How to do Shadow Work
STEP 1: ANCHOR IN SAFETY
When doing shadow work, we often encounter sensations, emotions, and/or recollections that we have spent our lives censoring, denying, or repressing. Because of this, it's vital to begin any such practice by accessing a place of safety or neutrality. This place can become an anchor that we can return to at any point in the shadow work process when we feel overwhelmed. Here below, I'll guide you through setting up your space for your shadow work exploration, and creating this anchor of safety.
Make arrangements to get at least 20 minutes of private time. Set up your space to be as comfortable as possible, seated or lying down. Read through all 10 steps to this process before you begin, so that you know what to expect.
Draw your attention inward and inquire, "If there were a place in my body that felt safe, neutral, or less bad, where would that be?" Breathe and land your full awareness in that place.
Name the sensation(s) that you feel there, such as warmth, tingling, pulsing, etc. Experiment with allowing those sensations to amplify. Breathe, and rest there for a few minutes. If finding safety or neutrality in your body feels impossible, find an object in your room that feels pleasant or neutral, and land there. Set an intention for your shadow work journey, such as: "May I receive the wisdom and healing that is most needed for me today
STEP 2: IMAGINE A (MODERATELY) TRIGGERING INCIDENT
And I do not mean a traumatic incident. As you're likely doing this work alone, please don't choose an incident that is disturbing or likely to cause an anxiety or panic attack. What I mean is: Choose a relatively recent incident where you seemed to react emotionally in an "over the top" kind of way. Maybe you were really irritated at your kid, or had road rage, or you just couldn't stand that random guy at the store... That's what I mean. This incident is the portal into the shadow work. There's no way to do this wrong. Trust that your intuition will find just the right way to enter into this process. You'll be amazed that even a seemingly trivial situation can lead to the most profound insights.
Close your eyes (if that is comfortable for you). Invite your imagination to be as vivid as possible, and in your mind's eye, bring yourself to that time and place again.
Begin to breathe with your body at that place and time. You are there.
If there are other people there with you, really look at them. Notice how it is to be here.
STEP 3: NOTICE & NAME BODY SENSATIONS
As you're vividly imagining yourself in that time and place again, do the following
Notice how your body responds to being here in this situation: What does your heart feel like? Your throat? Your belly? Are there other areas where you notice strong sensation arising?
Identify the sensations that you feel most prominently, and name them. For example, "crushing feeling in my chest; closing in the throat; lightness in my forehead; nausea in the solar plexus"
Breathe into the sensations that you notice, and allow them to be just as they are. You might say to them, "Be as big as you really are."
Give yourself time to allow these sensations to unfurl as you continue to release resistance. You might even visualize them as a certain color or form as they expand into the room
If this process ever feels overwhelming, just dial it back and keep the sensations smaller. Remember that you always have your anchor of safety that you can return to at any time.
STEP 4: NOTICE & NAME EMOTIONS
We'll do a similar process for the emotions you experience in this time and place…
Notice how your emotional self responds to being here in this situation: What are you feeling here? Notice the emotions that you feel most prominently, and then name them. For example, "anxiety. uncertainty. rage. hurt. loneliness" ... Breathe into the emotions that you notice, and allow them to be just as they are.
You might say to them, "Be as big as you really are." If you feel numb or otherwise disconnected from your emotions, simply state that: "numb." Allow the numbness to be as big as it really is. Give yourself time to allow these emotions to unfurl as you continue to release resistance. You might even visualize them as a certain color or form as they expand into the room.
If this process ever feels overwhelming, just dial it back and keep the emotions smaller. Remember never to force any part of this work.
STEP 5: ASK THE ORIGIN
What you've discovered thus far I call a "feeling constellation" - the signature swirl of body sensation and emotion that makes up your experience in a given situation. We're going to now use this constellation as our key to lead us through the portal into the time and place where the "over the top" reaction originated in your past.
Through the lens of shadow work, no feeling is new, and no feeling is accidental.
With great sincerity, ask yourself now: "When did I first feel this constellation?" Do your best to let go of thinking about what the right, most logical, or seemingly related memory would be. Take a few deep breaths, and allow your psyche time to reveal itself. (Though sometimes, a memory appears instantaneously.) Trust that whatever comes to you as a first impression is exactly right, even if it may not seem related at all.
