Starting Shadow Work: Bringing the Darkness to Light

A journal sits on a table in front of an empty chair

Shadow work is a hot topic right now, and for good reason! But what is shadow work exactly? 

Shadow work is based on analytical psychology posited by Carl Jung. He stated that the human psyche is made up of the self, the persona, the shadow, and the anima/animus.

The persona is the outward face we show the world, and can be called a "mask" that we use to conform to what we think we should appear like to others. The anima/animus is the "opposite sex" mirror of our biological sex, for example traditionally "masculine" tendencies in women, or a man's "feminine side." (This part is a whole can of worms that this non-binary author doesn't have the space to examine in a single blog post!) 

Our shadow sides are the parts of us that we hide away from others, and often even ourselves. In Jungian terms, it includes all the elements of your unconscious personality. These are usually the parts of us we consider least desirable, which is why we try to hide them away. We don't like to admit that we have shortcomings and weaknesses that make us feel bad.

Shadow traits include things like fear, jealousy, insecurity, anger, laziness, selfishness, and vanity. They're the kind of things Yoda would tell you lead to the dark side. 

Yoda in the swamp
Judging you, he is.

Finally, the self unifies our experience. In Jung's view, the goal is to achieve a state of selfhood or self-actualization. We do this by overcoming the persona, and integrating aspects of the anima/animus and shadow into ourselves.

Shadow work is beneficial for everyone, but as witches, working with and understanding our shadow side is truly important work we can include in our practice. We celebrate the cycles of the cosmos and nature, striving to find balance and harmony with the world around us. Finding balance and harmony within helps us make peace with ourselves and the people around us. It's painful work, but it can result in powerful healing.

So how can we get started? 

First, make an appointment with yourself. Dedicate a block of time to the practice. Just like when you see a doctor or therapist, your first session will take the longest, so make sure you give yourself enough time to devote to it. For me, I like to start out in the literal darkness, so I took two hours on a Friday night to myself. I bought a special notebook, lit some candles, and curled up in a comfortable space.

Next comes the hardest part. Take some time to sit quietly and think about things you don't like about yourself. What parts of yourself would you reject? 

As you think about these things, jot them down. How do you feel when you think about these things? What emotions are they bringing up in you? Are you having a physical reaction, such as shaking or nausea? Make note of everything, so that you can remember these initial impressions. Don't censor yourself as you write, the point is to get it all out.

Then, ask yourself what qualities you don't like in others. What traits do you react negatively to? These are often the mirrors of our own unconscious shadows. If we hate others for being cruel, it may relate to our own fear of being seen as weak.

Once you have a list of traits and your responses, you can do some research. Jung suggested that there are many archetypes we all relate to because they are part of the collective unconscious. There are a multitude of archetypes, but a dozen to start with are:

  1. Ruler
  2. Creator
  3. Sage
  4. Innocent
  5. Explorer
  6. Rebel
  7. Hero
  8. Wizard
  9. Jester
  10. Everyman
  11. Lover
  12. Caregiver

If these Jungian archetypes don't speak to you, I've recently been working with the Major Arcana of the tarot as archetypes for shadow work journaling. 

Tarot cards spread on a table, with the High Priestess displayed

Each archetype is associated with its own desires, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. As you learn about them, you can associate the traits you have listed with these archetypes. Examining your relationship to these archetypes, how you respond to them and how they show up in your life, can provide you with incredible insights into who you are.

In the coming weeks, we will work through the process of examining, accepting, and even loving ourselves for these shadow traits. Get your journals ready!

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