Shadow Work: Healing Old Wounds and Emotional Blockages
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.
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.