Note: this is in no way a direct reference to any organization (which we didn’t actually know about at the time of publication, but have since been…enlightened about) employing shadow work. Shadow work can be important, and helpful! Or, it can be spiritual bypass, as described below. This is the view of one author. We invite dialogue and a thoughtful rebuttal or info that we can share with our readers, from anyone. ~ ed.
“It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature.” ~ C G Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious; 1912
What is the Shadow? That, first and foremost, is the question. So best I start with a definition from the horse’s mouth.
The Shadow is a term first used by psychotherapist and psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung to describe everything that we believe and say that we are not.
The Shadow represents those parts of us that lie outside our awareness.
The Shadow is what we disown in ourselves. Its presence is implied when we say “That’s not me at all…”, “I don’t do that…”, “Nope. I am not that…”
All well and good. Except that the term has been so widely and profoundly misunderstood that it has not only obfuscated the original definition of Shadow; the hoopla and spin are drawing those who are spending their time, their money, their energy (and sometimes their psychological well-being), on what they believe to be depth work, into encounters that are either superficial or misleading, or downright damaging.
Maybe if the term “Shadow” were defined correctly when used in the coaching and self-help fields, then people could approach a lot of what’s out there equipped with more knowledge and discernment—including various other practices that claim to be “Shadow work.”
Because, clearly, many are not.
And this is where the problems start to creep in. Because if you follow the thread of the real definition of Shadow to its logical, experience-based conclusion, then the concepts of Shadow and Shadow work aren’t quite as enticing as the slick marketing campaigns and self-improvement coaches, courses and workshops would have you think they are.
Not particularly sparkly. Definitely not seductive.
In fact, real Shadow work is a downright party pooper in those celebratory gatherings and workshops and retreats that tell you to shimmy your fullest self into the room. Your full, sexy, animal, growling, yowling, snarling, prowling self. Oh yes. There you are, you beast! Yes, you. Look at you! So uninhibited, you naughty daredevil. Look at everyone looking at you letting loose.
But it’s not the Shadow.
And, no, you haven’t been doing Shadow work. What you have been doing is this:
“I wouldn’t dare call myself that…”, “You want me to name some of my bad points? Well, I hate it when I do x, y, and z…”, “I’d love to do x, y, or z, but what would my neighbours/friends/family think?”
All of these may be things you are reluctant to embrace—but they are conscious because you know them enough to acknowledge them, or to lie about them.
None of these is Shadow, because the Shadow is the unknown. So unknown that you have no idea at all that it exists. It is Other.
Shadow shows up as the prickly, constricting freeze at the realisation of a presence that is alien.
It is the spoken slip that you stumble on as it tumbles out your mouth or on to the screen.
It is the moment when things turn weird, and just-not-right; the whoosh of “what-the-f*ck?!” that slaps you upside the head and puts you—face burning, stripped, naked—at the center of attention.
The Shadow is the unexpected meeting and understanding that what you “knew” wasn’t you—is you after all.
It is what you hated about your father.
What you heard from your mother and told yourself you’d never say. Except you just said it.
The violence that comes to a pacifist. The abused becoming abuser.
The racism that slips from the mouth of the quietest man. The rage that spills into the fists of a woman who never knew how to say, “no.”
The standing back at the work of art you just created—words, pictures, sounds, an unconsciously scrawled YAWP!—and saying to yourself, “Did I just do that? Where the f*ck did that come from?”
The Shadow could feel ugly and abhorrent, or it could feel beautiful.
Either way, it holds a tremendous amount of psychic energy, and it’s this energy that is the propellant for its emergence. When it surfaces, it may feel like an expansive revelation; it may be an eruption that is contained (by a therapeutic practice, for example, or skilled awareness)—or it may be a pyroclastic blast into consciousness.
But plunging into territory or behaviours that have felt forbidden or off-limits for some reason is neither Shadow nor Shadow work.
At its best, it is an enriching experience that may hold a Shadow element. At its worst, it is displacement, a “flight into health,” or acting out—which can result in re-traumatization in an environment that is not equipped either to recognise true Shadow when it emerges, or to deal with it.
Or it is both.
There’s an article doing the rounds in social media about getting dirty with your Shadow—meeting it up-close-and-personal. It has been widely shared; the idea has some serious traction. It’s a pretty rock-star kind of an article, which turns the sparkly bad-ass factor up quite a few notches.
Now, take that idea a step further, and maybe there’s a workshop that gets advertised along the same lines—perhaps a one or two-day experience designed to get you “rubbing up with your dark side.” It might be advertised as dangerous, sexy, naughty. “Shadow” may even be part of the by-line.
