In the previous post, we defined the shadow as our disowned self that contains all the parts of us to which we are unaware. We also explored a wealth of benefits derived from getting to know our shadow as well as the consequences of ignoring it.
Now, let’s take a look at some ways to approach and begin working with the shadow.
Seven Tips to Begin Working with Your Shadow
1) Cultivate Self-Compassion
Before you begin working with your shadow, it is helpful to cultivate a sense of unconditional friendliness with one’s self. In Buddhism, this is called Maitri.
Without friendliness and self-compassion, it is difficult to look at our darker stuff. If you try to always be a good person and strive for perfection, or if you’re hard on yourself when you make mistakes, it is difficult to confront your shadow.
If you’re accustomed to feeling shame or guilt, you need to transmute these emotions with friendliness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion.
Start by accepting your own humanness: “to err is human.” Remember that we all have a shadow, so there’s nothing wrong with facing it. It’s when we ignore the shadow that it owns us and real problems arise.
2) Cultivate Self-Awareness
Seeing the shadow requires us to cultivate a self-reflective mindset—the ability to observe our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. This is easier for some than others.
I once believed that contemplative practices can help us connect with our shadows, but the truth is they don’t. However, mindfulness meditation practices do help us foster nonjudgmental awareness—the ability to stay aware of the present moment without involving the inner critic or other modes of judgment.
In many ways, self-awareness is a precursor to shadow work because it helps us observe and evaluate feelings and emotional reactions without judgment or criticism.
Check out Google’s Search Inside Yourself program. While the program doesn’t address the shadow directly, it does focus on the cultivation of mindfulness, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion, and all of the inner resources are helpful for shadow work.
3) Pay Attention and Watch Your Reactions
Remember that the shadow is elusive; it tends to hide behind us. We each have hosts of defense mechanisms designed to keep our shadows repressed and out of view.
Shining the light of consciousness on the shadow takes effort and continual practice. The more you are willing to pay attention to your behavior and emotions, the better chances you have of catching your shadow in the act.
We have a tendency of projecting our disowned parts onto other people. One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people.
Sure, your colleague might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within, you won’t have a strong reaction to his behavior.
If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.
But we often don’t have time to work with those emotions on the spot. It’s helpful to take 10 minutes at the end of the day to reflect on your interactions with others and your related reactions during the day.
Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself. Get to know that part, accept it, make it a part of you, and next time, it may not evoke a strong emotional charge when you observe it in another.
4) Be Honest and Courageous
Self-honesty and integrity are prerequisites for working with the shadow. It’s easy to give lip service to these qualities, but true self-honesty means being willing to see unpleasant attributes in our behavior and personality.
It is uncomfortable to come to terms with your disowned parts, which is why the ego invest so much energy in repressing them. It requires courage to take an honest look at your attitudes and behaviors, to meet your shadow face to face.
The rewards are worth the discomfort, as these honest confrontations with your shadow help heal the splits in your psyche, bringing you closer to wholeness. This courageous act unlocks more of your creative potential, opening up a new world of possibilities for your psychological development.
5) Engage in Inner Dialogue
Many forms of inner work require you to engage in an active dialogue with yourself. At first, this might seem like a scary idea since we have a belief that only “crazy people” talk to themselves.
The truth is that all of us have many subpersonalities—numerous unrecognized, autonomous parts in our personality.
Many different forms of psychology offer ways of working with these disparate parts, including Jung’s Active Imagination, Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems, Stone and Winkleman’s Voice Dialogue, and Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis.
When we don’t pay attention to these parts—one or many of which represent aspects of our shadow—they have a way of influencing our behavior. Have you ever done or said something and then wondered why you did or said it? A part in you was taking charge.
Our disowned parts aren’t trying to hurt us, but when we ignore or deny them, they often do. By dialoguing with them in our imagination, in a journal, or with a therapist, we can integrate these parts into our conscious selves. Then, they become our allies instead of our enemies.
6) Own Your Projections
Because we repress the disowned, often darker parts of our shadow, we invariably project them out onto other people, objects, and the environment.
The most fundamental process of shadow work is in owning your projections. To own your projections, you must become conscious that you are projecting onto others in the first place.
Again, this takes self-awareness, self-compassion, self-honesty, and a healthy dose of courage.
7) Record Your Discoveries
I find it fascinating how easily the ego resists change and how effective it is at taking a wonderful insight and making it disappear. It is similar to how a poignant dream slips out of consciousness only moments after awakening.
A great antidote to this tendency is to keep a journal where you record all of your new discoveries about yourself. Writing your insights and reviewing them later on helps encode the discovery into your waking consciousness.
Three Books to Help You Get to Know Your Shadow
There are many books that address the importance of working with the shadow, but here are my two favorites (and a bonus third):
Owning Your Own Shadow: Understsanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert Johnson
The first book I always recommend to those interested in learning about the nature of the shadow is by Robert Johnson. Johnson is a lucid writer with a gift for communicating difficult psychological ideas for the lay reader.
Meet Your Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams
This excellent collection of essays and excerpts from a wide range of writers, psychologists, philosophers, and poets explores and exposes the shadow from virtually every conceivable angle. It will open your mind to the diverse ways the shadow touches and influences our lives.
Integral Life Practice by Ken Wilber, et al.
This course guide, written by Wilber’s team, has an excellent chapter on the shadow (Chapter 4) with practical exercises to help you work with your shadow on an ongoing basis.
The core shadow exercise called The 3-2-1 Process gives you a step-by-step process for working with the shadow.