We all have demons inside us. Every day, we fight against them – sometimes we lose, sometimes we win.
These demons haunting us can be seen either in small glimpses or in full chaos. And because of our guilt and shame, we tend to ignore and bury them.
We think that they should stay hidden because they cannot and should not exist in our conscious self. The society tells us to focus on the good things like love and light, but never the darkness or shadow.
Focusing solely on your positive side is easy and comfortable. It’s no wonder the majority of us avoid the darker part of our personalities.
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. They will practice Indian yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen of diet, learn the literature of the whole world – all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their own souls. Thus the soul has gradually been turned into a Nazareth from which nothing good can come.” – Carl Jung
However, when we focus only on the “light”, it doesn’t reach to the depths of our being. It just feels like superficially hanging on a warm and fuzzy thing.
“Positive thinking is simply the philosophy of hypocrisy – to give it the right name. When you are feeling like crying, it teaches you to sing. You can manage if you try, but those repressed tears will come out at some point, in some situation. There is a limitation to repression. And the song that you were singing was absolutely meaningless; you were not feeling it, it was not born out of your heart.” – Osho
Inside every one of us are darker problems that exist. In order to touch the very depths of our being, we must be ready to explore our buried self through shadow work.
And in order to be truly at peace, we need to get in touch with our darker side, rather than repress it.
Here are the basic things you need to know about shadow work:
Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality, and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life. – Steve Wolf
First, we must define what is a “shadow”.
In the field of psychology, a shadow is a term used to refer to the parts within us that we may try to hide or deny. The name was originally coined and explored by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung.
It comprises of the aspects of our personality that we tend to deem shameful, unacceptable, ugly. It can be envy, jealousy, rage, lust, desire for power or the wounds incurred in childhood – all of those we keep hidden.
You can say it is one’s dark side of himself. And no matter what anyone says, everyone has a dark side to their personality.
Jung believes that when the human Shadow is shunned, it tends to sabotage our lives. Repressing or suppressing one’s shadow can result in addictions, low self-esteem, mental illness, chronic illnesses, and various neuroses.
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. – Carl Jung
All is not lost though, despite what you might be telling yourself right now.
You can learn to identify and work with your shadow self so that you can reach your goals and live your best life.
For many people, denying their inner self is the path they usually choose, but as you’ll see here, we are big fans of accepting who you really are and working with that, while choosing strategic thoughts and emotions in order to continue to move forward.
Transformation, which so many of us are looking for, does not come from a place of denial. It comes from a place of acceptance.
Thankfully, we can still own up to our darkness to create positive change. By doing shadow work, we shed light on our dark self, instead of pretending to be all “light”.
While you might not think it is possible to find your way to the “dark side” and come out a better person, we are here to tell you, it is.
And in fact, if you embrace what you think is holding you back, you might be better for it.
“Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.” – Carl Jung
We’ve outlined eight ways you can get to work on conquering your shadow self and owning your life as it was meant to be lived.
Here are 8 ways to practice shadow work:
1. Believe you are worthy and that things will get better
The first step in overcoming your shadow self and taking back your life is to acknowledge that you are worthy of good things.
When we are feeling low it is easy to continue to feel that way. Humans have an uncanny ability to feel sorry for themselves, and sometimes that is all we want to do and it serves its purpose.
But sometimes, that self-pity takes hold of us and makes it very difficult for us to get out of the rut and get back to our normal routines, or even better, our best self.
Some people have yet to unlock the secret to living their best life and that’s usually because they don’t allow themselves to believe that things can be better.
And it’s important to keep in mind that when you engage in shadow work, you may not like what you find. But it’s also important to keep in mind that the unconscious is not all evil. It’s also our source of highest good:
“The unconscious is not just evil by nature, it is also the source of the highest good: not only dark but also light, not only bestial, semihuman, and demonic but superhuman, spiritual, and, in the classical sense of the word, “divine.” – Carl Jung
2. Pay attention to the emotions you feel
No emotions are bad.
Our negative emotions are portals into the shadow. They help us determine our wounds and fears.
When you feel an emotion, take a minute to examine it. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I feeling?
- Why am I feeling this?
- Wait for answers.
Don’t be frustrated if the answers do not come right away. Sometimes, the answers need time to be found and you’ll know it.
Never force answers and jump into conclusion because they might be the wrong ones. Shadow work is considered soul work and it happens on its own timeline. Just be patient and know that in time, the answers will come.
This steps simply means to accept what comes up for you, when it comes up, and acknowledge that you are an emotional being that may, from time to time, find it difficult to manage your emotions.
If you are working to tame your shadow self, then you’ll be paying attention to these moments so that you can stay with them, rather than try to run from them.
So many people simply want to feel better in the moments where we feel the greatest amount of discomfort, but if we can stay with our emotions, name them and be grateful for them, we can overcome them and move on to better things.
The better life is not created by not experiencing those emotions, but by experiencing all of them with gratitude.
(If you’re seeking life-changing mental toughness and emotional resilience, my unique, no-nonsense book on mental toughness can help. Check it out here).
3. Identify the shadow
Our shadows are located in our subconscious. We buried them there that’s why it’s tricky to identify it.
In order to perform shadow work, we need to identify the shadow. The first step is to become aware of the recurrent feelings that you always feel. Identifying these patterns will help highlight the shadow.
Some common shadow beliefs are:
- I am not good enough.
- I am unloveable.
- I am flawed.
- My feelings are not valid.
- I must take care of everyone around me.
- Why can’t I just be normal just like others?
4. Investigate your feelings objectively and with compassion
It’s hard to do shadow work objectively and with compassion. It’s easier to investigate and blame other people why you end up that way.