So you sign up, turn up, whip the darkness up into a frenzy, and play. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
It may well be tremendous fun—and that can be valuable. But it’s not Shadow work, and that isn’t Shadow.
It is a simulacrum—a straw man, that looks like the real thing and talks like the real thing, but is simply a fake plastic replica of Shadow.
And that is what the Ego does. It does it beautifully, and smoothly (far better than any marketing campaign), and for a very good reason: it throws up diversions that look so convincing that you think that they’re it. And it does it so that you don’t have to contend with the reality of what Shadow work really is.
And maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you’re not ready.
Because Shadow work is hard, awkward, and confusing, and the rewards don’t come in the form of recognition or accolades. The rewards are entirely personal, and of little direct relevance to anyone else.
There is no promise of being more popular, more attractive, more sexy.
There is only the promise of being more you.
And until you can appreciate the value of being more you—which can sometimes make you less popular, less attractive, less sexy to a whole lot more people—then the Shadow will remain something that needs to be jazzed up, sexed up, and marketed with glitter and allure.
This acting out masquerading as Shadow work consequently interferes with and delays the process of the true integration of the Shadow. It also frequently traumatises in the process—and that trauma can be subtle or gross, and can remain hidden for as long as the Ego’s bypassing tactics remain effective.
Then there are those events where “Shadow” is never mentioned. Those courses and experiences that have nothing obviously to do with Shadow but which work at the threshold of comfort or safety, and which are intended to take participants into areas they are not familiar with.
But are the facilitators aware of, and able to work with and manage, Shadow when it emerges?
Is Shadow as an active concept factored in?
Do they even know what to look for?
And are participants held and supported not only in experiences designed to destabilise the status quo—fertile ground for the emergence of Shadow—but offered support beyond it?
Rarely, in my experience, is Shadow either acknowledged or allowed for and integrated into such encounters by trainers and facilitators. Rarer still is it addressed directly.
Instead, it is acted out.
Participants leave feeling the elation that is common to those who have come together for a focused and intense experience. It’s an elation that can last for quite some time—days or months, even.
It is only when that elation wears off and the acting out no longer holds weight (because the elation itself may be the very means by which Shadow is avoided) that the impact of their experience makes itself known, and they wonder why life feels volatile and without center, why things are falling apart, and why there seems to be no reliable, safe haven in sight.
An unexplained and uncontained experience—an experience that is not made sense of through objective, skilled support—can create internal chaos. And it is usually the individual, by now separated from the originating experience, who has to make sense of it themselves.
These participants rarely give feedback, either because they don’t connect their current state with what happened back then, or they feel that what they’re experiencing is somehow wrong— or the cognitive dissonance between how they’re feeling and how they think they’re supposed to be feeling is too great.
So the courses and sessions remain unchanged, and avoid accountability and responsibility for the consequences that they set in motion.
Having written all of this, I must emphasise one thing—particularly in an article with such an inflammatory sub-title: not all Shadow work is bullsh*t.
I have been fortunate enough to know and work with facilitators, coaches, therapists, and organisations where Shadow was both integral to the experience and allowed for and supported—including after each encounter had ended.
And what they all had in common was a clearly stated understanding that Shadow work is challenging, complex, humbling, confusing, painful, and long-term.
Because Shadow work never ends: it is a lifetime process, and even then it will remain incomplete.
A considered, patient, thorough, and rigorous approach to the work, which is not so much designed to lever Shadow out from hiding, as to recognise it when it is present and to give it a place.
Shadow is always present.
Shadow doesn’t need cajoling or seducing. It doesn’t care if you’re naughty or nice.
We can work with it through commitment, a certain kind of stubbornness to re-commit again and again no matter what, and a surrender to the stripping away of what no longer matters—and that kind of stripping can be as far from sexy as you can imagine. And that doesn’t matter either.
By all means, find those places where the darkness is commodified and sold as some kind of black diamond. By all means believe that you’re doing real Shadow work.
But one day, when Shadow really calls, perhaps you’ll turn to find that stranger there, looking at you. And hopefully you’ll have the right support present to accompany you in the experience.
And maybe this time you won’t look away.
Maybe this time you will be able to look back at it without needing to scream, run, writhe, consume, shimmy, or f*ck your way out of its presence.
And you’ll know this: It wasn’t remotely what you were expecting. And there is a perfection in that befitting the nature of Shadow itself.
Author: Sarah Taylor
Editor: Erin Lawson