- Videos for “shadow work” are trending on TikTok, amassing more than 2 billion views.
- Many TikTok users rely on the book “The Shadow Work Journal” to accompany their mental health journey.
- Shadow work isn’t new. The idea was first popularized by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the 20th century.
- Experts say shadow work is a TikTok trend worth trying (if you’re interested), as it can have several mental health benefits.
The word “shadow” can be used metaphorically to describe someone who follows you everywhere, such as a toddler almost attached to the hip of a beloved parent. Or, you may hear the term used when discussing someone who overshadows another — a sibling or colleague whose achievements may outshine another’s.
But do we have a shadow other than the literal one that presents when the light hits us just so?
“Shadow work is turning toward the harder, often disowned parts of ourselves,” explained Jenn Kennedy, PhD, LMFT, founder of Riviera Therapy and The Pleasure Project. “It’s allowing complicated, typically avoided, and unconscious parts of you to emerge and be processed.”
Kelly R. Minter, LMHC, of Florida-based Anchored Counseling, uses a similar mechanism, “parts work,” mainly when doing eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) with her clients.
Even Minter bought the book many TikTokers use, “The Shadow Work Journal: A Guide to Integrate and Transcend your Shadows” by Keila Shaheen.
“I figured at some point my clients were going to read it if they hadn’t already,” Minter said.
The concept of shadow work has been out there for decades, though. Why is it trending suddenly, and is it worth trying? Mental experts shared their thoughts and tips to start independently or with a professional.
“At its core, shadow work involves delving into the depths of your psyche to uncover and embrace aspects of yourself that you have suppressed, denied, or rejected,” explained Amanda Stretcher, MA, LPC-S, of Choosing Therapy.
Shadow work may have recently gained TikTok traction, but it’s nothing new.
Kennedy noted that Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, introduced the concept in the 20th century. The idea centers on the idea that every person has a “shadow self.”
“The shadow self is psychological material that has not been integrated — because it is too painful, uncomfortable or out of conscious understanding,” Kennedy said.
“Most people have shadow self elements that develop in response to situations that feel overwhelming, foreign, and frightening. They likely have been using it as a coping strategy to avoid discomfort. However, it ultimately holds them back from a full, authentic life.“
If you’re reading this piece as an adult, chances are your shadow self developed long ago without realizing it.
“The development of a shadow self typically begins in childhood when you internalize societal norms, parental expectations, and cultural conditioning,” said Stretcher. “As you grow, certain aspects of your personality become unacceptable or unmanageable, leading you to push them into your unconscious mind. These repressed aspects collectively form your shadow self.”
Shadow work helps remove these parts of ourselves from the shadows.
“Through shadow work, you can make space for all parts of self, including the parts that you tend to think of as the worst,” Stretcher said. “Shadow work can allow you to begin to feel more whole.”
Speaking of parts, “parts work” is a term and tool used in therapy — including by Minter. What’s the difference? Not much, really.
“Parts work is an approach that comes from Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy,” Minter said.
“It involves the idea that our psyche or personhood is made up of different ‘parts’ or sub-personalities, each with its own thoughts, feelings, and motivations.”
Minter noted that people using parts work aim to “identify and explore these different parts, understand their roles, and at some point reach inner peace and integration by creating ways of communication between them and help them work together.”
Experts can’t say exactly why shadow work is trending on social media, but they have some ideas.
“Shadow work has become increasingly popular in recent years due to a growing interest in holistic well-being, self-awareness, and personal growth,” Stretcher said.
“People seem to be seeking authenticity and genuine connections, and shadow work offers a powerful avenue for self-discovery and healing.”
Minter adds that shadow work is something people can start on their own, a perk during a time when it’s challenging to find a therapist accepting new patients. Nearly half (49%) of people in the United States live in an area experiencing a mental health workforce shortage, according to data from the National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM).
Combine that with the pull of social media’s ability to influence, and it’s easy to see why the decades-old concept is racking up genuine interest alongside video views.
“If people you know and trust on social media are proclaiming the benefits of something that could get you healthier and do not rely on your access to a mental health professional to do it, that’s a recipe for a viral sensation,” Minter said.
Not all social media trends are applauded by experts (See: The All-McDonald’s Diet). But mental health professionals say shadow work can offer the following benefits:
Often, you may hear the phrase, “You know yourself best.” But perhaps that doesn’t resonate with you. Shadow work may be helpful.
“Shadow work helps you gain a deeper understanding of yourself by confronting suppressed emotions and hidden motivations,” Stretcher said. “You may be able to better understand and meet your own needs.”
Stretcher said that this benefit is the first step to making changes.
“We can’t change things we aren’t aware of, so self-awareness is an important step towards change,” she said.
Shadow work can help people take note of cycles that may be holding them back.
“We are creatures of momentum and homeostasis — once a pattern is formed, it is resistant to change,” said Kelsey Latimer, PhD, CEDS-S, RN/BSN, a clinical psychologist, and founder/owner of KML Psychological Services.
