What is shadow work and how can it make for a happier life?

You might have seen the term ‘shadow work’ on your Instagram feed if you follow wellness accounts, but be confused by what exactly it is and how it can help you.

Shadow work has been taken up by spiritualists to aid their practice, but it’s actually a psychological technique backed by scientists.

Essentially, it’s a way to better understand your triggers: why are they there and how to undo the infuence they subconsciously have on your life.

Dr Tara Swart, neuroscientist and former psychologist who authored The Source, says it’s not a spiritual-born practice as the ‘shadow self’ was first described by psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

It can compliment manifestation practices as it encourages ‘reaching your highest self’.

Tara says the shadow self is ‘aspects of yourself and personality that you’ve rejected because you feel some sort of shame or guilt associated with them.’

It normally starts in childhood and ends up driving a lot of your behavior.

She gives the example of: as a child you were told off by your parents for showing off, so you start to suppress that behavior in order to please them. As an adult that could reveal itself subconsciously as you view ‘talking about your successes as a bad thing’.

Interestingly, people with low self-esteem can sometimes put ‘good aspects of themselves into the shadow because they don’t feel confident about displaying them’ – so it isn’t always about hiding the negatives.

So in order to do shadow work, Tara says you need to move from ‘unconscious to conscious’, which means digging deep to unearth what’s in your shadow.

Ideally you’d do some of this work in a therapy setting, but with long waiting lists and a lack of resource there are things you can do alone.

To begin the work independently, Tara says to notice what triggers you. Does your friend getting their dream job or relationship trigger negative feelings, for example?

For Hannah, a 28-year-old actor in training, regularly feeling triggered motivated her to try shadow work.

‘I realised I was being triggered by lots of different things,’ she says, while admitting to being judgemental of others too.

Seeking out ways to change this, she first came across shadow work through hearing it mentioned on podcasts.

Having been to therapy in the past, Hannah says this work is difficult. ‘It’s introspective and you need to be willing to be quite self-aware [because you’re] looking at sides of yourself that aren’t “pretty”‘.

Another technique Tara suggests is to journal your triggers and thoughts, then read back over it in a few months to see if there are reoccurring themes that you hadn’t previously noticed.

Writing in a private diary can be a safe way to record those parts of yourself that you don’t feel loving towards.

The desire should be to ‘become a better person – not to criticise yourself’. Rather than look to blame and guilt yourself further, Tara says see the inner critic as a separate persona.

If that feels daunting, Tara suggest gently pondering on the thought that ‘if there are things that you subconsciously believe might be holding you back from being your best self, why would you not want to know what those things are?’

Hannah has no regrets about working on her shadow in the form of triggers – in fact, she’s much happier for it.

For a start, she is more accepting and compassionate towards others and finds her reactive tendencies (something she puts down to being bullied as a child) have lessened, saying that she has fewer arguments.

She’s noticed this in particular with her mother as their relationship has in the past been tricky.

You don’t have to wait for something negative to happen to start becoming more self-aware, as Tara says that most people put off work around their mental health when life is good.

‘Unless you have a crisis in your life you don’t delve into that work because if you’re okay, why would you open a Pandora’s box,’ Tara explains, though she thinks it’s worth making the most of your best self anyway.

Following on from looking at shadow work, Hannah made some big life choices that on the surface might seem like they caused upheaval, but actually have served her well.

‘I exited a three year relationship and I decided I was going to apply for drama school, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do but felt scared about and I didn’t think I was good enough.’

She’s now in actor training and recently moved into her own flat.

Addressing her shadow has helped build confidence in her abilities and choices.

‘It’s been instrumental in becoming kinder to myself and [silencing] the inner critical voice’. Now she recognises when this voice kicks in this and ‘switch[es] the narrative internally’, meaning that she avoids her past self-destructive behaviours.

Ultimately, she believes it’s a ‘great service to yourself and kindness to the people around you’.

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