If You're Struggling With Self-Forgiveness, It Might Be Time to Explore Shadow Work

When it comes to exploring ways to understand and improve your mental health, whether you're dealing with anxiety, managing your depression, or struggling with ADHD, there are a lot of different techniques out there, from meditation to stress-reducing mindfulness activities to self-care practices. It can be overwhelming to figure out where to start or what to try. Shadow work, a unique approach which involves digging deep into your past in order to gain clarity, confidence, and self-forgiveness in the present, is one of many options to consider.

“Shadow work is helpful for anyone interested in inner transformation rather than surface level change,” Asha Goldstein, LCSW, a psychotherapist and certified Shadow Work® Coach. “It is a wonderful approach for people who struggle with shame, guilt, or self-judgment, or who have difficulty in interpersonal relationships,” Goldstein explains, and can be “especially effective for those who have some existing capacity for self-insight and empathy.”

The shadow work process may be emotional and exhausting, but the payoffs can be significant. Think: identifying and ultimately unburdening yourself from certain traits and experiences that you might not even realize cause you to get in your own way. “Shadow work is especially helpful for those who feel easily triggered and often, and those who feel disconnected from their purpose in life – like they have ticked all the boxes, and yet they are still not happy or fulfilled,” explains Tara Swart, MD, a neuroscientist, author of The Source, and senior lecturer at MIT.

What is shadow work?

Shadow work originates from principles of early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who “first defined the shadow as the ‘unknown dark side’ of the personality that the ego fails to accept,” Swart explains. “Our shadows are the parts of ourselves that we've rejected and hidden away deep within our unconscious mind, usually due to familial expectations or societal pressure,” she says.

Like much of Jung’s theories (and those of Sigmund Freud, for whom Jung was a major influence), shadow work is rooted in the belief that who we are today is extremely tied to our formative experience. “As children, we are born whole and complete, and we are also fully dependent on our caretakers for survival,” explains Swart, and key interactions from youth “can cause us to hide away certain parts of ourselves deemed undesired or unloveable,” she says. To deal with those sorts of situations and responses, “we create patterns when we feel unsafe that live in our subconscious and can continue long after childhood,” Swart says.

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Benefits of shadow work

“Shadow work gives people greater understanding of the complex dynamics of their emotions and ways of relating to themselves and the world,” Goldstein explains. “It supports people in accessing greater self-compassion and self-acceptance through helping them recognize how aspects of themselves that they struggle with originated in their lives as important survival strategies.” While the process may be draining and difficult, the benefits of shadow work are all about gaining deeper understanding of yourself that “creates a strong foundation for being able to transform ways of thinking and relating to the world that no longer serve us,” Goldstein says.

Becoming more self-aware through shadow work can help you be kinder to yourself and your loved ones, by “reducing projection when interacting with others, and minimizing negative or unhealthy conflict,” Swart says. “We know our shadow has been activated when we feel irrationally irritated or disgusted by someone’s behavior, as it is often pointing to a trait we have disowned within ourselves,” she continues, and identifying these sorts of (often subconscious) projections is “You can expect to experience increased compassion and understanding for others, particularly those who you have judged or disliked in the past.” The practice may also help “cultivate confidence and safety in ourselves” by digging into qualities that bug you about others, Swart says, and also “feel less affected by shame and perfectionism.”

Shadow work may help you discover, make peace with, and even reconnect with traits and desires that may have been repressed for some reason or another and continue to impact your identity and happiness in the present. “For example, if you were a very creative child who dreamt of being a painter, but came from a family that did not respect artistic endeavors, or told you that it was no way to make a living, there is a good chance you could have put that part of your personality into your shadow,” Swart explains.

“You may have instead chosen a career that was ‘respectable,’ but feel empty and disconnected from your true interests and calling,” and shadow work can help you “learn to accept and love these suppressed traits, wants, and needs—bringing them back into your consciousness and integrating your disowned self.” Basically, think of it as a deep-dive into traits, decisions, and actions from the past that have defined your experiences—and the things you didn’t do or the person you haven’t become as a result. “It’s a great tool for living more from a place of greater authenticity” per Swart, “it helps us remove the social mask we may wear every day, and rediscover what innately delighted and interested us as children.”

What are the dangers of shadow work?

Shadow work can resurface “painful memories and past traumas” in the process of showing “the ways in which — and, most importantly why — we have struggled with our relationships, or never allowed ourselves to be fully seen,” Swart cautions, which can be really wipe you out emotionally. That means having ample support and guidance during shadow work to make you feel comfortable is key. “It is important that shadow work be done in a safe and supported environment with someone who is trained to facilitate the work in a gentle and contained way,” Goldstein says, with “pacing and direction guided by the participant” and no ulterior motives or “agenda by whomever is leading the process.“

Despite these possible challenges and pain points you might experience in the process, remember that shadow work is ultimately intended to make you feel better — and more comfortable and happy with yourself and your life – so it “should always be relieving of shame and responsive to participant needs and boundaries,” says Goldstein.

How to begin shadow work:

“Shadow work is a process of careful and gradual excavation,” Swart explains, so “the first step is to simply become aware of what's hidden and shine a light on your shadow.” Goldstein recommends finding a professional who’s trained in one of “the many therapeutic and personal growth modalities that incorporate shadow work” in some capacity.

And then, you’ll want to brace yourself for a potentially intense, emotionally tiring process, especially as you’re just starting out. “It is common to feel emotionally and physically drained, or even exhausted, when beginning shadow work,” Swart explains, because “it requires extending our awareness into relationships, habits and parts of ourselves that we habitually ignore.” So, be sure to treat yourself with a little more TLC than usual: “Make sure to be extra gentle with yourself through this process–listen to your body and its needs, whether it’s more sleep, a gentler workout, or a hug from a loved one,” suggests Swart.

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Shadow work exercises to get you started:

If you’re ready to give shadow work a try on your own, Swart recommends beginning by “meditating on and confronting your own shadow to explore these sides of yourself that you've exiled or repressed.

Start with a 15- to 20-minute meditation in which you’re “asking to meet your shadow,” she explains: “Imagine the very worst version of yourself. What does it look, act, even smell, like?” Swart says, paying attention to “what specifically are you repulsed by” when thinking about this, Swart advises, which might be qualities like “being desperate, overweight, crazy, or a liar,” for example. “Then, ask yourself, ‘why is this trait particularly upsetting to me? What could have informed this intense dislike?’” Swart says.

Once you’ve finished meditating, it’s time to “journal on your experience of meeting your shadow, what traits were most triggering, and what you learned about yourself,” Swart says. She recommends journaling with prompts “that focus on childhood, triggers, and subconscious judgments,” such as:

  • “What was expected of me as a child?”

  • “What behaviors and emotions were judged by my caretakers?”

  • “What do I dislike about or judge myself for most?”

  • “What do I dislike about others?”

  • “What pattern of reactions or interactions do I find triggering in my closest relationships?”

Bottom line:

Shadow work can be an intense experience. However, under the supervision of a trained professional, it can be beneficial for those who are having a hard time finding meaning and fulfillment in their lives.

If you ever need to talk to someone, there are therapy apps and online support groups at your disposal. Visit mhanational.org if you're in crisis, and in emergencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or text "NAMI" to 741-741.

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