What exactly is shadow work and why is it important?

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What exactly is shadow work? Getty Images

There are certain parts of our identity, be it fragments from our past or personality, that we conceal from others. It's normal. A new social setting or novel work environment sometimes doesn't call for oversharing.

But in some cases, we hide things from ourselves too. Repressing painful memories, hiding personality traits or learning to suppress certain emotions can take a toll on your mental wellbeing. Confronting them is important – which is where 'shadow work' comes in.

What is shadow work?

Simply put, shadow work is about addressing the parts of you that you might have repressed throughout your life. 'In therapy this means exploring the parts of yourself you have hidden, ignored, dislike or feel shame or fear about,' explains Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a chartered clinical psychologist, speaker and best-selling author of How to Overcome Trauma and Find Yourself Again.

'The goal of shadow work is to look at all the different parts of yourself and bring them into the light, even the parts you do not feel comfortable with or have repressed,' she adds. 'The aim is to understand yourself better; increase self-awareness and become more accepting of your whole self and all of who you are.'

The term was first coined by the psychologist Carl Jung who adopted the term 'the shadow self'; a concept that delves into the unconscious mind to reveal your 'inner shadow'.

What is your 'inner shadow'?

'Our inner shadow is made up of the parts of ourselves that we see as unacceptable and are often referred to as the darker parts of ourself,' says Hibberd.

'It's the culmination of the parts that either you find difficult to accept or that were seen as bad by others such as rage, sadness, cruelty or your impulsive parts.' For example, you might have been told not to show anger as a child or that crying was a sign of weakness, so you've suppressed those emotions in adult life.

What are some of the benefits of shadow work?

  • It can help you to get to know yourself better

  • You become more comfortable

  • You accept yourself

  • You can build better relationships

  • You become more compassionate to yourself and others

Can anyone try shadow work?

We all have a shadow self, says Hibberd, so it's something anyone can practice. That said, you may want to speak to a therapist prior to trying it first.

'Shadow work can also be a way to look at unhealed trauma, unprocessed pain and inter-generational trauma,' adds Hibberd, although this is best practiced with a trained therapist.

How to do shadow work

Hibberd says that shadow work is something you can do with a therapist or explore yourself, only if you feel comfortable to do so. It’s about becoming aware of all of your multi-faceted features, particularly those you may find tricky to accept.

Below, her top tips to trying shadow work yourself:

  • A simple way to begin shadow work is to notice what you project onto others. By this I mean looking at what we find irritating, difficult or that has an adverse affect on us in others – often this is a reflection of the parts of ourselves that we find unlikable

  • Think about what it is about that person that bothers you about that person or makes them difficult to be around? Can you think how this might link to traits in you and how you feel about those parts of yourself?

  • It can also be useful to think back to your childhood. Were there certain behaviours or traits that were seen as unacceptable?

  • Finally think about the emotions I described at the start of this, what do you link to those emotions and what do those things mean to you?

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