- What is the shadow self?
- What is shadow work?
- Shadow work journal
- Shadow work prompts
- Shadow work questions
- Shadow integration
- Kindness and forgiveness
A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work (with 80+ Prompts)
A simple, non-textbook way to understand shadow work, along with shadow work prompts to get you started.
“Thus, shadow owes its birth to light.”
– John Gay
Every October on Halloween, we dress up as our favorite monsters and set out to terrify and be terrified. By celebrating the darkness and macabre in all of us so openly, we make that darkness acceptable and a part of our personality. We make space for the duality of good and evil in our lives.
Duality has long been a part of many religions, mythologies, philosophies, and even psychotherapies for centuries. The yin and the yang coexist. Greek dualisms talk about the body and the soul, and Hinduism talks about the duality of reality itself. Christian dualism talks about how God created humans as embodied and then also sustains us disembodied between death and rebirth. Many modern stories are told based on the concept – Dr. Jeckell and Mr. Hyde.
In the same way, two distinct versions of us exist – one that is visible and what we see every day, and the other is the shadow self that we rarely experience but catch a glimpse of every now and then.
The self is a lot like an iceberg. The part we see above water is ourselves as we know it. The part that is our subconscious and under the water, however, is much larger and has a quiet, unseen presence. This concept of shadow self was first coined by Carl Jung. He was also the one who developed the psychotherapy tools to reintegrate our shadows into our personality.
What is the shadow self?
The easiest way to understand the shadow self is by looking at it from the perspective of Robert Bly. Bly described the shadow as “the long bag we carry behind us”. The bag represents everything that the external world made us feel ashamed of when we were younger. For instance, if you were told that, “men don't cry”, or “women don't chew loudly”, they go in your bag.
Over time, our bag becomes heavier as we collect more such do’s and don'ts to put in it. These items in our bag represent our shadow self. And since many of these items were put in the bag when we were young, we are not always aware of those items, they are all locked up in our subconscious mind where we don’t have to deal with them. And when we seal this bag and decide not to look inside, we regress. We act out in ways that are unimaginable. We briefly become people who we usually despise and do things that we swore we’d never do.
Even our hate or disgust for certain things (or people) stems from our shadow. We project our regressed shadow onto others as things we hate or find annoying. If you hate someone a lot, or if someone annoys you a lot, it is worth looking into your bag. What incident in your past triggered such strong feelings? While this may not be evident immediately, doing shadow work and using some of the shadow work prompts below can help in discovering them leading to the path of peace and self-love.
How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you. Rupi Kaur beautifully strings together words that will remind you to love yourself.lifeism.co
What is shadow work?
The term "shadow self" refers to that part of ourselves that we have repressed or ignored, but that still influences us, nonetheless. Shadow work is a way of bringing this unconscious material into your consciousness in order to resolve it.
Shadow work is one of the most important parts of psychotherapy. It is the part that allows us to explore our unconscious, as well as aspects of our personality that are not fully formed or developed yet. It helps us grow as human beings and get in touch with parts of ourselves that we might not have been able to access before.
The idea behind shadow work is that these repressed elements of our psyche are often what cause us to act out in harmful ways, both towards others and ourselves. In order to avoid this harmful behavior, it's important to bring these unconscious elements out into the light so they can be examined and processed appropriately.
Shadow work can be done alone or with a therapist. Some people prefer to do it on their own because they find it easier to open up without another person's presence in the room; others prefer to have a trained professional guide them through the process. No matter what method you choose for your shadow work journal prompts, make sure that you are safe and comfortable during this process—you should never feel threatened or unsafe while exploring your unconscious mind!
If you are interested in doing shadow work on your own, there are several different ways that you can go about it. We recommend starting with a journal.
Shadow work journal
There are many ways to maintain a shadow work journal. The easiest way is to download a digital journal and either print it or write in it digitally. There are many wonderful shadow work journals available for purchase (reasonably). Here are some recommendations:
If you want to simplify your shadow work journal even further and are comfortable with open-ended journaling, we recommend just picking a good notebook you like and using the shadow work prompts we’ve provided below to start journaling freestyle. This approach will give you the flexibility to practice shadow work in the way that you prefer.
Shadow work prompts
Here are some shadow work prompts if you want to try doing it on your own. These shadow work journal prompts are especially helpful for beginners. While some of the prompts may feel repetitive, they are intended that way to dig a little deeper into your subconscious. Write down answers to each of these questions. Note that you may not remember all the incidents immediately. The shadow work prompts are structured in a way that will help you remember incidents over time. So go over these questions and write what comes up for 2 weeks.
