[Self Discovery] Embrace Your Authentic Spirit Through Shadow Work

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51

To be on a constant quest of self discovery is the most human thing there is, and it seems like for the past year and a half we’ve all been thrust into the soul searching world of personal development – whether we’ve wanted it or not. With the societally imposed downtime that COVID and quarantine have given literally all of us, it’s been the perfect occasion to dive deep and discover your unique truths. In my personal quest to appreciate, understand and evolve – I’ve found that it’s not always easy to love myself completely, in my entirety; for all my cracks and flaws, all of my shadows, have given me moments of pause, potentially even moments of discomfort.

In my darkest times, it felt disheartening; as if I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. A walk of emotional shame from an expectation hangover, where I was picking up bread crumbs to skeletons in my mental closet that I wasn’t prepared to deal with. It wasn’t until I fully committed myself to shadow work that I understood how fundamental it is to not only address the places within me that contain resistance, and parts of me that have been hurt in the past – but how I can hold space for those memories, observe them from a birds eye view, and then create a kinetic, positive feedback cycle to replace my old thought patterns.

Shadow work has helped me overcome my imposter syndrome, and catalyze a newfound growth in self confidence. But more than that, shadow work has helped me love myself in my entirety – and that’s something I haven’t had in a good, long time. So, let’s dive in and understand what it’s is all about, and maybe (hopefully!) shadow work can help you as much as it’s helped me.


“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” 

Nietzsche

So, what exactly is shadow work? It’s a hot topic, a buzzword you’ve probably heard tossed around more times than ever in the past year – especially if you’ve dabbled in yoga, meditation or the transformation communities.

If you’re familiar with the philosophy of yin and yang, then the principles of shadow work will feel like a lightbulb moment; a modicum of thinking that we’re now able to put a name on. We all, as individuals, have an ego, a side of ourselves that we consciously display to the world, as well as ourselves. It’s the side of us that we’ve been constantly mastering our whole lives – building it up, and tearing it down wherever we’ve seen fit. As true as we can be to ourselves, there are things that we repress, resent and shudder away from that are true to who we are; there are facets of our personalities that we brush under a rug or hide in a closet in the corner of our mind. That is what creates the ego – the shadow of the ego is, in a way, the entire contents of that closet. It’s what happens when you take your demons out and acknowledge them as a gestation of your being just as much as the events or memories worn proudly on the sleeve of your soul.

The shadow self, then, contains all the parts of us that the ego eclipses; parts that go unseen to the conscious, or awakened, mind. It’s our unexplored; our uncharted waters and undiscovered emotional depths. Stemming from Jungian psychology, the shadow encompasses traits, feelings and emotions that are ‘unknown’ to an individual either through active or passive repression. If we are balls of clay, and society is molding our ego into the personality we externally display – our shadow side is the culmination of all those chisels into our soul. Negative experiences, expectations, interactions – if we are unable to deal with them as they are when they occur, they build up into our shadow self bit by bit.

“There is nothing scarier than facing the deepest realms of ourself, but there is also nothing more rewarding than that”


To commit to ‘shadow work’, then, is to do the mental and emotional ‘homework’ to bring your shadows into the light and out of the darkness; by acknowledging yourself as a dynamic presence, one that truly does contain multitudes, you’ll be infinitely closer to loving every fiber of your being as you authentically are. You’ll discover incredible personal growth because you’ll be able to see yourself for all that you are to the point that scars of the past will become tattoos and stories to muse over. While doing the work, it’s important that you really hold space for yourself and your growth as you re-experience dissonant events with new eyes – and remember, the point is to uncover discomfort, so be kind to yourself along your path into the light.

