August 30, 2023

Why Shadow Work Isn’t (& Shouldn’t be) Just a Trend.

shadow work

When I think of trends, I think of splatter paint prints and jelly shoes.

(It’s probably obvious that I’m an 80s kid.)

Sometimes I think of trendy restaurants. Or trendy colloquialisms, even.

But I don’t think of shadow work.

And yet, shadow work (or the pop culture understanding of shadow work) seems to be super trendy right now. Or at least the term does.

There are different ways of understanding the shadow side of our nature. (And if you’re interested in a number of fascinating takes on this, I highly suggest the anthology Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams).

The simplest way I’ve come to understand my own shadow is that it works like an umbrella, blanketing and covering the aspects of myself I’d rather not own, or admit to, in everyday conscious life.

I wish I had the courage to list some of those aspects here. But I don’t.

So you see how this might work; I can’t even name in this essay the things I’d rather not admit are a part of the tiny corner of humanity I occupy in this world, things that comprise me.

Trends come and go, which is why I wish shadow work weren’t so en vogue in consciousness spheres right now. I don’t want to see it go. It’s so important.

Okay, here’s a shadow I will admit to: pride, or the closely related and more fanciful term, hubris.

I went through an intense period of shadow work in 2018. I won’t go into that period in detail, except to say that it was so severe my doctor was insisting on Electro-Convulsive Therapy. I was a hard “no” to electroshock therapy (even though it’s come a long way, as I understand it) so I dragged myself through that underworld, day after day, for 10 months that year.

When I woke up on a Tuesday in October 2018 and knew something had transformed, something had lifted, I thought I was done. For good.

That’s pride. That’s hubris.

Because I hit Shadow Work 2.0 this past year. I won’t go into detail about that either, except to say that this past year makes the 2018 period look like a luxury spa retreat.

This creates a sort of visual of the point I’m trying to make about shadow work here, almost a Russian nesting dolls image, a micro-within-the-macro point:

Shadow work has not functioned like a “trend” in my own life. And I don’t think this is how it works on the macro, collective level either.

It’s deeply necessary, and I think we’re thrown into it, both individually and collectively, when it is the most necessary.

I also think shadow work can masquerade as a lot of other things.

For example, while I absolutely believe examining one’s past trauma can be part and parcel of deep shadow work, it’s important to understand: The trauma itself is not the shadow.

People sometimes refer to “looking at” their trauma, as if the traumatic events themselves are the shadow. But I’ve discovered, painfully, that the traumas themselves aren’t it.

My shadow—that slimy, gooey, dark “yuck” hiding out in the corner of my consciousness—is everything in me my trauma activated.

It’s the obsessiveness. The self-loathing. The self-obsession. It’s loathing my self-obsession and doing anything I could to hide it. And on and on.

(Do you see what I did there? And I swore I wouldn’t list any of these icky things for you to read.)

My shadow wasn’t even necessarily the narratives and stories I built around traumatic events, although examining those stories has been important. For me, true shadow is my addiction to the stories. Or, if I want to be really ruthlessly honest with myself, my love affair with the stories. My need to stay stuck in the stories. How good the bad stories can make me feel.

I think you get the idea.

As a side note, on the macro level, I think we’re seeing a lot of this right now in the explosive popularity of the narcissist-empath paradigm. Have you ever noticed how everything on social media is directed to the empaths? Because we’re all the empaths, right?! None of us are narcissistic in any way, right?! Right??

Does anyone see the irony here in 100 percent identification with the halo-headed empath persona? The actual, well, narcissism in that? It’s honestly pretty funny, which I think is one of the blessed outcomes of meaty shadow work: we can eventually just learn to laugh at our humanity.

Because we’ve all got ugly humanity in us. All of us.

To my mind, though, the ultimate importance of a deep dive into one’s shadow is the bettering of our collective humanity. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s really about us. It’s amazing to feel better, to lighten up, to feel more whole, all of those things. Getting real about our ugly makes life a lot more livable—and enjoyable—but it’s more about how we interface with the world.

To share one detail about my initiation into this kind of work in 2018, what really lit a fire under my bum was when it became clear how my darkness was bleeding out onto people around me, many of whom I really loved and cared about. I don’t think my own pain would have ever motivated me to do that excruciating work, but that’s just me.

And by the way, if you’re like me and laboring under the delusion that your own B.S. is only harming you, well…

That’s also shadow.

And I wanted to be a better human.

As a final thought, trends are fun. Shadow work, at least for me, is not.

But I’ve sure had a lot more fun on the other side of it.


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