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Shadow Work: Healing Old Wounds and Emotional Blockages

Updated on September 25, 2017
kittythedreamer profile image

Kitty is a Registered Nurse. She uses what she has learned on the job to inspire and encourage others to take control of their health.

Shadow work isn't fun...but it is necessary.
Shadow work isn't fun...but it is necessary. | Source

What is Shadow Work?

The shadow is an aspect of a person that is typically hidden from others, as well as oneself. It is the subconscious, often-suppressed part of the person. Sometimes referred to as a person's "dark side". But how does this dark side develop and does it have any benefit to access and explore one's shadow? Carl Jung developed the idea of the shadow and from his theory has stemmed a method of healing known as "shadow work" in modern times.

Shadow work is a method of addressing and dealing with old emotional wounds that have been suppressed for long periods of time. Sometimes the emotional wounds are ongoing and you ignore or bury them on a regular basis. Shadow work is dark, scary, and difficult because it brings up tragedies and painful moments you've lived through that you wish never happened. Things that you wish you could forget and never relive. Unfortunately, emotional wounds at this caliber are not wounds that heal on their own by ignoring them, they are wounds that have to be acknowledged and worked through. This is the only way to move on and live a healthier life.

Sometimes shadow work will be suggested to you by a psychologist or counselor, in which it is initiated by an outside source. Sometimes your subconscious will initiate the shadow work, therefore making it an internal source starting the process. Either way, if you are wanting or needing to heal suppressed emotional wounds, shadow work is not something you can run from forever. Time to peer into the darkness, acknowledge the shadows, and bring them to light.

Acknowledging the Emotions

The first step in the process of shadow work is to acknowledge the emotions. As human beings, we have compensatory methods that act as natural defenders when we've been hurt. These can be physical such as the fight-fright-flight method, but they can also be psychological or emotional. One of the most common emotional self defense mechanisms is suppression. When we are faced with tragic situations, often our soul and mind try to shield themselves by suppressing one's emotions. By "forgetting" one's emotions and pain caused by a person or situation, the soul and mind feel they are protected. This, however, is sadly untrue. By suppressing emotions, we only protect ourselves for a short period of time. Eventually, those suppressed memories and feelings will resurface...and often in an uglier, more aggressive way.

So the first thing we must do is acknowledge these emotions and their associated memories. These emotions could be attached to a tragedy you experienced during childhood: abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc. They could be attached to something as "simple" as having your heart broken in high school. They could even be attached to emotions you feel on a daily basis that your conscious mind chooses to ignore, but your subconscious holds onto.

The best way to acknowledge these emotions and identify what situations they are attached to is by allowing them to come to the forefront of your mind. Don't sweep them aside. In fact, pull out a journal or notebook and write them down. Write down the situation/memory, then write down exactly what emotions are coming up in reaction to these memories. It won't feel good. It will be uncomfortable and you'll want to suppress and bury these emotions again, even as they are coming up. Breathe through it. Know that you are human and this is a very common human reaction to painful memories and emotions.

After you've acknowledge the emotions and the memories or situations attached to them, you can move on to releasing the pain in a healthy way.

Painting is a wonderful way of releasing pent-up emotions. You can paint a picture or an entire wall.
Painting is a wonderful way of releasing pent-up emotions. You can paint a picture or an entire wall. | Source

Releasing the Emotions

Shadow work isn't just about seeing your shadows, it's about calling them out into the light to release them. This part of the process is just as messy, and can be just as dark. Because you've buried these emotions, suppressed them for so long or at such an intense level, you will have to experience these emotions in order to release them. Some of the emotions you might feel include: sadness, anger, hatred, jealousy, rage, despair, low self-esteem, guilt, and more. It is important that you do not shove ANY of these emotions down inside once they come to the surface. Acknowledge them and release them in one of the following healthy ways:

