Shadow Work – Part One: What is The Shadow?

There are many aspects to my faith and path that are ever-changing. Things that get viewed differently the more I take concepts I believe to be universal and apply them to the real world and watch them bend and twist and my perceptions change the more I live and the more people I meet.

Shadow work, however, has remained relatively stable and consistent because the more shadow work I do, the more evident that other people’s shadows become obvious and impeding on my relationship with them. The more obvious they become, the easier it is to pick people and pluck them out of my life – and also the harder it is to do so because the meaning of being human is so much clearer. Compassion becomes easier, forgiveness becomes faster, and love flows freer. The more you acknowledge the humanity in yourself the more you’ll be at peace with the humanity of those around you.

I started doing this work when I turned 21. I had just been kicked out of my parents home and I began living with my boyfriend’s parents as they were the first to shelter me. They invited me to participate in a series of courses that I am forever and ever grateful for wherein I participated in some leadership development as well as personal development using tools that are significant to the course but I have found are widely universal to the foundations of spiritual work and even the concept of Buddhist enlightenment. For those who are interested in such a thing, I will provide information to the courses in my footnotes.

Also, this work is complicated and multi-faceted as there are no right or wrong answers. The work can help you in so many ways that having it all explained in one blog post won’t do it justice so I’ve decided to concoct a series on what it is, how it can affect your spiritual path, and why I find it is integral for leadership as well as some tips to get the ball rolling. I’ve found that many people talk about doing it but don’t define what it is. And many people also define what it is but don’t emphasize what it can do for your life and your path and why it’s important for working with anyone be it human or spirits.

So… what is it?

Shadow work is derived out of the Jungian concept of the ego. The shadow is the many parts of yourself that have been repressed. The bigger it gets, the more repressed it is, the more likely it is to explode in your face from every once in a while to, if you’re very unfortunate, daily.

It’s ultimately the product of living in a society that has an unhealthy relationship with morality. Most of us were raised in a household where Christianity was a prime stronghold for parenting and a general world view. If the fear of god wasn’t instilled in all of us throughout our childhood, fear of our parents is still very real, or even a fear of another external force that definitely would punish should you behave in a way they don’t agree with.

Undoubtedly, the shadow forms early on and the choices we make either grows it or hinders it as we grow up. For those who are much older, it may be significantly more difficult to unravel what their shadow is because introducing new information that this was an aspect of them that was repressed is likely to be harder than a 20-something who, upon reflecting on their childhood and realizing that their parents aren’t exactly the prime example of benevolent power, make moves to become something outside of their parental expectations and therefore come to terms more quickly with what has been repressed.

Reflective in even the fact that the human brain is far more elastic earlier in life than later, suffice to say the shadow is far more evident in those who are older who haven’t taken the steps to undo their personal repression. You may even see it as your family Trump supporter or even that family member who isn’t ever happy. Of course, shadow work can start at any age. I’m just saying that the older you get, the more difficult it may be.

Let me say what undoing repression is not. If your “self-expression” entails throwing around direct insults just because and becoming a general asshole because you think you’re becoming the next iteration of Loki, then you’re doing it wrong. The experience of undoing repression should make you more aware of your own humanity and not discouraging others to find that truth within them, too. It should be a humbling experience rather than one in which you throw a middle finger to the face of everyone you meet who remotely disagrees with you. That, folks, is a shadow behavior.

Repressing your self expression would lead to being apart of manipulative and controlling relationships, it would mean looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger, and it would certainly mean that you say things you don’t mean because that’s the easiest way to shove people away who make you uncomfortable.

That’s not to say that everything you’re repressing is inherently a good behavior, either. Sometimes you’re repressing your own jealousy or feelings regarding some issue that’s unfolded in your life. The more you don’t acknowledge what you feel in that regard because you think it’s “bad” to say that you strongly dislike something or even hate it, the more it’s likely to explode in your face later on. Repressing feelings that you judge to be unreasonable is also the work of the shadow. Being human means having feelings, even if they don’t line up with logic.

Your feelings do not define who you are as a person, they merely make you a human being who has thoughts and opinions and if you didn’t have those thoughts and feelings about things, I would be concerned and even that might be an aspect of your shadow. I personally went from being rather stoic and emotionless to being quite emotional within the span of a couple years due to releasing my shadow.

On the flip side, the fact that these feelings don’t define who you are doesn’t mean you aren’t allowing it to define you.

For example, I have anxiety and depression. It’s easy to allow my emotions to make my life a living hell because of this disorder that I have managed to inherit through a long genetic line of anxious women and men. It festers in different ways in my ancestral line. In some, it allows my relatives to become an abusive asshole. In others, it allows them to completely disregard their own children and justify themselves due to their own self pity. For others, it gives them the need to manipulate and control.

Because let’s face it: humans love to suffer.

