“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

— CARL JUNG

Have you ever blurted out a comment that takes you by surprise? Or felt suddenly angry towards a person or situation while at the same time unsure of why you felt that way? 

According to psychologist Carl Jung, the idea of “the shadow” relates to the unconscious parts of ourselves that we fail to see, acknowledge or accept. The motivations that drive us – but that we have little conscious awareness of – are our “shadow selves,” residing below the surface of the conscious minds. 

So what is shadow work, then? In the Jungian sense described above, the aim of shadow work is to make the unconscious conscious; to delve into the depths of our psychologies, excavating and unearthing all the fractured parts of ourselves on the path towards personal development.

Yes, exploring your shadow side can be a huge task. But the benefits are profound, and there’s no time like the present moment to take that journey as a human being. Luckily, delving into the shadow self is much less intimidating when the concepts are a little more fully understood. 

In this guide, we’ll provide a clear explanation that answers the question: “what is shadow work,” explore the context of the shadow in an individual’s conscious life, learn more about how being more self-aware can play a positive role in your life, and offer practical exercises to integrate shadow work into your path of self-development.

What is shadow work and the shadow self?

what is shadow work
(Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

First, let’s bring to mind the vision of what the metaphor implies. The sun always shines brightly, illuminating everything in its path. However, even though the light necessarily illuminates objects, even on the sunniest days, shadows are cast. 

For Jung, the ego is the conscious part of the mind, the contents of which are illuminated by the light of awareness. That which isn’t is understood as our shadow self, the shadow side of our psyche that resides in the unconscious. 

Jung’s exploration of the unconscious implies that there is a vast intelligence in ourselves that, in many ways, runs the show from behind the scenes. The magnitude of the unconscious can’t be understated. In Man and His Symbols, Jung writes:

A man likes to believe that he is the master of his soul. But as long as he is unable to control his moods and emotions, or to be conscious of the myriad of secret ways in which unconscious factors insinuate themselves into his arrangements and decisions, he is certainly not his own master.

Jung perceived that neurosis (mental health issues) are often caused by a separation between ego-consciousness and the rich inner-life of the unconscious. In other words, shadow aspects like limiting beliefs, past trauma buried deep within ourselves, low self esteem, dark thoughts and negative past experiences can sneak up on us. 

Without a solid understanding of the shadow part of ourselves, and without the ability to confront our shadow selves can lead us to feel triggered unexpectedly, or lead us towards certain behaviors and emotional reactions that prevent us from deep healing or being our authentic self.

The key to overcoming this is called shadow work.

Understanding the shadow self: the path towards greater conscious awareness

The need for shadow work in order to come to a greater understanding of our own inner dialogue and our conscious self is a task often undervalued in Western culture, where introspection and looking within are not always on top of the list of priorities. 

However, knowing more about the darker aspects of ourselves, and how shadow work exercises can help us achieve a great deal of personal growth, can be of enormous value. Spiritual practices, by their very nature, work with the unconscious. Exploring such territory often confronts the shadow aspects in our human psyche. 

Meditation, for example, is the practice of expanding self-awareness. By learning to concentrate the mind, you begin to become increasingly aware of your inner world. That can surface a few surprises. 

There is a risk with shadow work and spirituality. Without a proper understanding of the shadow, there’s a chance of what is referred to as spiritual bypassing — the term given to practices that overlook or suppress psychological functions, misguided by spiritual principles or concepts.

Through my spiritual path, and in conversations and observations of spiritual communities, I’ve noticed a few examples of the need for shadow work in spirituality:

