In witchcraft, there has long been a strong (or, at least, vocal) community of people who espouse living solely in the light, eschewing all negative thoughts, feelings, and habits. Maybe that works when one is at a beginner level of witchcraft, but nearly impossible to do once we’ve moved past the basics. Why? Because focusing only on “love and light” prevents us from becoming whole beings and is a form of spiritual bypassing. Absolutely, it’s more fun to ignore our negative qualities or hope they will go away if we keep them locked away in a mental basement. Doing so, however, leaves us relying on superficialities and platitudes which look good but have no depth to them.
Having a Shadow takes nothing away from how good or wonderful a person we are; it is an essential part of being embodied. How well we accept and assimilate those qualities is a better indicator of our success within the world. While much of the language relies on the duality of light/dark and positive/ negative, in no way are there judgments being made about the intrinsic nature of “dark” or “light.” Shadow work is a process of assimilation and acceptance of all aspects of one’s Self. Too much light is a form of spiritual bypassing; too much dark is as much of an avoidance.
What Shadow Work Is . . .
The process of self-improvement is integral to a witch’s growth. While never required, it often becomes clear that it is needed at a particular point. In witchcraft, we call this process shadow work. The term comes from Carl G. Jung, who said:
Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.
. . . the shadow, that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious.
Through analysis of the shadow and of the processes contained in it we uncover the anima/animus syzygy. Looked at superficially, the shadow is cast by the conscious mind and is as much a privation of light as the physical shadow that follows the body. For this superficial view, therefore, the psychological shadow with its moral inferiority might also be regarded as a privation of good.
Shadow is envy, greed, prejudice, hate, and aggression. It is instinctive and irrational. It lives in the place within you where you keep all your secrets, repressed feelings, primitive impulses, and parts deemed “unacceptable,” shameful, “sinful” or even “evil.” (I often use the image of a well-padlocked closet to visualize where my Shadow exists.) It prefers projection, the situation in which we see a personal weakness within ourselves as a moral deficiency in someone else (“I’m not greedy, she just sucks up all the money.”)
The Shadow is created from both your personally lived experiences and the beliefs and perspectives you’ve created – including those that were “given” to you through your upbringing. (This latter is sometimes called generational trauma.) We create Shadow when we need to remove the blame from ourselves or hide the parts of ourselves that we deny or refuse to acknowledge, usually in response to a need to keep ourselves likable and civilized in the eyes of others. When we ignore the shadow, it is free to act without restraint, undermining and sabotaging our conscious, visible, lives.
Shadow was almost always created in childhood as the result of our ego development, and societal conditioning or socialization . We are born as complete beings with all the qualities and attributes within us as potential, but learn to become a certain type of person, based on family dynamics and societal norms. If our family is intellectual and physically stand-offish, we too will show little interpersonal warmth and rare physicality. When born into a family that rewards compliance and shuns rebellion, we will exhibit many submissive qualities. When we do so, all of the qualities we were born with are put away, becoming the Shadow within ourselves.
Shadow work is the process of seeking out, observing, and transmuting the suppressed parts of our Self. It is the attempt to uncover everything that we have hidden and every part of us that has been disowned, ignored, overlooked, and rejected. It begins by acknowledging the issues that continually, cyclically, happen in our life as requiring our attention. These issues are both subtle and obvious and might include:
* patterns of toxic relationships (with lovers, friends, employers, etc.)
* sexuality/sexual problems (specifically perversions, not healthy kink)
* dis-ease or chronic pain
* fears and phobias
* low self-worth or self-esteem
* uncontrollable anger
* financial problems
* disconnection from self and life
(This list is not meant to include everything; there are many other examples.)
While all of the above can easily arise from having to live in a toxic world (patriarchy, environment, capitalism, etc.) when we speak of Shadow, we are speaking of issues that arise outside of that toxic framework. So financial issues need Shadow work when we find ourselves always maxing out our credit cards, despite having a comfortable income. Low self-esteem comes from the inner voice of a cruel parent, not an intrinsic lack of worth.
In my family, my father talked about being stuck playing the same old tapes as a metaphor when we would be repeating the same relationship patterns with one another. I’ve always liked this metaphor, as tapes could be looped to play endlessly, repeating the same message continually and thus those “tapes” were locking us into the same habits as always. It is a difficult force to break free from in order to create new relationships and ways of being with one another. The process of recognizing what the tapes are and attempting to alter them is Shadow work.
. . . and Isn’t
Shadow work is not an excuse to beat up on yourself or another way to prove you are inferior or not worthy. I have a healthy respect for the power of the sexual masochist, but this is not that. Shadow work is also not therapy, which may surprise you. For that, you need a professional. The work we do aligns well with therapy and can inform your therapeutic conversations, but it is not the same.
Why Do Shadow Work?
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. ~attributed to C.G. Jung
The process of engaging in Shadow Work is painful and upsetting and almost always (dare I say, always?) forces us to change to accommodate the new knowledge we discover. So why create more pain in our lives, especially when we are already in pain? Doing the work to discover why we do what we do, say, and think through making peace with our Shadow is profoundly healing. Doing so allows us to move forward consciously, acting with intent rather than reacting from (irrational) instinct.
Just as working with “dark” Deities opens our awareness to the core naturalness of such Aspects, working with Shadow balances us. It opens the basement door, letting in the light and freshening the air so that we can absorb all that is buried there. In doing so we become healthier and more ourselves.
We are all mirrors for one another, some a little dingier than others. We all serve to reflect various aspects of one another, whether they be positive or negative in nature. In essence, shadow work is a process of clearing away the “dust and grime” your surface has accumulated and learning to see yourself through others’ reflections.
Shadow holds many gifts and powers, like the treasure from the fairy tales we read as children. From Shadow comes artistic gifts, sexual power and freedom, innovation, intuition, and even our drive to compete. For most of us, Shadow holds a wealth of creative power because we were taught to suppress so much of it.