The human experience is multidimensional; our layers, complexity and all that contributes to make us us is extraordinary. On an individual level we are part of the whole and on a collective level we exist together as a whole; in one breath we cannot be separated and yet much of our experience can feel that way. Integrating aspects of ourselves that need healing, care and refinement are well within the scope of well-being.
Shadow work is one area of well-being that may not at first glance appear to have an opening for. Whilst the origins of shadow work were born within the field of psychoanalysis, it has since evolved and been integrated into other areas of holistic healing modalities. The aim largely remains the same; to uncover unconscious patterns and bring them forward into consciousness where awareness facilitates deeper levels of understanding, change and transformation.
The juxtaposition with shadow work is that you cannot see that which you cannot ‘see’. So the very essence of shadow work requires a trust and willingness to explore places unknown, to be open to receive information previously unknown. Equally, once you know something, once it has entered into your awareness that has previously remained hidden, this very occurrence brings greater insight which can be intentionally worked with to understand and integrate more effectively.
To clear and refrain from judgement here, the shadow, or the unconscious, is not wrong or bad, although it has in the past had negative connotations about it stemming from cultural and societal conditioning. This comes from deep rooted beliefs, resistances and fears that also need working through if you are to effectively work with shadow and transform that which you fear, into that which is understood, acknowledged and safely, compassionately integrated. Read on to find out how.
How is shadow work part of well-being?
A holistic approach to healing and the journey through life which we navigate on a daily basis can be viewed as many parts that make up a whole. Indeed, as humans we are individuals that also are part of a whole; collectively we form humanity. In our individual form we are composed of various layers, or aspects, that stem beyond the physical body.
The multidimensional aspects of healing and well-being include the physical body, the emotional, mental, or cognitive and spiritual aspects too. A holistic approach considers all these layers in identifying blockages, ailments and misalignment. Whilst shadow work initially resides in the unconscious, the cognitive layer, it is unequivocally connected to the emotional, physical and spiritual parts of us too.
The thoughts, beliefs, internalised experiences, memories that have been suppressed, buried and hidden from our conscious mind contribute to subconscious behaviours, emotional responses and habit patterns that we engage in on a daily basis. Most of which occurs in an automated process. Whilst a negative association can arise here as we talk about the shadow, the underlying nature of the shadow is not inherently bad or wrong.
Where shadow work meets well-being is when certain behaviours, thought and habit patterns and emotional reactions that are automatically generated which are not serving us in perhaps the best way they could. Therefore, there’s a benefit to uncovering them, bringing them into awareness to provide an opportunity of choice and conscious discernment; whether to continue to engage in them. Enhancing self awareness through various healing modalities is a beginning step to working with the shadow, rather than against it.
Coming to view shadow work as a necessary part of the journey of healing, self growth and transformation, as well as normalising that fear and resistance is part of the process too.
Encompassing the Whole
There are various modalities that align with the concept, theory and practice of Wholism, or holistic approaches to healing and transformation. Internal Family Systems, founded and developed by Richard Swartz, is one model that acknowledges that internally we are made up of different ‘parts’. These parts play various roles in our lives that ultimately contribute to underlying behaviours, beliefs, habit patterns and emotional responses.
Each of the parts are a result of times in our lives where we needed protection from a situation, trauma or person that we felt under threat by. Often, these parts were then rejected, hidden or abandoned in order to keep us safe, loved, accepted or approved by others. These parts form strong relations that sometimes inhibit or override choices in our lives that we might make differently, if the information was freely accessible to us.
For example, a common conditioned behaviour around pleasing people, lack of boundaries or inability to say no usually stem from situations where we abandoned ourselves to gain acceptance, love or approval from external sources (parents, peers, authority figures). This becomes ingrained as a pattern that initially might have begun in childhood and follows us into adulthood. No matter how hard we ‘try’, there are repeated behaviours and situations that we cannot seem to shift.
What’s occurring in the unconscious are the parts that need to hide, adapt, or abandon the true self in order to stay safe (be loved, accepted or approved). Working with parts that have previously been exiled, rejected or abandoned to bring them back into conscious awareness and into acceptance is a model in which inner conflicts can be resolved. Without a sense of resolution, these parts continue to protect us in ways that are no longer needed.
A new model of forgiveness
Through the lens of viewing the self as multiple parts of a whole, we can choose to engage with parts of us that have been suppressed, rejected and unconsciously abandoned and set in motion a pathway for integration and inner harmony. Firstly, we need to be willing to meet these parts; the shadow parts. The shadow, is in effect, the unconscious parts we are not able to ‘see’.
Approaching the shadow in a compassionate, curious way follows a heart centred approach to reconciling our inner conflicts; the internal parts we’ve needed to disown and abandon in order to gain or receive something else (usually a sense of safety and security). Complementary holistic modalities such as inner child work lend great support to approaching integrative models to healing and inner conflict resolution. There are many parts of ourselves connected to the inner child because as children we face a multitude of situations where we adapt ourselves in order to get our needs met.
Similarly, instead of continuing to suppress parts of ourselves that were lost, rejected and abandoned, there are parts belonging to our inner child that also contribute to limiting beliefs, dysfunctional or unhealthy behaviours that result from exiled parts that form in shadow. These continue to present themselves in our adult lives that inhibit inner harmony, which is where an integrative approach can tangibly get in touch with these parts and seek to resolve them safely.
In the past, especially as children, when we needed to adapt, we can reconcile the past, in the present, as being present to ourselves to listen, give voice and space to the rejected parts that reside in shadow. Inspired by a compassionate model of self forgiveness, welcoming all parts seeks to accept, forgive and learn to love all aspects of ourselves.
The benefits of shadow work in well-being practices
The central aim of holistic well-being is to support an integrative approach to wholeness; a felt sense of well-being occurs when we feel in harmony, balance and free. Working towards wholeness includes uncovering the parts of us that reside in shadow and through shadow work, bringing these parts to light, enables a considered integrative pathway to open up. Shadow work therefore, is an enabler, rather than an inhibitor.
The very function of the shadow initially was formed as a protective mechanism, oftentimes to keep us safe from a perceived threat to one of our basic human needs. Particularly as children, we faced choices that meant either our needs weren’t met, or that our sense of safety, built on trust, love and acceptance was threatened. Therefore an adaptation occurred that led to an inner separation and that part was rejected from our conscious mind and settled in the unconscious where it could safely be.
An integrative, holistic approach to healing invites a lens of compassion and openness to the internal parts we have separated from and left in shadow. It can become an enabler by a willingness to listen to and give voice to the parts that have been rejected and abandoned and find a suitable place for this part that no longer takes control and enforces the learned protective mechanisms. The inner child is a key component to this journey of healing and integration as they carry many adaptations.
Whilst shadow work reveals limiting beliefs and resulting habit patterns of behaviours on the cognitive level, there are emotional, physical and spiritual components that are also impacted. Releasing past pain, trauma and learned conditioned behaviours can also be integrated in a considerate, trauma informed approach that supports reintegration of the true self that no longer needs to be fragmented in disowned parts.
Giving shadow work a go
There are resources in the blog that provide insight and ideas for tools and techniques to approach journeys of personal healing and transformation. You can read more about tangible applications of inner child work through the model of reparenting as well as discovering how to break repetitive cycles with mindfulness.
If you would like to find a holistic well-being practitioner there are also resources available too.