It’s possible that you remember something in the afternoon, not while you are doing shadow work but sometime during the day. Keep your journal close, or make a note of your memory on your phone so you can record it later.
- Make a list of things that bother you about yourself (e.g., "I hate how messy my house always seems.")
- Write down a list of things that you feel guilty about (e.g., "I feel guilty that I never clean up after myself.")
- Write down a list of things that you are scared of (e.g., "I'm scared of what people will think if they know how messy my house is.")
- List all the things that you wish were different about yourself (e.g., "I wish I wasn't so messy.")
- Write down a list of things that you wish other people could change (e.g., "I wish my family would stop being so messy.")
- List all the things that make you feel angry or resentful (e.g., "I'm mad at myself for always being so lazy.")
- Write down a list of things that you feel bad about yourself for doing (e.g., "I feel bad about how messy my house always seems.")
- Write down a list of things that you wish were different about other people (e.g., "I wish my family was more respectful.")
- Write down a list of ways that you hurt others without meaning to (e.g., "Sometimes I say things without thinking, and I know it hurts people's feelings.")
- Write down a list of things that you feel ashamed about (e.g., "I feel ashamed when my friends see how messy my house is.")
- Write down a list of things that you are scared to admit to yourself or others (e.g., "I'm scared to admit how messy my house always seems.")
Once you've made your list, take a few moments to reflect on each item. What does it mean to you? Why is this something that bothers you so much? If you had no fears or regrets, what would life be like? Continue doing this exercise for 2 weeks as suggested.
Shadow work questions
If you want to dig a little deeper into shadow work and don’t mind exploring your subconscious on your own, try these shadow work questions after you’ve done 2 weeks of shadow work prompts. This will help you explore a slightly larger domain of your subconscious. While the shadow work prompts above will help you in digging deeper, these shadow work questions will help you in exploring a wider area of your subconscious.
- What are some of your most frequent complaints and gripes? Can you trace back the origin of these complaints?
- Have you stopped making progress in an area of life because you were once told that it's not important?
- Is there a habit you’ve suppressed so you become more like others and fit in?
- What are your vices? How do they meet your needs? (Example: drinking numbs guilt, eating sugary foods is associated with safety, coffee overcomes the need to laze around, etc.)
- When has your dishonesty hurt others (and yourself)?
- What are some of the things you find irritating about people? What really ticks you off? Have you or your loved one ever had that trait? How has that influenced you? What past event does that trait remind you of?
- How do you react when someone gives you a compliment? Do you sweep it under the rug? Or shine in its glory a bit too much? Was it a result of a lack of appreciation as a child? What event do you think triggered that?
- Write down 5-8 early childhood memories in detail. Why do you think they stuck around after so many years?
- What event of your life do you regret the most? If given the opportunity, which one would you want to completely erase from your life? Why?
- Talk a little bit about your childhood traumas. How does it affect your behavior even today?
- Did you experience any traumas as a teenager? What were they?
- What aspect of your life do you struggle with the most? How long have you struggled with it? What do you think are your limiting beliefs around the issue?
- What do you do when you are angry? How do you typically react? Do you think this is a healthy way to express your feelings? Why?
- Do you think you are a good human being? Why or why not?
- What was the deepest wound your inner child experienced?
- If you could talk to your younger self, what would you tell her/him? What would be your advice?
- Make a list of all your dreams that were not fulfilled. How did each broken dream influence you? How does it affect your life today?
- Which one of your parents are/were you close to? How did they influence the person you are today?
- How aggressive are you? Has your aggression ever hurt anyone? If so, how?
- Write about an event in your life that embarrassed you the most. How did that affect you?
- Do you judge others when you meet them for the first time? What are the parameters of your judgment? Why do you think you judge them on those aspects? Does it have anything to do with your past experiences?
- What are the things that make you jealous of someone? Why do you think you want those things? What past event triggered that insecurity?
- As a child, when was that one time you felt completely betrayed by an adult?
- What are your core values as a person? How have they evolved over the years? Have they become more flexible or stringent?
- Do you see yourself becoming more like one or more of your family members? Which one? Did you expect that? How does that make you feel?
- Who did you argue with last? What was it about?
- What does self-care look like to you? How often do you practice self-care? If you don’t do it often, what is the primary reason for it? What do you prioritize over self-care?
- What is your first reaction when faced with a hurdle/challenge?
- What issues do you usually have at the workplace? What are your patterns?
- How is your relationship with gratitude? Do you feel and express it often? If not, why? If yes, how did you pick up the habit?
- What are your known triggers?
- What aspect of yourself do you try to keep hidden from others, even your loved ones?
- What emotions do you have difficulty expressing? Where do you think you picked that up from?
