I love Halloween and all things scary. To me, there is no bigger thrill than fear, especially when it’s from a safe distance. The month of October is haunted houses, spooky tales, and horror films galore. So why not make self-improvement scary? Stay with me, I promise this will all make sense. I recently came across the concept of shadow psychology, first described by Carl Jung. It piqued my interest for two reasons: I love contemplating the complexities of the human mind and well shadows – shadows are spooky.
So what is shadow psychology anyway?
Shadow psychology is a concept first named by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. He used the term to describe the hidden part of who we are that our ideal self resists — our unconscious personality. Sometimes referred to as an emotional blind spot often mirrored in the faults we see or find in others.
Most of us are aware of our conscious personalities. It’s how we proudly define ourselves. It’s the parts of ourselves we feel assured are accepted and liked by others. Our shadow side is the hidden personality that we are not conscious of. It’s the part of ourselves that we think society or our friend group will reject. But just like a monster under the bed, you can ignore the shadow-self but it still exists, and one day it will come out from under your bed and devour you. Okay, that was a little dramatic, but you get the point.
What are the risks if I ignore it?
Let’s go back to the monster under your bed metaphor. You can ignore it. In fact, you can create extreme coping mechanisms to avoid it altogether. Maybe you choose to sleep in another bed, maybe you leap out of your bed every morning to escape the monster’s snare. What you are actually doing is a psychological form of suppression.
Suppression is when a person takes intense emotions from an experience and they bury it deep into the ground, like a corpse (I warned you I love all things gory). But like the rotting corpse, the emotions don’t magically disappear. And it’s not happy or easy emotions that get suppressed. Most people reserve suppression for intense emotions like anger, embarrassment, shame, fear, and disappointment. These emotions rot and fester and can lead to mental health issues, chronic illness, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Despite your best efforts to ignore the monster under your bed, it will eventually get you.
So let’s think about shadow psychology from a healthcare worker’s viewpoint. We suppress negative emotions all the time. When was the last time you held the hand of a dying patient or witnessed a physical injury that others only see in movies? Did you ever have to bathe and dress the body of a stillborn child and carry him or her to visit their parents? Healthcare workers are master suppressors so it’s no wonder we suffer from an array of physical and mental health conditions. In fact, the American Heart Association published in December 2019 an interesting finding.
“Women in some health care roles were up to 16% more likely to have poor heart health, especially in the areas of nursing and psychiatry and home health aides. Registered nurses had a 14% increased risk of poor cardiovascular health.”
And the morbidities don’t stop there. It is estimated that nurses suffer depression at twice the rate of the general population and a systematic review published in January 2022 posits that due to the stressful nature of the job, nurses are a high-risk group for depression and anxiety.
Of all groups needing to explore the shadows lurking in the background of their psyche, healthcare workers may be the ultimate beneficiaries.
Shadow work or shadow irk?
“Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”
– Carl Jung
So is all this talk about shadow psychology legit? Maybe you are not a proponent of the Jungian paradigm and feel that Adler has a much more robust and holistic approach to self-reflection. Or maybe you just read that pedantic sentence and fell asleep — you’re more into armchair psychology. No worries, I got you. Whether you go deep or skim the surface, there are benefits to shadow chasing.
Data reveals that people who participate in shadow work have improved mental and physical wellness, higher self-esteem (yes please), and empathy and compassion. Think about the components of burnout. Christina Masloch measures burnout by three variables: physical and mental exhaustion, decreased feelings of competency, and detachment from people and your work. So if looking into your dark side and acknowledging it increases empathy, could it also be a potential tool for burnout? Who knows? But let’s add it to our toolbelt of other contrived cures like yoga, meditation, and self-care. That was sarcasm, but seriously you should try it.
There is also evidence that shadow work can increase creativity and help you possibly discover a hidden talent. Story time. When I was a young child, I loved to play by myself and live in an imaginary world. I would also spend hours in my room making up dances to Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and New Kids on the Block. Don’t feel sorry for me. I was legit in heaven. However, as I got older, I started to not like that aspect of my personality. I thought if I was going to have meaningful relationships, I would have to be more outgoing, and dealing with the discomfort of constant interaction with people was the price I would have to pay. It wasn’t until the last few years that I learned to embrace this part of myself and I found the practice of yoga. My ability to be alone, even in a room full of people, has made the practice of yoga easier for me. I’m a master meditator. I’ve also learned to share my desire for solitude with my friends and family so that they know when I withdraw it’s nothing personal. It’s me and well, I like me.
How do I get my shadow work on?
Full transparency, when I first learned about shadow work, it seemed a bit enigmatic. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a few practical tips to get me started, that I began to understand what the thinking and reflection activity was about. Here are a few easy tips to start your shadow journey.
Think about times you felt triggered and write it down.
Some people have a shadow journal. When you identify your trigger, include how you felt. Were you embarrassed, defensive, self-righteous, or fearful? Describe your response and how you felt later.
Identify people that you don’t like.
I know, this tip seems snarky. And if you’re anything like me, you try to avoid thinking at all about people who get on your nerves and annoy you. But what I have discovered is that the things I usually don’t like in other people are some of my shadow traits. I am triggered by their actions or inactions because I too possess similar traits, I just work really hard to hide them.
Say hi to your shadow.
Once you identify your shadow or rather shadows (let’s be honest, we don’t have just one), look it right in the face and say “hi.” Examine it, acknowledge it, and then release any shame, guilt, doubt, or fear associated with it. Yep, it’s that simple. You can even learn to love and embrace your shadow self.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Shadow work is not a “one-and-done” task. It’s a self-journey that lasts a lifetime. There are bends and turns, hills and valleys, but on the other side are amazing peaks where you learn to embrace and love your whole self.
So happy shadow hunting this Halloween and maybe let your shadow self be your costume inspiration this year. And don’t let your shadow work stop after the spooky season has passed.
Let us know what you think so be sure to holler trick or treat!