  • Crying: while we are told that crying is a weakness and shouldn't be done, crying isn't a weakness. It is actually quite therapeutic and sometimes you need to cry to let out those strong emotions. Allow your tears to flow freely, especially if you are in a safe, private place.
  • Writing: most writers know how therapeutic writing can be. Allow yourself to open up and write about those past tragic memories and emotions. Allow yourself to express these emotions freely on paper. They may be dark, violent, even disgusting things, but that doesn't matter. This is a form of release, and an effective one, at that. Once you're done, you can trash, rip, or burn it.
  • Painting: you don't have to be an artist to use art as a means to release suppressed emotions. One woman even said for her to get through her shadow work, she has to paint an entire wall. There's something about putting your thoughts and emotions out on a canvas or sheet of paper that allows the pain to ease.
  • Running/exercise: some people find the best way to release emotions and painful feelings is to go for a rigorous run or do some form of intense exercise. It allows your physical body to rid the conscious mind of severe pent-up emotion. Plus it gets your endorphins pumping which always help counteract feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • Screaming: if all else fails, grab a pillow and scream as hard as you can into it. Or go some place where your screams will echo in nature, where you feel you can just let it loose. You'll be surprised how much better you feel after releasing the emotions with your voice.

If all else fails, grab a pillow and scream as hard as you can into it. You'll be surprised how much better you feel after releasing the emotions with your voice.

— Nicole Canfield

When The Shadows Resurface

Sometimes you can do everything in your power to acknowledge and release your shadows, but they return. You might think, why am I dealing with this same issue again? I just worked through this shadow a few months ago. This is because sometimes these old emotional wounds were very deep and will need more than just one session of shadow work to fully release them. And, let's be honest, there are some shadows that you will never eradicate. They might continue to resurface your entire life, because you are learning a specific lesson through them. Acknowledge this fact and go with the flow as much as possible.

When your shadows resurface and you want to yell at them and tell them to go away, don't suppress them...work through them again. As many times as is needed. It sucks. It's not fun. It's not pretty. But it is something your soul needs and craves and you will feel better for it in the long run. Don't expect that one session of shadow work will remove all your old wounds and blockages. Some scars run deeper than others. Some are surface-level...others go organ-deep. Healing is a journey...not a destination.

Don't hide from your shadow self. Call it out and get to know it. This will start the healing process.
Don't hide from your shadow self. Call it out and get to know it. This will start the healing process. | Source

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  • kittythedreamer profile image
    Author

    Nicole Canfield 5 weeks ago from the Ether

    Karen - Yes, the shadow is a strong element we mustn't ignore. I've learned this recently, too. And counselors can really help!

  • Seafarer Mama profile image

    Karen Szklany Gault 5 weeks ago from New England

    It's been amazing to see how the Shadow has shown up recently in my life, Nicole. It often makes me do and say things for no explicable reason than my subconscious believes that I must awaken and grow at a particular time. This has happened to me over the past 10 months.

    I am in the process of making some changes in my life in response to how my Shadow has shown up in certain situations. I have a therapist working with me on the process. It's very liberating when to feel safe with a professional guide who can be there for me and help me own my issues, look at them, and grow.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
    Author

    Nicole Canfield 7 weeks ago from the Ether

    Hi Dolores - Nice to see you! It's been a while. I can understand that. For me, it was always to avoid conflict and be what others wanted me to be. When I hit the big 30 all of that changed. I didn't want to live for others, I wanted to live for myself. And be happy. That involved a lot of emotional healing...that's still ongoing. Thanks for the comment!

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 7 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

    I love your suggestions on how to heal. I think many of us bury stuff because we are afraid of causing others pain; we don't want others to see us suffering. After a terrible loss I did take up painting. But the stuff I painted was more an attempt to get me to focus. Must return to the canvas but this time forget focus and concentrate on emotion.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
    Author

    Nicole Canfield 7 weeks ago from the Ether

    Alan - I've never known atonement to fail. Issues may re-surface, but this means we haven't fully worked through them or we haven't learned from them.

  • kittythedreamer profile image
    Author

    Nicole Canfield 7 weeks ago from the Ether

    Heidi - It takes more than just journaling about it. There's much soul-searching, allowing ourselves to fully feel the emotions we buried, then releasing them on paper.

  • AlanDoughtyXIII profile image

    AlanDoughtyXIII 7 weeks ago

    And what if atonement fails utterly?

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 7 weeks ago from Chicago Area

    As much as I love writing, I've always found it difficult to write or journal about issues. Hmm... But I do find that slowing down and breathing (or yoga) can be cleansing and enlightening. Thanks for sharing these strategies!

  • kittythedreamer profile image
    Author

    Nicole Canfield 7 weeks ago from the Ether

    Then atone it.

  • AlanDoughtyXIII profile image

    AlanDoughtyXIII 7 weeks ago

    What if the shadow is so distressing that it drives atonement? Even while you strive to keep it hidden?