A brief history of our shadows
The concept of a shadow self (also known as shadow aspect, shadow archetype, or Id) comes from analytical psychology, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s approach to the empirical analysis of the human psyche.
Jung compared the shadow to the unknown dark side of the personality (similar to the Id, Ego, and Superego theory of psychoanalysis). The shadow can be positive or negative, but it is primarily characterized by irrational thoughts and behaviors. Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is." (Psychology and Religion, 1938).
Before I continue with modern shadow work, it is important to denote that Jung was an extremely racist man and, because things do not exist in a vacuum, his beliefs permeated into his work. I highlight this because it is important to deconstruct and decolonize mental health and spirituality.
His book, “Psychological Types” (1920), equates black people to prehistoric humans, compares black people’s consciousness to the white unconscious, and equates the psyche of adults to that of white children, (Dalal, 1988). At its core, Jung’s theory focuses on the study of the “primitive” unconscious and how civilized (read: white) people possess, in addition to the primitive mind, a conscious individual self that allows them to function in civilization.
It is important to acknowledge the origins of a practice so we may be better informed and find ways to change harmful practices. Modern Western practices treat the shadow as all the repressed parts of ourselves, the things we have learned are not accepted in society, the parts of us that do not align with who we want to be. These aspects often are a result of an unmet need.
A way in which I have changed how shadow work works for me is by referring to the shadow as my inner child and my current self, as the adult. The adult is now in a position to meet any needs that my child-self lacked; they are equipped with vocabulary, experiences, and tools to help a child heal.
How can I start?
Shadow work helps us gain self-awareness, understanding, and acceptance. The end goal is to heal and the key component to do this is self-compassion. Shadow work is not meant to be used as a tool for self-deprecation or to guilt trip yourself. You are learning to accept that you are human and, as such, you too have a shadow.
Second, you do not have to be a master at meditation, but knowing a bit of mindfulness based meditation can help. Learn to listen to your thoughts, feelings, behaviors. Remember not to linger on them, simply let them come and go. Most importantly, keep track of your progress!
Journaling is a great tool to keep track of your discoveries and progress; the medium is versatile, allowing you to write, illustrate, or scrapbook in order to express yourself.
Here are some of the prompts I started with that led to additional discoveries, questions, and aspects of myself I was unfamiliar with.
- What would your shadow tell you about that time? Let them write it down for you, do not filter how they decide to express themselves.
- Tell your shadow how things turned out.
- Reassure them that how they feel is very valid. Ask them what you can do to help them heal.
Two seemingly short prompts can lead you to additional questions you want to explore or find things that you are not quite yet ready to address. Remember, this is at your own pace!
Let me know if you have other suggestions, prompts, or if you try these out.