Shadow work: The complete guide to knowing your true self

You might not always feel like yourself. Sometimes you might feel like there is someone else living inside your head, with their own desires and thoughts fighting against your own.

That’s not just your imagination: according to psychotherapist Carl Jung, that’s your shadow self, and the only way to overcome it is to become your authentic self.

In this article we discuss everything there is to know about the shadow self, idealized self, and the authentic self, why shadow work is an essential step towards becoming the best version of yourself you can be and how you can go about it.

We have a lot to cover so let’s get started.

Understanding the Human Psyche: What is the Shadow

Before we begin, do a little exercise. Try to remember all the times in your past where, upon looking back on it, you feel like you don’t know who that person was.

Maybe you suddenly exploded on a friend or your partner; maybe you felt the overwhelming urge to steal something from a store, or punch someone in the face.

Or maybe you had a long phase in your life where you just didn’t act like the person you always thought you were, and you have no explanation for why that happened aside from, “It was just a phase”.

Where do those feelings come from, and why do they exist in the first place?

Why do we experience this occasional cognitive dissonance wherein we act in ways we simply can’t explain or relate with once the moment – or phase – has passed?

Do we simply not understand ourselves the way we think we do, or is there something more in our psyches that we fail to acknowledge?

Renowned psychotherapist Carl Jung wrote heavily on this topic, coining the part of us that we don’t normally see but exists deep within us as “the shadow” or “the shadow self”.

The shadow is the culmination of our personality traits, our thoughts, our wants, and needs, that we reject as we grow and become molded by society.

The shadow is made up of the parts of us that we are told to repress, to ignore, to be ashamed of, for the benefit of becoming an “acceptable” person who can function properly in a polite and civilized society

We all have a shadow self inside of us – we are born with traits and feelings that our family and community would rather not have us deal with.

This leads to a “Collective Shadow”, in which society as a whole trains people to live with blind spots and opposing beliefs, leading to widespread anxiety, mental illnesses, depression, and more.

And the biggest enemy of the shadow is the belief that positivity can fix everything. But positivity for the sake of positivity leads to an ignorance of who we really are, which in turn fixes nothing.

Why We Must Embrace the Shadow Self

Ignorance of the shadow self leads to an idealized self, in which a person convinces themselves that they have only good and admirable qualities even though this might not be true.

When one creates an idealized self, they adopt attitudes like:

  • “I’m better than everyone else.”
  • “God loves me and doesn’t love other people.”
  • “Criminals aren’t humans like me.”
  • “I’m a role model for society (even though I haven’t done anything to deserve it).”
  • “I need validation constantly because I’m so great.”

But there is no such thing as an ideal person – we all have these dark traits, thoughts, and qualities.

So we create a reality for ourselves where we can only be our perfect and ideal selves, even though we know in our heart that it isn’t true.

Ignoring the shadow and allowing it to fester within us creates a foundational part of ourselves that exists despite our objection to its existence.

When left undeveloped, our shadow self leads to unresolved feelings and the long-term feeling of a disconnect and unhappiness between the person that we are and the world around us.

When we reject the shadow, we end up with:

  • Self-loathing
  • Self-sabotage
  • Greed and addictions
  • Lying and self-deceit
  • Hypocrisy – believing one set of values while acting out according to another set of values
  • Depression
  • Psychosomatic illnesses
  • Intense anxiety
  • Phobias, obsessive behaviors, and emotional instability

By embracing the shadow self, we embrace the entirety of our soul and psyche, giving the “bad” parts of ourselves the opportunity to become legitimate parts of who we are without lashing out and taking over.

Embracing the Shadow with Shadow Work: Understanding Shadow Work

Shadow work is the process of engaging with the deeper, “dark” – but not necessarily evil – parts of ourselves that we spend a lifetime repressing and pretending doesn’t exist.

And perhaps the most difficult aspect of shadow work is the fact that every part of your psyche and personality will fight against truly cooperating with yourself because it’s been so deeply trained to avoid the rest of you.

