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How ‘Shadow Work’ Has Helped Me in My Mental Health Recovery

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

The title of this article sounds mysterious, and maybe akin to something from a YA novel retelling of a fairytale. However, that is not the case in what I am about to explain from my own path in doing “shadow work” and how it helped me come back into balance with myself.

What is shadow work? Well, let me try and give a brief lesson as to not deter too far off from the point of this article. The term “shadow work” was first coined by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. According to Jung, “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself.” Basically put, our shadow side is basically a storage bin for unwanted emotions and actions that we either don’t want to admit to being capable of doing or refuse to see because we believe we are all composed of good nature and light.

Our shadow is the dark side of our ego. We put on a mask for others daily, including for work, and we hide our frustrations and internalize it into ourselves. This feeds the shadow, which sometimes is represented as “the evil within” (wink wink, another video game reference that also tributes to a little of the shadow as well). However, let me say this first: The shadow is amoral. It’s neither good or bad. For example, think of a tiger; it’s capable of caring for its offspring and vicious when it needs to hunt for food. The animal does what it does. When we look at this type of interaction, most think that the animal world is more savage than human society.

I’ve walked the shadows for some time now, wandering between the darkness and the light of my depression and anxiety. I stay between this semi-dark area of my soul for good reasons; it lets me see what causes my panic, frustration, and depression, and what I’ve repressed. I have suffered a good amount of my life as a medical worker with mental illness and never knew why I still suffered no matter how I changed my diet, cut ties with bad people and started doing more enlightening work on myself.

I felt it was never enough, and I felt more out of my element than within it. I did self-care, I would write positive affirmations. Heck! I sang out loud and out of tune to liven up my day to no avail … until, one day, I had been having a down season (what I call my depression and anxiety days) and somehow managed to play a game called “Persona 4 Golden” on my PlayStation Vita. It is a video game compromised of action, visual novel effects and feel-good music. I hadn’t thought much about the game except for light entertainment at the time, until I went fooling around on the “extras” menu tab. There, I found lessons about the shadow and Carl Jung.

At first I was a bit surprised I had never seen it, but I recognized Jung’s name due to my brief studies with psychiatric health in nursing. I digress…

I opened the content and found myself immersed with the lessons about Carl Jung and the shadow, and how the game was based on some of his concepts. I remember, after having finished reading all the lessons, I put the game down, jumped onto Pinterest and started to research a bit more. I never heard a more in-depth explanation about our ego, persona, the shadow and more during my school days. I realized we had only gone over such a brief area of psychology — we only studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It may not be like that now, but back then, there was only a brief week of studies in psychology, so hearing about Carl Jung was befuddling and interesting at the same time.

I sat there at one point of my research, hovering around the thought of: “What if this can help me figure out why I’m feeling this way?” I toiled with the idea, thinking that it couldn’t hurt, and there was no harm or foul if it didn’t work. I chose to research articles, blogs and books, find an area where no one could bother me, and dove in — only to resurface so much different than I expected.

I’m certain someone else out there has posted something in regards to shadow work, but I want to state that it really isn’t for the faint of heart, and sometimes you do need someone to guide you while you speak your truth or write it. I spent hours writing in tears, ripping out the shards of anger I buried deep within other wounds that I let heal and fester from the inside. I found more of myself than I ever thought I could find with just writing and working through the “why,” constantly asking “why are you…” “why is it…” “why must you…”

For example, one question that still haunts me is: “Why do you feel you must be in control of everything?”

Me: “Because control is all I have, and if I can’t control my life, than I can’t control anything that is meant to help me.”

Question: “Why?”

Me: “You must keep asking why to get to the bottom of what started the wound, and it’s tough as heck.”

You see, in nursing, we are told never to start a question with “why” as it is too offensive, and I do agree to an extent, but when I started asking myself “why” and started to feel my inner emotions rile up, I dug deeper into that hurt, pain and anxiety I was told to shut off. The existence of knowing there was a way to face my traumas without feeling ridiculed by others, knowing there was a way to face myself, see the broken me in a safe space, and learn to accept the scars I told myself weren’t pretty because others told me it wasn’t acceptable. I felt liberated, and realized: if this could help me, then maybe it could help others.

As a disclaimer, I’m not a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. Do what you know works best for your soul. Shadow work isn’t for everyone, as it means you go down deep into the nightmares and work through the “how” and the constant asking of “why.” If you feel this is something you would like to do, please don’t go in guns blazing. Research, and go with what you feel is right, or seek a mentor out.

This is my own opinion, and while I know this isn’t a platform for metaphysics and such, shadow work is a type of psychology. It has helped me greatly on my journey in recovering from being a constant people pleaser and being ashamed with doing what I felt what right even when no one else wanted to go in the same direction. If you wish to heal yourself from the inside and want to learn more about why you react to things the way you do, I recommend it.

Getty Images photo via Grandfailure

Originally published: March 24, 2020
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