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What is Shadow Work and Why Do It?

I have always been fascinated with the shadow and the work associated with getting to know this dark and  mysterious aspect of myself and others. One thing that has attracted me to this work is how often I face it in  myself and others and how little it is spoken about in our modern culture. For something that seems to be so  prevalent in my own experience, I always felt it deserved more attention. I have always loved truth and had a  certain commitment to it from a young age, probably from watching my blunt father telling it like it is to anyone  and usually getting in trouble for it. I learned this from him and have also gotten called out for it and had to  develop tact and learn when to bite my tongue, something I still work with.

If everyone has a shadow that follows them throughout their life, causes lots of drama, and is internally  influencing everyone all the time, why was no one talking about it to each other? It seems that the darkness we  hold within us is taboo in our culture and talking about or becoming aware of our inner dialogue is not  something we value socially. It also strikes me as I unfurl in this work that lots of difficult emotions arise when  we start taking notice of this shadow stuff, ones that people are ashamed of and would never want to admit to  another. Shadow work exposes our underbellies and makes us have to be real with ourselves and our self  image to a humbling degree. If I tell you that I am constantly judging everyone I see, you might not want to talk  to me for fear of being judged or because you will judge me for saying that, trying to claim separateness from  the human condition. The sad part about this disconnection from one another relating to our shadows, is it is  the most unifying aspect of our imperfections. The judgement that I feel reflects the judgement that all beings  feel and the suffering that it creates makes us feel separate when in fact it could create true compassion for all  humans experiencing that suffering.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher, talks about compassion from a very grounded and graspable lens. She  says the only way to truly experience compassion is to connect to your own suffering which in turn lets you feel  the immensity of suffering that connects all human beings. The sadness, depression, greediness, or fear that  we feel personally allows us to access the depth of human suffering on a collective level by offering a first hand experience of true understanding for what others are feeling. This is the space that compassion arises from.  This humility offered to us through experiencing and being present with out emotions is how we can relate to  others on a deeper more connected level. This is shadow work at its best, it is a bridge from the darkness to  the light. The emergence and acceptance of these darker emotions grants us opportunities to become aware and create space in our identity for higher states of being.

The emotions that we are most terrified of admitting to ourselves and others are gateways of choice for us to  open up to deeper levels of experience. When I see a person begging on the street for money, I feel  uncomfortable not giving money to them because I have always had what I needed in my life and have never  had to resort to begging. They directly trigger in me to look at my lack of generosity, my privilege, and my  judgement which I don’t always want to look it. When I get present with it, accept it and feel how it connects me  to others, I not only have more space to access generosity, I also feel compassion for their situation and can  reflect on the times in my life when I felt scared about not having enough and what I would have to do to to  make ends meet if I arrived in their position. I remember the fear in my system, I think of all the other people  who have felt stressed out about money, poverty and providing for their family and I don’t feel as alone or  isolated anymore. This is an example of how the shadow can gift us with an ever widening perspective of the  world and how we relate to it. Even through the first step where I admitted all the aspects of myself that I am  ashamed of, through this presence and acceptance, A more universal aspect of my being flowered.

I also love talking about authentic experiences with other people as it seems to help people to relax and feel  safe. If you went into a room and were vulnerable with the people in it, you would notice how this creates an  atmosphere of safety and ease. When people are running around trying to appear perfect and constantly  working super hard to upkeep that illusion, it can be stressful and tiring. Doing shadow work directly invites you  to put down that disguise of inauthenticity and have more meaningful connections with other people.  Experiencing true connection is a deep human longing that drives us to seek relationships, mates, and to create  families. This work is the future of evolution and will ultimately lead to creating heaven on earth but first we  have to face the scary demons of our own shadows so they lose their terrifying masks.

On a deeper more personal level of why one would choose to do shadow work, our shadow offers us direct  access to the areas of our soul that require and even desire our inward focused awareness. I say require  because I am talking on a universal level of why we came to earth to live in a human body and have this  experience we call life. Our shadow interacts directly with our gifts and usually inhibits or distorts our most  powerful personality traits and aspects of our self that, once we tap into, give us deep satisfaction and help us  to feel enthused about our lives. I will use an example, one aspect of my shadow is that I have a hard time  trusting people, situations, and life in general. How this shows up for me personally is that I move through life  offering support to others but hardly ever being vulnerable enough to receive of ask for support. I try to do  things by myself out of fear of betrayal but underneath that action is a deep sadness that longs to play with  others and have community and work in teams. On a deeper level, I don’t trust that life will support me so I have  a lot of anxiety that I work with about how to relax and allow the magic of life to unfold without me  overcompensating due to lack of trust. This is a great example of how the shadow is invisible and controls  many of my behaviors until I speak it, accept it and learn how to work with it. Behind this shadow is a powerful  gift for an immense amount of self discipline, passion, drive, and true heartfelt care for others. Until I began  working with the shadow piece, I was only scratching the surface of getting a chance to fully access these gifts  which would usually get blocked by distortions from the unacknowledged shadow.

What is the unacknowledged shadow and how do you recognize it when it arises? The best way to connect  with it is to see it in action, meaning directly though the experience of negative emotions. I don’t mean to  discriminate when I say negative because these emotions really are the only access points we have to recognize  where the shadow does its work and actually awaken to these states instead of letting them control our  behaviors and usually creating more chaos and dissatisfaction in our experience.. I am offering a reframe here  and will say any emotion that is challenging, charged, reactive, or highly energetic is no longer viewed as  negative but actually becomes an ally in doing this work. Imagine inserting a little tab in your experience when  you run up against things that trigger you or challenge you internally. This little tab is meant to grow your  awareness to pay attention to this situation, discomfort, or emotion to unpack what is underneath and unlock the part of you that wants your presence to take interest in your growth and healing. Facing our shadow is the  only way to truly move through the density and tap into the gifts trapped underneath the wounding. All these  millennia of social and cultural avoidance of the shadow were based in fear, the scary monster in the dark was  actually the misunderstood beast that needed some tenderness to help us step up as humans. The implications of turning in and listening to the shadow and what it may be asking of each of us is tremendous.

Shadow work is the path to true healing, something our earth and society needs more now than ever. If not for  yourself, do it for your children or the children of the future so we can begin to take responsibility for our  behaviors and actions in a way that makes their job easier as they grow to inherit this earth. How we treat each  person in our life, how we do our work, how we raise our children directly contributes to our living prayer for the  future. This sense of responsibility motivates me to make changes within myself in a culture where many  efforts for greater improvement can feel frustrating and too big to tackle. Doing shadow work is at the heart of  my offering to support others to embrace their darkness, not so it rules our behaviors, but so we can actually make choices from free will.

Rachael Jean

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