (especially at very young ages) leave permanent imprints. They create fears, beliefs, and tendencies in us that we forget about.
In addition, any of your personal traits that were deemed "wrong" (either by you or your caregivers) will exist in your shadow. This is hugely important to understand because the trait will express itself in a negative way (e.g. healthy confidence becomes cockiness, self-loathing, or some other warped expression). Another example: someone's drive and ambition becomes perfectionism or anorexia. In short, when something in you is being repressed, it will find a way to express itself.
How Is Shadow Work Actually Done?
Again, there is no one answer to how shadow work must be done.
A typical starting point for many people is shadow work meditation. Meditation is accessible to anyone, and the more you practice, the more you get the hang of it. Any meditation that causes you to observe or recognize inner discomfort is a great start. Before launching straight into trauma work, try a simple vipassana meditation just to get used to sitting with your discomfort. It's important to cultivate a sense of safety within yourself first.
For shadow work, the best time to practice it is right when you are triggered. So if you experience something that stirs up a strong negative emotion in you, right away, it's a good idea to pay attention and explore it rather than repress it. Teal Swan has a really effective process (see her do it with a client here) that you can do on your own. If you feel that something stirring in you is too much to handle (e.g. panic, grief, etc), remember that YOU are in control. You never have to "heal" everything all at once. Just getting a glimpse into why you have a recurring emotion is major progress in itself. There is no destination you must strive toward; the process is one of exploration.
2. Some practitioners recommend art and music therapy - especially if you have trouble opening up verbally. (Hint: if you are an artist of any kind, you may already be doing some shadow work without realizing it ;)
3. Another good awareness exercise to start with is writing. When you feel a strong negative emotion come up, grab a pen and paper and just start describing it. Don't hold back and continue until you basically feel you've "detoxed" from the emotion. Then, go back and reread what you scribbled down - notice any recurring themes (e.g. self-hatred, feeling ignored, etc). When I began shadow work, I was surprised to find the same emotions arises in seemingly unrelated situations - for me, these were dread and grief.
If you want a comprehensive guide to get started, check out The Shadow Workbook, a digital shadow work kit that provides 5 easy processes, along with in-depth information on how shadow work can help you.
Well, that's a loaded question, and I think it's a several-part answer. Aside from what we already talked about (therapy in general is stigmatize, the term "shadow work" sounds dangerous), shadow work is, frankly, a challenge. It is a humbling process you can't do just once. To reap the benefits, you must weave it into your life. This takes patience, discipline, and courage that some people simply don't feel they can muster.
In addition, gauging progress, understanding what thoughts/feelings arise, and implementing new knowledge can be confusing. Not everyone is a therapist! And let's face it - where in our education system do we receive guidance on ANY of this? Unless your dad was Carl Jung, shadow work is probably a foreign and new process for you. In many ways, societal has taught us that shadow work is dangerous - going into darker emotions makes you crazy, mentally ill, or even evil. But let's be honest - this is total bs.
Going TOWARD negative emotions does feel counterintuitive at first. Our nervous system compels us to push these feelings away and escape them. So shadow work is a careful overriding of our natural human instinct to fight or flee.
Want more guidance on shadow work and emotional mastery? Subscribe to the Exist Better YouTube channel or learn how to do practical shadow work with The Shadow Workbook.