Why ‘Shadow Work’ is the Best Self-Help Tool

When we were children we didn’t have to learn how to release our negative emotions. When we were upset we cried, when we were angry we yelled, when we didn’t get what we want we pouted or threw a tantrum. Of course, none of this is beneficial or appropriate in an adult society. As we developed (hopefully) we learned the critical skill of repression. Repression is vital because we simply can’t have much of a civilization if adults are acting-out emotionally.

The next time you see a group of feminists yelling at the sky about ‘the patriarchy,’ you might think ‘wow that’s a very immature thing to do,’ and you would be right. The famous self-help teacher John Bradshaw introduced the world to the idea of the Inner Child. In essence, Bradshaw believed that all of us have suffered emotional damages in our childhood. As adults we act out from that immature ‘wounded inner child space’ which, according to Bradshaw, was the source of adult-level addiction and dysfunctional behavior.

In the book Self-Parenting: The Complete Guide to Your Inner Conversations, John K. Pollard stresses that the Inner Child represents the emotions. It is the hallmark of adult-level behavior to think, speak and act rationally, dispassionately and objectively. This is what therapists call ‘acting from the adult in you.’ Your emotions might be running hog-wild, but you put them in check (repress them), and act as maturely and objectively as possible.

The Inner Child has a positive aspect too, which therapists call ‘The Natural Child.’ As adults, our Inner Natural Child is the spice of life. It is what allows us to feel excited, to play and to have fun and be creative. As adults, it is expected that we control and measure our emotions, but that does not mean that we should never express them. Sometimes we need to give people hell, or even scream at people when appropriate. Anger isn’t ‘bad,’ neither are tears, sadness or displays of affection. Self-Parenting holds that as adults, we are responsible for our own twofold nature, we don’t rely on parents to protect us anymore and so we must protect ourselves. The adult in us is responsible for protecting the child in us, which according to Pollard, represents our emotional selves.

There is a price to be paid for all of these repressed emotions. I believe that years of chronic emotional repression will cause harm to your wellbeing, because I believe (and have verified through my own work) that emotions are not purely a psychological phenomenon. Emotions have an energetic component, and that energy must go somewhere if it is not released. I personally tend to store negative emotions in my back, neck and shoulder muscles.

“Armoring” of the Personality

Negative emotions are the result of direct wounds to the psyche by means of trauma. Excessively repressing these emotions causes an armoring effect, much like how a callus is formed over a wound on the skin. People with callused personalities are often gruff, have a narrow emotional range, and are generally cynical and hostile.

I must stress that our natural state is to be happy, free-flowing and clear of emotional baggage. There is a certain ‘lightness’ and clarity of emotion and thought which accompanies (for example) ‘a good cry.’ Crying, or giving yourself the space to have a good emotional outburst, is a good way to clear your system of pent-up emotional energy.

The Art of The Purge

As adults it is critical that we learn how to repress our emotions and conduct ourselves civilly and rationally in the world. However, chronically unexpressed emotional energy (I believe) can lead to states of drastic psychological, emotional and physical unwellness. Emotional energy, therefore, should be expressed or purged from your system at regular intervals. The process of doing this in a completely private, ritualistic fashion is called Shadow Work. When you do Shadow Work, you allow yourself to go in to the negative emotions fully. You acknowledge them and allow them to work their course through your mind and body. Thus, if you feel like indulging in a fantasy-level rage attack toward your parents, you give yourself the permission to do so, without guilt or remorse. The same is true of sadness, regret, fear, grief, etc.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Assure that you are completely alone. This is critical because you are not doing this to get attention from others or to seek the approval or emotional inputs from anybody else. If you do this in the presence of another person; for example, you cry on your girlfriend’s shoulder, yes you may get an emotional release, however you would be tightening the bonds of emotional codependence in the process. Shadow Work is a solitary activity.
  2. Use music. The concept behind Shadow Work is to give yourself complete permission to feel and “dive in” to the negative emotions. I listen to Nine Inch Nails or any other sort of music that acts as an emotional trigger.
  3. Keep digging. You will find that as an adult it is often difficult to feel anything at first. Use this is a personal metric for your own state of repression or ‘armoring.’ It may take several sessions before you hit a ‘pipeline’ and get in to the good stuff.
  4. The purge must flow. You’ve hit the jackpot when a well of unrepressed emotional energy finds an escape valve in your system. Typically this comes with crying, abdominal sobbing, etc.
  5. Note how much better you feel. When the emotional purge has run its course, keep a journal nearby and make note of any improvements you feel in your mental, emotional or physical state.

Watch out for Resistance

Diving in to negative emotions is unpleasant at first, so odds are you will avoid doing your Shadow Work and instead seek better-feeling activities. The amazing thing about Shadow Work is that I feel amazingly better, like at a deep transformative level, if I just set aside the time and do it! But I’ve said my part about it, expect resistance.  Resistance is a part of your own defense mechanisms – you’re trying to protect those old wounds from exposure. This is what keeps you stuck.

Best of luck and happy digging!