Shadow Work

Today, and the past few days, I’m thinking about my shadow. My dark side. My repressed self. Whatever you want to call it.

The idea of shadow work is that there are aspects of ourselves we easily accept, and aspects we don’t. The parts of ourselves we don’t accept we instead repress; they live in the ‘shadows’ of our life, below our conscious level of awareness. The main influence of our repressed self is that it still acts through us. It’s made of desires and needs that we haven’t acknowledged but still have, and that energy still finds a way to express itself in our lives.

This can create huge blind spots for us, and is some of what feeds into addictive/irrational behaviors – whatever you do in your life that afterwards you look back on and think, “why did I DO that??”. For me, binge eating, mindless eating, and mindless Facebook scrolling all fit into that category. After the deed is done I can identify with the part of myself that wishes I hadn’t done it – the part of me I accept. But I struggle sometimes to identify with the part of me that did it.

I can be really hard on myself when it comes to these ‘unproductive’ behaviors. I can become frustrated, angry, ashamed. It’s kind of like grinding my foot into someone whose face is already on the ground in the mud, that person being a part of me I’ve never been able to look directly in the face and love.

I can also get mad at life in these situations when they charged – like, why did you do this to me? What is it? I don’t understand it and it won’t go away and I hate it! It can feel like I’m just being punished.

This wasn’t an accident

When I’m less frustrated by my patterns, though, I remember a piece of truth, which is that our addictive behaviors point to something real inside of us, something in the shadows of our psyche that we long ago learned to repress. They aren’t there because of some personal failing; they are there because we don’t understand ourselves as well as we could and have some growing and healing work to do. The more productive and healing thing we could do for ourselves is to get compassionate. Take the edge off towards ourselves. It’s useful to believe that every habit you have was developed intelligently – maybe not consciously, but intelligently – something in you created it for a purpose. So the question I have to ask myself becomes: what is it in me that needs to seek sustenance in the shadows, that I feel ashamed to express?

I actually don’t think this is something you can figure out and solve just by thinking about it. Over-thinking can be a way to avoid actually being present for the feelings that are coming up for us in these situations. And whatever insights I gain through my intellect don’t tend to have the sticking power that more experiential insight has. It actually would be a lot of work to think these things out, and I don’t think life requires us to do so much excavation with ourselves. We don’t need to unwind all our patterns, we just need to be where we are and grow in new directions that serve us better moving forward. It doesn’t hurt to practice being more open towards ourselves, opening our hearts more, being willing to change our ways, to move and flow.

Energy processing & the internal world

One theme that really relates to this – energy needs to move! Part of what life is is learning how to process different kinds of energy, let it move through you in a good way (not a harmful way), and keeping it from getting stuck. We deal with all kids of energy, and I think we deal well with some and not so well with others.

A way to ground this ‘energy’ terminology a little bit, if it is less accessible for anyone – think of it, for now, like this: it is the current running through you when you feel any kind of emotion. Different kinds of energy feel like different kinds of emotions, and inspire different kinds of thoughts. We all experience energy as a range of feelings and thoughts. We can embody different kinds of energy with our actions.

Accepting and expressing moods

Consider, for a moment, the world inside your head – do you ever question what the source of your thoughts is? It’s a continual stream in your mind that branches and forks, with novel input popping in all the time, sometimes influenced by what’s around you, and sometimes seemingly out of the blue. And we sort of filter our thoughts, right? When you choose to speak something out-loud, you’ve hand-selected the words to say. You’ve chosen a thought, possibly out of several.

What about the thoughts that you choose not to speak? What of the thoughts you don’t like, the places in your mind you don’t like? What do you do with those?

I’ve noticed myself getting in kind of foul moods the past couple days, and thinking a lot of judgmental thoughts about the people around me. I was annoyed about the thoughts and mood but also couldn’t really snap out of it. Today I tried something different, and I decided to write out the judgmental thoughts in my journal. I let myself really embody the energy of it when I wrote it down, and not judge the thoughts as I wrote them. I kind of decided not to identify with them – like, instead of seeing this mean thought as “mine”, I’ll just see it as something that comes through me that needs to be expressed. That was a subtle shift but really profound – and I changed states almost immediately! It’s like it just needed to be accepted and expressed in a heathy way. I couldn’t do that if I was fighting against it.

This felt to me like a pretty constructive way to deal with moods, thoughts, etc that we aren’t proud of (maybe even struggle to name and admit to ourselves). If you don’t like it being inside of you, find a way to let it pass through! A journal is a safe space for this. And just because you aren’t acting out of a negative energy doesn’t mean it doesn’t eat at the inside of you, when it’s let to fester. It feels gross to be stuck in a judgmental headspace. It’s not worth it to stay there for long, if you can help it.

Reasons to explore the dark side

The point of exploring your shadow side is… I think… to actually know yourself better? Not just the parts you want to be, but the warts as well. It’s possible to take ownership of yourself as you are, instead of always wishing to only be the version of you that you think is the best / okay / acceptable / lovable / whatever. On a day-to-day level, this looks like being more open to expressing the uncomfortable parts of your life experience. Try leaning in a little bit to the parts of yourself you don’t love yet – it’s you, after all! You have to live with yourself forever. And it feels GOOD to LET yourself express the emotion/energy you see as “bad”. It felt GOOD to me to write down all my gross judgmental thoughts today. It’s like it helped me get those thoughts out of my system, uncovering the “real” me underneath. Making peace with your shadow side brings you to wholeness within yourself. From there you can make more informed and conscious decisions in your life, and develop tools for processing all the different kinds of energy life sends your way.

Ultimately, when we do this kind of work with an open mind and heart, I think we can come to find a hidden gem inside our addictions and bad habits. Those irrational behaviors can point us right to the heart of what is hurting inside of us, what needs an outlet but doesn’t have access to the light. It’s a piece of us that needs love, and probably has a light to offer that we haven’t even considered. Shadow work can be an act of self love, and an act of bravery.


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