  • The concept of compassion: This can lead to the suppression of certain emotions, such as impatience, frustration, or annoyance. Ideas such as “I am a compassionate person” can, ironically, lead to being inauthentic, and other not-so-positive aspects of a fulfilling life. Think of any behavior that could be misconstrued as lacking compassion. That’s the territory where a shadow can be formed,and where shadow work can be of use.
  • Guruism and projection: Many people start the spiritual journey to find freedom from suffering. Some are drawn to teachers who embody what they wish to find within. However, without the right level of awareness, psychological projection can occur, leading to an unhealthy dynamic whereby the guru has all the answers, rather than simply being an inspiration. This counteracts the nature of spiritual growth as a personal journey. Teachers have a place. But a reliable teacher points the way, without saying “I am the way.”
  • Meta-projection: This one is fun. Because spiritual work is a form of depth psychology, many people are aware of concepts such as shadow work and projection. That can lead to sticky situations whereby someone calls out the process of projection. Then what? Either self-awareness is there to acknowledge if this is the case, or the understanding of the process of projection becomes a cunning form of blame or lack of responsibility. For example, someone expressing a boundary could be told they’re “projecting” by someone who is avoiding responsibility for unkind, or even harmful, behavior.
  • Mouth service to spiritual principles: In addition to compassion, spiritual principles such as unconditional love, forgiveness, letting go, being present, can all become intellectual concepts that lead to the suppression of emotions or parts of the psyche. For example, believing letting go means moving on immediately without any emotional processing or reflection, which prevents you from being able to confront your shadow or experience deep healing.

All of these are examples of spiritual ego — ways in which the ego adapts, like a chameleon, to its environment. It’s worth keeping these aspects in mind as the unconscious, and its shadow elements, don’t cease to exist just because someone sees themselves as a “spiritual person.” Work is work, and vigilance is still required.

The unconscious isn’t only a vast intelligence, but a landscape full of psychic energies, which Jung called shadow archetypes. Many people fear approaching the unconscious because of the power of archetypes that might feel unfamiliar or unnerving (as well as beautiful or commanding, in ways that conflict with the conscious sense of self).

Jumping wildly into the depths of the unconscious without mastering the intricacies of Jungian shadow work can lead you to neurosis, or other profound challenges. Take, for example, people that ingest psychedelics, experience ego death, and are suddenly confronted with contents from the depths of their minds that can completely overwhelm them.

Robert Johnson notes that working alone with the unconscious can be done safely, but precautions are necessary. He writes:

“You must understand that when you approach the unconscious you are dealing with one of the most powerful and autonomous forces in human experience… If you fail to take this process seriously, or try to turn it into mere entertainment, you can hurt yourself.”

It’s important to reinforce the last part of Johnson’s message. Shadow work’s definition has become slightly muddied, having become part of the cultural self-development movement. But it has to be respected. I’ve done the vast majority of inner-work through my own inquiry, yet I still have had valuable mentors, coaches, and at one point a therapist, to offer a safety net when those forces of human nature started to reach my level of tolerance.

Holding firm, having resilience, and having the courage to face the shadow, to learn its language, and integrate its lessons, will lead to rapid growth. Jung refers to the unconscious as the vast ocean, and ego-consciousness as an island. I can vouch for this. At times, when I’ve gone deep into my own shadow work, I’ve faced tsunamis of imagery, feeling, and thinking patterns that really tested my ability to remain afloat.

Shadow work and the language of the unconscious

Shadow work isn’t easy because it requires brutal self-honesty. It’s so much easier to project, to fail to look within, to find fault with others whilst preserving the illusion of a pristine self-image.

“If you feel an overwhelming rage coming up in you when a friend reproaches you about a fault,” writes Marie-Louise von Franz, “you can be fairly sure that at this point you will find a part of your shadow, of which you are unconscious.” 

A lot of the time, the training ground of shadow work is in the trenches, in the ugly or difficult emotions. It stands to reason that, because the shadow is a fractured part of the psyche that was suppressed, denied, or shamed into the darkness, there will be aversion towards it. But what we resist persists. That means becoming receptive to the entirety of your personality, warts and all.

However, with a growth mindset, this leads to something quite amazing. When you begin to see how these experiences offer vital lessons to your own growth, moments of projection or difficulty become breadcrumbs to deeper knowledge about yourself. They can then become almost welcome as catalysts for growth.

In addition to psychic energies, troubling emotions, or projection, another way the unconscious communicates is in dreams. Jung coined the term shadow work because it is usually represented in dreams in a personified form. Von Franz notes how it’s much more difficult to let ourselves off the hook when dreams reflect behaviors we might find fault with, than when this is reflected by someone else.

