Do you ever get the sense that you have a dark side? Are there parts of you you’d rather keep hidden?
These are common feelings, and it turns out that they may hold some truth. Some experts even believe there’s a way to tap into this “dark side” to deepen self-awareness and growth.
It’s called shadow work, and it explores the side of you that stays out of view. It’s something you can do within therapy and, at times, by yourself.
Read on to get the expert take on what shadow work is, including the benefits and the risks of suppressing parts of yourself.
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, brought shadow work into a more public view within Western culture, says Jennifer Sweeton, PsyD, MS, MA, a licensed clinical psychologist with Mind Works Consulting and Psychological Services, PLLC.
“[Shadow work] is the idea that we all have different parts to ourselves,” Sweeton explains. “The parts of ourselves that have been exiled… tend to become the shadow parts.”
Djuan Short, LCSW, RYT-500, a holistic licensed clinical social worker with Dahlia Rose Wellness, says everyone has a shadow that typically develops in childhood.
“As a child, there are many times you’re told to stop doing something… or repress parts of yourself that… for whatever reason have [been] deemed unacceptable,” says Short.
Experts say exploring shadows can provide important answers.
“You’re trying, through this work, to make a deeper connection to yourself and your soul to be a more complete version of yourself,” Sweeton says.
Benefits of shadow work can include:
- feeling whole or integrated as a person
- improved interactions with others
- healing generational trauma
- learning healthy ways to meet your needs
You may feel more whole
There isn’t peer-reviewed research on shadow work, but Short says it can give you a more holistic view of yourself.
“A lot of people talk about themselves in parts,” Short says. “When I do ‘parts’ work with clients, it’s to help them understand that they can become whole and always have been, but [it’s] life experiences that made them feel disjointed.”
It can help how you interact with others
As you gain more self-awareness, Short says you’ll learn to trust yourself more. And you can use that introspection in relationships.
For example, perhaps you were told not to “talk back” during childhood, and you have trouble standing up for yourself as an adult.
“You may develop boundaries and learn to speak your truth [by doing shadow work],” Short says.
You could heal generational trauma
Shadow work can heal wounds from childhood, often brought on by primary caregivers like a parent.
“You’re always doing the work of healing yourself, healing your parents, and healing the lineage, especially when you start to address generational traumas within the shadow experience,” Short says.
And it can also help you think about your approach to caregiving, should you have children.
“It helps you look at your family structure and makes you think, ‘Is this something I want to continue with my family?’” Short says.
You’ll meet your needs in healthier ways
Sweeton says our shadow self can cause destructive behaviors. For instance, people who were taught that wanting to be close with someone was “clingy” may have trouble in future relationships and cheat on a partner.
Exploring one’s shadow can help people find more constructive habits.
“When you’re hiding nothing from yourself and can see yourself fully, it’s a lot easier to be in control of yourself,” Sweeton says.
Keeping your shadow hidden is a form of repression, and experts share that it may have consequences.
“It’s like recognizing that you’re having an issue but aren’t allowing yourself to really deal with it,” Short says.
- self-soothe with drugs or alcohol
- talk negatively about themselves
- experience stress
- experience mental health difficulties, like depression and anxiety
“Instead of [confronting what’s hurting you], you take your pain out on yourself,” Short says.
Sweeton says repressing a shadow can lead people to live inauthentic lives.
“People have issues with self-identity and talking about what’s important to them and what they value,” she says. “That can lead them to the wrong careers or relationships, but they have a hard time seeing why.”
Before you begin shadow work, there are a few things to keep in mind.
What beginners should know
According to Sweeton, patients don’t simply start doing shadow work. It takes time, and beginners have to develop more awareness of emotions they might otherwise shrug off.
“You’re going to have to be intentional about noticing your own reactions,” Sweeton says. “Someone who’s been doing it for a long time is going to be more skilled at this.”
Sweeton suggests people who are new to shadow work keep a running log of times they have a strong emotion and what triggered it. She says signs include feeling like you had a “gut punch” or felt your chest tightening.
“The shadow is most apparent in strong emotions,” she says. “Being able to log what those emotions… and sensations are that you noticed can help you see patterns.”
Keep a running log of when you have a strong emotion, what triggered it, and any accompanying sensations.
A general guide to shadow work
Short likens shadow work to peeling back the layers of an onion.
“Think about the times when you feel something bubbling inside of you, and you’re wondering why you’re so upset,” Short says. “You’re upset because there’s been a part of you that’s been hiding out for a long time… and wants to come out.”
Sweeton says it’s important to step back and reflect on these moments rather than taking them at face value and moving forward.
“A lot of times, we’ll hear about something or see it, automatically judge it, and shut it off,” Sweeton says. “If you judge yourself, you distance yourself from yourself. Then, the analysis stops, and we move on with life. I encourage people to notice strong reactions and sit with that.”
Short provides a list of five questions to ask yourself before starting shadow work:
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- What do I have to let go of to get the things I desire?
- Who do I have to become to receive those things?
- How do I want to show up?
Here are some exercises that can help you build on your shadow work in or out of the therapy room.
