Wellness Wednesday: Shadow Work & Loving the Shadow Self
by Rebekah Elkerton
Shadow work is the process by which we look inward with the intention of uncovering, understanding, and healing the darker aspects of ourselves. This may mean facing repressed emotions, painful experiences and disempowering beliefs. Some people refer to these aspects as the Shadow Self. Shadow work tasks us with investigating the roots of the things that trigger us so that we can heal the original wound. We can begin to identify the areas where we need to do the work by looking at where we hold anger, resentment, frustration and an array of other sour feelings toward ourselves and others. After identifying our feelings and where they are directed, we can engage with practices that directly speak to, and reframe, our perspectives. By practicing shadow work, we can shed pain and build a healthy relationship with our Shadow Self that lets light in.
Often harmful beliefs grow from feelings of fear; fear of not being enough, not using our voice, or not being able to achieve happiness. When we wrap our fears in love, we accept them as a part of us that exists to help us understand what needs healing. One method for loving ourselves and transmuting fear is self-talk. This may be done through affirmations created to respond directly to specific fears. One might say affirmations such as: “I am enough. I am safe. I am on the path toward happiness. I love myself. I am powerful.” In reciting affirmations daily we create new patterns of thought that, through repetition, come to feel organic and natural to how we interact with the world.
One self-talk method that has worked for me has been to carry out honest and frank conversations with myself, acting as my own guide for unraveling my feelings and actions. After a particularly painful break-up a few years ago, I silently carried a lot of anger and I directed intense criticism toward myself. I was frustrated that I had not left the situation earlier. I questioned my worth and if I would ever be “good enough” for another person to love and want a partnership with. I was embarrassed that I left our final goodbye in tears rather than wreaking havoc on the room and wounding my former partner with vicious words to be sure that they too felt pain in the situation. At the same time I was angry that my love for them meant that I didn’t want to seek revenge and as a result I wanted to suppress the part of me that made me feel vulnerable. I went over the events of our final days together so many times that they replayed in my mind with the detail of a favourite movie. It wasn’t until I took a step back from those feelings and the painful practices I had established for myself (like replaying harmful thoughts) and spoke to myself about them that I was able to break open the truth of what I was feeling in a way that would invite light back into me.
In conversation with myself I have been able to give myself love, acknowledge my feelings and uncover where they may have originated in my life prior to that event. I practiced little bits of self love so often that over time it silenced the darkness. I spoke to myself aloud, giving power to my words and making them real. Often we question our thoughts but when we let them out by speaking (not whispering) or writing them down we validate ourselves. Healing from that situation didn’t happen overnight and I integrated multiple forms of shadow work into my regular practices until I felt right with myself when thinking about it. The most challenging part of the process has been identifying the root of my feelings and the early experiences that established harmful beliefs in me. However once we begin to look inward we start to see things not seen before, those things that have been placed in the shadows. When we lovingly embrace past versions of ourselves and the dark experiences of the past we create new stories of acceptance, kindness, and deeply rooted healing.
There are countless ways to do the work, and I say “work” because it is a trying process that requires us to show up fully. Change comes with growing pains and in doing shadow work we’re seeking freedom from past versions of ourselves through personal growth. For some people the work comes with a regular practice of journaling, through which they’re able to dissect and assess their thoughts and feelings by putting them down on paper. Others might do their clearest thinking when moving their bodies. Indigenous people often practice shadow work while in ceremony. Ceremonies vary by community and nation however many are carried out with the goal of releasing that which is not serving us, connecting to a higher power (perhaps the higher self), and inviting change. Indigenous people have been practicing shadow work individually and in community since time immemorial.
We have known the power of shining light on the shadows and giving voice to our pain for centuries. It is not our traditional way to carry the weight of secrets and traumas with us from place to place. The practice of silencing our stories is not ours, although it has been widely imposed upon our communities. Instead, we hold space for one another in unraveling the knots of our pain without judgment. It has long been known that the health of the individual is important for the health of our communities and mental health is integral to this. As Indigenous people we know that it is our divine right to speak our truth, release our pain,and practice healing ceremonies. Shadow work allows us to live authentically, so that we are seen for who we are and accepted in our wholeness.
When we master the art of reframing negativity in our lives we can begin to create a reality that is not pulled downward by the weight of the past and the harmful beliefs we have carried because of it. Through repetition of our chosen shadow work processes, our ability to acknowledge and identify harmful thoughts or triggering emotions gets easier. We can create new patterns of thought that allow us to process our feelings in healthy ways so that they don’t layer upon past traumas, making a mess of our lives. When we acknowledge our stories and offer ourselves love we’re able to raise our self-esteem and show up more authentically. Shadow work tasks us with knowing and nurturing ourselves so that we can love others and experience life fully.
photo by Julian Florez