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How to practice shadow work for self-improvement

Last updated

19 November 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

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Whether in a business capacity or a research-driven field, your success lies in your ability to bring your “best self” to each task. You’ll always grow, learn, and achieve goals when you’re the healthiest mental version of yourself.

Practicing shadow work for self-improvement is a popular method for professionals in any setting who want to bring their best selves to a project, their work, or their family life.

This guide will explain what shadow work is and how you can give your work or personal life a boost by tapping into shadow work self-improvement methods.

What is shadow work?

To really understand what shadow work is, think of a shadow. What is a shadow? It’s an impression of yourself that’s usually hidden from view. It appears behind you as the sun shines on you.

Shadow work is the process and method used to mentally uncover your unconscious beliefs—beliefs that are usually repressed or hidden from your conscious self.

Every person has parts of themselves—traits, behaviors, and beliefs—that they’re proud of. But there are more hidden or inner shadow parts that people are not so eager to recognize. Those repressed parts can emerge as triggers or hard-to-control emotional responses. Shadow work allows people to find and develop the self-awareness needed to reduce or remove the effects of those repressed shadows.

While the concept sounds complex, there are simple steps and methods for practicing shadow work that you can tap into every day. You’ll find yourself more confident in every aspect of your life—at work and at home—with each improvement.

What is the shadow self?

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung made the term “shadow self” popular. The shadow self describes the more uncivilized or primitive side of a person’s nature. It’s made up of all the parts a person assumes are undesirable or unacceptable.

Consider all the parts of your personality and character that you reject. Now imagine all those traits lingering in your subconscious, unseen and ignored.

For many people, the shadow self goes unchecked and repressed for years, only emerging as triggered bursts of anger, depression, laziness, or cruelty. No one can control how the shadow self forms, especially because most shadows arise due to childhood imprinting.

How does the shadow self form?

Children are entirely dependent on parents or responsible adults for their existence and survival. As a result, they become attached to every word responsible adults say and the actions they take. People carry those sentiments—the good and the bad—into adulthood.

For example, if, as a toddler, you were scolded for touching an electrical socket, you probably don’t touch sockets now. You might even warn your own kids (if you have them) in the same way against the danger of electrocution. This example, however, isn’t a negative trait that you’d attribute to your adulthood shadow.

Perhaps, as a child, you were scolded for speaking out of turn or just for being outspoken in general. Even now, as an adult, you might hesitate before speaking out. In this example, you have subconsciously attributed the negative association with being outspoken to a survival mechanism. It has become a small part of you and often serves as an uncontrollable trigger that you repress. It has formed part of your shadow self.

Benefits of shadow work

“Investing in yourself is the best investment you will ever make. It will not only improve your life, it will improve the lives of those around you.” Robin S. Sharma

When you begin to recognize that you have a shadow self, you can start taking steps to improve with shadow work. Even the smallest breakthroughs in shadow work can help you leverage many benefits to improve how you make decisions, practice self-care, perceive the world around you, and react to situations.

Essentially, shadow work is designed to integrate and generate acceptance with every part of yourself. It enables you to live with authenticity and clarity. The advantages of ongoing shadow work can be huge in improving your work and home life.

You can achieve a sense of self “wholeness”

Shadow work allows you to make your shadow self known. Even if those traits are undesirable, you’ll feel more complete and whole as you recognize every part of yourself.

Many people who practice shadow work report feeling more in touch with every aspect of themselves, which gives them a greater sense of control. This wholeness can be life-changing.

As you acknowledge each fear and confront your self-doubt, you’ll begin to feel lighter. The burden of concealed problems begins to lift with each step you take in addressing and rebuilding your whole self.

Learn to improve how you interact with others

Recognizing your shadow self will also help you recognize your triggers. These could be a combination of people, things, and situations. Knowing where your behaviors come from will help you diffuse those emotions or moments, allowing you to experience improved interactions with others.

Use shadow work to learn what makes you tick, what makes you uncomfortable, and what subconsciously drives your behavior so you can control how you act and react to others.

Heal from childhood or generational trauma

Your shadow self might be composed of negative traits or beliefs that aren’t necessarily rooted in reality. Recognizing them and taking steps to understand the origin of those beliefs can be incredibly healing, especially if you hold childhood or generational trauma. Consider what drives your behaviors and decisions so you can move forward with clarity and peace.

Discover healthier ways to cope and practice self-care

You can learn how to embrace self-care on a new level when you realize there are other parts of you that might also need attention.

When you begin to react or feel a certain way, you can attribute those behaviors to your shadow, compartmentalizing them where they belong. Knowing what to do and why allows you to practice healthier coping mechanisms.

Step-by-step guide to shadow work

Recognizing that your shadow self exists is only half the battle. To see improvements in your work and home life, you’ll need to start practicing shadow work. Remember that shadow work is a unique journey for everyone. It requires ongoing effort to be effective.

The Johari Window model is a simple method for exploring your current self-awareness and identifying the areas that need growth and improvement. It’s a model with four quadrants:

  1. Open area (arena): this quadrant includes characteristics and information shared openly, meaning they are known to you and other people.

  2. Blind area (blind spot): others can see these aspects of you, even though you are unaware of them.

  3. Hidden area (facade or privacy): this quadrant contains information and feelings known to you that you don’t share with other people.

  4. Unknown area: this area contains aspects of yourself unknown to both you and other people. These characteristics are unexplored.

The goal is to expand the open area by sharing and receiving feedback, reduce the blind area, and increase self-awareness and communication.

You can also explore the steps below to continue your shadow work.