There are some fabulous creators out there who have done wonders to create templates and journal prompts for this very task, here are a few of my favorites:

[Unrefined Prose] 50 Shadow Work Journal Prompts to Help You Realize Your True Potential

[Seeking Serotonin] 31 Days of Shadow Work Journal Prompts For Healing, Self-Awareness & Growth

[Scott Jeffery] A Definitive Guide to Jungian Shadow Work: Shadow Work Exercises

My personal recommendation is to get a journal for shadow work and self reflection; it’s a calming and cathartic way to compartmentalize, and put to bed some feedback cycles and habits that I’ve held onto and the perfect litmus test for my temporal dexterity. But for all it’s worth, you could grab scrap paper or type it into the notes application on your phone. The important part here is that you do the work, not how you do the work.

I’m in much more of a mental flow state once after getting my mindset right – that includes yoga, breathwork, meditation or some combination of the three. For you, it might be as simple as right after your shower or after a good workout. If I have time in the morning before work, I’ll try and sneak follow it up with a gratitude prompt; but, if there isn’t an open chunk of time for my mental gymnastics, then I’ll use this as a wind down activity late at night as I’m getting ready for bed.


Have you had a chance to delve into shadow work before? What are some tricks or tips that have helped you embrace the totality of your being and process your past trauma? Drop me a line in the comments, looking forward to reading what y’all have found to be personally useful.

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”

— Carl Jung

The Shadow: what you do behind your own back |Jungian Analysis

[Self Discovery] Holding Space for Grief

For the most part, I consider myself an upbeat rationalist, a positive pragmatist of sorts. I try and take the world as it comes: framing things in a true and positive light, holding myself accountable for understanding uncomfortable feelings and holding space for my emotions. But it’s not always rainbows and butterflies; from time to time – life can get my down and out and the grey cloud that lives in the corner of my mental state overrides the good feelings I try and project. Depression and anxiety start getting in the way – and whisperings of pessimism start to rain on my parade. In moments like those, I turn to my support system.

Half due to my childhood and my parents having split custody right when the internet was coming into being, half due to moving across a thousand miles over the course of the last three years – my life has evolved me into someone adept at processing emotions with a distant support system. It’s not exactly a skill set that’s wanted, or typically needed – but I’ve found that in quarantine this past year, it’s a skill set worth sharing.

I’ve feel – a lot. I feel deeply, often uncontrollably, and am affected often for days by sensitive information. Growing up in therapy, I realized that I simply feel the underpinnings of depression and grief in differing, unique and novel ways than most – and I’ve learned the best way to cope with them when you feel out of touch, physically, mentally and emotionally. In all, it’s also taught me better tools for how to deal with, hold space for, and transition out of emotional states which no longer serve me. I should preface this by saying that no, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a licensed psychologist and am in no way a professional grief counselor; however, I have been through my fare share of trials and tribulations, and sincerely others on their journey to brighter days and simply hope I can do the same for others.


From unshakable life experiences to minor disturbances, grief is an unavoidable truth that knocks us off our personal paths and often into uncharted, or at the very least – chaotic, emotional territory. An unfortunate tenant of living, grief afflicts us all at some point – no matter who your status, friends, family, or vocation. It’s essential that we have a mental tool kit that allows others, as well as ourselves, to hold space for important emotions.

Quarantine has done a number on many people, from the loss of family, friends and significant others down to the loss of their jobs, or semblances of normalcy. We’re all distant from each other, and it’s human nature to pine for human connection – especially under duress; being able to hold space for grief is an important facet in our relationships, and to discover new ways to do so in our “new” normal seems doubly important.

All emotions deserve equal mental weight, and there simply ‘bad’ emotions – the idea of a bad emotion is a personal pejorative we place on a moment in time; what can in one second be viewed as a ‘negative’ can easily be transmuted over time to be a ‘positive’. For example: you were unhappy in your vocation and have had to re-evaluate your job, maybe quitting – possibly being let go; in the moment, it’s stressful to find a new position – but months later, after you’ve found a new gig that you truly care about – you view the transition in a positive light.

Sure, one could just dismiss bad feelings and move on from them, but that means you’re choosing to avoid further knowledge of self and spring load your evolution. The fear is that by ignoring, passing over or not holding space for important emotions will create a negative feedback loop where you’re eventually out of sync with your mental space, potentially re-creating the same problems for yourself because you haven’t chosen to reconcile those very emotions.