We underestimate just how much our unconscious biases and our trained actions and beliefs dictate the way we act and the things we do, which is exactly why engaging with the shadow self requires an active, continuous effort because your psyche will naturally drift you towards avoiding it, forgetting about it, or to stop caring to do it.

In essence, shadow work relies on absolute and prolonged honesty with the self, as well as the active belief that you are unfamiliar with at least 50% of who you are.

Imagine if you were told that the person you are, the person you wake up as every day, might only be half of the mind inside of your head.

How quickly could you truly believe that, and convince your heart that shadow work isn’t about discovering extra parts of you; it’s about discovering the complete other person inside of you, and merging yourself with that person.

This might be the biggest hurdle for most people who begin shadow work – they are unable to convince themselves that there is a complete other set of values and beliefs making up a second, inner personality inside of them.

Shadow work must begin with humility, and the acceptance that there is more you do not know about yourself than what you already know.

5 Benefits of Practicing Shadow Work

So why go through the pain and challenge of shadow work and discovering your inner shadow?

Why not simply live the way you always have, and just forget the idea that the shadow might even exist?

The truth is that most people make that choice, living in ignorance of their complete selves.

But most people also live troubled and unhappy lives, with problems with the relationships, their feeling of self-worth, their career, and personal achievements, and every other aspect of our lives.

Without knowing your shadow self – without knowing your complete self – it will always be impossible to reach your true potential in all areas of your life, from emotional stability to self-control.

Living without acknowledging and embracing your shadow is like trying to cook (or do anything) with one arm tied behind your back.

While it can be done, it will take you much longer with much more effort and difficulty to complete the task, which might cause you to quit before you finish.

And remember: your conscious, surface self will always try to reject your shadow qualities, meaning shadow work must be a lifelong process to keep yourself aware and in-tune with your whole self.

Here are five benefits of practicing shadow work:

1) Improved Relationships

Seeing yourself more clearly with shadow work makes you more grounded and human, allowing you to become more empathetic with those around you.

Other people won’t trigger you the way they once did, and communication will be simpler because you have greater control over your feelings.

2) Greater Physical Health and Daily Energy

Even though we don’t realize it, the invisible heaviness of an unresolved shadow self takes a great toll on our daily energy and overall physical health.

The anxiety and dissonance caused by the unacknowledged shadow can manifest in various physical ways, such as fatigue and chronic back pain.

3) Heightened Creativity

Creativity relies on spontaneous bursts of thoughts and ideas, and the clearer and healthier your mind is, the more often you will experience bouts of creativity.

4) Mental and Psychological Maturity and Stability

A divided mind is the enemy of mental stability and clarity. By uniting and merging the two halves of our mind, we increase our mental and psychological maturity and long-term stability.

5) Clearer Worldview

Integration with the shadow self allows a person to fully become their authentic self, giving them a complete and realistic assessment of their true self, with no idealization and all flaws revealed.

This self-awareness increases your ability to see and understand the world around you, equipping you with all the tools needed to evaluate and assess situations and environments as thoroughly as possible.

Practicing Shadow Work: 7 Ways the Modern World Trains us to Avoid Shadow Work

Feeling apprehensive about shadow work is normal, if not inevitable.

Growing up in a modern society, we hear certain philosophies and adages constantly being reiterated in the media and by the people around us.

There’s no avoiding these modern philosophies and they eventually shape who we are and how we perceive the ideal functional person in society.

The first step to shadow work is removing any mental roadblocks, conscious or otherwise, that instantly put us on our defenses.

Listed below are some of the key phrases we hear in the modern world, and how the contemporary world’s fixation on positivity can be more damaging than conducive to an individual’s growth:

1. Love is the most important thing.

One of the key elements of shadow work is accepting that grief, pain, and anger are fundamental elements of the human condition.

Using love as a blanket solution for the very real emotions humans experience on a day to day basis is only a form of avoidance and escapism.

