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The process of shadow work (start here)

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

Part 1. Introduction

Metaphorically, we can liken this work to climbing a tall mountain or exploring underground caves. Before undertaking such a journey, you probably want to do a bit of research, have some understanding of the territory, and perhaps even hire a seasoned friendly guide to go with you. Climbing Mt. Everest for instance without a sherpa is not recommended. They know the land better than anyone and can be relied upon to navigate the most dangerous of passageways.

The Sherpa people of Nepal have been mountaineering and navigating those lands for many generations, and each child is taught how to traverse the territory and learn to depend upon themselves rather than a map. It's not enough to simply have a conceptual idea of what to do, where to go, etc. One must be actively training and practicing in order to gain the experience necessary to depend upon themselves in such a way. I like the model of a sherpa not just as a description of what I do when I work with people but also for what we can each find within ourselves.

Also, I do not want to create fear by describing this work in such a metaphorical way, as if the territory is inherently dangerous. We actually learn through following this process that the territory is quite harmless, and you were never in any real danger. But due to all the repressed emotion and conditioning (basically being taught since the day you were born that you can't fully trust yourself and your feelings), this inner territory may seem quite foreign and perhaps dangerous. But it really isn't. It's just our lack of experience and understanding that makes it seem so.

Ultimately, shadow work and resolving emotional repression is about alleviating suffering, connecting with more freedom, peace, joy, and wonder. We all suffer to a large degree whether in our relationships, career, or just a general dissatisfaction with life. This all due in large part to the unseen protective programming, repressed emotional patterns, and self-limiting beliefs that feel very much like you. The purpose of shadow work is to explore and resolve these patterns. In doing so, we become more and more authentically ourselves in how we express and relate to the world, and our degree of connection to the world and those around us grows beyond what you can possibly imagine.

Part 2. The Shadow

The process taught here is called somatic inquiry, and essentially this is just a fancy way of saying go within, feel into the body (somatic), and look with curiosity (inquiry). This is how you will not only resolve what is causing you unnecessary suffering but also gain the confidence to fully rely on yourself during times of emotional difficulty. Using these tools daily as best as you can, especially when emotionally triggered, will build up the necessary experience to become your own seasoned guide or sherpa.

So what is emotional work, shadow work, or whatever else you want to call this process of unwinding? It’s essentially learning about yourself and connecting with parts of you that have been repressed for a long time. I liken it to the process of cleaning out an old house that you've lived in all of your life (this metaphor makes it more personal than climbing a mountain because really the territory you're exploring is not separate from you).

This house contains dark closets that you haven't set foot inside in years, long forgotten perspectives and feelings which you likely have unconsciously avoided your whole life. These patterns start early in childhood and are downloaded (absorbed) from those around us and are in response to difficult or perhaps even traumatic situations, like feeling rejected, hurt, alone, unsafe, etc.

For example, in response to being ignored by one or both parents, a child will feel afraid, and in order to feel some control over the situation will conclude that something is wrong with me (shame) and may start to believe "I am not worthy of love." This then becomes a deficiency pattern which will come up from time to time in relationships and lead to a lot of suffering (deficiency as in, lacking something, not being whole or complete, a sense of being inadequate, etc).

We naturally want to avoid what causes our suffering, so we repress or push down because this is what everyone around us does all the time. As children, we can feel this. By repressing these feelings and deficiency patterns, we actually give them a lot of power to control us unconsciously. We shove the painful perspective into a dark closet and pretend it's gone. But just because we don’t see the dark rooms in our house doesn’t mean that they aren’t there influencing us.

In this example, the “unworthy of love” deficiency would be a dark closet that we’re not aware of in our house. It stays fixed in time and never resolves, and whenever the conditions are right (such as a person close to you not reacting how you want them to), you’re right back in that dark room again feeling shame and unworthiness and are trying to resolve it somehow, to no end.

Many if not all unhealthy habits like addiction are rooted in unresolved deficiency patterns. These unconscious drivers of behavior can also lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, insomnia, and concentration issues. All of our emotional suffering particularly in relationships comes from such deficiency patterns which repress our emotions. These patterns are trying to protect us but end up pushing people away, which further reinforces the sense that something must be wrong with me (shame).

