Is this a story you’re familiar with? Once upon a time there was a princess, trapped by an evil, jealous queen. One day, a brave prince heard about her plight and came to rescue her by defeating the evil queen’s magic and setting the princess free. They lived happily ever after.
Now, that’s a pretty short fairy tale, but I’m sure you get the gist and remember many variations of that story from your childhood – but do you know what I notice and what makes me curious…? The prince and princess get a happy ever after, but what about the evil queen? What do we know about her?
What made her evil? What was she like as a young girl herself? What did her happy ever after look like? Why was she so angry and jealous in the first place? What would she have felt if someone gave her a hug and asked her what she needed?
Now imagine that the princess is one part of you and the evil queen is another part of you.
The part of you that holds on to dark thoughts and feelings; the part that sounds like your inner critic, your inner mean girl and the part of you that longs to be seen and heard.
The part that has secret desires, wants and needs.
What makes that part of you feel that way?
What makes them say such nasty things to you that you would never dream of saying to someone else?
What would it feel like if that part of you was given time and space the be heard and feel seen?
This is the heart of shadow work - To accept that we all have parts of ourselves that we keep hidden from others (and sometimes even ourselves) because those parts are deemed unacceptable, unwanted, unworthy or too painful to share.
We all have multiple parts, each with different needs and wants that often act against each other. These are parts of us that at some point in our lives (normally childhood or early adulthood) we were taught to reject, resist, deny and ignore because they were not deemed acceptable by someone else's standards and expectations.
This is your shadow side – all the parts of you that are hidden.
Inner voices that sound and feel critical, judgemental, resentful etc can be the voice of your shadow.
Likewise, it can be the part of you that feels held back, repressed, frustrated and dissatisfied because you don’t feel brave or bold enough to go after what you really want.
The more you try and resist and ignore those parts of you, the more they beg for your attention. Your inner critic gets louder; your judgement of others who have what you desire grows more toxic and your frustration at living an unaligned life ends up making you truly miserable.
So what is the answer? If ignoring these parts of you simply makes them shout louder and act in more subversive ways to trip you up, what is the alternative?
What if, you got compassionately curious about these parts of you and tenderly, gently sought to understand them – what the really need, want and fear?
And what if, in doing that you discover that your inner critic is trying desperately to keep you small and safe because it’s a part of you that was once criticised and associates being seen as a threat to safety?
What if you connected to the part of you that judges people who share their opinions and discovered it's a part of you that has something important to say, but has in the past been shut down and told that its better to be seen and not heard?
What if you discovered that you hold a lot of big feelings inside you – anger, grief, rage, fear, passion – and that those feelings need to be expressed, not held on to. What if you could find safe ways to move through and process those feelings so you could release them. What if you didn’t have to carry them around anymore?
This my friend, is shadow work.
It’s noticing what feelings, thoughts and beliefs you hold onto; getting curious about where they come from and then showing those parts of you deep compassion as you get to know them better.
Shadow work can support you to connect deeply with who you really are beneath the thin, fragile mask that we present to the world day by day so that you can spend less effort hiding your true self and instead show up as the real you with confidence.
How to Start Shadow Work
1. Build self-compassion first. Shadow work can feel uncomfortable as it requires you to look at parts of yourself that have been hidden and that can bring up lots of feelings, memories and stories that you have been shielding yourself from.
Having a firm base of self-compassion and a toolkit of self-connection practices to support you is going to be essential.
2. Stay with the compassion, no matter what parts you discover. You may connect with part so yourself that trigger feelings of shame, guilt, anger etc and it can feel difficult to see those parts of you as something you want to connect to.
Starting with and then staying with compassion will help you to see pass the external judgements you carry about those parts and discover the truth of what they represent (spoiler alert – you have no bad parts and all parts want you to simply be safe).
3. Maintain self-connection. Shadow work can be tricky as there will be parts of you that wont want you digging around in that space (remember, they’re trying to keep you safe) so maintaining a sense of self connection is going to keep you grounded and feeling safe.
Staying connected to yourself through practices like meditation, journaling, time in nature etc is going to keep you from getting stuck in doom spirals when parts of you are feeling anxious.
4. Find ways to let your shadow play. Shadow work is not just churning through heavy emotions – it can be fun and rewarding too!
Your shadow also includes your repressed needs and wants – so what happens when you stop resisting and give into those wants?
If you have a deep-seated desire to do something that you would not usually dare to do (like join an art class, go live on Instagram, start that dream biz) find small, safe, minimal risk ways to further explore that desire and just see how it feels. Let that part of you out to play and see how if feels
5. Remember your shadow includes multiple parts that may work against each other. Your shadow is not just one aspect of you, it is multiple.
Think of it like a committee made up of all different personalities, all of them a younger version of you.
They have the same overall intention – to keep you safe – but they go about it in different ways with their own agendas and understanding of what it means to be "safe".
That can lead to inner conflict and confusion, so remember to come back to that self-connection, tune into what you really need & want and use that as motivation to move forward.
If parts of you feel fearful about that, then instead of ignoring those parts and trying to push on regardless (which is when that part can pop up later to sabotage you), instead find ways to comfort and reassure that part of you that it is OK – there is no risk that you, a grown adult with all your skills and experience wont be able to handle one way or another.
There is so much more I could share about Shadow Work – it’s a deeply insightful and powerful modality that can support you to deepen your self-connection and feel confident, clear and creative.
Our shadow includes the truest, deepest, oldest parts of who we truly are, buried beneath so many years and layers of external influence and masking that uncovering those hidden parts can feel like coming home to yourself. Isn't it time you got to know them (and yourself) a little better?