Shadow Work Is All About Stepping Into Your Power — Here's How To Do It
It's all about self-acceptance.
Come across shadow work on TikTok — where the topic has nearly a billion views — and you might start to wonder what a “shadow self” is and how the heck it relates to journaling. Keep scrolling, though, and you’ll see that shadow work is a type of therapy that dives deep. In fact, it touches not only on how you view the world, but also on what triggers you, what you’ve suppressed, your inner child — and even your “dark side.”
While the term shadow work may sound spooky, think of it simply as the act of revealing who you are to yourself, says Kobe Campbell, a licensed trauma therapist and author of Why Am I Like This?: How to Break Cycles, Heal From Trauma, and Restore Your Faith. “Shadow work allows us to begin the process of giving space to the parts of our personality and identity that have been pushed to the shadows,” she tells Bustle. When you’re shamed, rejected, abandoned, or traumatized, it’s common to bury certain things you learn about yourself, she tells Bustle, so “the basic idea of shadow work is learning to accept and love yourself, including the parts that others have rejected.”
By doing shadow work, you do things to intentionally heal this shadow self, adds Valerie Hernandez, LMSW, a trauma recovery specialist and licensed mental health therapist. Whether you consciously or unconsciously suppressed a memory, were taught to hide your emotions, or squashed a certain aspect of your personality in order to be loved or accepted, shadow work brings it all to the light where you can begin to accept and integrate it with your current self, Hernandez tells Bustle.
Interested in kicking off your own shadow work healing journey? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Shadow Work?
This concept stems from psychoanalyst Carl Jung who defined the shadow as “the unconscious part of our character or personality that does not align with our ego ideal.” Shadow work is meant to help you acknowledge the “shadowy” or “dark” parts of yourself, tend to them with kindness as you would your inner child, and work to heal so you can include them as part of your identity, Hernandez tells Bustle.
The idea is to unpack feelings of shame, guilt, and other tough emotions — read: your shadow —that linger in the back of your brain. Without even realizing it, these feelings can impact how you think, feel, and react in everyday life. Examples include crying for no reason and blowing up at a friend. In theory, when you integrate your shadow self, it no longer has the power to trigger you.
While this concept has been around for ages, it’s taking off in the spiritual corner of TikTok and beyond. “Shadow work has become so popular because we're realizing what a trap perfection is,” Campbell says. “It’s a constant performance that leaves us anxious and estranged from others and, most importantly, ourselves.”
Shadow work healing also fits in with this generation’s interest in taking care of their mental health. “We’re realizing that we can’t just ignore the parts of ourselves that people have disliked,” says Campbell. “When we do, we only re-traumatize ourselves by doing to ourselves what other people have done to us. This generation wants real healing, and that requires real acceptance”
The Benefits Of Shadow Work Healing
By doing shadow work, you’ll start to understand what influences your everyday behaviors, thoughts, and patterns, says Campbell. For instance, you might see that you react with anger because you were shamed for having emotions as a kid, or that you feel anxious all the time because you were taught you needed to change yourself in order to be accepted.
“If we continue on without facing these aspects of ourselves, we will continue responding to the world and others that trigger these shadows in the same way,” Hernandez explains. “By addressing those shadows with self-compassion and forgiveness, we can integrate them into our identities and become more authentic versions of ourselves with the peace and ease that comes with that.”
Understanding what fuels your behaviors gives you the choice to thoughtfully replace knee-jerk reactions with something healthier. “It also helps you feel less anxious, as you become less afraid of people seeing your faults,” Campbell says.
Signs You Should Try Shadow Work
Shadow work might be in order if you frequently feel overwhelmed, angry, sad, or anxious, Hernandez says. It might also help if you always have a hard time in relationships, as it may be a sign you have unconscious patterns or beliefs that are negatively impacting how you interact with others.
If you tend to self-sabotage, you might also want to give shadow work a try. The same is true if you have ongoing addictive behaviors, as “it may be a sign that you have unprocessed emotions or beliefs that you are seeking to avoid through escapism,” Hernandez says. The same is true if you have a sense of chronic dissatisfaction with life, as it could mean you may feel unfilled in other ways, and if you feel disconnected from your true self.
How To Do Shadow Work Healing
While TikTok is full of shadow work prompts — aka questions to ask yourself and topics to journal about — Hernandez recommends starting out by meeting with a therapist who’s trained in shadow work. This is a good idea if you have a lot of trauma or if something particularly triggering comes up, as the therapist can help guide you through all those tough memories.
From there, you can do shadow work on your own at home through practices like journaling, reading, and/or meditating, all of which can help you tap into your inner self. As you get started, try to go in with a sense of self-awareness and acceptance, says Kalley Hartman, LMFT, a therapist and clinical director at Ocean Recovery. “This means being honest about your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors without judgment or criticism,” she tells Bustle.
Think through your childhood, journal on moments where you felt shamed for being your true self, and meditate to spot patterns in your current life, such as where you feel misunderstood or like you are holding back. “Explore the parts of yourself that you have been avoiding or denying,” Hartman tells Bustle. “Be open to learning from them without trying to change them.” Remember, this is all about digging stuff up, seeing what’s going on in the back of your brain, and accepting it.
Are There Downsides To Shadow Work?
Shadow work is a powerful tool, but it can also bring up a lot of dark things from your past. “That’s why it's important to prioritize your own safety and well-being,” says Hernandez. Again, she recommends doing shadow work with a therapist if possible, but you can also work at your own pace, take breaks whenever necessary, and engage in self-care, like exercising or reaching out to a friend whenever you feel overwhelmed. As you work through uncomfortable feelings, she notes that it’ll start to get easier.
How Often To Practice Shadow Work
Shadow work is an ongoing process, and Hartman says it takes consistency and dedication to really make a difference. “To start, consider setting aside at least 30 minutes a week for dedicated shadow work,” she says. “From there, you can increase or decrease the amount of time depending on how it's affecting your life.”
As you start to uncover and accept things from your past, you should begin to notice a gradual shift in your perception in a couple of weeks, Hartman says. Sometimes, though, the benefits of shadow work won’t be noticeable for a few months, or even a few years. As Hartman says, it all comes down to your individual experience and how much work you put in.
While it can take some time and the process isn’t always comfortable, shadow work is usually worth the effort. “Whether you call it shadow work or not, shining light on the places where shame lives within you will only weaken the power it has over you,” Hernandez says. “To do so is to step into your power and your whole self.”
Casement, A. (2003). Encountering the shadow in rites of passage: a study in activations. J Analyt. Psychol. doi: 10.1111/1465-5922.t01-2-00002.
Kobe Campbell, licensed trauma therapist, author, and wellness advocate
Valerie Hernandez, LMSW, trauma recovery specialist, licensed mental health therapist
Kalley Hartman, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist, clinical director at Ocean Recovery