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A beginner's guide to shadow work: why you should care about your unconscious mind

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Although your conscious mind may feel like it’s driving most of your actions, there’s a lot more happening in the background of your thoughts. This article will teach you what your shadow is and why should you should care about it on your journey to self healing.


What is shadow work in healing?


The conscious mind only accounts for about 10% of your total brain activity, meaning that there’s plenty going on behind the scenes that you don’t know about—a concept known as the unconscious mind.


Shadow work refers to this hidden part of ourselves that make up 90% of our minds, and it has the potential to greatly influence our lives—both positively and negatively—without us knowing it until we start paying attention.


For a lot of people, the term shadow is linked with all kinds of dark and negative connotations.

Some might even think that shadow work is a sinister spiritual practice or that internal work involves the more negative aspects of our personality. Truth be told, there is nothing scary about shadow work and in this article, you’ll find out why thats the case, how to find it in yourself and how to work on it, to transform your life for the better.


So what exactly is the human shadow? And why are we so scared by shadow work?


How to heal your shadow, your subconscious mind

Picture this: it's your 10th birthday and you receive a brand-new laptop. You love it so much that you use it for 10 more years straight without taking the time to do any software updates, maintenance, or cleanup. And during all this time your computer has been hacked, bumped, and broken. What do you think is going to be the sort of that electronically little friend?


What is the shadow and why is there


The term shadow was first brought into the western world by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. According to his definition, the shadow can be seen as the unconscious or disowned part of your personality. Jung, Freud, and classical psychology claimed that the shadow is originated during our childhood as a result of certain interactions that we had with society or our family, and affects us deeply into our adulthood until we acknowledge and ultimately solve them.


As an example, think about a baby boy, who is super sensitive and cries a lot during her childhood. But every time this happens, his parents come along and instead of trying to understand him, they say something like “Stop crying, you’re so emotional for no reason”.


According to Jung, as soon as the parents start projecting this image onto the little boy, he starts having a problem. His sensitive side is not properly acknowledged by his caretakers.


The little boy will learn how to repress his sensitivities. And as he starts doing that, his shadow is born. He’s going to keep doing this throughout his life, sometimes not even realising and his shadow would just keep growing and growing as he represses or does not accept certain parts of himself.


Another example would be a bad breakup, where potentially you have been cheated on or left without much explanation, which can lead to abandonment issues in all the relationships that will follow.



Shadow work in a relationship

Now, the term shadow and shadow work has been around for thousands of years in the shaman world, making them renowned experts in dealing with disowned parts of the human mind.


From a more spiritual perspective, a shadow is any part of us that we do not see, acknowledge or accept in ourselves. Contrary too Jung's theory, it can originate in any moment of our lives, including past ones.


Our shadow manifests all the time we shoved our emotions down, and buried them deeply, affecting our everyday life, whenever we are triggered by those certain emotions.


Your shadow self is that part of you that, anytime in your life, you have suppressed or placed a moral judgment on yourself, by saying things like "this side of me is bad and immoral, because it doesn't conform to my religious beliefs or to what I learned from my parents growing up".


The problem is, that when you suppress your anger, you also suppress your passion, as these two emotions are very much linked to each other.


It is important to address that every shadow side has a positive intent as well, and the goal of shadow work is to look for that positive intent, reframe it as an adult and acknowledge it, in order to heal and move forward.



How does shadow work affect your life

How is your shadow affecting your life?

At this point, you might be thinking "Ok, but since my own shadow is that part of my unconscious I have no access to, why should I even care and pay attention to it?"


Paying attention to your feelings and emotions in a safe space can help you better understand yourself and others, and improve your relationships.


This highlights the fact that shadow work is not only about repressed and negative emotions, but includes positive ones too.


Let's make a practical example. Have you ever met a person, that without even starting talking, you immediately felt negatively towards? Chances are, that person is carrying a piece of your own shadow in her/his conscious awareness. Meaning that some emotions that are part of your shadow, for that person are completely accepted and owned in her/his everyday life.


That person never had to repress them as you might have had. Let's say you grew up in a highly go-getter environment, whenever you meet a person that's an over-thinker or takes time before starting or reacting on something, you would immediately feel uncomfortable. But why is that? That's probably because that certain behaviour was forbidden for you while growing up, so you repressed and archived it until it became an active part of your shadow.