- Are you holding a grudge against someone? Why aren't you able to forgive them?
- Do you feel like no one really understands you?
- Do you often play the victim in your self-talk? Does life happen to you, or do you make it happen?
- How happy are you with your current life? How would you like to make it better?
- Do you feel safe enough to be yourself most of the time in your life? If not, why?
- How easy is it for you to forgive yourself? Are you often guilt-ridden?
- What is your deepest fear? Do you think you can share it with someone and get help overcoming it?
- So far, what do you regret the most in your life?
- What promises have you made to yourself? Have you kept those promises?
- What, according to you, is the meaning of life?
- Are there any areas of your life that you live in denial about? What are they?
- When was the last time you let yourself down? How were you able to move on from that?
- What emotions do you tend to avoid feeling? Note that this may take some time to notice and accept. Be gentle with yourself.
- What causes you to be nostalgic?
- What past trauma are you unable to let go? How is it affecting your life right now?
- Why do you want to practice shadow work? What do you think will be the outcome of that?
- Have you ever dealt with a broken heart? When? How did you recover from it? What emotions were you unable to face at that time?
- Do you set and enforce boundaries in your relationship? Why or why not? Were you always like this?
- How do you define happiness?
- When have you been a hypocrite?
- Are you able to tell the difference between your wants and needs?
- How can you show kindness to yourself?
- Who has influenced you the most in your life? How has that shaped your life?
- What does it mean to be truly free?
- When was the last time you felt valued and recognized?
- Write about a relationship you simply walked away from without looking back.
- How do you define success?
- How do you define failure?
- Which relationships in your life are a liability and are no longer working for you?
- What are your reoccurring dreams and nightmares?
- How are you letting yourself down? Now or in the past?
- What does your self-talk sound like? Would you be friends with someone who spoke to you like your self-talk?
- As a child, what were you most chided for?
- What is the worst side of you?
- Do you often allow others to walk all over you emotionally? Have you been an emotional doormat for anyone?
- What are you looking forward to in your future?
- Think about the last time you manipulated someone. How did that make you feel?
- When in need, are you able to ask for help from friends and family? Do others ask for your help? How do you feel about helping others?
- How do you take criticism? When were you criticized last? How did you react?
- What are you grateful for in your life?
- How has your relationship with your family and friends evolved in the last 10 years? Are you closer than ever or have you drifted apart? What caused this?
- When were you deceived or abandoned by someone?
- Were you in charge of taking care of someone when you were younger?
- Do you think money can solve all your problems and make you happy?
- What would you be doing if money was no longer an issue in your life?
- What is your relationship with your physical self?
- What are your thoughts on giving back? How often do you give back to society?
- What is that one thing that would have made the biggest difference in your childhood?
- What is that one thing that you’ve always been waiting to hear? From whom? Why is it so important for you to hear it?
“I dreamt last night,
oh marvelous error,
that there were honeybees in my heart,
making honey out of my old failures.
– Antonio Machado
Once you have identified certain aspects of your shadow, it is now time to integrate that shadow and accept it as a part of yourself. Know that your shadow does not define you, but it is a part of you. The shadow thrives on unacceptance and will hide deeper if you start feeling guilty, frightened or angry about it. But if you shine some light on it and treat that aspect of yourself with love and respect, you will start integrating the shadow. Know that integrating the shadow is not easy. It is complex work that requires time and effort and is an ongoing process.
When you integrate your shadow, you are no longer affected by the negativity of it all. You no longer make the same mistakes and date the same type of people because you are aware of your full personality and know when your shadow self is dictating your actions subconsciously.
Integration of the shadow is difficult to do. Shadow work will certainly bring up almost this unpleasant side of us that we are unwilling to accept. Loving ourselves even when we are not broken is hard. Loving our broken selves is harder. And love may not be possible immediately. According to James Hillman, if that is the case, it is important to just care for the shadow self. Learn to express your shadow self in creative ways. And if even caring for the shadow is not possible, then simply carry it. Acknowledge that it exists and as you live your life, live it knowing its present. Until a day comes when you can love and hate your shadow, laugh about and care enough to express it in healthy ways. Until you can learn to live with the paradox of the shadow and still love yourself – your complete self.
Kindness and forgiveness
While doing shadow work, it is important to treat yourself with kindness. Shadow work is likely to bring up many emotions that are intense. Work through them with love and kindness. Treat yourself like you would any child of yours. And more importantly, forgive yourself for whatever you’ve done. If you are feeling wronged or if you’ve wronged someone else, forgiveness can go a long way in integrating your shadow and moving forward.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this compilation of shadow work. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.