STEP 6: JOURNEY TO THAT AGE OR MEMORY
Your psyche may have shown you a specific memory. However, for many people, memories - particularly of childhood - are difficult to access. If this is so, allow your intuition to show you the age where you first experienced the constellation. Allow your imagination to vividly create an image of you at that age, and don't worry if it's based on a picture. Remember, there's no way to do this wrong.
Take a deep breath, and feel yourself now in this new time and place, as if you were in your younger body. Breathe and really allow yourself to feel the full constellation of what your younger self experienced here. If you feel resistance, gently soften your heart into what's here. (If it feels overwhelming, however, please allow yourself to be distanced enough from the experience to feel safe.) Notice and name the body sensations and emotions that make up your experience as the younger version of you in this time and place.
STEP 7: ENCOUNTER YOURSELF AS EMPATHIC WITNESS
This step is the heart of shadow work as I understand it. It's where the deepest healing takes place. Famed trauma therapist Peter Levine says, "Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathic witness." Now is your chance to repair the damage caused by unseen pain. The loving witnessing you will do here is what integrates the shadow aspect you've encountered (the younger version of you who needed to be seen)
Imagine now that instead of being in your younger self's body, you are the strongest version of your adult self, looking at your younger self from a respectful distance. (It's essential not to run up to your younger self and hug them.
Everything needs to be on their terms.) Breathe and look deeply into your younger self's eyes. What do you really see behind those eyes?
Name the emotions that are there.
Using the emotions you felt from their perspective in step 6, begin now to validate each emotion one by one, with great sincerity of heart.
For example, you could say, "I see that you feel completely alone... I see that you're very scared... I see that you're hurt and no one is there to care for you..." Feel your heart softening towards this younger version of you, who has gone through so much
STEP 8: MEET UNMET NEEDS
Now, notice how your younger self responds to the validation. If they don't trust you, simply validate that. For example, "It's okay. You don't need to trust me. No one who's been through what you have would trust what I'm saying."
When you've validated all the emotions that feel important, really look at them again, and with great sincerity ask them: "What do you really need?" Breathe and wait for an answer to intuitively arise. If they don't know what they need, simply validate, "It's okay not to know what you need. I'm here for you."
If they've given you an answer, ask them, "Would you like me to meet this need for you, or someone else?" (Someone else could mean: A parent, an animal companion, a friend, etc.)
Now, see, sense, and feel yourself (or the other) meeting that need in exactly the way your younger self would most appreciate. When this feels complete, ask again, "Is there anything else that you really need?" Repeat the visualization.
When this process feels complete for now, look at them again. How are they feeling now? In what ways have they changed, now that needs have been met?
STEP 9 INTERGRATE AND RETURN
As you look at your younger self, notice within yourself what comes up for you. How does it feel in your adult body to be with this version of you? How does it feel to meet their needs? Know that however you feel, it's okay. If you need to go through the motions here, just take note of that and know that it's enough for now.
Drop into the tenderness of your heart as you look at your younger self. Do you notice that you have a place in your heart for this version of you- your inner child? This part of you who needed to be seen, to be felt, and to be cared for?
Experiment here with opening your heart towards this vulnerable being. If it feels natural (and hasn't happened already), notice if your younger self would like a hug from you, or to hold your hand. If so, see, sense, and feel this happening with your whole heart. After you've reunited with your younger self, let them know that in a few minutes, it will seem that your consciousness will shift away, but in reality, you can never leave them. They will be coming along with you, since you and they are one. When it feels like this is understood, with great love and gratitude for them, slowly begin to come back to the room you're in. Open your eyes, and know that they are right there with you.
STEP 10 PROCESS YOUR EXPERIENCE
You have traveled deep within yourself to retrieve an aspect of your inner child, and have integrated part of your shadow. For the rest of the day, please take it very slow. Drink plenty of water, and free your schedule of pressing responsibilities.
Journal. Some helpful journal prompts might be: What surprised you about this journey? What did you learn about yourself, or about your past? How does what you discovered today impact how you will proceed into your future?
Find a picture of yourself at the age you encountered, frame it, and put it on your altar or other place of honor in your home.
Write a letter to yourself at the age you encountered. What do you really want to tell him/her/them?