One holds space for grief, so that they can rebuild emotionally – remember the lessons, accept their new truths and move forward with the mind, heart and soul in tact. In it’s most basic sense, to “hold space” for anything means that your intention as an outside influence is simply to exist with the other person, and let whoever is going through the emotions flow through them at their own pace. As the old adage goes, ‘one does not drown by falling in the water – one drowns by staying there’ and that can be extrapolated onto holding space for emotions that seem to get in our way of daily life. By holding space for others, we accept them for everything they are, for their humanity, their brilliance in handling life, and their beauty in wishing to transmute through their emotions. We actively build a more open and honest relationship, built with integrity and without judgement – and through those relationships, we evolve into better versions of ourselves.


While negotiating our own grief is one thing, it’s important to acknowledge that helping someone else with theirs is a bird of a completely different color and no two people are identical in the way they need to process their individual traumas and truths. Helping others in times of need instinctually reminds us of our own needs, for comfort, for closeness, and for community; and while learning the love languages of others, we can be reminded of what our own needs are in times of trial and tribulation.

First and foremost, the best way to be there for someone is by – well – being there. Being available, and being authentic and asking questions without judgement. Sometimes, just being in their ether and letting one know that they’re simply not alone can be the most helpful thing you can do. Here are a other few ways we can ‘hold space’ for others

  • Ask without prying; let them explore their emotions on their own accord and at their own speed
  • Give permission to others to explore their own innate wisdom and intuition without guiding or steering them through yours
  • Empower others to create their own reality, don’t take that power away by applying your own judgements or opinions
  • Reserve judgement and opinions, even if explicitly asked. What works for you on an emotional, mental and spiritual level doesn’t always translate into the life of others.
  • Remove your ego from their situation; this is not about you, it’s about them
  • Create a safe space to explore difficult emotions
  • Remind them that it’s okay to feel, and fail at moving forward from feelings, what’s important is understanding the feelings – not the speed at which we get over them, but the value of getting through them
  • Don’t force anyone down your own rabbit holes. It’s human nature to believe that we have the ‘best’ of all possible ways, mechanisms, etc to get through this life – what’s good for us, isn’t necessarily the best for others. Allow space for others to explore their unique paths and truths.

Now, back to love languages for a moment – there are essentially five types of love languages: sharing emotions and words of affirmation, sharing physical space and quality time, human touch, gifting and acts of service. So, how does this translate to a digital world? Thanks to quarantine and COVID, three of those five are a bit harder to do than before. Those who desire to be held and physically loved, or who need to be physically surrounded by others are feeling the hit much more than others. It’s important to acknowledge when that love language is being ignored. Thankfully, our current technology has allowed us to reach out to others and keep in touch – more or less; sure, the digital world we’re living in leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to holding space for our emotions and mental space but lately I’ve found it to be more helpful than hurtful.

Helping someone who needs physical touch? Send a written note, a stuffed animal, stress ball, or even some of their favorite snacks. If you’re assisting someone who could use quality time, set up a Zoom or a FaceTime call to check in – smiling is contagious, and we could really all use a dose of actual connection every now and again!


The human condition is a complex web, it would be remiss to say that grief isn’t part of it – but it’s only a part, it’s not the whole. As my mom used to and still tells me, ‘This, too, shall pass.’ The totality of the human condition, the complete nature of it, is one of love, one of perseverance, one of beauty – however ephemeral that might be. Emotionally, we are not islands – our human nature means that we thrive on communication, culture and connection. It’s in our human nature to reach out, to feel down to our core and to explore every facet of ourselves. If we’ve disconnected from our authentic selves, disallowing ourselves to marinate within our mental space and avoiding our emotional truths – that human connection becomes impossible, because our self connection has disintegrated. How could we possibly be kind to others, love others, and hold space for others – when we’ve declined to do so for ourselves? Having others around to remind you that you are enough the way you are, you are accepted the way you are, and that you will get through whatever you’re facing is an incredible feeling, a formidable bond, and tantamount to our experience on this Earth.

