A complete guide to shadow work, plus why it's good for your mental health

Photo credit: Westend61 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Westend61 - Getty Images

If you’ve been focused on prioritising your mental health, chances are you may be familiar with a buzzing term called shadow work.

So, what's it all about? As the name suggests, shadow work is about examining the unconscious parts of yourself, a.k.a. your shadow, according to Dr Gauri Khurana, a psychiatrist in New York City and a clinical instructor at Yale University School of Medicine. It’s based on the idea that the unconscious has a compensatory relation to the consciousness, meaning what you identify and live with consciously, you will find its opposite in the unconscious. And negative aspects play a bigger role in your shadow than positive traits because they are often repressed.

The concept of shadow work was developed by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who believed that shadows express themselves by pointing out flaws in others. He described the shadow as the 'dark side of personality,' and thought that everyone carries a shadow throughout their life and working with it would help them understand their anger and criticism towards others.

'We first meet our shadow when it is projected onto other people, as we cannot identify that these contents are actually within us,' explains Dr. Khurana. 'I can often identify it for patients when I notice that they have an explosive overreaction to a facet of someone else's personality—it generally means that there is something about their own personality structure and development that they have not been aware of.'

Meet the expert: Gauri Khurana, MD, MPH, is a psychiatrist in private practice who works with patients of all ages and those who're going through difficult transitions in life, such as relationship issues, family problems, and job stress. She is also a clinical instructor at Yale University School of Medicine.

Want to give this practice a try but don't know how? Here's everything you need to know to start doing shadow work and reap the benefits.

What is shadow work?

The goal of shadow work is integration, which means becoming aware of the hidden parts of yourself so that they can move to your consciousness and be expressed in healthy ways, according to Dr. Khurana.

Shadow work also aims to help you live in reality and truly understand why certain aspects of others' personalities rile you up. This will help you understand something that happened to you when you were younger and why you can't express a similar impulse or feeling in a healthy way. Sexuality is a good example—some people become critical toward others who identify as gay because they can’t express their own sexuality, says Dr. Khurana.

'Shadow work provides insights on the origins of your personality and how you developed these strong feelings,” she explains. “The primary goal of shadow work can be thought of as shining a light on your shadow to integrate as many parts of your unconscious into your consciousness.'

What are the benefits of shadow work?

Shadow work has not been examined in any research studies, so it’s difficult to prove its efficacy as a practice, according to Dr. Khurana. But based on the experiences of her patients, she notes that shadow work can help integrate different parts of yourself and foster a sense of unity in your mind and personality.

Shadow work can also help someone learn to trust themselves more as they understand why they can or cannot engage in certain behaviours. For example, if they were scolded to be less impulsive or loud when they were younger, they may react to this by becoming more constrained as they age and by being upset by spontaneity in others. Shadow work would help them become more comfortable with themselves and express themselves more honestly.

Another benefit is that it can help you change your boundaries with yourself and others, allowing you to live in a more authentic way, says Dr. Khurana. It can also be helpful when thinking about parenting in terms of determining what messages and strategies they want to continue in their family.

Finally, shadow work can also help someone build more constructive habits, as shadows can feed destructive behavioyrs like addiction or drinking excessively as a mechanism for dealing with stress.

How do you practice shadow work?

A curious, open mind and a desire to get along with others in the world are all you need to practice shadow work, per Dr. Khurana.

'The beauty of shadow work is that it can be done alone and with others, including your therapist,' she says. 'You may have already participated in shadow work without having been told that that's what you were doing while in therapy.' Shadow work is a common technique that some therapists employ without telling a patient to help them understand whatever difficult situation they have brought into therapy.

'The easiest way for someone to begin is to analyse their pronounced negative criticisms of others—usually it is the result of a projection of a quality that they dislike in themselves and have unconsciously been repressing,' Dr. Khurana says. 'Understanding the origins of your strong feelings may involve journaling, talking to members of your family or childhood friends to understand how the repression started.'

It’s also important not to shame yourself for having these strong negative feelings towards others and learning about these components of your shadow. 'Shaming yourself will only hide this part of your shadow more and make the negative feelings that you are aware of stronger,' says Dr. Khurana.

What shadow work prompts can you use to start?

Dr. Khurana often tells her patients that if they have an exaggerated positive or negative reaction to someone or a quality that the other person possesses, they should examine it and see how it relates to themselves.

'The quality that they are obsessing over and criticising the other person for is often related to something about themselves that they don't like and have taken great pains to hide from themself and the world,' she explains.

The main questions that someone should ask themselves include:

  • 'Why did I have such a strong positive or negative reaction to X?'

  • 'Does this relate to something from when I was younger?'

  • 'Why can't I stop thinking about X?'

  • 'What traits do I wish I had and what is holding me back from expressing them?'

While research is lacking, there is a possibility that shadow work can help you avoid falling into the trap of projecting negativity onto yourself and others. Talk to your therapist about how consciously focusing on it can help your overall mental well-being.

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