I didn’t even know of the term shadow work.
The gray morning light seeped through the window in my room, waking me from my blissful slumber.
Then, the dread of facing another day. It’s so warm and cozy under the covers. Why can’t I just stay here?
All I knew was that, if I could, I would’ve disappeared.
I feared getting into another raging dispute with my partner. I cringed at colleagues’ rude remarks, and the immense workload. Living abroad severed me from all of my friends and family.
I felt lonely, depressed and helpless.
Somehow, I managed to get by until one day, I stumbled on some articles about mindfulness.
I couldn’t believe it… The author wrote about the importance of embracing negative thoughts. Of shining a light on what psychologist Carl Jung called our personal shadow, or any “unacceptable” aspects of ourselves.
Could that really stop my despair?
It seemed counterintuitive. No one wants to pay attention to their bad traits.
Strangely enough, the more I delved into shadow work, the better I felt. Not initially though—it took a massive amount of time, energy and patience.
But allowing buried thoughts to crack through the soil eventually helped me heal past hurts, mend my relationships and make peace with myself.
Are you fueling your negative thoughts?
I used to think, If I ignore my negative thoughts, they won’t bother me.
Throwing away my self-doubt, as if it were an apple core or an old receipt, made sense. I was good at it.
But when my head hit the pillow at night, those repressed thoughts came to taunt me: What an awful job you did! You should be ashamed of yourself, good-for-nothing.
Unknowingly, I was fueling my negative thoughts.
We sustain a negative mindset when we:
- fear negative thoughts (and emotions) and repress them
- believe negative thoughts to be true
- ignore negative thoughts, hoping they vanish
- react to negative thoughts (e.g. snapping at loved ones, perfectionism)
- avoid negative thoughts via an activity (e.g. drinking alcohol, shopping, scrolling social media)
Furthermore, when we reject any part of ourselves, we can’t fully experience love, belonging and connection.
We all have the seeds of yin/yang, joy/misery and love/fear in us. So, when we stuff our “negative” emotions into our unconscious, they eventually buoy up to the surface—and can ravage our self-esteem, relationships and health.
That’s why the goal in shadow work is to embrace everything about ourselves. Once we do, we feel more balanced and whole.
“If any help was going to arrive to lift me out of my misery, it would come from the dark side of my personality.” ― Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow
So, how do we free ourselves from this vicious cycle?
Observe recurring themes
Studies show that mindfulness helps us experience difficult emotions without getting caught up in them.
Instead of avoiding or escaping our emotions, we can learn how to accept them.
When I first discovered this concept, I had to re-read the text a few times: Wouldn’t accepting negative emotions strengthen them? Would that mean that I am a good-for-nothing?
Whatever criticism the voice in my head uttered seemed definitive and true. What if that voice took over my life? I didn’t feel capable of listening more intently.
Yet I tried anyway.
At first, it felt like I was policing my mind. I struggled with accepting my thoughts and often categorized them as positive or negative.
But I kept going.
One thing I noticed was that I hated any form of criticism about my character. Even constructive criticism from a loved one made my chest and shoulders tense up. I’d feel angry and ashamed.
Do you have any rigid thoughts or stories that circle your mind, over and over?
You might have a recurring theme of fear of abandonment, disappointments, regrets, disrespect or betrayal. That’s a sign that you have some shadow work to do.
Ground yourself. Journal about the pattern. Ask yourself, What did I make that event mean about me?
Once we pinpoint our unhelpful attitude, we can heal and move on.
Contemplate annoying people
I’ve been watching reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Will Smith plays himself, as a street-smart guy who cracks jokes and gets into trouble. He even tricked Geoffrey, the butler, into believing Geoffrey had won $26 million with a fake lottery ticket!
Though Will entertains me, something about him bothers me…
Thanks to his rich uncle Phil, he has the chance to attend top-notch schools, but he doesn’t care. He just loves to horse around and chase girls.
Maybe I’m taking it a little too seriously, but my opinion of Will dropped. When he lauded Malcolm X without really knowing why, I rolled my eyes. Will seemed stupid and irresponsible.
Little did I know that my irritation with Will was teaching me about my shadow, a rejected part of myself.
My parents told me as a child that my priority was to succeed in school. High grades gained their approval. As a 10 year-old, I slaved away at my homework on weekday evenings.
Classmates didn’t admire me for my looks, humor or football skills. My book smarts wowed them.
Being intelligent made life easier. It became a dependable trait to win praise. So, to avoid mockery, I shunned stupidity and made it a point to never be or say anything ridiculous.
But at the same time, that wiped out the spontaneity, silliness and fun in my life.
Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone would refer to my silly side as a “disowned self” and encourage me to let it out to play.
Which people annoy you the most?
What about them irritates you? Those are most likely disowned parts of yourself. If ignored or denied, they could run your life.
Reflect on how you may have these traits, too.
But avoid judging yourself.
Be gentle—it takes time and courage to integrate your shadow.
Find the gift
Some life experiences left indelible marks on us.
It seems impossible to let go of the past… until one day, we can’t do it anymore. Lugging around our pain robs us of the present.
That’s when we take responsibility of healing ourselves. Only we can soothe our wounds, dear one.
Though it’s scary and agonizing, we must draw from the well of courage we didn’t even know we had.
My most tumultuous shadow work had to do with the codependent relationship I had with my husband, Loïc. Day in, day out, we tumbled in a hellish nightmare for 10 years.
Each inner child feared abandonment so fiercely, yet our pain seemed to command us to lash out at each other.
In The Secret of the Shadow, Debbie Ford invites us to do this exercise to heal painful experiences. Breathe deeply and reflect in your journal:
- What incident from my present or past is still causing me pain, anger or regret?
- When have I had these same feelings before?
- What did I make this event mean about me?
- How has this decision negatively affected my life?
- Whom do I blame for the decision I made and for everything that has happened to me as a result of that decision?
- To heal this incident, what needs to happen?
- What have I gained, what have I learned, and what do I now know as a result of having this experience? What wisdom can I now contribute to the world as a result of what I have gone through?
Uncovering the gifts—or the positive insight, skills and abilities—that your painful past gave you is key to moving on and integrating your shadow.
If your parents put you down, your blessing might be the ability to empathize with others. The “gift” of a financial loss could be your newfound resiliency and resourcefulness.
Over time, Loïc and I learned how to show compassion to ourselves and each other. Thanks to our perseverance, our mutual suffering taught us how to overcome our worst fears and love courageously.
Today, I’m so grateful to be able to empower women to feel more confident and joyful via my coaching programs.
When the dust settles, shadow work brings peace
It’s not easy to confront our “flaws”.
But acknowledging difficult emotions like anger, fear and shame—not avoiding or reacting to them—heals us.
When we observe recurring negative thoughts, ponder our judgments of others and find the gift behind our troubles, we take the reins back. Repressed emotions and old stories can’t hijack our lives anymore.
We learn to accept ourselves and feel whole and joyful.
We gain energy to bless our dreams and loved ones.
That’s freedom, the most splendid gift of all.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading to propel your shadow work: