Shadow Work: Getting to Know Our Hidden Self

A black and white photo of a woman holding a mirror close to her face, while her hair is blowing in the wind.

What is shadow work?

We all have traits that we like about ourselves, that we’re proud of. We also all have aspects of ourselves that we’d rather not have, traits that make us uncomfortable to acknowledge as ours. Some traits may upset or shame us, so we hide them from view. These parts that are kept hidden from ourselves and others are what make up our shadow self.

It’s often difficult to come to terms with our shadow selves. People tend to push away those hidden parts to avoid having to confront them. Our shadow is an undeniable aspect of who we are and cannot be amputated from our greater personality. Even though the shadow gets pushed back, denied and forgotten, it will always be there—just out of view. Waiting.

The shadow is an inherent aspect of our being, regardless of whether we consciously acknowledge it or not. Suppressing it can lead to unfavorable outcomes. Frequently, these repressed shadows emerge as emotional triggers, causing intense, unexpected, and occasionally uncontrollable emotional reactions in specific situations.

This problem is precisely the point of engaging with the shadow. Shadow work is designed to help us confront, integrate, and accept every part of who we are. When our shadow is known to us, it loses its ability to sabotage us unexpectedly. The clarity and insight that shadow work brings allows us to live a more authentic life, confident in our self-expression and self-acceptance.

What is the shadow self?

The term shadow self or “shadow archetype” was coined by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung as a way to describe the psyche’s emotional blind spot. In analytic psychology, the psyche is composed of the ego (our conscious awareness), superego (set of guiding principles), the persona (what we show to others) and id (instinctive drive and impulses). If the ego is how we see ourselves, the shadow is what we keep hidden. The shadow describes the feelings, desires, and needs we have pushed away, downplayed, or outright denied throughout our life. An analytic explanation of the formation of the shadow is conceptualized as the aspects of our id we have repressed and kept separate from the ego in order to create a socially acceptable persona. In a way, we are highlighting the favorable aspects of our personality and minimizing the not-so-favorable.

Our shadow self becomes repressed the way it does because our shadow aspects make us vulnerable to social rejection. At an early age, this can be as simple as suppressing the urge to be silly and loud because we don’t want our caretaker to become annoyed, upset, or tell us to leave them alone. As we grow into early adolescence, our brains grow to become even more sensitive to perceived rejection, and begin to swiftly and severely shut down any behaviors that are viewed as weird or bad as a way of gaining and maintaining acceptance into a peer group. The more we deny ourselves from authentic expression, the more our shadow grows.

Some examples of persona vs. shadow:

Below are some examples of how the persona (the aspect of our personality that is presented to or perceived by others; the mask we wear for others) and shadow (the aspect of our personality that we hide from others) can interact:

  • A person whose persona comes off as  judgmental or critical of others’ choices may have a shadow-self that is eccentric or odd. For example, when this person was young and received messages that they were different from their peers (which was identified as a threat to inclusion), they stopped talking about fantasy novels and folk tales and began to focus on more socially acceptable topics like dating or celebrity gossip. By repressing themselves, they believe that others should have to as well, leading them to react with disgust and irritation when reminded of their abandoned passions.
  • An extremely independent person’s shadow may have formed to include feelings of not being able to rely on others to have their needs met, or contain experiences of physical or emotional neglect. In this case, the vulnerable person that needed help becomes the shadow-self and the independent ego-self gets more attention and cultivation, leading it to become a dominant personality trait expressed as the persona. This person may react with anxiety or anger when asked for or offered help by others.

It is important to state that the shadow is not a collection of our “negative” or anti-social traits. Our shadow is what we keep hidden. For an individual who acts obnoxious and rude (the part they show others), their shadow will likely contain an aspect of them who is shy and sensitive. There is no good or bad with shadow work, only seen versus unseen.

Why is shadow work important?

The purpose of shadow work is to bring that which is hidden into awareness; to integrate the dark within the light. All aspects of ourselves are valid, making up the whole of who we are. When we spend the majority of time and energy focusing on developing the “light” sides of ourselves (that which is socially or morally acceptable), we neglect the care of the “dark” shadow. When we acknowledge and integrate what we perceive to be our less desirable aspects into the greater whole, we are able to become a more authentic version of who we are.

The goal of shadow work is to heal through self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. It is only when we are aware of all aspects of who we are that we can love ourselves completely—all parts, unconditionally. While we do not have the ability to change our shadow, we do have the ability to express it in a safe manner.

When we express our shadow, it energizes us on an emotional level. For example, an artist who previously considered the only proper painting style to be realism begins to experiment with abstract expressionism (something that was interesting to them at one time but not supported by their peers and mentors so therefore repressed), they are reinvigorated and reminded of their passion for creative expression separate from the expectations of others.

Where to start with shadow work

Shadow work is about self-exploration, expression, and reflection. For some, it is done through art or creative writing. Others, journaling or verbal processing. Regardless of which modality you start with, it is recommended that you start a dream journal. Our shadow selves often express themselves in the unconscious dream environment and dream analysis can be a gold mine for shadow integration. In the waking world, we can interact with our shadow through certain questions like:

  • Which emotion(s) makes me feel the most uneasy or uncomfortable to experience? Which one(s) do I try to avoid the most?
  • Is my inner voice truly mine alone? Whose voices could be influencing my inner voice (parents, partners, mentors, etc.)?
  • Have I ever sacrificed a part of myself to fit in with others?
  • If I knew I were 100% safe from the judgment of others, how would that change what I do or how I express myself?

A word of warning: shadow work isn’t recommended for individuals experiencing mental health crises or whose mental health is in a precarious position. Doing this work can unearth unhealed trauma, challenging aspects of ourselves, as well as existential upheavals in some people. It is recommended that when someone begins shadow work that they have the support of a therapist, spiritual mentor, or other trusted and knowledgeable guide.

Engaging in shadow work is a bold act of self-compassion and self-love. It enables us to heal through self-knowledge, and accept that all aspects of ourselves are valid and make up the whole of who we are. It is not about labeling traits as negative or positive, but about embracing our entire being without judgment. By shining a light on the hidden aspects of our being, we can live more authentic lives, strengthening a sense of wholeness and harmony within ourselves.

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Great Lakes Psychology Group is here to help. With an extensive network of caring therapists available to meet online or in-person, we make it easy to find the right fit for your unique needs.