Holistic healing for your inner child and subconsious

Another way to think about your shadow is to look at it as a fragment of your inner self, as if there are two different versions of yourself underneath your conscious awareness. Have you ever met a person that's so kind and nice, but then at some point snaps out of nowhere and turns into a completely different person, so distant from her/his usual self? This happens whenever the shadow is so fragmented into a person, that it takes over whenever triggered.


Having a well-developed sense of self-awareness is an important part of being mentally healthy.


"The more light you shed on your shadow, the smaller it gets."

Your shadow is operating outside of your conscious awareness in the form of unconscious beliefs and can deeply affect your behaviour and life experiences.


The goal of shadow work is not to get rid of your negative qualities, but rather a process that makes it possible for you to deal with them. We all have our own unique set of feelings and behaviours that we may or may not be aware of—and these may affect both our personal and professional life in ways we don't see.


3 easy ways to find the shadow in yourself

The easiest way to find the shadow in yourself is by simply looking at your relationships. The relationships which cause you the most discomfort and pain are often ones where your own shadows are being triggered. Pay attention to what is happening in the relationship and how it makes you feel. Next, look at what that person might represent for you in terms of an inner self, a part of yourself that has been left out or ignored.



shadow work in a relationship

Paying attention to the projections in your relationships is a very powerful way to spot your shadow. If, for example, you feel a big amount of anger towards someone for saying or doing something, there is probably a shadow aspect going way deeper that you need to face.


The inner child is another great place to start when trying to get in touch with your own shadow aspects. Ask yourself, who am I angry with? Who do I resent? Whose voice isn't getting heard?


Ultimately, start paying attention to repeating patterns and experiences in your life: are there any that make you feel anxious and stressed out and keep on repeating? You can be sure that's your shadow manifesting itself, for you to acknowledge and overcome it.



how to start shadow work for beginners

How to do shadow work as a beginner?

At this point, you should have a clearer understanding of what a shadow is, and why it is important to acknowledge it throughout your healing journey. The more shadow work you do, the less your shadow will show up unconsciously.


With less projection, judgment, criticism, and unconscious reactivity, our relationships with others and ourselves will be deeper, truer, more conscious, and authentic.


There are many ways of doing shadow work, but the most effective way is to be completely honest with yourself. It’s just you and your journal (or mind, if you’re doing this through meditation). There’s no judgment when it comes to your shadow self – as we all have one.


Remember that your shadow was born in a place of neglect and repression of self-acceptance, so it is only by acknowledging it, that you can work on it properly.


If you decide to do shadow work in a more common written form, you can get started with some journal prompts, that allow you to specifically explore your thoughts and feelings in your healing journey.


The first journaling exercise that you can do to start implementing shadow work, is to make a list of limiting beliefs and/or situations that trigger you. Asking yourself the right questions when journaling or meditating about your shadow self, is crucial for this practice to be effective and helpful. Try to be as honest as possible with yourself and with your answers.


Here are some shadow work prompts you can use in your practice:

For the next 7 days, pick one of these prompts or come up with similar ones yourself, and let the emotions flow freely onto the paper.

  1. Do you blame your mother / father / caregiver for anything? If you were to put yourself in their shoes, do their actions make more sense to you now as an adult?

  2. What is the one thing that annoys you the most in people? What does this feeling trying to convey to you?

  3. What is a behaviour that triggers you? Why does this bother you so much? What can you do to let go of the grip it has over you?

  4. What is a promise to yourself that you have broken or continue to break? Why?

  5. Who are you jealous of? Why? How can you emulate the traits you are jealous of?

  6. Dear ____ you really hurt me, this letter is for you

  7. When I think of my future, I am most afraid


how to journal

Conclusion

By simply asking yourself "why?" and starting to journal about it, really allows you to self-assess, think, sit with the feelings and really analyse them rather than ignoring them.


To take your shadow work a step further, you can meditate and breathe through the emotions that came up for you during your self-reflection. You may feel very emotional as this is not a simple process, and that's why a lot of people tend to avoid it, but if you're doing it right, it might even bring some releasing tears.


This can be a very significant part of the healing process because you surfaced your shadow.

Shadow work potentially helps you work through a negative and dark side of yourself, and therefore one step closer to your highest potential, it’s not a one-and-done deal.


Shadow work is a lifelong practice, as there are always parts of yourself to improve in the long run.


Whenever you are ready to take the next step in your healing process, remember that our healers are just one click away. Check out our full directory of coaches and healers here.


It’s a tough journey but totally worth it.

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