I recently completed a course called Shadow Work, offered by Amy Wright Glenn at the Institute for Birth, Breath and Death. In honour of this darkening time of the year, I’m sharing a version of my final paper with you here.
Each of us are made up of parts that make us complex and unique individuals. For most of us, some of these layers are hidden in shadow, not unlike a Russian Nesting Doll or that dark corner in our basement. While they are always present, it can be hard to know when they show up and become revealed, and for what purpose.
As humans, each of us also has the experience of living through some type of trauma or pain. Depending on the support we are given at the time, it can become a deeper wound or shadow that then presents itself when triggered later on in life. Shadows are embedded in us. Carl Jung shared that the shadow is a part of a person’s psyche that stores the parts of the Self that are seen as unacceptable or uncomfortable. They then move into our shadows and become unconsciously unaware. Shadow Parts show up later in life by trying to keep you safe and not get hurt, but sometimes it’s overdoing its job.
We do not have just one Shadow, but several, built over time. One type of Shadow is our Inner Child – raw, immature emotions that get stuck in us during an especially hard or unfulfilled time in our life.
Shadows start to form in childhood, especially after age 8 or 9 when human development connects to autonomy, self-esteem and a sense of self. As my own children are 11 and 8 years old, I am seeing in real time how this starts to happen. Their full personalities are forming, as are the parts of themselves that they are self-critical about or struggling with. They also mirror the parts of myself as their parent who is modeling for them how I cope with the big emotions in my life. As Amy Wright Glenn shares in her book Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go, children need to see our smaller grief and ways that we heal it, so that we create scaffolding for our children against the bigger losses that happen later in life.
The Shadow side may compare yourself to others, or even other times in our life. It wants to preserve connection with others, so may fawn or appease to get that connection, even if it means that the Self is being martyred or self-sacrificed. That is usually from a history of not having secure attachment or healthy bonds in childhood. As humans, we thrive on social engagement, not unlike other animals like wolves or elephants.
Many family dynamics include intergenerational trauma as well as learning. We inherit our ancestors’ shadows, and they can become active or remain dormant in us. Trapped emotions become shadows as they are like hungry ghosts in us that cause disharmony; we also taught that only easy and good emotions are valid to be seen or shared so many more get hidden in shadows of Self.
The concept of the ‘dark night of the soul’ is when a Shadow part is triggered and brought to feel sadness, confusion, despair or a crisis. When we recognize this work, it is a deep awakening to the healing, growth and transformation we can go through. The Shadow is fuel for the fire that doesn’t want to get to the light.
A word of caution: While the terms shadow and light were historically neutral, we need to be mindful of the covert nature of claiming darkness as bad, wrong or ugly. In today’s world, we need to reclaim the term so that it doesn’t get tied down to white supremacy and internalized power. The dark is not inherently bad. Good grows in the dark too. Think of the seed planted in dark soil, or the beautiful butterfly that is born out of a dark chrysalis state. We can be transformed because of the dark too.
When we befriend our Shadow, we not only heal and accept it, but we accept our true Selves by not cutting off any of the pieces that live with pain.
Over these last few years, I have been doing some soul work, and diving deeper into myself. As a trauma-focused therapist myself, this work is integral. As I have been learning more about Shadow work, Inner Child Healing and somatic bottom-up work that connects the body to healing the mind, I see more fully how my own Shadow lives in me.
For instance, I see how shadows may be in charge when we are triggered by someone else as a quality of them is activating us. For instance, it used to be really hidden in shadows when a certain tone of voice or energy scared me. Now I help people connect it to their own childhood. Maybe your parents grew up in difficult family structures, homes where some feelings were not welcome, or anger and stress overruled affectionate touch. While they tried their best to raise you, they brought their shadows with them when they became parents themselves. Just like Peter Pan’s shadow, they were quite tethered to the parts of their life they were trying to leave behind.
There are shadow sides of the feminine as well as masculine. As a girl growing up in the big world of 1980s (or pick your decade!), I learned quite early to have a strong emphasis on being good, pretty, or embody positive vibes. I had to cast out negativity in order to feel safe, which meant I also couldn’t show the harder feelings like sadness or anger, let alone fear. This led me to be stuck in a rut of sameness as I was conditioned to be the good girl to a fault. Good girls don’t complain or disagree. They don’t have strong feelings. Like many people, I learned to say “I’m fine” even when I’m not. This too is a shadow part trying to protect us: Instead of being honest, these words cover up my true feelings as they are seen as too sensitive or vulnerable. Even though girls are conditioned to be more sensitive than people in male bodies, it is still quite unacceptable to show the fuller range of emotions and vulnerability.
I got my period at quite a young age and so my body was also sexualized by men. A shadow side that was brought forth was the part of me that should know more about toying with men or flirting with them, and yet the innocent side of me didn’t align or allow for my sexual self to be accessed as I got older. I hated my sexual body for a long time. It has been a wonderful journey to reclaim it.
I shy away from conflict. And when in conflict, our shadows tend to show up because they were not taken care of before. They are trying to protect us and instead we complain and our pride gets in the way of healing and repair work. I used to want to flee but now as an adult, a part of me goes into fight mode. I used to fawn more, and have been working on this people-pleasing part. Shadows live in the murky boundaries that don’t get enforced. They rely on our loyalty. As Pixie Lighthorse shares though, “comfort is not a companion to change.” We need discomfort in order to create the shift that is needed.
