Musings on Shadow Work

DISCLAIMER: I am not a therapist or mental health practitioner of any kind. I can only speak to my own experience and results with any practice I discuss, and nothing I say should be taken as professional advice.  If you are experiencing a crisis please seek qualified professional help.

Recently I had a tarot reading from the lovely Jessi Huntenberg, specifically her “Witch Path” reading that is meant to help you progress in your magicospiritual unfolding.  I wanted to know why I didn’t seem able to actually establish a practice, and what was holding me back from actual connection to a higher power or my own mojo.

From card 1 I knew two things: 

  • 1 – Jessi Huntenberg is a steely-eyed missile woman (ten points if you get the reference) and
  • 2 – She was absolutely right that there were things from the past I needed to face and understand if I wanted to move forward. She suggested a round of shadow work, and I heartily agreed.

What is shadow work, you may ask? It sounds more arcane than it necessarily is. The whole concept arises from Jungian psychology – Jung believed that all the parts of ourselves we deny, behavior we are ashamed of, and events we can’t deal with make up our shadow, almost a hidden second self which influences every move we make, dogging our steps and making it impossible to be integrated, whole beings until we’ve faced it down.  The idea is not to destroy the shadow – quite the contrary, it’s to understand its origins and embrace it so that we can control its impulses rather than those impulses controlling us.  

As Kelly-Ann Maddox (another steely-eyed missile woman) says, shadow work does not give you an excuse to be a dick because “Hey man, it’s just my shadow, it’s part of me and I can’t change that.”  Much like learning about your natal chart, understanding your shadow gives you a place to work from – it is a catalyst, not an excuse.  You shine a light on parts of yourself long neglected and bring awareness to them, then use that knowledge to progress on your path as a human being.

There are many ways to go about shadow work.  My process thus far has consisted of a lot of journaling and meditation, and in only a few sessions it’s uncovered some pretty nasty shit that, if I’d tried to address it a few years ago, I would have gone into a self-hating tailspin or at least shoved it back in the box.  Now, however, the primary emotion to arise is relief.

Shadow work isn’t just saying “Damn, girl, you’ve done some shady shit.”  The point is to figure out WHY you have, and WHY you continue to make decisions that compromise your relationships and integrity.  This may require revisiting childhood events (even the tiniest thing can feed your shadow, though of course trauma is a key player), or at least looking back along your path and taking note of what was going on when you started making iffy decisions. For a lot of people obviously this is a process best undertaken with professional help.  I’m a Scorpio, however, and one thing we love is relentless self-analysis – finally a chance to use it for good instead of evil!

(Seriously, find a therapist or at least a trusted peer to speak to if you’re interested in shadow work but feel afraid or overwhelmed at the prospect.  Here there be dragons, and while you can probably tame them yourself, if you’re not used to cave-diving in your own psyche it can be hazardous.)

What I’ve found is that while I haven’t been able to trace a single origin point for the issue I wanted to examine, I’ve definitely found a current of belief that, while unhealthy, made sense as a coping mechanism in the context in which it arose.  I suddenly sat back and thought holy hell – I’m not a terrible person!  I’ve been doing a shitty thing for a long time because of some other shitty things, and that doesn’t make it less shitty but it DOES mean I am not doomed to keep doing it forever because I’m some sort of high-functioning sociopath (which isn’t really a thing anyway).   That means that I can act from a place of awareness and do better.  

Shadow work is, above all, meant to be liberating.  It helps you reclaim your authenticity and your psychological sovereignty – you don’t have to be held hostage by your own bullshit if you’re willing to drag your bullshit out into view and air it out.  It’s not easy, but then again, living chained to a fuck-ton of baggage you’re pretending doesn’t exist isn’t easy either.  As with much of adulthood it comes down to choosing which kind of pain you prefer.

If you’re interested in learning more about this sort of thing, here are a couple of introductions; each of these ladies has a YouTube playlist on the subject you can delve into as well.  I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about it as well.   

Do you do shadow work?  Have some resources to share?  Do so in comments here or on Facebook.

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