Tap into your gut instincts and intuition

Listen to your gut. Your intuition is a part of your subconscious. It’s trying to alert you to a truth you can’t see. Tap into your intuition to reveal what’s lurking in your shadow. This will help you experience deeper self-knowledge.

Free yourself from an unconscious shadow

You’ll always have a shadow self. Your experiences are written on the “resume” of your life.

Despite this, you can reduce your shadow self’s impact on your life by taking steps to free yourself from autopilot. Lose your shadow by bringing it into the light—in other words, moving it from your subconscious to your conscious level of thinking.

When you live your life on autopilot, your shadow self calls the shots. Facing those repressed parts of yourself means handing the reins over to your conscious self and taking control of your life.

Empower yourself by identifying core strengths

Facing your shadow self will also allow you to debunk some of the inner myths you currently believe are true. Shadow work allows you to find strength in the positive parts of yourself, which is empowering.

Take a positive step toward self-actualization

People who live in complete harmony with themselves and the world are fully self-actualized. Ongoing shadow work allows you to take incremental steps toward self-actualization. To see improvements, you’ll need to commit to self-reflection and dedicate time in your schedule for shadow work.

For example, perhaps you’ll schedule time on Fridays to review your weekly efforts. Seeking support from others can also help you with accountability. Keeping a journal is essential for ongoing shadow work.

Tips to remember when doing shadow work

Keep the following tips in mind to make the most of your self-reflection work:

Be graceful and patient with yourself

Shadow work isn’t easy. It means thinking about things, situations, and people with triggering, negative memories. Be graceful with yourself as you go. Give yourself time to grieve, cope, and process each step.

Call on others for support and help

Shadow work is a solo process, but you don’t have to do it all alone. Connect with loved ones or people you trust for guidance, support, and accountability. Other people can help you navigate challenging memories and take life-changing steps forward.

Consider trusted support circles. These might include the following people:

  • Coach or mentor

  • Spouse or close friend

  • Professional psychologist or therapist

  • Clergy or religious confidante

  • Trusted family members

Think about someone who may be triggering

If you’re struggling to connect with your shadow self, try thinking about someone who is particularly triggering for you. Because we often project our own negative traits onto others, this step allows you to recognize what may be lurking in your own shadow. In particular, ask yourself:

  • What is it that’s so triggering for me about this person?

  • Do I have any of the same traits?

  • Why is it so hard to be around them?

Spend time reviewing your family tree

Spending some time with your family tree can be helpful, recalling memories and situations with each family member. This exercise allows you to be honest about good and bad traits in your family, which helps you spot similar traits in yourself.

Experts suggest exploring every aspect of your family tree, including the following:

  • Parents and grandparents

  • Aunts and uncles

  • Cousins and extended relatives

Deep dive into other factors that contribute to your personality, including when and where you were born, family dynamics, and your past experiences. Find social and cultural influences in your life that contribute to your sense of self. Finally, embrace both the positive and negative experiences to better understand how your personality and character have been programmed.

Confront your own shadow

Once you feel you have a general understanding of what your shadow self represents, you can take steps to confront it. Positive affirmations and inner dialogue that “sets the darkest shadow free” and “releases fear” will help you disconnect from your shadow’s control.

Other affirmations include the following:

  • I will release my self-doubt.

  • I can release this shame.

  • I have to release the insecurity.

  • I allow myself to feel.

Much like an athlete would train to program muscle memory, you can use self-affirmations to help reprogram your core beliefs about your whole self.

Control your habits

The average adult dedicates more than three hours daily to their smartphones. To cultivate better habits and maximize your time, consider implementing screen time restrictions to minimize unnecessary phone usage. If you’re aware that being in front of the television can tempt you to start a new series and divert your focus from important activities, like exercising or practicing mindfulness, seek ways to create obstacles for these distractions.

To boost your mental well-being and alleviate stress, actively participate in weekly physical activities such as sports or yoga. You can also try integrating end-of-week reflections into your routine to evaluate your progress and emotional state. This practice enhances self-awareness and sharpens your focus on essential tasks for the upcoming week.


What is your shadow in shadow work?

When conducting shadow work, your “shadow” refers to your unconscious perception of your unfavorable traits, characteristics, and behaviors. It might be the result of past trauma or negative situations that were out of your control.

What are some shadow work questions?

When you start performing shadow work, consider asking yourself some tough questions. These will help you connect with the parts of yourself you don’t usually see.

  • What do you wish loved ones knew about you?

  • What do you hope they never learn about you?

  • What’s one thing you are embarrassed to admit out loud or to others?

  • What people or situations do you find triggering?

  • What particular emotion do you try to avoid feeling the most?

  • What negative emotion do you find yourself most comfortable with?

  • Is your inner voice nice or condescending?

  • Is your inner voice actually yours?

  • When do you find yourself to be the most judgmental?

Is shadow work painful?

Shadow work requires you to face some of the uncomfortable parts of yourself, so it can be very difficult. Expect some parts of this process to be painful, and give yourself permission to feel every step.

How do I find my shadow personality?

Self-reflect and ask yourself some of the shadow work prompts above. Keep a journal to get started, logging your questions, answers, and feelings along the way. Ask for help and support from others on your shadow work journey, including mentors and coaches who are instrumental in accountability, tools, and methods to support your personal evolution.

Practicing shadow work is complex and, for many, painful. But it’s a proven method for self-improvement and reaching the ultimate goal of self-actualization. You can be honest with others when you’re truly honest about who you are and what you’re made of. And when you can become the best version of yourself, you can always be at your best at work, with projects, and in your personal life.

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