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What is an emotion you try to avoid feeling?
As a child, what were you told not to do?
How do you define failure?
When do you feel cared for?
Your TikTok For You page may be asking you some difficult questions lately (the above are just a few) and calling it shadow work, often through shadow work journals. For those unfamiliar, it’s a mental health practice that focuses on confronting parts of ourselves and our lives we may have unwittingly rejected out of fear, shame, guilt, and discomfort and reintegrating those parts back into our being, according to New York City-based psychiatrist Anna Yusim, MD. “Essentially, loving all parts of ourselves because what we resist persists,” she explains.
Shadow work is commonly incorporated into therapy sessions with licensed mental health experts, and many will also recommend it as a form of homework to continue your self-work in between appointments. It’s often used to help individuals process grief, shame, and intergenerational trauma, New Jersey-based psychologist Jennifer Mullen, PsyD, tells Allure.
TikTok creators have been sharing their experiences with shadow work as a way to help heal their inner child, learn to love themselves on a deeper level, and process their emotions in healthier ways. As Dr. Mullen notes, you can explore shadow work in several different ways, such as meditation and bodywork. However, keeping a shadow work journal has become the most popular method on TikTok: It’s incredibly accessible and affordable to do, much like keeping a gratitude journal or documenting details of your dreams. Plus, it allows you to express yourself and explore your subconscious through writing. Best of all, a blank notebook and a willingness to delve into the darkest, cringiest parts of yourself are everything you need to get started.
Meet the Experts:
- Anna Yusim, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist based in New York City and author of Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life.
- Jennifer Mullan, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New Jersey and founder of Decolonizing Therapy, a team of mental health professionals shifting the mental health paradigm away from the Eurocentric lens.
- Notty, a spiritual practitioner and content creator based in Savannah, Georgia, who offers her own shadow work courses and e-books.
Where did shadow work come from?
The TikTok cycle has a way of making old things seem like brand-new trends: Though the practice is having a moment on the app, shadow work dates back to the 1930s. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung introduced it for the first time in his 1934 article Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Dr. Yusim says. “He believed that part of our journey in life is to restore our wholeness, and one of the ways we need to do that is through shadow work,” she explains.
From a modern clinical perspective, shadow work is a useful mental health exercise for acknowledging unfavorable parts of ourselves, says Jennifer Mullan, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in New Jersey. These could be anger, perfectionism, self-sabotage, and any sort of dependency issues — all of which could be characteristics of ourselves that we unconsciously dislike because we believe our families or others won’t accept them, which are often addressed as part of inner child exploration.
Shadow work is often done with the help of a spiritual guide — like a shaman, religious practitioner, or ancestor — or a mental health practitioner, like a therapist, to help you sift through and sort out your subconscious, Dr. Mullan says. If you go with the former, they may help you with your shadow work through meditation and visualization. Therapists, on the other hand, incorporate shadow work into the questions they ask during sessions. However, you don’t necessarily need a guide of any sort if you’re focusing on the journaling aspects of shadow work.
For Notty, a spiritual practitioner and content creator based in Savannah, Georgia who often racks up thousands of views on her shadow work TikToks, this self-care technique is a way to be truly, honestly, and authentically herself without any fear, shame, or judgment. Shadow work is a way for her to tap into her subconscious and most authentic self while exploring her spirituality and mental health, she shares.
Is shadow work a valuable mental health practice?
In short: Absolutely. Dr. Yusim believes any exercise that allows folks to do an exploration of themselves is wonderful. “Not everyone can afford therapy and not everybody has access to therapy, so [I support] whatever people can do to learn more about themselves,” she says. However, it doesn’t actually replace therapy, and seeking help from mental health professionals is still incredibly important.
Your shadow work journal can be something you share with your therapist as a way to reflect on your mental health journey outside of typical therapy sessions. In fact, Dr. Mullan finds it powerful to read your writing aloud in a safe space to better process what you’ve written down.
Dr. Yusim mentions that shadow work is particularly important because when we continually disavow parts of ourselves, they may transform into repressed emotions and memories and lead to anxiety or depression.
What are the benefits of keeping a shadow work journal?
Through shadow work journaling, you can seek out the root of why you may feel unlovable at times, where your trauma may originate, and why you may wish to conceal certain parts of yourself. Then, you find ways to incorporate them back into your life with love and compassion to better love every part of yourself as a whole, complex person, Dr. Yusim shares. After all, “If there are any parts of yourself you haven’t accepted, you can’t be a whole person,” she adds. You can’t fully experience joy and pleasure when you harbor shame and guilt within yourself.
According to Dr. Mullan, the ultimate reward of shadow work is “liking ourselves more — even with the rough edges.” That includes embracing even the most embarrassing and awkward parts of ourselves. Every single one of us is “cringey” due to our familial, cultural, and societal upbringings, as well as trauma and abuse we may have endured, Dr. Mullan says. When you understand this through your shadow work, you can better understand yourself with empathy and compassion.
Notty is a fan of shadow work journaling because it helps her track her personal growth. “It’s super fun just writing out everything because I can read it back and see where I was in each place in time,” she shares.
How do I start shadow work journaling?
Let’s be real: We all have that empty notebook on a shelf somewhere begging to be filled up. If you go grab it right now, you can start shadow journaling. Truly any notebook will do, but before you open up to an empty page, though, Dr. Mullan recommends treating your shadow work journaling like a therapy session that has an allotted amount of time in your schedule.
Sure, you can simply take the opening and closing of your notebook as a personal cue that you are beginning and ending your shadow work time. You can also start off by lighting a candle or pouring yourself a cup of tea. Once you’re done journaling, blow out that candle or empty your mug to signal to yourself that you’re done with your shadow work for the moment and return to your daily life. It helps compartmentalize this difficult work, so you don’t have to carry around its weight all day.
As you journal, you can use several different prompts and writing exercises as a jumping-off point to start identifying your shadow self. TikTok offers up countless ones; there are even e-books penned by the likes of Notty and holistic healer Kemi Marie filled with them. You can also ask your therapist for prompts or writing exercise suggestions that best fit your healing and mental health journey. You can also explore these ones from the experts I interviewed.
Poketo Checkered Object Notebook in Rose/Blue
Shadow Work Writing Exercises & Prompts
Stream of Consciousness
Dr. Yasim recommends starting off by writing down whatever comes to mind for a good five minutes straight. This stream of consciousness may help you figure out what your unconscious mind wants to confront, and you can pick and choose specific prompts from there.
Pick a Theme
Whether it’s anger, imposter syndrome, trust issues, or procrastination, knowing what exactly you want to focus on is a helpful starting point. If you need an exact question to answer, try this: What aspect of my shadow am I choosing to work on? “Get crystal clear because when we’re doing this kind of work, cloudiness will produce cloudy results,” Dr. Mullan suggests.
Shadow work often feels necessary for people when they realize the same theme constantly pops up in their lives — whether it’s in relationships, career, or family matters — and they realize they are the common denominator, Dr. Mullan says.
For example, you may find yourself realizing your perfectionism is getting in the way of having fun, so you can zero in on that as a theme, Dr. Mullen continues. Or maybe people-pleasing is your theme. Are you people-pleasing so much to an extent that you think that it’s a strength, but it’s keeping you from building healthy relationships with not only others but yourself?
Moleskine Cahier Journal Set of 3
Paperblanks Poetry in Bloom Journal
Characterize Your Shadow
Dr. Mullan also suggests starting off by giving your shadow self a name to better familiarize yourself with what you’re dealing with. Then, describe what it looks like. “What does it smell like? What does it taste like? What does it do?” she adds. “Close your eyes for a second, and think about what this shadow feels like.”
People-pleasing and imposter syndrome are examples of common shadows, Dr. Mullan says. You may start writing down something like, “It’s an orange, fuzzy monster. It has big googly eyes, so it seems cute and harmless, but it eats up my confidence,” she explains.
When you’re ready, you can rename your shadow to something more empowering, Dr. Mullan says. For example, “I’m not people-pleasing. I’m learning how to deal with people,” she adds.
Paperage Lined Journal Notebook
Rifle Paper Co. Colette Pocket Notebook Set of 2
Pick an Age
For another shadow work journaling session, you can explore your personal history with these prompts: How old were you when your shadow became problematic? When did you first remember feeling insecure or disliking a certain part of yourself? Focus deeply on specific memories during that time that relate to it. “Let’s say you find yourself thinking, “Oh, life was great up until I was 16,'” Dr. Mullan offers as an example, and says to write that down and go from there.
Face What You Project Onto Others
You can ask yourself the question: What most bothers you about other people? Whatever you end up writing down is usually a reflection of what you don’t like about yourself and need to reintegrate into your own being, Dr. Yusim says.
Live Your Truth
In her book Fulfilled, Dr. Yusim provides several prompts including, What stops me from living my truth? Alternatively, you can reflect on this question: If I allowed myself to fully live my truth, how would my life be different? These questions may help you uncover what you are truly afraid of and what may be causing you to fall into toxic patterns instead of healing and living your life authentically.
Along these same lines, Dr. Yusim also lists these prompts to help you identify your truth and what is holding you back:
- What am I most afraid somebody will find out about me?
- What’s the biggest lie I ever told myself?
- What’s the biggest lie I ever told someone else?
- What parts of myself do I own and express fully?
- What parts of myself do I hide and why?
Describe Your Joy
Again, not every prompt has to be emotionally exhausting or potentially triggering. Confronting parts of yourself that you hate is definitely scary at times. Shadow work journaling can be a helpful way to document times of joy and celebration by reflecting on specific memories throughout your life that made you feel whole and worthy, so you can better carry those parts of yourself into your future. Notty suggests using these two questions as prompts: “Where is my joy?” and “Who am I?”
These optimistic questions have been resonating with Notty a lot lately, she says, and help her look forward to finding out the answers to them as she continues to write in her shadow work journal. “People do get stuck on the bad side of shadow work and healing, but sometimes, it can be fun,” she shares. “Shadow work is not only for the sadness, loss, and pain. It’s also for happiness, gratitude, peace, and expressing feelings of romance. You don’t always have to focus on healing from something. You can also focus on finding yourself.”
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