What Is Shadow Work?
Shadow Work® is a personal growth process which brings your hidden powers out of the shadow and into the light. We all have these hidden powers within us. But we don’t always allow ourselves to use them. We have all been hurt, and we have learned to hide parts of ourselves so we don’t get hurt again.
Shadow Work® is a way to explore the inner landscape and discover the gold that is hiding in the shadows. It is a way to become more and more who we really are. Shadow Work® is a way to face the hurt, the fear, the anger, and learn how to live more fully. Most of all, it is a way to love ourselves for the journeys we have chosen.
What Is A Shadow?
The term “shadow” was first used by Carl G. Jung to describe the repressed or denied part of the Self. Robert Bly popularized this idea in A Little Book on the Human Shadow. Bly says that we were each born into a “360-degree personality.” As infants we expressed the full breadth of our human nature, without editing or censoring.
As we grew up, however, we learned that certain slices of our 360-degree pie were unacceptable to the people around us. Maybe we were shamed for crying or punished for being angry. Maybe we were ridiculed for wanting attention or acting proud of ourselves. So, we learned to repress those slices of our pie; the ones that got us hurt. According to Bly, it was as if we threw these unacceptable qualities over our shoulder into a bag, which we’ve been dragging around behind us ever since.
In Shadow Work®, we define “shadows” as all the parts of ourselves we have stuffed into the bag. These may be “positive” parts or “negative” parts. Our shadows are all those parts we have split off, repressed or denied — the parts of ourselves we are afraid to show.
We believe it is proper and useful to have a shadow bag, and to keep some shadows in the bag. But when the weight of the bag slows us down and prevents us from being who we really want to be, it is time to open it up. It is time to find a safe place to look into the bag, examine its contents, and see what needs to come back out.
How Do I Recognize My Shadows?
You can identify your shadows by looking at what you project onto others. When you deny a trait in yourself, you tend to be very aware of that trait in other people. In the twelve-step tradition, they say, “If you spot it, you got it.” This means that you are most aware of those traits in others which reflect your own shadows. You may react irrationally to one of these traits in someone else, becoming unduly annoyed and blowing things all out of proportion.
You can also notice the traits which you admire the most in others. Who do you look up to? Who are your idols? We often project our golden shadows onto others, and get stars in our eyes, because these people represent the qualities we have disavowed in ourselves out of a false sense of modesty. You could say that we paint other people with our shadows, for better and for worse.
Another way to spot your shadows is to look for things you find yourself doing by accident. No matter how hard you try to keep your bag sealed, your shadows may leak out in a way that seems beyond your control. For example, you may promise yourself that you’re going to spend more time with your family, when you actually spend more time at work. You may find yourself jumping into a questionable relationship, when you know that this person isn’t right for you. You may ignore your own rules about eating, smoking or drinking. When you repeat a pattern of behavior involuntarily, it is a sign that your shadow is running the show.
Why Would I Do Shadow Work?
We believe that the core of every shadow contains a nugget of strength and power. Your shadows are like a gold mine of creative, useful energy. However, you may find that when a shadow has been in the bag for some time, it becomes crusty and a little smelly. When you decide to open the bag and examine some of the material hidden in there, you’ll want to be in a safe place. Your everyday life might not be the best arena for breaking in a new shadow. For example, you might not want to start expressing your repressed grief when you are at work. You might not want to experiment with your anger in your relationship. Your shadows can mess up your life; that’s why you put them in the bag in the first place.
Shadow Work® creates a place in your life to let things out of the bag slowly, choice fully and safely. In Shadow Work® you can experiment in a safe environment first, without the fear of real-life consequences.
You might not want to dive into your shadows alone either. Trained facilitators can help you keep it safe and help you break the job down into manageable parts, so you don’t lose your perspective. Shadows can be very seductive. A trained coach can help you remember the overall goals you have chosen for yourself.
What Is A Safe Container?
In Shadow Work®, the container is the circle in which safe processing can be done. Building a safe container means that outside pressures must be temporarily set aside, so you can see clearly. In a group setting, everyone agrees to withhold judgment, to examine their own prejudices, and to refrain from giving advice. It means that the group members learn how to appreciate and learn from the different journeys we have each chosen. Feeling the depth and power of love in a truly safe Shadow Work® container is often an inspiring experience. Once you feel the safety of a Shadow Work® container, you will find it quite natural to begin your own Shadow Work® process with whatever issue you choose.
In a coaching session, the safe container is built between you and your Shadow Work® Coach. In an atmosphere of complete privacy and safety, you will find yourself easily accessing very deep states of emotion, release, resolution, inspiration, creativity and peace.
What Is The Shadow Work Process Like?
The Shadow Work® process starts when the Shadow Work® facilitator asks the question: “What would you like to have happen?” Whatever you want to have happen then becomes the guiding force in your process. Most often, people want something that falls into one of these categories:
To understand why they behave in a certain way;
To get help or support for unfolding more of themselves;
To work with feelings like fear, grief, anger or shame;
To break through old patterns of behavior.
Using the Shadow Work® tools, the facilitator can help you symbolically reconstruct your issue, so the shadow can be identified and viewed objectively. The facilitator can then help you with powerful techniques to re-capture and harness the energy of the shadow. Options for dealing with the shadow are measured by what you want to have happen. You will not be pressured to go beyond your own level of choice.
A Shadow Work® process generally involves the safe exploration of deep emotions. Each human emotion is like a doorway that can open up to an expanse of internal energy.
Anger opens up to our ability to set our boundaries. It helps us learn when to say, “Yes” and when to say, “No.” It keeps us from getting trapped in unhealthy situations, and it helps us know who we really are.
Sadness is a doorway to our connection with other people. It opens us up to love, revealing our vulnerability and desire for loving relationship. Sadness helps us connect with the spiritual realities we hold sacred. It helps us stay in tune with our bodies, and with nature.
Fear can help us detach from a situation, and look at it objectively. Fear can be a wonderful advisor, which creates new options for our future and counsels us about the present.
Joy can inspire us to live our dreams. Joy can give us courage and direction when we are lost, and bless us with the knowledge that our lives have real meaning.
Exposing parts of your shadow can feel risky. To effectively work with your shadows, you need a place where you feel safe — a place where you can trust others. Shadow Work® provides you with such a place.