What is shadow work, the self-care therapy trending on social media?

The term was coined by Carl Jung and acknowledges we have a deeper, darker side that needs to be treated with compassion

According to shadow work therapists, the 'shadow self' is the child who was hurt in its early years or did not get the compassion or love it deserved. Getty Images
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Abha Jha (name changed upon request) was only 6 years old when she first witnessed her parents fighting and hurling abuse at each other. Each time it happened after that, she would seek to protect her younger sibling and hide in a room until the noises died down.

Jha, 45, grew up a quiet and withdrawn child and stopped expressing her emotions. This had an impact on her in the long run and made her reticent in her own marriage. Her divorce, in part, pushed her to seek out an empathetic counsellor who is helping her heal from the past through shadow work, an age-old therapy technique that is currently trending with millions of users on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.

“From the age of about 3 or 4, each experience we go through impacts our life in one way or another,” explains behavioural researcher and therapist Deenaz Damania. “The more painful an experience, the greater the effort we make to push it out of our conscious mind. But it is not forgotten. Rather, it gets repressed deep within us and added to our library of unconscious memories. As [psychoanalyst Sigmund] Freud explained, these unconscious memories continue to impact our everyday lives as adults.”

Identifying the 'shadow self'

The term shadow work was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and it’s essentially about recognising the “dark side” of our personality. According to Jung: “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself. How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole.”

The 'shame story' can be brought out of the shadows ... it does not have to imprison us for life
Deenaz Damania, therapist

The “shadow self” is the child who was hurt in their early years or did not get the compassion or love they deserved. These types of early traumas result in deep wounds that never fully heal and affect a person in adulthood. Shadow work helps people get in touch with their deeper, darker side to acknowledge all their repressed emotions and childhood traumas, as to heal and empower themselves and experience life to its fullest potential.

On the other hand, when you suppress childhood traumas and wounded parts of your psyche, it creates stress that can lead to serious mental health issues or addictive behavior for relief. It also shapes your thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

Coming out of the shadows

“We all have a personal relationship with shame and guilt, and this hidden association sustains our pain and suffering,” says Damania. “Shadow work helps individuals find freedom, and gives them the courage and compassion to explore and expose these emotions. It teaches us that the 'shame story' can be brought out of the shadows and that it does not have to imprison us for life.”

Ingrid Hanlon, a writer for self-esteem and self-improvement blog Daisy Garni, says: “The more you shame and blame your shadow, the less likely you are to see yourself. The more you accept your shadow, the easier it is to grow. Give it your love, compassion and understanding.”

Through therapy, people can transform emotional pain into a sense of well-being and freedom from the past
Deenaz Damania

Dealing with the past, recognising toxic behaviour patterns and having an inner monologue are some ways to help us in our interactions and personal relationships, as well as boost self-esteem and heal generational traumas.

“Low self-esteem, anxieties and false belief systems play an important role in how we perceive ourselves. As a therapist, it is very rewarding to help a counselee peel away layers of dust-laden memories, wounds and repressed ideas of personal inadequacy, which dictate the quality of their present life in unnecessarily harmful ways,” says Damania. “Through therapy, people can recognise and transform emotional pain into a sense of well-being and freedom from the past.”

Make shadow work work for you

Forgiveness is an essential part of the shadow work process, as is facing your inner demons. Spiritual blogger Linette Meder says the shadow can be accessed via dreams and meditation or through someone’s hurtful criticism of your qualities. Usually what we find disturbing in others is also a reflection of the part of us that is unlikeable. So identifying triggers is important: who or what angers or irritates you?

Shadow work helps us to gracefully accept that we are all so many selves rolled into one
Deenaz Damania

Next comes working with a therapist who helps you break those patterns again and again until the triggers stop bothering you. To go into a meditative or theta state and access painful memories from the past with a therapist’s help is also useful.

In her video on shadow work, YouTuber Keelin Moncrieff, 23, offers a list of 15 prompts that question thought processes from letting go of grudges to slowing down, and then talks through tools to heal them.

Many followers of the therapy keep a shadow work journal to help identify triggers as well as seek catharsis. Digging deep into the roots of behaviour patterns may be painful, but it’s essential to express emotions in healthy ways, to become more confident and, eventually, be the best version of ourselves.

Shadow work ultimately helps us to gracefully accept that we are all so many selves rolled into one, says Damania "to integrate these within ourselves with courage and compassion, and to treat ourselves with the same kindness and gentleness and love as we would a good friend."

Updated: November 29, 2021, 12:06 PM