On the other hand, understanding why the people who hurt you acted in a particular way is hard to accept. But in order to heal ourselves, we must forgive those who hurt us in order to move on.
Try to navigate that they did the best they could do at that time or were simply acting from their own wounds.
It’s also easy to feel bad about yourself for having these negative feelings. But there’s no reason to feel bad. We all experience negative emotions. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t.
It’s important to accept our negative emotions and be okay with them.
According to philosopher Alan Watts, Carl Jung was the kind of man who could feel something negative and not be ashamed about it:
“[Jung] was the sort of man who could feel anxious and afraid and guilty without being ashamed of feeling this way. In other words, he understood that an integrated person is not a person who has simply eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from his life – who is fearless and wooden and kind of sage of stone. He is a person who feels all these things, but has no recriminations against himself for feeling them.” – Alan Watts
5. Explore the shadow
Psychologists use art therapy as a way to help patients explore their inner selves. It is because art is a great way to allow your Shadow to manifest itself. Here are some ways to express the shadow:
When you write, it allows you to feel emotions and empty your head of the thoughts rumbling around. It’s like magic – even when you write thoughts that have no sense.
Just write whatever comes to mind because you can’t do it wrong.
Write a letter
Write a letter to yourself or to those who hurt you. You don’t have to actually send the letter, just let all your feelings out.
Tell the person in mind what you feel and why you feel it. Writing a letter will validate yourself and your emotions. You can burn the letter after you write it as a symbolic release.
In meditation, we gain insights about why we feel certain ways. It helps us understand and objectively delve deeper about our emotions, then allow ourselves to heal.
One example is forgiveness meditation. You can picture a person who hurt you in your mind and say, “May you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be free of suffering.”
You will never heal unless you allow yourself to face the emotion you’re scared of. So explore them, write about them and make art out of them.
To experience yourself as a whole, loved, and lovable, you need to own up to your emotions.
Our thoughts and deepest emotions can come out in dreams, according to Jung. When you experience a dream, write down what occurred immediately so you don’t forget.
By understanding your dreams, you might understand more about yourself.
“The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach.” – Carl Jung
However, Jung says that it’s important to understand that one dream by itself might not mean much, but patterns from multiple dreams might:
“An obscure dream, taken by itself, can rarely be interpreted with any certainty, so that I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. With a series of dreams we can have more confidence in our interpretations, for the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before. We are also better able, in a dream series, to recognize the important contents and basic themes.” – Carl Jung
Remember that the shadow thrives in secret but they are part of who you are. Bring the hidden parts of yourself to light and bathe them in self-love and acceptance.
Sometimes, the process hurts but it will make you a better person.
Keep in mind:
When it comes down to getting what you want, you have to not only confront your inner darkness but embrace it.
Rather than try to turn it off when you feel the shadow self-rearing its ugly head, allow yourself to feel it and be curious about it.
In some cases, you might find that it serves you, especially when you are trying to protect yourself from things that might otherwise threaten your higher self.
When you tap into your shadow self properly, it can be a powerful alter ego that can help you manage trying situations.
It’s when you let it rule your life, or pretend you don’t have a shadow self that problems persist.
6. Nurture your inner child
Our childhood traumas can be caused by the way we were parented or other people who hurt us. It can result in deep wounds that can create behavioral and emotional patterns that create our personality.
Most of the time, our childhood wounds are the most painful. They haunt us and tell us we’re not worthy of love, or that our feelings are wrong, or that we have to take care of everything because nobody was around to take care of us.
Nurturing your inner child involves traveling back in time to when you were hurt and give yourself love. You can do this by:
1. Go back to the time in your life when you felt most vulnerable.
It can be a scene where you got hurt or a time in your life when you felt vulnerable. Hold that image of yourself in your mind. Stay aware, taking in any messages that arise during that time.
2. Give the younger you compassion
While reliving the moment, give love to your younger self. Tell yourself, “I love you and I’m here for you. It will be okay, it’s not your fault and you did nothing to deserve this.” You can also give a hug to your younger self.
One thing is for sure when doing shadow work, it is uncomfortable, to say the least. Who would enjoy owning up to their flaws, weaknesses, selfishness, hate, and all the negative emotions they feel? Nobody.
But while focusing on our positive side is enjoyable and boosts our confidence, shadow work can help us grow and develop into a better version of ourselves.
Jung writes in the book Psychology and Alchemy, “There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”
With shadow work, we become whole to live a more authentic and fulfilling life.
How this one Buddhist teaching turned my life around
My lowest ebb was around 6 years ago.
I was a guy in my mid-20s who was lifting boxes all day in a warehouse. I had few satisfying relationships – with friends or women – and a monkey mind that wouldn’t shut itself off.
During that time, I lived with anxiety, insomnia and way too much useless thinking going on in my head.
My life seemed to be going nowhere. I was a ridiculously average guy and deeply unhappy to boot.
The turning point for me was when I discovered Buddhism.
By reading everything I could about Buddhism and other eastern philosophies, I finally learned how to let things go that were weighing me down, including my seemingly hopeless career prospects and disappointing personal relationships.
In many ways, Buddhism is all about letting things go. Letting go helps us break away from negative thoughts and behaviors that do not serve us, as well as loosening the grip on all our attachments.
Fast forward 6 years and I’m now the founder of Hack Spirit, one of the leading self improvement blogs on the internet.
Just to be clear: I’m not a Buddhist. I have no spiritual inclinations at all. I’m just a regular guy who turned his life around by adopting some amazing teachings from eastern philosophy.
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