Here’s a bit of what I learned from my experience at a 6-day camping intensive on shadow work called “Sweet Darkness” through the Animas Valley Institute. I’m also apprenticing to guide others in the ways described in Bill Plotkin’s “Wild Mind - Field Guide to the Human Psyche.”
Shadow is what we don’t see about ourselves- talents, perspectives and powers that we repressed in childhood because it wasn’t safe. If accused of having these characteristic, we’d deny it. Shadow is not what we know about ourselves and try to hide (that’s what we call our “Outcasts”).
Our shadow can be “golden” — characteristics that our Ego judges to be “great/good” (i.e. above it), or the shadow can be “sinister” — with characteristics that our Ego judges to be “bad” (i.e. below it).
Shadow is difficult to identify because it’s not visible to us — our psyche purposefully created a blind spot in our awareness in order to protect us. Shadow elements are often confused with other sub-personalities/fragments of the Self. However, it’s important to try to identify, explore and develop a conscious relationships with shadow because:
- if we aren’t aware of the internal judgments from our shadow selves, we’ll behave in ways that aren’t based on actual observable information (i.e. not based on reality).
- we may be projecting our shadow onto others, bringing energy to the relationship that doesn’t really belong, thereby making things difficult, even dangerous. Sometimes our shadow extends to groups of people, like different races, cultures, political affiliations, genders, etc.
- when our shadow selves are running the show, we may behave in ways that go out of our norms — we might feel possessed and not able to make conscious choices in harmony with our values. After our shadow selves go back into hiding, we may not remember or understand why we behaved that way.
- another reason to care about shadow is because we may be repressing essential elements of the human experience, causing us to live boring robotic lives, not reaching our full potential, keeping us from self-actualization.
Shadow work has the potential to help us become more of ourselves, improve our outlook and relationships with the ability to experience life more fully. Here are the phases of shadow work:
- Know nothing
- Identify a suspected shadow element (see a list of places to look below)
- Treat it as if it is shadow — get close to it, see what happens
- Get to know shadow element — what’s the essence below the surface?
- Identify and embody elements of wholeness — characteristics that can help you in life
Most therapeutic shadow work goes to phase 3 to identify it, relate it to some event/relationship in childhood to reclaim and release the projection. The Animas approach has you go deeper into shadow to get to know it personally, making it possible to reclaim the gold in phase 5.
Here’s some phase 2 stuff to get you started. Finding Shadow elements can be tricky — we can’t see them, and we deny them. The main clue to finding shadow is the intensity of feelings that we might have toward someone(s) or something in nature. Here are some good places to look for shadow:
- Dream characters
- People that you instantly fall in love with, and when you fall out of love (romance)
- Someone in real life that we really dislike (or really like)
- Conflicts, accusations and confrontations by others
- Anyone or any aspect of nature with whom you have a strong emotional reaction
- Any over-reaction that you have
- Favorite heroes and villains from literature or movies
- Strong feelings about people from different cultures, races, religions, nations, political affiliations
- Freudian slips
- The qualities of “the difficult” people in your life
- Situations and topics about which you are tempted not to tell the truth
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