For most of my life, I was the shy, quiet girl — too afraid to speak my mind, terrified of being seen, uncomfortable taking up space. It was painful. I hated that aspect of my personality, but I also didn’t know how to be any other way. Then, in my mid-20s — a phase I now lovingly refer to as my quarter-life crisis — I discovered a practice called shadow work. Based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung, shadow work taught me how to love and accept that part of myself, and as a result, it shattered the shy girl identity I had embodied my entire life. That led me to achieve things that I wouldn’t have thought possible, namely becoming a certified spiritual life coach and speaker. The girl that never dared raise her hand in class is now a paid speaker, and I have shadow work to thank for that.
We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t love, and that hold us back from living our best lives, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Below, Danielle Massi, a psychotherapist, licensed shadow worker, and founder of The Wellness Collective in Philadelphia, walks us through what shadow work is and how to do it.
What is shadow work?
According to Massi, our shadows are the parts of ourselves that we’ve rejected, hidden away, and buried deep within our unconscious mind. And shadow work, she says, is the process of bringing those unconscious shadows to our conscious awareness in order to heal them.
So, where do our shadows come from? Massi explains that shadows are formed when our brain classifies an experience as traumatic. “Anytime the brain feels [something is] too traumatic to hold onto, it represses it into the unconscious,” she says. “It’s sort of like hiding something that might be too scary to deal with.”
And because we’re all humans who have experienced trauma to some degree, we all have shadows. Massi says a traumatic experience can be as small and seemingly un-impactful as a friend in school telling you that you couldn’t sit with them at lunchtime, making you feel like you weren’t enough, or witnessing your parents fight and thinking it was your fault, to capital-T trauma like domestic violence or serious illness.
Even if we forget the traumatic experience, which Massi says often happens, it’s still etched in the unconscious mind and continues to affect our lives, unbeknownst to us. As we go through life, Massi says, various things can trigger emotions, physical reactions, and thoughts associated with the trauma, creating patterns that make the world feel unsafe. This, in turn, can affect the decisions we make and how we live our lives.
For instance, a shadow rooted in fear of change can keep you in a 9-to-5 job you don’t love, instead of pursuing something new. “It changes how you see the next steps,” Massi says of shadows. “It changes the moves that you make, because if you’re afraid of experiences, you’re not going to engage in ones that could be threatening.” In other words, shadows hold us back from doing the things we want to do, and doing shadow work helps us cultivate the confidence and feeling of safety in our mind and body to do those things.
How to Do Shadow Work
Uncover your shadow
To heal our shadows, we first must uncover them. To do this, Massi recommends deep meditation. “When you drop into deep meditation, you are allowing your mind to hit a level of relaxation where you can access theta brain waves,” she explains. “At this specific frequency, the unconscious mind is easily accessed, and your shadows are able to come into the light.”
Playing calming music during meditation can help set the vibe. Massi also recommends staring at an open flame (like a candle) for at least five minutes, which helps relax the body and trigger the brain to going into the deeper brain-wave state that lies between sleep and wakefulness. In meditation, she advises trying to clear your mind as much as you can. Thoughts will inevitably pop up, and that’s okay. Instead of getting stuck on them, ask the thoughts why they’re there.
For instance, if your mind is running a mile a minute, going through your to-do list during meditation, you might ask yourself why you can’t just be still, which can unearth an answer that may surprise you, like “when I’m still, I’m vulnerable and can get hurt.” Then ask yourself when the first time was that you remember feeling this way, to help lead you to the event that created the shadow.
If you’re deep in mediation and nothing comes up, keep asking questions until you get to the root of the issue, Massi says. If meditation is not your thing, she recommends doing this same questioning and digging process in a journal.
You’ll know you’ve uncovered a shadow when you experience what Massi describes as a light-bulb moment: “Everything clicks; your whole body changes. That’s when you know. If you’re not at that point, you didn’t get to the root yet.” Keep digging.
Once you do get to the root, Massi says it can be helpful to give the shadow a name or a label (mine was being shy, for example) to provide you with a more conscious understanding of what it is, as part of the process of taking the unconscious and making it conscious.
Notice your triggers
Once you know your shadows, you can begin the healing process by first noticing when you feel triggered. “These moments are a window into the unconscious mind,” Massi says, which is why she adds that it’s important to pay attention to what happens when you do feel triggered. What situation were you in? What emotions or thoughts came up? What physical reactions were present? Be as specific as you can, Massi says. For me, anytime someone referred to me as shy or too quiet (as if it was news to me), it triggered feelings of unworthiness and anxiety.
If you’ve yet to uncover your shadows, triggers can also help with that. Try to remember the earliest memory you can think of where these particular triggers caused this reaction in you, Massi says. In my case, I started with the word shy and did some digging as to why that triggered me and remembered a particular situation as a child where someone told me being quiet was a bad thing. But again, a shadow can be anything that your mind and body deemed traumatic, big or small.
For this part of the process, Massi recommends taking pen to paper, as writing it all down can help you start to notice patterns, which is key for the next step in the shadow work process. All that said, if shadow work at any point feels like too much, Massi advises working with a trauma-informed practitioner who can help guide you through the process safely and avoid re-traumatizing you.
Interrupt the pattern
Recognizing the pattern of reactions that triggers stir up for you gives you the power to interrupt it. Massi says you interrupt the pattern by changing your emotions, physical reactions, and thoughts of the initial traumatic experience. Here’s the example Massi shares: Let’s say your root shadow moment involved hearing your parents fight as a child, and they later separated. You may have personalized the event and felt it was about you. Now, as an adult, you can tell yourself that the fighting wasn’t about you, and knowing that your parents are now much happier, you can feel okay and at peace with what happened because it brought you to this moment. This is how you interrupt the pattern and heal the shadow by changing your thoughts and emotions around the situation, which changes the way you experience it.
I interrupted my shyness pattern by forcing myself to do things that a “shy” person would never do. I put myself out there, showed up on social media, shared my voice, and even started hosting virtual workshops. Was it easy? Hell no. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable. Was it worth it? Absolutely. “That’s actually a perfect example of changing the experience,” Massi says of my efforts. “If we can force you to do something you don’t want to do, we’re interrupting the feedback loop, and you’re going to have different feelings, different physical reactions, and different thoughts about it by proxy of the fact that you’re doing it.”
This shadow work process often takes time. Don’t expect a shadow to stop triggering you overnight. It is called shadow work, after all. Your job is to continue interrupting the pattern. “You can do that time and time again,” Massi says. “Anytime you feel triggered, elevated in some sort of way emotionally, or your thoughts feel intense, question it. Try and interrupt that feedback loop.”
You’ll know you’ve healed a shadow when your triggers don’t trigger you anymore. For example, “if you used to be triggered by comments from your mother about how worthy you are, and she makes a comment like that,and you feel nothing, you’ve made it,” Massi says.