How to Do Shadow Work

5 min read
Martino Pietropoli/Unsplash

Source: Martino Pietropoli/Unsplash

Cowritten by Charlie Huntington and Tchiki Davis.

To understand what shadow work is, we must first define the “shadow.” The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who is perhaps Sigmund Freud’s most famous trainee, described the shadow as the repressed parts of ourselves, the parts we find unpleasant or cannot tolerate acknowledging (Jung, 1958). The shadow consists of the aspects of ourselves that contradict our characteristics that we do like and want to be recognized for.

When we recognize our shadow sides coming up, we try to avoid acknowledging those parts at all costs. When we see other people demonstrating our shadow traits, we may have strong negative reactions, because we (1) do not want to be associated with those traits and (2) may resent that other people get to express those sides of themselves, while we don’t (Jung, 1958).

It is in the nature of our shadows that we cannot see them clearly; to look at them directly would be too painful. For this reason, shadows are more easily identified by other people, and conflict is likely to result when one person remarks on the shadow side of another person.

So, what is shadow work? Shadow work is the unification of who we consciously are with the parts of ourselves that we repress; it is the integration of the bad and the ugly with the good, so that we become complete beings (Bertholo, 2013).

Bly (1988) offers the compelling image of each of us dragging a big, heavy bag containing all our shadows behind us; we filled that bag in childhood and in adulthood. If we are lucky and courageous, we start to let those parts out of the bag. And we do that through the intentional, difficult process of facing our shadow sides and integrating them into who we are.

Benefits of Shadow Work

Shadow work is hard and uncomfortable work, which is why the benefits of shadow work are valuable—a good return for your effort.


Our shadow aspects have both “light” and “dark” sides to them—we just choose to label them as all dark and try to repress them (Johnson, 1993). While we may initially fear that these aspects of ourselves are truly “all dark,” accessing the lighter sides of these traits can make us more creative and help us grow (Ladkin et al., 2018).

Better relationships

The second benefit of shadow work is that we hurt ourselves and others less. When we do not acknowledge our shadow, we possess a distorted view of the world (Petriglieri & Stein, 2012), one that is based on trying to maintain our self-concept—our sense of who we are. This puts us at risk of projecting our shadow onto other people, hurting our relationships in the process.

Finally, any attempt to ignore parts of who we are is very demanding of our energy (Kegan, 1994). All the energy we put into repressing our shadow self is energy we are not using elsewhere in life. Once we stop resisting our shadow self and begin to integrate it into our lives, we get some of that energy back.

How to Do Shadow Work

While the specific tools and techniques used in shadow work can vary widely, there is a simple framework for describing the general steps in the process (Wilber, 2000):

  1. Recognizing shadow aspects: First, notice certain repeating behaviors in your life.
  2. Labeling shadow aspects: Once you can recognize those patterns, try to backtrack and identify what’s really happening, or what kinds of things bring out these parts of you.
  3. Identifying with the shadow aspects: At this point in the process, try to figure out where/what the behaviors might be coming from.
  4. Owning the shadow aspects: Finally, accept that these things are ongoing patterns in your life, something you are responsible for catching yourself doing and then changing.

Shadow Work Exercise

The goal of this exercise, called “Who I Am Not,” is to purposefully identify with “negative” aspects of oneself (Chappell et al., 2019). First, you list five positive qualities you believe you possess. Then, you describe the opposite characteristic for each of those five positive qualities. Third, envision how a person who has those opposite characteristics would behave. Then try to identify some positive aspects of how they might behave and what they might say to you if you met them. Finally, acknowledge the strengths that this person who is “opposite” to you does bring to the table.

In Sum

Hopefully, you now have a better sense of what shadow work entails. This is a process that you can conduct on your own, but it will probably go better with the help of others since we all have a natural tendency to dismiss or ignore our shadow. It may be helpful to find a friend you trust who is willing to give and receive honest feedback about the “less desirable” sides of yourself. And if you think your shadow side needs a great deal of work, finding a therapist who is familiar with this kind of therapeutic approach might be best.

A version of this post also appears on The Berkeley Well-Being Institute website.

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