What are some ways that others have held space for you that have been beneficial? How have you held space for the grief of others?

Leave some helpful hints for other readers in the comments below.


Resources

For those looking for a bit more assistance, knowledge or both – I’ve put together a small list of resources to expand your emotional repertoire.

Reads:

Websites and Hotlines

One thing about living in 2021: the internet provides – there are ample support groups on every corner of the internet, if you know where to look. Here are a few that I recommend:

[Write On] Writing Is My Therapy, What’s Yours?

Coming off of a whirlwind weekend through the Pacific North West – the last thing that I wanted to do was come home and get all ‘serious’, because I’m in a whimsical mood where I want to flirt with the world and uncover it’s beauty; there’s so much wonder in the world that I’ve uncovered through wanderlust – but I can’t quite into that yet, because there are much more pressing issues at hand.

Growing up, a menagerie of professions floated through my always meandering mind then out through  my fingertips like grains of sand in an hourglass.  Doctor, Firefighter, Astronaut, Model, Engineer, Scientist…the one constant, was that each and every phase was documented in the tattered pages of journals.  These journals fill my closets and overflow dressers, oozing with emotion and filled to the brim with equal parts adventure and awe, delight and despair.   They’re  momentary physical manifestations of my deepest darkest secrets and unexplained feelings that have transformed into coherent thoughts, phrases and paragraphs.  My journals are wishes on stars and inside jokes with myself, thoughts catapulted into tangible words; my catharsis, my hopes, my fears, my therapy. 

Now, there – I said it – the dreaded T word that ironically, we’re unwilling to talk about.

And isn’t that the problem: that we don’t want to talk about therapy.  

therapy

Therapy comes from the Greek word ‘Therapeuein’ and has slowly manifested from medical treatment to something with healing powers; but for me, I like to think of it a little differently. Therapy is what wakes you up in the morning, it’s what makes you come alive, what makes you passionate, what makes you an unapologetic version of yourself ready to tackle each day with vigor and vengeance.  And when you put it that way, therapy is something that we all could use, really.

From a young age, I always felt…well, off.  There wasn’t much of a way to describe it other than I felt different, and was unsure how to quantify the notion. It could have been growing up biracial in a community that lacked any semblance of diversity, or the separation of my parents at age three, or my maligned impression of my own beauty – but somewhere along the way to adolescence, like most all of us, I got lost in the cobwebs in my head and I stayed there….for a while. The sun could be shining, and all was right with the world – but I misplace one little item and I become my own worst enemy, fail a test and the world feels like it’s falling out from under your feet, and most of all, I was afraid of the thoughts that might creep in.

My parents and teachers did as much, if not more, than what they would be expected to do but after a while the job was handed over to professionals.  I refused to put together their pedantic puzzles and instead asked why I couldn’t just talk. Over and over, I heard: We can talk after you draw-paint-x-y-z; but, I didn’t want any of that – I wanted to talk, I wanted to figure out the what’s and why’s for myself. Then, collectively – they suggested writing; so, I wrote.  

Call it what you want – chicken scratch on scrap paper, pages of adolescent poetry, the notes of a novice journalist; but writing soothed my soul.  I could direct all of my energy, regardless of intent, towards a piece of paper and within moments would reach mental clarity. In reality, what I was really doing was creating, jumping on board an eternal pursuit of passion and uncovering that je ne sais q’uoi that we’re all in search of. For the next person, their therapy could very well be painting, or drawing, or beading, or yoga – or running, walking neighborhood dogs, photography, dancing, crafting or music.  But for me, it was writing.

My paper journals were filled too quickly, and besides – I hated  my handwriting.  Growing up in the 90’s meant that there were multitudes of media at my disposal so when I got fed up with keeping physical journals, I turned to the internet. And let me just say right now, the internet might be a black hole for any and all forms of current productivity – but it’s my savior. Even if you feel distant from your physical support system, there’s someone halfway across the world that understands exactly what you’re going through because they’ve just gone through it.

