A ‘shadow self’ sounds like a creepy monster hiding in our closet. In reality, though, it’s a term coined by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung to describe the parts of ourselves we wish to repress or hide. But rather than denying the existence of some of these supposedly negative traits, there’s a case to be made for confronting them in a practice called shadow work, which could help us better understand ourselves and our relationships, and better manage negative feelings and impulses. Here’s what you need to know about your shadow self, why you should embrace it and how to begin to do that, according to therapist Dr. Jenn Kennedy.
We All Have a Shadow Self—Here's How to Embrace Yours
Meet the Expert
Dr. Jenn Kennedy, PhD, LMFT, is the founder of The Pleasure Project and Riviera Therapy. She earned a Masters in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in Clinical Sexology and is also a board-certified sex therapist. She has worked with individuals and couples in the areas of sexual satisfaction, dysfunction and interpersonal communication for eight years, and also has considerable experience working with LGBT individuals and couples. She has taught as adjunct faculty in the master’s program at Antioch University Santa Barbara, and served as president and past president of the Santa Barbara Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (SB-CAMFT).
1. What Is the Shadow Self?
Coined by Carl Jung, the term shadow self refers to the things about ourselves that we repress or do not like to acknowledge. Kennedy explains, “Shadow self is psychological material that feels scary, outside normative (what is considered normal by society). We tend to judge, criticize and shame ourselves for having these thoughts, feelings, desires or impulses.” The shadow self, Jung surmised, is the opposite of the persona, or the version of ourselves that we present to other people.
2. What Is Shadow Work, Then?
In Jung’s view, a personcould gain a better understanding of themselves by working with their shadow self or doing shadow work. Kennedy tells us, “Shadow work builds tolerance and self-acceptance for parts we dislike. This type of integration of self brings understanding and self-love. It also helps create greater ability to differentiate shadow work as an exercise in play.” By that she means someone could fantasize about how they’d handle a scenario or imagine taking action without actually going through with it and causing chaos or disharmony. “This exercise gives them an outlet while protecting their health and well-being and/or without impact to their relationships. They can explore without actualizing.”
3. Why Is It Important to Acknowledge Parts of Ourselves That Are Difficult to Accept?
“We all have a shadow self, so allowance of these disenfranchised parts helps us better understand the self as well as others,” Kennedy notes, adding, “Acknowledging parts that can feel at odds helps create compassion for self and others. Negative outcomes could be that indulging in the shadow might create intrigue or impulse to carry it out and wreck our lives.” Let's say, for example, that you were teased as a kid for being overly emotional and sensitive. Because of that teasing, you conditioned yourself to repress your emotions and put up an apathetic front. By embracing your emotional side through shadow work, you're not only giving yourself permission to be your true, whole self, but you're also likely working through your bias toward other people who, like you as a child, are in touch with and vocal about their emotions.
4. How Can You Try Shadow Work?
Shadow work can be done in a variety of ways. First, you can seek out a therapist or other mental health professional, who can help you notice patterns in your behavior that could be holding you back from reaching your full potential. Kennedy says you can also do this work by sitting in quiet reflection and meditating, praying, journaling or being in nature without distraction. “They would want to notice what bubbles up and try these thoughts and ideas on for size (in their mind) without judgement or control,” she says. “Ideally there is allowance and receptivity of conscious and unconscious material.”
If open-ended journaling isn’t your thing, shadow work prompts can help to get your creative juices flowing. A few examples include:
- In what ways am I like my parents? In what ways do I hope I’m not like my parents?
- How would I describe my life to my child self? What parts of my life would I emphasize and what would I leave out?
- When was the last time I felt jealous of someone else? What do they have that I want?
- Which dreams of mine feel possible and which feel impossible?
- When was the last time I forgave myself? What do I still need to forgive myself for now?
Sitting with our negative thoughts and the traits we might not necessarily like in ourselves can be uncomfortable, but embracing shadow work could end up benefitting us in the long run, once we get over the uneasiness.