This month our therapist, Laura, is hijacking the Maja Blog to discuss her take on Shadow Work, her own personal journey working with her own shadow parts, and why we should do it - no matter how difficult!
My fascination with shadows began at an early age, when I first saw Disney’s
adaptation of Peter Pan to be exact. If you grew up with Disney movies like I did, you would know that scene when he first met Wendy. For me, it was one of the most memorable scenes from the movie. Of course, it was highly amusing to watch Peter Pan flit around Wendy’s bedroom, ransacking drawers and performing dashing feats of aerobatics, just to get his shadow back. However, what really grabbed my 7-year-old attention was to see that in the movie, not only was Peter's shadow alive and separate from him; it also seems a totally different character. Peter’s shadow was fast, agile, cocky, and mischievous. I kept thinking, “But why does Peter want that naughty thing back? Shadows don’t really do anything, right?”.
Fast forward 35 years, and here I am; finally understanding why Peter Pan was so hell-bent on catching his shadow. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to really dive into my darker parts. Not because I want to, but because I’ve had to – but more on that later. Let’s first have a look at this dark yet intriguing concept of “Shadow Work”. The term is pretty commonplace these days and understandably, it often scares a lot of people – me included. The word “shadow” itself brings a lot of sinister and negative associations for many. The concept itself originates from the term “the shadow self,” which was coined by 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung. According to Jung;
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
Simply put, the shadow self is the subconscious parts of us that our conscious ego doesn’t want to acknowledge – the darker side of ourselves we repress or ignore. And how can we blame our ego? No one is comfortable admitting they have any negative sides, let alone some dark ones! Having to admit that I have some dark parts would shift my self-perception – which was why I, and a lot of my clients now, are very resistant to doing Shadow Work. My ego didn’t want to take a battering, so it reasoned that if I just focus on the light, surely the shadow would disappear.
Much to my ego’s chagrin, I found that it was the other way around – the more I ignore the shadow parts, the more control they have over my life. And herein lies the crux of the matter – ignoring our shadow parts means we are at risk of letting these parts run rampant and uncontrolled, creating chaos in our lives. This can translate into problems with our mental health, unhealthy patterns of behaviour and emotions, self-esteem issues, addictions, scarcity mindset, or even worse. For me, it manifested as anxiety and panic attacks. This was when I knew I had to confront my shadow side…it was time to dive in.
I found that the trickiest part about starting Shadow Work was realizing that there is no manual.
There’s no standardized list of shadow parts you can work through, no public consensus as to which parts we have to look at. Each person’s shadow parts are unique to them; some of your shadow parts might not even make it to my list and vice versa.
What parts are in the shadow are purely based on our own personal judgments; which in turn depends on our culture, beliefs, past experiences, etc. Even parts of us which we thought were in the light could carry with them very dark shadows. Case and point, my Rescuer side. The side of me that loves helping others…in fact, it’s a part that I was quite proud of. How can it be bad? However, it was this very part that was causing my anxiety and panic attacks. I failed to realize that in my mission to help everyone, I was victimizing myself by putting my needs last and resenting the fact that some of my sacrifices were not acknowledged. The more I tried to rescue people, the more they expected from me, and the less I prioritized myself. Repeat this pattern for three to four decades, and you got someone who was overwhelmed – scared that people wouldn’t value her if she didn’t do things for them, yet unable to give anymore as she was running on empty.
Thus began my personal journey facing my shadow parts. To start with, I didn’t like these parts to say the least. I saw them as the enemy, as something I have to control and vanquish if necessary. As time goes by though, I found that they are more like neglected children than the imposing, scary adversary I thought them to be. Like children, they tend to act out when they’re not paid enough attention – any attention is good attention, right? The truth is, these shadow parts are the parts of us that need our help and TLC the most…chances are, our trauma created them and they have been operating on survival mode for a long time. Doing their best in the only way they know how. Going back to my Rescuer part, I realized that this part was born when I was 3 years old, waiting for the birth of my sister. I remembered being so happy and excited at the prospects of having a playmate, until an aunt said something as a joke. “Your mom is going to put you in the rubbish bin when the new baby arrives!”, she said cheerfully. Looking back now, I had two major insights. One, this woman should not be allowed anywhere near children – or other human beings for that matter; and two, how big of an impact a throwaway (pun intended!) comment like that could make, especially on a child. The 3 year-old-me trusted my aunt, and immediately her mind went to work looking for survival strategy. She reasoned that if she made herself useful and helped with the baby, then mom wouldn’t throw her out with the trash. So she grew up learning that giving up her toys and letting her sister take precedent in everything made mom happy. Over the years, she applied this lesson to other people – to extended family, friends, boyfriends, co-workers. And she kept doing it so that people will keep her around because she’s useful…and she began resenting them for making her sacrifice so much. Yet she was unable to stop herself from helping people, whether they asked her to or not. Like many people, I didn’t address the problem until I was at crisis point – suffering anxiety and panic attacks. In trying to become the ultimate Rescuer, I turned myself into a Victim.
In my efforts to return the Rescuer back into balance, I had to take a page off Peter Pan's notebook and chase my shadows – my Orphan Child, my Victim, my Saboteur, my Judge. Let me tell you, it was no picnic...it was highly uncomfortable, but ultimately so liberating. Like any other relationships, the connection I have with them improved considerably when I made a commitment to investing the time, patience, curiosity and love into it. I figured, I’ve spent most of my life investing my time and energy into getting to know other people, it’s time I put aside sometime getting to know my parts. Bringing the neglected parts of me into the light, into my consciousness, has been fundamental in changing my negative patterns and emotions. I now know that this is going to be a life-long relationship; not just a one-off, “I’ll devote 3 months to balancing my Rescuer than I’m done” type of deal. I discovered that given the right kind of attention, approached with openness and curiosity, these parts are easier to recognize now and that they can be my closest allies. My Rescuer, she’s much more balanced lately – I actually only offer to help when I have capacity and the other person is open to it…which brings me so much joy, as I don’t feel I had to help. I do it because I want to help. Helping my Rescuer learn that small difference, and letting her know that it’s ok to set boundaries, have been empowering. To me, to her, and to all my other parts.
So – I say kudos to Peter Pan for chasing after that pesky shadow of his, no matter how ‘naughty’ it’s been…and I would invite you to do the same. You might be pleasantly surprised at the allies and supporters you find inside of you!
If you're curious about Shadow Work and would like more info, feel free to connect with Laura on her IG account, where she explores the modality and concept.