When locked into such patterns (being triggered), we are acting from that place of deficiency, not from our authentic expression. This is incredibly painful, but we are often numb to just how painful it is. Shadow work can be quite sobering, but there is a lot of relief that comes from seeing clearly the mechanisms that have been causing your suffering all of your life.

Exploring this house isn’t particularly easy because there’s no map, and no one ever talks about the fact that there’s even a house let alone how to explore it. There’s also patterns in place to protect you and keep you from going too deep by distracting you. You’ll get pulled into a dreamy room where you completely forget that you’re trying to explore and do inquiry. You may think you’re going deeper but then realize you’ve been thinking about work or what you want for dinner for the last ten minutes, which is precisely what the protective programs want in order to keep you safe.

Furthermore, you can only see the room that you are in right now, even though there are deeper rooms. Let’s say you are feeling a lot of sadness and your mind brings up a memory of your spouse yelling at you. It may seem like this is what’s actually causing your suffering, but stay open to the fact that there is a deeper reason (a deeper unexplored room) which is why you’re suffering so much. Not that your spouse yelling at you is not a valid reason to be upset, but the reason why we suffer so much is always due to unconscious reasons (unresolved wounds from childhood).

This house also contains rooms that you've never seen before, leftover from previous tenants (metaphor for generational trauma). These are patterns that are unconsciously passed down, usually fears, which helped our ancestors adapt or survive in some way. This is why sometimes a particular pattern is very charged in a surprising way, but you may start to notice how this pattern runs throughout your family. As a child, we really have no choice but to absorb whatever is around us, whether healthy and helpful or not.

This ‘house’ I am referring to by the way isn’t somewhere out there. This isn’t a vague abstract concept. I’m talking about the body. The body is the unconscious and houses all of our repressed emotions. Modern science is only beginning to see the connections between mind and body, but many (not all) physiological issues like chronic pain and tension, headaches, digestive issues, chronic fatigue, etc. can be connected with repressed emotions and unresolved trauma.

The unconscious is what some call the shadow, hence the name shadow work. The shadow is what we do not see and contains our repressed fears, traumas, desires, and beliefs, particularly the deficiency patterns that lead to feeling dissatisfied with life and disconnected from those that we care about. When you are involved in unconscious behavior such as addiction, seeking the next thing that will complete you, co-dependent behavior, etc., this is the shadow, a part of you trying to resolve something or protect you. But this unconscious behavior can cause suffering and harm, hence the importance of doing inquiry.

I hope to through my writings and videos be able to impart some practical wisdom that will allow you to learn to become your own sherpa or guide to metaphorically clean out your closet, to go within and start to gently touch into repressed material and give it the attention that it needs in order to integrate. The byproduct of shadow work is that you will gain autonomy because you will have fewer and fewer unconscious drivers for your behavior. You will be able to express yourself more authentically and feel more and more connected with who you are. You will feel more joy, freedom, connection with others, and peace, which is ultimately what we all deeply want.

Part 3. Practical Advice

I want to really simplify this work because most of what's out there is unnecessarily complicated. What shadow work entails is making the unconscious conscious and fully allowing that material (in the form of words or images), which is what integrates it and releases the underlying emotional charge that is fueling that particular pattern. The goal is integration, not removing or fixing what feels broken or wrong about you. What wants to fix or change is actually rooted in the sense of deficiency itself, which we all have. In early childhood, we learn from the culture and people around us who are unconsciously transmitting their shadow. We learn to repress our emotions — for instance, hold back anger or sadness — as well as deficiencies about ourselves like being not good enough, defective, unworthy, or just simply a bad person. Our shadow (or our unexplored house) is primarily made up of such deficiency patterns that are constantly trying to resolve themselves, which causes a lot of suffering for us because it never ends. It's a fruitless endeavor to try to fill a hole that doesn't actually exist (except as a belief made up of words and repressed emotion).

In order to do shadow work, one must be open to not knowing what may come up, since the shadow is always hidden from us. In any given moment when there is suffering, a difficult emotion like shame, sadness, fear, or perhaps a lot of anxiety or worry, you can stay curious about “what is this really about?” It helps to feel the body first and notice areas of tension or tightness first. Then the underlying words can be more readily accessed. Perhaps a sense of hurt or deficiency. To go within and inquire, we can ask an open ended question like “what is this about?” or “what does this mean about me?” and then waiting and seeing what comes up. Then, we will start to become more aware of what the feeling is about, as well as the resistance that is trying to resolve it. Connecting with and allowing resistance is basically what this work is all about, and this works incredibly well at releasing the underlying emotion.

For example, the 'I am not good enough' pattern is constantly trying to push away or resolve the deficiency in order to be good enough, or the ‘unsafe’ pattern is constantly trying to find safety. But the deficiency itself never actually resolves and keeps perpetuating because it’s only being repressed, not resolved, due to resistance. You cannot resolve something by pushing it away, but this is how all of our deficiency patterns work.

It's like a self fulfilling prophecy where by trying to be good enough, you actually reinforce the sense of not being good enough (because that part of you is being pushed down). By trying to feel safe, you are perpetuating the part of you that feels unsafe. This is because the root or source code of the pattern is a deficiency, and this deficiency is an assumption that is never seen for what it is: a thought made up of words (a belief). The deficiency feels quite obviously true until we see the source code, and then it stops feeling as true if we can just allow those words to be seen. This is why simply noticing and becoming aware of the deficiency starts to unwind it. The mind is looking at a part of itself, and that recognition or seeing is all that’s needed.

This is how we do shadow work, by exploring the programming and seeing what is actually happening in any given moment. This clear seeing is what frees us, and this is truly felt in the body. This is not a mere intellectual exercise.

To put this even more simply, we are always only dealing with thoughts and feelings, words or sensations. Emotions are feelings in the body, and these emotions respond to thoughts which are simply words or images. If you stop for a second and notice what kind of thoughts do you predominantly have? Some people mainly see images, others primarily hear words (like your own internal monologue), while others have a bit of both.

With inquiry, we are mainly working with words. If you get a lot of images, that’s perfectly fine. But just stay curious about what words connect to those images. I will go into more detail in further posts. But for now, just start to notice your experience and the connection between words and body sensations, especially contractions or areas of tightness in the body. Be willing to hear the words and notice how the contraction changes. This is essentially the approach of mindfulness, or exploring with awareness, and you will start to see that simply touching in gently and staying with these words is how we can accept and integrate these parts of us that were rejected or repressed long ago.

By ‘stay with,’ I mean literally just be willing to hang out with the words. It’s like you’re giving that part of you permission to be here. One way to do this is to gently repeat the words to yourself. So, if you notice an emotion of feeling afraid for example (replace with any other word that feels charged to you), you can also notice that there is resistance to that and maybe it’s saying “I don’t want to be afraid.” Always confirm with your body if the words feel right. Then you can just gently repeat to yourself “I don’t want to be afraid” a few times, allow the sensations in the body, and just wait a bit for the charge to clear up as you keep allowing the words. If you’re more visual, you can visualize those words in front of you and just look at them gently as best as you can.

Notice what happens when you do this. At first there will be the emotional charge felt in the body, the tightness, but as you allow the words to be here by just giving them space, which is something we never do, the emotional charge gets automatically released by the body. Fairly quickly you will notice that the words are feeling neutral because the charge was released.

Our bodies want to release the emotional charge, and really the only thing stopping that natural process of release is a hidden perspective of “I don’t want to” or “I shouldn’t” or maybe even “I can’t.” Putting that perspective in words and allowing those words is how we accept and allow for release, but it may be the last thing you actually want to do in the moment because of all the momentum pulling you in and telling you to keep resisting, pushing, or running away. Remember these are survival programs, and they've worked incredibly well for thousands of years and exist within the human psyche for a reason.

I’ll be making videos soon guiding you in this approach. But as a general framework, this approach is all that’s needed. There may be doubt to this, like “how could that really work” or “there’s no way it’s that simple.” You can notice the doubt and thank it for trying to protect you and just stay curious and see if this actually works or not. You may be surprised at how effective such a simple process can be.

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1 Comment

Lisette Paris
Lisette Paris
Feb 13, 2023

Love how you explain what shadow work is about, using simple language and analogies. Looking forward to reading more of your material and watching your videos about this topic! Thanks! 💗

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