2. Spirituality isn’t practical.

Most people tend to put spirituality on a pedestal or define it as something archaic.

At its very core, spirituality is about understanding your authentic self and going on a journey of self-improvement, both of which are crucial in excelling in everyday life.

3. Your realities manifest itself eventually.

Circumstances happen to us; we don’t make them happen. Saying that someone’s reality exists because of who they are and what they’ve done is just a form of victim-blaming.

Sometimes bad things happen not because they are bad people or because their actions willed the universe to make it happen.

4. Focus on good vibes.

The modern world’s fixation on good vibes discriminates on anything that is “low vibes”.

This conditions people into thinking that happiness is a sort of ecstasy or high, and that anything below that isn’t ideal.

5. Think positive thoughts.

Thinking only positive thoughts is another form of escapism. There’s no denying that the modern world is filled with problems.

You don’t have to revel in it, but you don’t have to pretend they don’t exist either.

6. Karma will haunt you eventually.

While karmic philosophy is a great way to maintain accountability, it negates what a person feels.

It all too-readily dismisses people’s pain by reducing their experiences into something premeditated, cosmic result.

7. Man is evil.

This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of shadow work preparation. It’s crucial to shed the criticism and be open to the entire human experience.

Going in without any judgment or expectations will allow you to see things in a different light.

How to Practice Shadow Work: 9 Shadow Work Steps

1. Identify The Shadow

“What does my shadow look like?” Asking yourself this question is crucial in understanding how your shadow is locked in your subconscious.

Remember that we are conditioned to bury our shadow selves, to forget them and reject them, and pretend they don’t exist, which is exactly why they’re difficult to identify in the first place.

Everyone’s shadow looks different. Maybe you have a great sense of responsibility and you feel the need to overcompensate with everything you do.

Maybe you feel like the intricacies that make you uniquely you actually make you weird and abnormal.

Shadow beliefs are different for everyone. Here are just some of the most common ones that may help you identify what yours looks like:

  • I am different therefore I am unlovable
  • My life experiences are different therefore I am unworthy
  • My feelings aren’t important
  • I always have to be perfect no matter what
  • I’m always going to be flawed so why bother

2. Deal With Your Feelings Objectively

While it’s true that modern sensibilities have made us repress who we are and think of “shadow” qualities as essentially bad qualities, there’s no denying that who we are (shadow or not) is still a product of our own behavior and choices.

Shadow work calls for objectivity – that is, your ability to accept that who you are is because of you and not because of anyone else.

If, during your shadow work, you discover parts of yourself that you don’t necessarily like or identify with, your first resolve shouldn’t be to blame the people around you.

3. Express the Shadow

The shadow is deeply rooted in our subconscious and for some people, it will take a whole lot of effort to bring this into the light.

Expressing them in tangible terms as in words can help you frame these feelings, ideas, thoughts, and instincts more objectively, which in turn will help you understand them in a better light.

Try out the following exercises:

  • Write a letter to yourself explaining why you are the way you are. Talk to your shadow self as if you were talking to an entirely separate person, and attempt to reconcile with them.
  • Keep a journal where you log your thoughts. This will serve as a roadmap of your development, and help you see what’s going on in your head.
  • Stop suppressing your emotions. Shadow work is all about accepting the bad, the good, and the ugly. For the first time in your life, allow yourself to feel these emotions, to think these thoughts without letting them eat you up or make you feel guilty. Own up to what you feel and you’ll feel less scared about having them.

4. Take Care Of Your Inner Child

Childhood problems can creep into adulthood, resulting in deep wounds that never really fully heal.

With shadow work, you can revisit these painful memories with the goal of understanding yourself and reconnecting with who you are on a deeper, more integrated level. This is known as inner child healing.

Maybe there were parts of yourself that you repressed as you were growing up. Maybe you built so many walls because of something you experienced in your childhood.

Now is the opportunity to unpack these one by one.

5. Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself

Most people think shadow work is about unpacking the dangerous parts of yourself and letting mayhem happen, which really isn’t the case.