Online there were so many resources that originally, I was beside myself…but I started a Live Journal, and by my Sophomore year of high school added Dead Journal and an onslaught of Xanga’s to the mix.  My junior year of college, I transferred to Tumblr, and within the last two years I’ve found homes on Blogspot and now – WordPress.  The beauty of an online writing culture is beyond the scope of my breath, so let this entire post be a testament to it: from my heart to my head, and then fingertips on plastic -being part of this greater community where we support, stand for and sing each other’s praises has emboldened me to pursue a career I never thought possible.  And because of that, my voice is heard; and because of this, I have to speak up. 

As I grew up, both in the real world around me as well as online – I made friends in chat rooms that I still keep in touch with, and we bonded over being able to discretely spill our souls and be an 110% unabashed, unapologetic version of ourselves. Personally, I had family, friends, neighbors and teachers alike – a solid group of mentors and peers that I could turn to, but my pride got  in the way and the ego is tricky to maneuver.

That’s when the ideas of thinking versus knowing come into play, and so very strongly:

Instead of thinking that the world can pull you out of that hole you’ve been digging,

it feels like they’re going to point, laugh and leave you to your own disillusioned devices.

Mental Health Awareness is about more than just assigning mental conditions to definitions and sending patients home with a goodie bag.  We’re so willing to throw prescriptions at the problem, prescriptions that have been shown statistically to do more harm than good, yet we’re still not willing to treat the real issue at hand.  Putting a band-aid on a festering wound without cleaning it properly can keep a disease in your body, just the same way that adding layers of psychoactive cocktails to your mental state without proper discussion can perpetuate a psychotic episode.

How many people that you know have a physical health condition – do you have a friend with asthma, know a distant relative with MS or Parkinson’s Disease, have a parent with high cholesterol, cancer or a bad heart? I think it’s safe to say that each and every person on this planet knows someone at a personal level who falls into at least category for a physical or bodily ailment, so why – why – why aren’t brain injuries, impairments or diseases held in the same light?  From a young age, we’re scholastically – then medically – required to have physical checkups every year, why aren’t there annual mental health checkups?  When we’re physically injured, doctors prescribe ‘Physical Therapy’ – so why is going into ‘Mental Therapy’ something so frowned upon? We’re given days off of school and work due to physical injury or ailment, so why is it so poorly looked upon to take a “mental health” day?

 It’s all in the stigma and as a society, we need to get rid of it.

It’s the same way that beautiful girl next to you on the bus thinks that her size –whatever- pants make her look like an elephant, or that her face belongs in a paper bag when it’s goddamn naturally beautiful; I know this happens, because I’ve been that girl. It’s the guy at the gym bench pressing 300 think’s he’s a weakling, the straight A student who fumbled on a question that thinks they’re an idiot, the artist who’s been stuck for on a project for three weeks to no avail.

We get so wrapped up in our quests for greatness that I think we often forget that we’re human.  Humble yourself.  Remember that we’re on a giant rock smashing through space at atrocious speeds; things are bound to get chaotic every now and again for all of us.  You’re not alone.  

Therapy comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds and species – I volunteer at cat shelters because it feels good to give back to a species that’s given so much to me, I write  because it calms my nerves and assuages my anxieties, I reach out to acquaintances because I feel better for being part of a community than I do when I’m alone, I talk to strangers because if we talk to strangers they’re now our friends, I smile into the sunlight and dance in the rain because I can and it’s wonderful.

Take a walk around the block and smell every beautiful flower, call your parents because they used to be you, leave post-it’s with happy faces around your office, skip to work, draw, create, craft,take a stand, take a Mental Health Day, call your best friend just to talk because you know that’s exactly what they’re for, start a blog, start a book, start a revolution – there are people waiting for your voice to come alive

Writing is my therapy – what’s yours?

How do you make the world come alive for yourself and those around you?