One of the hottest concepts in the spirituality space is the concept of “Shadow Work.” The popularity of shadow work may be new, but this idea traces its roots to the foundations of Jungian psychology. Briefly, one’s shadow is the side of oneself that remains hidden from awareness – things that a person cannot or does not integrate fully into their personality. These traits, according to Jung, can be positive or negative – the idea is that they are things that we find difficult, for whatever reason, to face. And although the shadow remains hidden from our consciousness, it can be a powerful driver of our motivations and actions. Unless we learn to witness our shadow and work with it, it will, quite frankly, wreak havoc on our lives. "Everyone carries a shadow," Jung wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
So practically speaking, what is your shadow and how does it form? As children, we are constantly evaluating ourselves and our environments. We quickly learn what is acceptable and what isn’t – those things that we do to win praise versus those things that earn criticism. Along the way, we learn to repress those criticized aspects and heighten the praiseworthy ones. Those repressed aspects become our shadow. Sometimes it’s healthy to repress these traits – it isn’t advisable, for instance, for adults to throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way (although we can probably all agree we know a few adults that never learned to repress this instinct enough). But all too often, we learn not just to repress the tantrum, but the feelings that go along with the tantrum. And when we repress these important emotions they don’t go away – as Jung said, they get bigger, darker, and stronger. Similarly, we also repress things that, as children, we desperately need but sometimes didn’t get – a sense of security, validation, or praise. If these needs aren’t met, we often learn to push away our very need to minimize the pain of not getting it. It’s much easier, for example, to say, “I don’t care what you think.” than to openly acknowledge, “I am a person that needs love and compassion and it really hurts not to get it and realize that I may never get it in the way I want.” Just like emotions we don’t like to feel, needs we don’t acknowledge over time become bigger and stronger. If we do not engage with these “undesirable” emotions and needs in a healthy way, we tend to unconsciously bring them into our relationships, both personally and professionally. The unfelt emotion either gets projected onto someone else as “their problem” or builds internally as resentment. The unacknowledged need will still seek to be satisfied, but often in unhealthy or passive aggressive ways.
Since we can’t rid ourselves of our shadow, we will inevitably bring it with us wherever we go – this includes work. Our shadow, at best may cause minor disruptions in the workplace: irritability, passive aggressiveness, or stress. At worst, and particularly if we are leaders, our shadow can cause absolute chaos at work through inappropriate emotional outbursts, direct conflict and aggression, and consistent burn out. Through our work with leaders and leadership teams, we know that organizations tend to take on the best and worst characteristics of the organization’s leader – and this includes the leader’s shadow. Let me give you an example. I used to work for someone who was considered a genius in his field. He was known to be difficult, but his results were undeniable. He regularly screamed at employees, throwing tantrums when projects didn’t quite go the way he’d planned. He worked incredibly long hours, demanding that his team and staff do the same, and endure his rants and tirades as he “worked through his process.” But ultimately, he delivered results, and his company became one of the most well regarded in its field. His direct reports quickly learned to adopt his behavior, thinking this was the key to success. It wasn’t, obviously, and though they worked long hours and screamed at their employees, they did not possess his unique genius, and they could never quite live up to his example. You can probably guess the rest. The work environment was toxic, ruled through fear and anxiety. It seeped into every part of the organization and began to impact the talent they could recruit and the work product they put out.
Now, I cannot, of course, say for certainty what this leader’s particular shadow was about. Maybe he never fully felt seen or accepted as a child. Perhaps he was abused or neglected. What I do know for sure is that he never dealt with it and brought that baggage into the workplace. I know that every time he yelled or mistreated an employee it said a lot more about his own insecurity than it did about that employee’s poor performance. His genius was able to break through and deliver success, but at a terrible cost. And the organization, though also successful, began to suffer. After he retired, it really struggled.
This situation may sound familiar. Maybe you work in a toxic environment, or maybe you’re the leader who loses your cool way too often. In our experience, unfortunately this situation is all too common. We often integrate shadow work into our coaching sessions, leadership alignment facilitations and even our workshops. Why? Because, increasingly, our personal and professional worlds are intersecting we are being asked to bring our whole and authentic selves to the workplace. For leaders, shadow work is incredibly important, because it is often the key to releasing our biggest blocks so that we can lead with courage, compassion, and authentically connect to our teams and with our clients. Begin to make friends with your shadow, and you’ll suddenly find yourself becoming the leader you always wanted to be – and perhaps the kind of leader we need right now.
Shadow work is life’s work; it is not a lesson you learn once, but rather a relationship you engage with over your entire life. This is heavy and deep work. And while it may seem like work that you need to do in private, with a therapist, maybe in a mountain retreat far away from others, this is work that you can be doing all the time, in small ways to see big impacts in your life. We are multifaceted beings, and it is critical to start integrating both our light and dark sides so that we can move with ease and honesty. Start with awareness. Start by noticing the things and people that make you uncomfortable and without judging them or yourself, ask why they make you uncomfortable. Remove the need to blame. Allow yourself to feel the discomfort to start to know what’s behind it – hurt, resentment, anger, etc. Give yourself permission to feel these emotions without the need to judge them or act on them. And then repeat, again, and again. Be soft and be compassionate with yourself along this journey – we promise it is one worth taking.