It’s so much easier to not defy your anxiety and your fears no matter how seemingly justified or unjustified they are. I certainly am guilty of it. It’s much easier to wallow in my own self pity when my parents kicked me out of the house at the ripe age of 20 when I wasn’t doing what they wanted me to do. It was easier to hate them for having such strong conservative opinions that every fiber of my being loathes and despises. It’s especially easy to allow myself to blame them for my own shitty behavior that followed featuring, but not limited to, my controlling nature and my ability for my temper to go from 0 to 100 in a matter of moments. I could easily say “poor me” and not make motions for fix these behaviors caused by a series of repressed emotions that inevitably lead to how my parents themselves were raised and what led them to behave in such a way… and the list goes on and on…. and the cycle will continue unless I consciously make a choice to break it.

So instead of doing that, I forgive myself for being human and being subject to the influence of toxic behaviors that have caused me to repress who I am. I forgive myself for causing others to hate me when I have been manipulative. I admit I can still be manipulative even after having done this work for about 4 years now. I admit it’s a product of my anxiety – a product of a fear that if something is out of my control it’s going to be wrong and it will be uncomfortable.

And you can too!

Think of shadow work in the beginning as noticing patterns in your life. Perhaps you lose friends because of some reason that might continually be the same. Perhaps you can’t seem to have a good romantic relationship because of some constant thing that gets to you and it’s present in everyone you come across. Perhaps you question authority when authority does one thing. It could be multiple things. Engage with your emotions and see what these reactions are causing you to feel without judgement of yourself. Take the time to step back and question your personal behavior and why you react this way. What feelings are you experiencing that you don’t want to admit to? What experiences are you forgetting that you’ve had that are affecting you right here and right now?

These answers may not come over night. They might take months to process depending on how deeply sewn they are into your conscious and unconscious way of being. Perhaps you even unravel one layer of your own behaviors only to find yet another layer to it within months or years. This isn’t supposed to be a one and done thing. This is a lifelong journey you must actively choose to take part in. This is acknowledging the human experience and the human experiences around you. This work will never end. The most important choice you could make to make the next step in your life is to take the first step – when you’re ready, of course. However, I could contend that if you’re shying away from it, you will likely never define your feelings as being “ready.” Personal growth and change is not often something we wake up in the morning and feel happy about and that’s okay because it’s okay to not be happy with your behavior… and it’s okay to not be happy at all.

You might find as you take this journey that finding your shadow has made your life more complicated and more emotional. This is good. Your life isn’t supposed to be have simple answers. The world isn’t black and white and humans are a reflection of that. Hel, the gods are even a reflection of that despite the lens a Christian society might throw on top of them.

There are many answers to how you respond to this work.

For me, it uprooted a dream I had 16 years in the making. It didn’t completely remove it but it twisted and distorted it until I didn’t recognize myself anymore once I removed what I was repressing. Me, in my simplest form, isn’t who I thought I was upon removing other people’s expectations and experiences that hindered my own. I’m much more complex, much more colorful and also much more blurred – sexually and otherwise – than I had ever believed I was and that alone has renewed my purpose and given me a fresher look at the world around me.

I invite anyone and everyone to do this work regardless of your spiritual path. To uncover what it means to be human is simply the best gift you could ever allow yourself to give.

I do not invite those who are potentially incapable of looking at your uglier side, however, given a mental illness or circumstance that might unearth some potentially dangerous aspects that you don’t have the mechanisms for coping for just yet. For that, I strongly recommend going to a therapist or a counselor to help you or at least become stable enough that you can allow yourself to be subjective to your own nature. I can only hope for you that one day you find your own variety of mental peace and can start this kind of thing.

I also do not advise anyone who is suffering right now to do this work. If you are grieving, dealing with a traumatic experience, or any other heavy emotions that might be taking a toll on your daily life and energies, please take care of yourself before approaching this. This could tip the scales further than you might realize they could go and one thing you don’t want during a life changing event is even more life changing realizations that might unearth things that probably don’t need to be attended to right away.

I also don’t recommend this for anyone under the age of 20. As much as I wish someone could have told me that things before this age were nearly pointless to the vast expanse of adulthood before me, that’s not the point of being a child. This part of your brain isn’t fully developed enough. But I do recommend doing work in distinguishing your emotions from the truth. But thorough shadow work is something I recommend you wait on.

No matter what, the name of the game is to be gentle, loving and forgiving of yourself while also allowing yourself brutal honesty. If you’d like to argue right away that being gentle and forgiving isn’t conducive to being honest perhaps that’s your first prompt of the work. Disassociating genuine honesty from actual cruelty is highly important as honesty is likely going to be the most poignant trigger to your shadow and you stand in your highest power when you can look at yourself and say “hey, that was something shitty.”

Now that I have defined the basics of this concept, in my next post I hope to elaborate on why this work is important for pursuing a spiritual path as well as giving some more concrete pointers for how to begin if you haven’t yet started.

Stay tuned!

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If you’re interested in the courses I took that I mentioned earlier, please visit here to learn more:

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