Shadow Work

In Helpful Stuff, Self-Compassion, Trauma by christine

Shadow Work

In psychology terms, the term “shadow” is used to describe the parts within all of us that we may try to hide, suppress or deny. It was originally coined by psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Carl Jung (1975-1961). Our “shadow” comprises aspects of our personality that we deem to be shameful such as childhood traumas (abuse, neglect, abandonment that give rise to feelings of unworthiness), as well as things like lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, greed, pride (“The Seven Deadly Sins” type stuff).

 Part of our shared humanity is having dark sides to our personalities. When we reject our shadow or avoid doing our healing work, it gives rise to maladaptive compulsions (substance abuse, disordered eating, process addictions, workaholism, perfectionism, etc.), low self-concept, and mental and physical illnesses*

 *interestingly, since Jung’s assertion of this concept many years ago, modern science has proven his theory is correct. For more on this, see academic journals detailing the longitudinal Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) – a research study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the American Centers for Disease Control that commenced in 1995 and has evidenced an association of adverse childhood experiences with detrimental mental and physical health as well as social problems across the lifespan.

When I lacked a healthy self-concept, I struggled with admitting I was wrong. My healthy ego was not developed which impeded my ability to get to know my shadow side. Maladaptive coping behaviours are commonplace for people who lack healthy self-concept, and I was no exception. 

Lack of optimal attunement with one’s primary caregivers in early life often become the birthplace for embodied and limiting self-beliefs, as do criticisms from one’s family of origin and early adverse interactions such as bullying and ostracism from peers. These negative self-appraisals *feel* like the truth, rather than what they are: limiting beliefs.

~Opinions are not facts~

We do not have control over the things that happen to us in early life.  Our caregivers’ traumas often adversely affect us. I think of children as little “sponges” that can “absorb” the shame of those who are responsible for their care.  Shame is a debilitating emotion; it keeps us woefully stuck. Although guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, they are different emotions that have different resonance in brain scans.  Guilt is “I did a bad thing”.  Shame is, “I am a bad thing”. Guilt is a motivating emotion – one can right a wrong – if I made a mistake, I can move into taking accountability. If I embody a belief that I am a mistake, it can be paralyzing to move through this.  Author of the book Healing the Shame that Binds You, Dr. John Bradshaw states that “prolonged shame-states in early life can result in permanently dysregulated autonomic functioning and a heightened sense of vulnerability to others. Their lives are marked by chronic anxiety, exhaustion, depression, and a losing struggle to achieve perfection”.  

Common reactions to shame include denial which gives rise to maladaptive coping behaviours such as disordered eating, addictions, fixations and compulsions. Additional reactions to shame can be to attack others (blame, criticism, projection, rage, violence), attack Self (negative self-appraisals, perfectionism, believing oneself to be defective, flawed), people-pleasing/co-dependency, and withdrawal (isolation, despair, hopelessness).  These reactions are far from comfortable, but very familiar to most of us.  We cannot eradicate the emotion of shame, but we can learn to turn debilitating shame into “healthy shame” through shining a light on our shadow side.

In a world that promotes constant avoidance of adverse emotion, it takes tremendous courage to identify how you want to show up in this life. This work first requires taking an inventory of the thoughts, behaviours, environments, and relationships that are thwarting you from living your preferred life and identifying what it is you do want.

Recognize that a healthy self-concept is more than having high self-esteem. “Self-esteem” is subjective as it is largely based on your perception of self-worth and your beliefs around characteristics that you deem worthy or capable at any given time. Think how our values and beliefs change and evolve over the human life span.

 During the 1990’s many schools and child and youth organizations focused curriculum on boosting kids’ self-esteem. We now know that while self-esteem is something desirable to have, it also has a problematic side: high self-esteem is most often a result of “winning”; as a  comparison to another (example: “I feel good about myself because I got an A on my assignment, and my friend got a B”).  Doing well and having our efforts rewarded feels remarkably good, no question. But what happens when our self-esteem fails – when we put our all into something and we weren’t recognized or esteemed for it? Ouch….we’ve all been there, and most of us are apt at moving into self-criticism and diminishing our self-worth based on the accomplishments or opinions of others.  While personal disappointments can push us to be our best Selves, when disappointment binds with the emotion of shame, it can be debilitating.  How do we know when shame has bound with disappointment? When our inner voice sounds like a taunting bully; something shame and resiliency researcher Brene Brown refers to as a “shame gremlin”.  A telltale sign when shame is present is that we criticize ourselves (“I am so stupid”; “I am worthless”) and we “should” on ourselves: “I should have know better/done this/done that”.  We become victimized by the bully in our head. And just like the bullied child in the schoolyard, all facets of our wellbeing suffer.

We now realize that fostering a self-compassion practice rather than promoting high self-esteem is the best avenue to bolster well-being.

Investing in SELF

Tips for Engaging in Shadow Work:

Recognize that you are not alone in having a shadow side – it is part of our shared humanity to possess parts of ourselves that we may deem undesirable. True healing and growth occurs from a place of acceptance, not denial.

Embrace compassion: the goal is to meet pain with kindness, rather than trying to eliminate it. For more on self-compassion see here:

Embrace curiosity.  Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment” (Kabat-Zinn).

Meet your shadow side with gratitude (yep, seriously). Recognize that some of your deemed undesirable parts and characteristics were once useful to you (adaptive under the circumstances). For more on the benefits of gratitude:

Recognize that engaging in shadow work is not about perfecting the Self – it is about fostering acceptance and compassion which increases emotional processing capacity and distress tolerance. Learning to hold compassionate space for Self increases the ability to hold genuine space for the suffering of others, thus deepening our relationships.

   Feel your feelings ~ deepen this exploration by engaging in pursuits  such as art, dance, journaling, meditating, dream analysis.

Share this exploration with a safe other (counsellor, pastor, Rabbi, etc.) to activate your social engagement system – this creates feelings of safety, which helps connect with dissociated aspects of the Self, making emotional processing more easily possible.  

Engage in mind-body/mindfulness therapies** and techniques to address developmental trauma beliefs. Examples of such beliefs are:

~I do not have a right to exist

~My feelings are not okay

~I do not deserve support

~I need to work hard to be loved

~I do not belong

~What’s the use? My needs will never be met

  ** these include Mindfulness, Somatic Experiencing (SE), Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Observed Experiential Integration (OEI), Brainspotting, Integrative Body Psychotherapy, Bodynamic, Biofeedback, Meditation/Prayer, Qigong, Hypnosis, Guided Imagery, Yoga, Tai Chi, Music Therapy, Acupuncture, The Feldenkrais Method, and others.

 Karen Horney (1885-1952), a psychoanalyst credited with founding feminist psychology believed that if we have an accurate conception of our own Self, we are able to realize our potential and achieve what we wish, within reasonable boundaries. Horney recognized positive accomplishments as important, but personal striving is also of intrinsic value.

There is no good reason why we should not develop and change until the last day we live.

                                                                   ~Karen Horney


Bradshaw, J (2005). Healing the Shame That Binds You. Health Communications Inc: Deerfield Beach, FL.

Brown, B. (2007). I Thought It was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am Enough”.  Gotham Book, NY, NY.

DeYoung, P. A. (2015). Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame. Routledge: NY, NY.

Horney, Neurosis and human growth. Chapter 6. Alienation from self.

Kaufman, G. (1980). Shame: The Power of Caring. Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc: Cambridge, MA. Nathanson, D. L. Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. W. W. Norton & Company: NY, NY