During the last ten years of leading workshops, one framework has resonated the most with the folks I work with. To be honest, it’s the framework that has resonated with me the most as well.
It’s called “shadow work.”
I’ve written a longer explainer on my own approach to shadow work and somatic shadow work, in particular, but here is a quick read for how to integrate this framework into your life.
What is Shadow Work?
The renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung taught that we each have a “shadow.”
This is the part of us we’d rather not see and we certainly don’t want others to see or know about. He referred to it as the “dark side” of our personality, containing all the things we’d rather not acknowledge are present or real.
Our personal shadows (some practitioners use the plural instead of the singular) might include our negative inner narratives, specific behaviors we indulge in, underexamined belief systems, or conditioned responses we might have that don’t align with our values. (These are just some examples – there are plenty more!)
Shadow work is, quite simply, the process of working with these shadows.
That said, there are two key components to keep in mind when engaging in shadow work and these are often ignored by shadow work practitioners.
- Shadow work is a slow, gentle, and embodied process. The objective is not to destroy your shadows or even to shine a bright light on them. It is to learn where they are, how they move, in what ways they show up in your body, and what they look like so that we might sit with them and understand them. In doing so, we can take gentle, soft steps toward lessening their power in us.
- Shadows do not only operate in our own personal lives. There are communal and societal shadows as well. In our workplaces, there are narratives, beliefs, events, and ideas that go unexamined and unspoken. In our society there are institutions and systems that are deemed “too big to fail” and therefore cannot be questioned. These are shadows and they impact us all, everywhere we go.
Shadow Work is practical and accessible.
Often people can be turned off by contemplative practices because they feel out of touch with the day-to-day requirements of a busy life.
Who has time for a “slow, gentle process” when there are so many things to do?
This is a question I’ve struggled with for a long time and it has resulted in me tossing many practices to the wayside. No matter how wonderful they are, practices like Centering Prayer, Taize chant, and yoga classes often end up feeling like add-ons in a life filled with add-ons.
But here’s the thing: shadow work is practical and accessible for each of us. It’s not about adding on, but about infusing in.
This is a practice for your life, not a rigid structure to fit your life into.
Make it how you want it and how you need it.
How Can I Use Shadow Work in my life?
The best way I’ve found to use shadow work is to break it into a three-part framework:
- Personal Shadow Work
- Communal Shadow Work
- Societal Shadow Work
Below are some ideas for how you can begin your shadow work at each of these levels, not as an add-on to your busy life, but infused within the awareness you bring into everything you’re already doing.
Personal Shadow Work
Guiding Question: What are the behaviors and narratives you have that you’d prefer not to look at or admit are real?
Ideas to Get Started:
- As you’re driving to work, instead of playing music, take five minutes and ask yourself: what in my life am I not dealing with right now? This is a gentle exercise – no need for shame or guilt; just awareness. Do not make a plan. Simply let the awareness of this component of your life percolate and see what emerges in the week that follows.
- Texture your shadow: Try writing down a one-sentence statement of a core fear or negative narrative you carry about yourself. Then, throughout your day take small moments to add texture to it: who helped it form in you? What behaviors has it led to? How has it protected you? How has it harmed you? What stability does it help you maintain? What possibility does it inhibit? (And so on…)
- Do a body scan while you’re in the midst of conflict and then afterward, noticing where in your body you hold your tension. Now ask yourself: what narratives are behind this tension? Do you clench your muscles when you feel out of control? Do you hunch up your shoulders when you feel unsafe or under attack? Does your body constrict and get smaller when you feel unimportant? Take note of how your shadows show up in your body.
Communal Shadow Work
Guiding Question: In your communities, what are the things that go unspoken or unexamined?
Ideas to Get Started:
- While you’re with your community, take note of who holds power or rank in the space. Now, notice which conversations they don’t want to engage in. Write these topics, challenges, or questions down. Let them simmer in your awareness and watch for when and how they come up throughout the week or month. What are your responses and the responses of others when these topics are avoided or evaded?
- Ask yourself: who is being harmed in this space? How am I complicit in the harm? Is this a conversation anyone is having? Who is having it? What is the energy I’m bringing to this space? What fears are connected to my involvement with this? What does this feel like in my body? What possibility is here?
- What structures exist that maintain who is “right” and who is “wrong;” who is “in” and who is “out;” who “belongs” and who is “welcomed” and who is “unwelcome;” whose voice is “listened to” and whose voice is merely “heard.” Who created these structures? Are they bringing about healing or perpetuating a harmful status quo? What is the conversation that needs to be had?
Societal Shadow Work
Guiding Question: As a culture or society, what are the topics, issues, and questions that have been deemed unchallengeable or “too big to fail?”
Ideas to Get Started:
- Ask yourself: which topics, issues, or questions have been deemed “impolite” to discuss publicly? What are the off-limits conversations? Who benefits from these conversations not being had?
- As you go through your day, notice the societal issues that seem to spark mass defensiveness in your family or community settings. (Examples might include police reform, LGBTQ rights, challenging capitalism, etc.) In response to this defensiveness, practice asking this question: “what fear do you have that is lying underneath your defensiveness?”
- Notice when your own defensiveness around these issues spikes. What bodily sensations, vibrations, impulses, and/or emotions come up in you? Go for a walk or sit and process these for a bit.
Want to experience shadow work?
Check out my free 5-day email series helping people to quit running on autopilot and become more intentional in their lives. Over the course of five days you’ll be invited into doing your own shadow work at the personal, communal, and societal levels. Engage with it here!