The benefits of shadow work

All things considered, you might wonder whether shadow work is worth it. Why run the risk of exploring the unconscious if it’s such commanding terrain? As noted, the unconscious exists, whether it’s worked with or not. 

Ultimately, Jung’s path of individuation (similar to Maslow’s self-actualization) uses shadow work not just to prevent unwelcome experiences, but to return to wholeness. 

Central to Jung’s theory is that each of us has a unique psychological structure. Yes, there are common traits across humanity as a whole, but we are all born with an innate structure that wishes to become manifest, in our words, actions, choices, behaviors, and attitudes. 

Robert Johnson eloquently describes this as our “blueprint,” a primal pattern contained within the unconscious mind. For most, only a small part of this blueprint is actualized and made conscious.

Jung chose the word individuation because it leads to the fullest fulfillment of someone’s unique potential and personality, which often goes against the type of person we think we are! The benefits of this can’t be understated. Living fully in alignment with our blueprint is a catalyst to living a life of deep meaning and purpose. Additional benefits include:

  • A more nuanced understanding of human nature: It’s easy to use self-deceit and labels of “good” and “bad” or “right” or “wrong” to suppress the full nature of the inner world. Shadow work reveals an expansive, clear picture, including dark and light capabilities.
  • Improve self-awareness: As consciousness expands, you begin to learn about yourself on a deep level.
  • Harnessing the power of darkness: This sounds a bit like a line from a comic book hero, but by bringing the shadow elements into the conscious mind, you’re better able to integrate these psychic energies for good, rather than being controlled by the dark side.
  • Seeing others clearly: How can you ever truly know someone if you’re unaware of your own projections, judgments, and distortions? The more responsibility in taking ownership of projections, the clearer the true nature of others becomes. 
  • Enhanced empathy: A nuanced understanding, plus clear seeing, leads to greater empathy for others. Rather than condemn undesirable behavior, you understand why people are motivated to do what they do, because you see those potentials within yourself, rather than clinging to concepts of righteousness or moral superiority.

Jung’s work revealed two choices: run from the shadow, and it will dictate your life, disguised as fate. You’ll occasionally act in ways that you don’t understand, governed by forces outside of your awareness, making choices that aren’t in full alignment to the person you truly are. Or, embrace the shadow, make the unconscious conscious, and ignite the journey of individuation.

Before moving on to practical tips, there is one more benefit that is often overlooked when it comes to the nature of the shadow itself.

The golden shadow

Terms such as “dark side” and “shadow” conjure up images of undesirable traits. After all, doesn’t it make sense that you’d repress and push away so-called negative contents, such as anger or pride? 

A peculiarity with the human condition is that we often fear our potential, and our abilities, as much as we do our darkness. Marianne Williamson says “it is our light, not our darkness, that most scares us.” Maslow alludes to this too:

We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under conditions of great courage. We enjoy and even thrill to godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.

Jung’s theory includes the golden shadow, qualities of the shadow that contain potentials and talents you’ve buried for a variety of reasons. It could be that you’re highly creative, but as a child, you were told you’d never make money through art, so you focused on practical skills. Or you might view anger as bad, so you lose access to the vital life force which gives vigor and determination to chase your dreams.

One of the biggest reassurances of shadow work is that, not only do you unlock your unique personality, you also connect with your latent potential and qualities that have been locked away in the unconscious.

How to do shadow work: 6 practical exercises to get started

Fortunately, Jung’s dedication to understanding the depths of the soul didn’t end at interesting theories. He provided a rich number of approaches to work with, understand, and learn from the unconscious. The umbrella term to use for this is inner-work. Johnson notes that “in the world of psyche, it is your work, rather than your theoretical ideas, that builds consciousness.”

When exploring how to start shadow work, it pays to keep this in mind. The challenges you face are unique to you. The symbols you use, experiences you have, and the path to healing are yours to take. But it must be lived, it must be a process of work, rather than simply an intellectual exercise.