Evaluate times when you overdo it
Short says exploring areas of your life where you overdo it, such as working late hours, shows you how you engage with yourself and others.
“This also provides you with a rough blueprint as to what areas you may need to explore more and work on,” Short says.
- Ask yourself: What do I overdo?
- List your responses.
- Think about why. What are you trying to accomplish? What void are you trying to fill?
- List these responses.
Depletes vs. elevates
Short says this exercise can help you better understand how your daily experiences impact you.
- Grab a blank piece of paper and make two columns.
- Column A is “Depletes Me.” Column B is “Elevates Me.”
- Think of interactions that hold you back. List them in column A.
- Think of interactions that fulfill you. List them in column B.
Say it out loud
Sweeton says acknowledging shadow parts to a loved one or therapist can aid in self-acceptance and reduce shame.
- Identify potential shadow parts.
- Discuss the shadow part and how it may have originated with a friend or therapist. “For example, you might say, ‘It’s that I want to feel protected, and I’ve been taught that’s weak,’” Sweeton says.
- Discuss how this truth impacts your life and explore ways to manage those parts.
Flip the script
Sweeton says shadow parts often carry a negative connotation — but they shouldn’t.
“All traits and parts, even shadow parts, have an upside,” she says. “When you can identify your shadow parts, explore what the benefits of the shadow part might be.”
- Identify potential shadow parts, such as imposter syndrome.
- Think about and list ways in which your shadow parts help you. “With a shadow part that fears being incompetent, the upside to this may be that you’re detail-oriented, self-aware and conscientious,” Sweeton says.
- Remind yourself of these positive qualities, especially when the perceived negative qualities arise.
Shadow parts can be distressing, but they can also reveal our values, Sweeton explains.
- List shadow parts.
- Consider what these parts tell you about your values.
- Think about ways to live by your values.
Want to go deep in your shadow work? There are professionals who can help.
What to expect
Though it’s possible to do shadow work yourself, Sweeton suggests doing it in therapy.
“It can be overwhelming because you have to confront your primary caregivers, and a lot of people have loyalty,” she says. “You come to the realization that things weren’t what you thought they were.”
A therapist can help you work through those feelings constructively. But shadow work takes time to start, and a client and therapist need to establish a trusting relationship. Once it’s there, they can begin.
Sweeton naturally integrates shadow work into sessions. “I’m looking for times when clients have a reaction to something, and they’re probably not comfortable with it,” Sweeton says.
Sweeton will then explore the root of the reaction.
“I ask, ‘Is this an old feeling?” Sweeton says. “Almost always, you will hear that it is… and sometimes, you can get to the root of it when exploring whether they’ve experienced these sensations in the past.”
How long does shadow work take?
Like many aspects of working on your mental health, shadow work can take time. Every person is different.
“If there’s been childhood [trauma], it’s going to be more difficult and might be a couple of years before we can get to the shadow part in therapy,” Sweeton says. “If someone comes in and has a pretty trauma-free history, but maybe they have some depression or anxiety, it may be a few months before you start addressing and resolving it.”
Even after one part of your past is addressed and resolved, Short says shadow work is a never-ending journey.
“You learn to incorporate the aspects of processing it throughout your life,” she says.
How to find a therapist
Short says she recommends people look through directories for therapists who specialize in shadow work.
Short suggests looking at therapists’ bios for buzzwords, including:
- shadow work
- generational trauma
- inner child
- mind/body/spirit connection
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- parts work
You can also call or email a therapist to confirm they have experience with shadow work.
For some, shadow work can feel like soul-care, something Sweeton says can benefit those around you.
“If you can [connect with yourself and soul], you can access the parts of yourself that you can’t see, and that may allow you to experience a wider range of emotions that might be used to better yourself and help others,” Sweeton says.
For instance, Sweeton says that if you have anger, facing it instead of denying it can lead you down a path in which you channel your energy into fighting against injustice.
“You can harness your anger in a more positive way to create change within the world,” Sweeton says.
Some therapists say the insights that come from shadow work may even feel like a spiritual experience.
Sweeton says that anyone can benefit from shadow work and that not doing it is actually more dangerous than doing it.
“There’s nothing about you that is unbearable,” Sweeton reminds people. “Whatever is inside of you, it’s already acting itself out. Looking at it makes it safer.”
Still, it’s recommended to have the support of a licensed therapist when you engage in shadow work.
Short recommends these resources if you’re looking to explore more about shadow work either before or during your journey.
- “Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche” by Robert A. Johnson
- “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter Levine and Ann Frederick
- “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle” by Mark Wolynn
- “Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy” by Francine Shapiro
- “Healing Your Lost Inner Child: How to Stop Impulsive Reactions, Set Healthy Boundaries and Embrace an Authentic Life” by Robert Jackman
Shadow work was popularized by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It explores sides of yourself that you’ve exiled or repressed.
A shadow usually develops in early childhood when we’re told that certain behaviors are unacceptable. Proponents of shadow work say it can help heal generational trauma, allow people to rethink the messages they send children in their life, cope with emotions in more constructive ways, and feel more whole.
Shadow work can be done in therapy, but there are some exercises you can do on your own.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.