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What Is Shadow Work?

We are born whole, but that wholeness is short lived because we are relationally dependent. Being born relationally dependent into families that socialize us into a society that is not fully evolved yet, spells trouble because it causes us to learn that some aspects of ourselves are acceptable, and others are not. What is acceptable vs. unacceptable depends on the perspective of the family you’re born into. The aspects of us that are seen as unacceptable (both positive and negative) are rejected by our family and the aspects that are seen as acceptable are not. So, being relationally dependent, in the name of survival, we do anything we can to disown and deny and suppress those aspects in ourselves that are disapproved of whilst exaggerating those that are approved of. We dissociate from what we disapprove of. This creates a split within the person that we call the conscious and the subconscious. This self-preservation instinct of dividing ourselves into conscious and subconscious is in fact our first act of self-rejection. Years ago, the revolutionary psychologist Carl Jung (while studying with Freud), observed the fact that there were parts of his patients that they, themselves were aware of and to the contrary, there were parts that they, themselves were unaware of. Consciousness has long been referred to as a light. To become conscious of something is to be able to see it in the same way that we see something that is exposed to light. When something is unconscious, we cannot see it. It is as if we are trying to see it in the dark. And so, Carl Jung began to refer to the unconscious aspects within a person that they, themselves are unaware of or could not see as their ‘shadow’. The human shadow is any aspect of a person that is not exposed to the light of consciousness.
The reason that the human shadow contains mostly negative things is because we tend to reject or deny or suppress or disown the least desirable aspects of our personality. For example, we are more likely to suppress jealousy than to suppress a talent we have. But the most common misconception about the human shadow is that it contains only negative things. In fact, the human shadow often contains disowned or rejected aspects of a person that are truly positive. This is especially true for people who struggle with shame and low self-esteem. I’ll give you an example of how the positive could end up in the human shadow: Let’s say that a little girl is born with a definite sense of self. She is confident and asserts her opinion. Now let’s say she’s born into a family that thinks little girls need to be obedient and sweet and quiet. The aspects of her that are confident and assertive will be rejected by the family. So for the sake of survival in the social group, she will also begin to reject those things in herself. She will deny that aspect of herself in order to get love to the degree that as an adult she will most likely be sweet, quiet and obedient. Her life will be painful because she has exiled part of herself. She is divided. As an adult, she may work with someone to discover what feelings or beliefs or memories are part of her subconscious and discover that she is in fact confident and assertive. When she re-owns that aspect of herself, she will have the confidence to create a life that feels good and assert herself to those around her instead of remain obedient to those around her. Now I’ll give you an example of how the negative ends up part of the human shadow: A child is born into a family where anger is not an ok emotion to express. When the child gets angry, he is shamed for that anger so the child suppresses and denies his anger for the sake of survival within the household. But the anger doesn’t go away. He just consciously denies it. It becomes subconscious. As an adult, he will most likely not have any awareness that he has any anger in him at all. He will not and cannot see himself clearly because he has denied that aspect of himself. So when people tell him that he is angry, he will not relate to that at all. He will probably only relate to himself as easy going. If he works with someone to discover the feelings and beliefs and memories that are part of his subconscious, he may discover that he really is angry and that that anger has been coming out all along in passive aggressive ways and hurting the people around him. If he addresses the anger directly, his passive aggressive behavior will cease to exist and his relationships will become much more enjoyable. When we deny, suppress or disown something, it doesn’t disappear. It just fades from our awareness. This is the reason we do so many things that we feel out of control of and this is why we feel so many things but don’t know why and this is why we do so many things without knowing why we are doing them. To acknowledge whatever we have suppressed or denied or disowned into the subconscious, brings up the same fear of rejection that we were met with the first time around, by our parents and caregivers and so it makes us feel like we are going to be exiled or punished again. It sets off our survival mechanisms and thus, makes us feel like we are quite literally going to die… No wonder self-awareness isn’t so easy to attain. Every human in existence that was ever socialized (which is everyone), went through this process of splitting themselves into parts. Parts that are owned and parts that are disowned. This self-rejection is the birth of self-hate. The emptiness that we feel is the result of those missing rejected or disowned parts of our self. And the soul wants one thing, to make us whole again. We will be provided every single opportunity to become whole again and to make the subconscious conscious. But in order to become whole again, we need to see and accept the aspects of ourselves that we disowned and denied and rejected. This is what shadow work is all about.
Unfortunately, shadow work has become a controversial practice, especially in the positive focus community. For this reason, I urge you to watch my YouTube video titled: Shadow work vs. Positive focus. Shadow work can be painful. Self-awareness does not come naturally to those who make a practice of avoiding pain because to become aware of those aspects, you must stop trying to escape the pain and emptiness within you where those missing parts should be. But it is also the key to a consciously aware and free life. In summation, shadow work is now a term used often in spiritual and psychology circles to describe any process (of which there are thousands) that makes the subconscious conscious. The more aware you are of your shadow, the more embodied you are as a conscious being. And no one ever reached enlightenment without confronting their shadow and exposing it to the light of consciousness. Ultimately, shadow work is bringing attention and love to those things that have been previously rejected. And so, if you ask me, shadow work is in fact the highest form of light work you can do.


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