The unconscious speaks in symbols, very frequently in our dreams. Beginning to pay attention to and explore dreams, images, fantasies, and feelings that surface is part of shadow work. Maintain curiosity and self-compassion, and you’ll begin to find the richness, and payoff, of shadow work. With this in mind, here are 6 practical exercises:

1. Develop a mindset of curiosity and compassion

As Johnson warns, this isn’t a journey to be taken lightly. Approaching shadow work with curiosity and compassion is a great starting point. Curiosity shifts you into a state of receptivity and openness, making exploration easier.

Considering a key motivation for suppression is shame, it’s vital to be self-compassionate. Compassion allows you to meet aspects of the shadow with understanding and acceptance. Otherwise, there’s a likelihood of struggle and resistance to these components of the self, which prevents them from being integrated.

2. See all experiences as opportunities to learn

Another mindset shift is to view all experiences as opportunities to get to know your shadow. Remember, your shadow is there, whether conscious or not. If you can view the presence of difficult emotions, such as anger or jealousy, as helpful guides towards the area you need to integrate, suddenly those same emotions lose their power.

Through all difficulties, consider: what does this teach? This is particularly relevant to projection. Understand this process conceptually, at first, before becoming aware of exactly how it manifests in your experience. Then, you’re able to explore the source of projection and free this feedback loop.

3. Build a support network

If you’re going alone, it’s best to have mentors or peers with whom you can share your experiences. Those also going through their own version of shadow work, whether that’s the term they use or not, are great confidants on this journey. It can be a lonely road. It’s rare for people to have the courage to follow the path of individuation, so having support in this area is a huge boost.

4. Start learning the language of the unconscious

As the unconscious communicates in symbols, those which are unique to you, it pays to extend curiosity to the language of your unconscious. Moving away from the idea of one set, fixed personality allows you to begin exploring your inner-archetypes — the characteristics of psychic energies residing within.

One practical way of doing this is personifying different states you experience yourself in different circumstances. Do you have an inner artist that you have to unleash and set free? Do you have an inner-warrior that reveals itself when playing a competitive sport or pushing yourself in the gym? Start to familiarise yourself with these distinct aspects of personality, and consider how you’d like to integrate them.

5. Start recording and interpreting your dreams

Dreamwork is central to exploring the shadow. Many of my biggest breakthroughs have been communicated through dreams. Start by recording your dreams. Treat yourself to a dream journal. Note the dreams you have each morning. Generally, you’ll find those dreams that have a strong message contain a certain energy to them. You might confront challenging situations or personalities.

It’s important not to over-intellectualize this process. Remember, the unconscious is intelligent and more encompassing than the conscious, rational mind. Allow your intuition to guide you in interpreting dreams. Let go, and ask yourself the question: what is the dream communicating to me?

6. Try active imagination

Another popular technique Jung applied was active imagination. This is similar to meditation, but uses a visual technique to evoke images and symbols from the unconscious mind and creates a dialogue with them. 

Although seemingly oversimplified in comparison to our view of modern psychology, this is an ancient technique with powerful results. Johnson notes:

The conscious ego-mind actually enters into the imagination and takes part in it. This often means a spoken conversation with the figures who present themselves, but it also involves entering into the action, the adventure or conflict that is spinning out its story in one’s imagination. It is this awareness, this conscious participation in the imaginal event, that transforms it from mere fantasy to active imagination.

This process creates a bridge between unconscious and conscious, allowing for elements of the shadow to be integrated. I’ve used this with stunning results. It can feel a bit silly at first, but you’ll be surprised how the process becomes autonomous after initially setting the intention to learn.

Before you go

Shadow work can feel intimidating. Although it’s not to be taken lightly (pun intended), it helps to appreciate that the unconscious has an intelligence of its own. Although the mainstream Western worldview is still catching up with Jung’s ideas, this intelligence is part of nature. And the beauty of this process is that this intelligence wants what’s best for you. Wholeness, and the path of individuation, are your birthright.

Like a true hero’s journey, there will be challenges to overcome, mountains to climb, dragons to conquer. But as you begin to learn the language of the deepest parts of yourself, and bring light to the shadows, you’ll connect to the life-affirming message behind Joseph Campbell’s famous words: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”