The ultimate goal of shadow work is to help you live out a guilt-free, authentic existence.

Everyone has a shadow self, a part of who they are that they’re not proud of.

The point is not to let this part of yourself take reign, but to make peace with it.

Suppressing your weaknesses, emotions, thoughts, and attitudes will only bring about inner turmoil.

Shadow work is about accepting that you are human and that you are capable of things that aren’t so good, and being conscious enough to take charge of your own life and be the person you want to become.

6. Reconcile With Yourself

Ultimately, shadow work is about reconciling your surface self with your shadow self to understand your authentic self.

This process can take years and can be very difficult for people who were raised with prejudice and hold certain preconceived beliefs.

As such, it’s important to create a neutral ground where new belief systems and attitudes can be cultivated.

The very first step to shadow work is finding your center. This simply means working towards feeling calm, secure, and balanced about yourself.

Remember, the shadow self is associated with the hidden or rejected parts of yourself; unpacking that may make you feel unsettled, confused, or defensive.

Reconciling with yourself first will help you establish a more stable foundation, which will present a more neutral and conducive ground for understanding your shadow self.

7. Seek Out Self-Awareness

Cultivating self-awareness is all about breaking down negative conditioning and prejudice.

There are different ways to do this without necessarily shocking your system.

You could simply go on social media and seek out people who were brought up in different contexts and cultures than you.

This will help you understand what they go through from their own perspective.

Expanding your horizons is all about listening and learning. Find podcasts, read books, watch videos, or simply strike a conversation with someone who is different from you.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions (in a constructive way) and be open about wanting to learn more about other people.

8. Listen To Your Inner Thoughts, And Talk To Them

As you attempt to expand your horizons and communicate with people who exist and live outside your bubble, you may find yourself moving towards judgment instead of acceptance.

The point is not to replace your entire belief system but to let other opinions and experiences come through to refine your own sensibilities.

It may be scary at first, but remember that the point of this is not to overhaul your entire personality.

You’re not erasing who you are; you’re simply adding on to what’s already there.

At this stage, you might notice that there is an ongoing dialogue between what you think you know and what you’re currently learning.

Maintain an open mind and be receptive to how new information is shaping the discussion in your head.

If you find yourself falling back on unreasonable convictions, seize those thoughts and ease them into becoming more accepting of what you currently know.

9. Be Your Honest Critic

Now that you’ve opened up a different part of you, it’s time to circle back and evaluate yourself.

Turning to other people and expanding your horizons is essential in preparing your brain to be more receptive of the changes that’s going to happen inside of you.

This process relies on completely being honest with yourself. Reimagining yourself involves accepting all your parts, especially the parts you were taught or forced to ignore.

This is the part where you stop pretending these aspects of your personality don’t exist. Sure, it’s difficult accepting that you have selfish, egotistical, or manipulative tendencies.

But that doesn’t mean these aspects make up who you are and who you’ll become.

Transformation begins with acceptance. Take an honest look at your behaviors, attitudes, and even your darkest thoughts. Stop repressing and start accepting them as they are.

Confronting Your Shadow Self, Creating Your Authentic Self

Too many people live their lives in denial of who they really are. In the worst situations, the same individuals are triggered and a part of them “they never really knew about” comes out and does something they normally wouldn’t do.

This is exactly why shadow practice is important. We spend so much of our lives trying to create the idealized, perfect version of ourselves without acknowledging the pieces of us that need work.

With shadow work, we can confront the deepest, darkest parts of who we are and limit their power over us.

Shadow work isn’t about becoming the darkness or succumbing to the aspects of your personality that you’re not proud of. It’s about acknowledging its presence, staring it in the eyes, and finally taming it.

Did you like my article? Like me on Facebook to see more articles like this in your feed.

Picture of Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

Enhance your experience of Ideapod and join Tribe, our community of free thinkers and seekers.

Related articles

Most read articles

Get our articles

Ideapod news, articles, and resources, sent straight to your inbox every month.