It can also be challenging to notice, but journaling and speaking with a professional using shadow work can break down this barrier to achieving improved emotional well-being.
As you identify patterns and increase self-awareness, you may notice trends in specific situations that seem to upset (or trigger) you.
“Triggers are immediate shifts in emotions and can surprise us,” said Latimer. “They are usually something being pressed below the surface.”
Latimer said the two primary triggers she notices are that people feel they don’t matter or aren’t good enough.
“That’s why something seemingly unconnected like anger for [your partner not] having taken out the trash can trigger you — it may really be you feel unappreciated and like your partner doesn’t care about your feelings,” Latimer said.
During shadow work, you’ll learn more about the why behind your behaviors, patterns, and triggers. Though it involves unearthing repressed feelings, which can be challenging, it can also be healing.
“It allows you to process and release past traumas and emotional wounds, promoting emotional well-being,” Stretcher said. “Shadow work can be helpful in the healing of intergenerational trauma, allowing you to look at patterns throughout your family system.”
By recognizing repressed parts of ourselves that hold us back, experts share shadow work opens the door to growth.
“Shadow work fosters personal growth and self-acceptance, enabling you to live a more authentic and fulfilling life,” Stretcher said. “Meeting self with compassion instead of criticism can lead to personal growth. With shadow work, you can feel a greater sense of wholeness and integration.”
Shadow work involves unpacking internal thoughts and feelings. However, that work can also help people externally.
“When we feel more integrated, we can show up authentically—even for conflict or disagreement,” Kennedy said. “This helps build interpersonal bonds.”
“Shame can be a barrier in relationships, and shadow work can help in releasing shame and improving connection to self and others,” Stretcher said.
A better understanding of ourselves and what makes us tick, plus improved relationships, may all add up to another benefit of shadow work: Less stress.
“As you confront and resolve inner conflicts, you experience reduced stress and inner turmoil,” Stretcher said. “When our different ‘parts’ are in conflict with one another, we can experience stress that shadow work can help relieve. You may become more open to change.”
Though shadow work has its share of potential benefits, Stretcher said that some people should exercise caution before proceeding.
“I don’t start shadow work or IFS with clients who have psychosis or clients who are not stable in other presenting issues, such as clients who are struggling with an active eating disorder or substance use that needs medical intervention,” Stretcher said.
Shadow work can be done on your own or with a professional. Experts shared ways to begin with shadow work.
People can try to start shadow work on their own. Even if you’re working with a professional, shadow work requires work outside the therapy room.
First, recognize your reactions to situations.
“If you are having an outsized reaction to a situation, ask yourself why. Go as deep into that ‘why’ as possible,” Stretcher said. “See what your motivations are and what informs those motivations…Being curious about our motivations can lead us to the root of our reactions, which can uncover shadow selves we didn’t know we hid.”
For example, say a colleague used a person’s desk without their permission. They’re angry, and it ruins their day.
“If they stop and ask why they are so angry, they may find that they feel disrespected,” Stretcher said. “Now we ask, is it bad to be disrespected? If they answer yes, then they ask themselves ‘why?’“
It might help to journal.
“Writing is always a powerful way to confront the psyche about our shadow side,” Kennedy said.
Stretcher recommends considering prompts like:
What are my deepest fears and insecurities?
- What recurring patterns or behaviors do I notice in my life?
- Are there times I say or do something and wonder why?
- Are there parts of myself that I often criticize or deny?
- Have I experienced any traumatic events that I haven’t fully processed?
- What unresolved emotions or past experiences continue to affect me?
- What bothers me in others? Was there a time in my life when I showed this same quality that bothers you?
A professional can also help you with shadow work. Stretcher suggested:
To find a therapist knowledgeable about shadow work, you can:
- Ask for recommendations from friends or support groups.
- Look for buzzwords like “shadow work,” “depth psychology, and “internal family systems” in therapist profiles and on websites.
- Interview potential therapists to ensure they fit your needs and goals well.
Like any mental health journey, giving shadow work time is crucial, regardless of whether you’re using self-help tools exclusively or seeing a professional.
“The timeline for seeing progress with shadow work varies from person to person,” Stretcher said.
“It can range from weeks to years, depending on the depth of the issues being addressed and an individual’s commitment to the process. Consistency and patience are key.”
Shadow work is a concept developed by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the 20th century. It’s never gone away, but it’s come “out of the shadows” on TikTok — videos on the platform have more than 2 billion views.
Shadow work centers on the idea that we have repressed parts of ourselves. Integrating these parts can help us feel more whole.
Experts share this TikTok trend is one to consider for its slew of mental health benefits, such as improved self-awareness and relationships and decreased stress.
Shadow work isn’t for everyone, and results may take time. Though shadow work can be done without a professional, working with one can be helpful.