Based on our survival response, when in conflict our shadows show up and say:
Fight – “No I’m not, you are!”
Flee – “I’m out of here”
Fawn – “oh my goodness I’m so sorry. What can I do?”
Freeze – “I can’t do anything so why try…”
In order to see the gold in us, we need to practice alchemy to bring out the shadow parts and integrate them. Yet we hang it in self-doubt, negative self-talk and worthlessness too long. We judge ourselves and are critical of others when we are scared. My Inner Critic keeps my Imposter Syndrome alive and active so I don’t take those esquisite risks. I see this in myself, especially as I continue to be a perpetual student instead of embracing my own expertise and knowledge to be a leader. What else am I training for?
Our own amazingness also lives in our shadow Self, as doubt and shame are a shadow. We tend to hang out in worthlessness too long. Ironically the stems from being told having pride or a positive self regard is also a negative aspect of self or ego. We need to feel in connection with others in order to lessen the impact of shame or doubt. When we are in community and share stories, we see the mirrors of our soul reflected in others experiences that are so similar.
Imposter Syndrome sets us up to fail as it’s in bed with our Inner Critic voice. While technically trying to save us from getting hurt, it is in fact what is hurting me. We need to embrace a collective change to be inclusive and supportive of each other instead of competitive and comparative in suffering, productive and successful to a fault.
There is Work to Do
Shadow Work has been brought to light in many ways, especially these last few months during a global pandemic as well as with anti-black racism in the States. Generally, shadow work is a personal process, one that is about the individual facing, confronting, and then integrating their shadows. As we live in community and thrive when in connection others, we cannot negate the relational aspect of also needing to heal our collective shadows that live in our external worlds with others. Hence, shadow work needs to be both internal and community-based intentions.
We have been called to unlearn inherited stories, and instead focus on collective healing. This work is the calling to bring what was before unconscious and subconscious to the forefront. Shadow work is the evolution to heal our primal Nervous System response as our shadow always wants to be revealed and integrated with love.
“Rituals are created to serve humanity and help us awaken from slumbers of ignorance” shares Amy Wright. One key part of this work is to intentionally connect individual repair work to the more collective reparations that are needed. It may be hard to say sorry and own our mistakes and yet this is crucial to repair and integrate our Shadows into our true Selves.
Shadow Work is uncovering what is hidden in the layers of the sub- or unconscious so that we can integrate them and also heal our lineages. We need to see it for what it is and give it self-care and nourishment, just like we would a physical wound or ailment. We need to like and appreciate all our parts.
Pixie Lighthorse wisely shares that a return to liberation as “shadow work is an act of liberation” as it is a collective healing and anti-oppression work in its full essence. She further shares in her book Goldmining the Shadows, “composting fear and pain in order to grow self-compassion and overall wellness is alchemy which needs fuel and functionality.”
Shadow Work is very similar to Richard Schwartz’ work with Internal Family Systems, where he talks about the 8 C’s of Self – compassion, calm, connectedness, creativity, curiosity, clarity, confident, and courage. My Self needs to be in charge, so I know it is there if any of these “C’s” are present. When we get stalled, it’s because something in us is not yet seen and hides in shadow. When we show empathy for the parts of our Self that weren’t loved before, this new wholeness helps interrupt Parts that are so wounded and exiled that they can’t see a way out.
Another layer of Shadow Work is spending time in mindful contemplation of our body: Somatic work like this helps us notice where the shadow lives in my body. For me, it lives in my stomach or gut (our second brain) as well as my racing heart. When I feed my shadow love, compassion and attention, it feels more calm and cared for.
We also need to re-parenting ourselves, which accesses hope for a secure attachment, possibly for the first time. It is not indulgence but rather self-preservation to do this work. Amy Wright shares how “love weaves meaning between the 2 thresholds…as the work of holding space for our fears and the hungry ghosts is ultimately one of love.” One way to do this is to practice the art of re-parenting ourselves. Reparenting isn’t denial of the parent we had, but rather what our inner child still needs. That young brain needs to heal what it needed back then and didn’t receive.
Shadow work is the evolution to heal our primal Nervous System response, unbeknownst to us our shadow does always want to be revealed. This work is self-compassionate work for our body mind and soul.
We need to feel your feelings or stay with them in order to get through them. Otherwise they keep showing up, coming out of the shadows to test us. Nothing is permanent, even our feelings. We can’t rush this work, nor is it a quick lesson. Working with our shadows needs a personalized healing balm to care for Mind Body Spirit in intentional ways. There are some great ingredients like knowing self-regulation AND co-regulation exercises and learning more about Polyvagal Theory and Vagus/Soul Nerve. As humans, we need a sense of belonging and collective. Our Shadows rely on being alone in order to stay alive in the darkness. Nature can also heal me like a tree or lake needs Mother Earth. Self-compassion is a practice of building trust in myself and what I need in the here-and-now moment.
This is a crucial time in history. The elections in the States have shown the dark side of the moon, and yet there is hope moving forward. “In becoming intimate with your injuries, you are befriending your innermost self.” This trust will help you develop deeper relationships with others as well. This is the reward of shadow work – being seen for my shadows as well as valuing yours. I hold space for us both and we step towards the light.
When we get stalled it is because something in us is not yet seen and hides in shadow. It is time to slow down and notice what is hidden then. You can do it alone, or ask a trusted friend what part of you needs to be tended to with self-compassion. Sit with your Shadow and welcome it with open arms.
What lives in your shadows?