Shadow work: A necessary evil or blessing in disguise?

17 May 2024
Noopur Goel Written by Noopur Goel
Noopur Goel

Noopur Goel

Noopur is a product manager by profession and a budding writer. She loves to travel and explore...

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As a first-person essay, the views here are not vetted by our team of reviewers. These are lived experiences, and only small changes have been made for grammar and sentence structure. 

Shadow work – a term that I got to know only last year but little did I know, I had already been practicing it for several years. Rooted in Carl Jung’s theory of the unconscious, shadow work involves exploring the unconscious aspects of our personality – the parts we may have repressed, ignored, or disowned. Shadow work aims to bring these hidden elements into conscious awareness.

During my sessions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), my therapist and I did an exercise that enabled me to identify my beliefs. I didn’t even know what my beliefs were! And on top of that, the real exercise was to identify my negative beliefs: my limiting beliefs.

My therapist would ask me to narrate some life incidents from my childhood that had a lasting impact on me. One such incident happened when I was 10 years old. I was denied a free sundae by Nirula’s for scoring less than 90% in one out of five subjects, even when my overall score was >90%. (Nirula’s used to have a special promotion for school kids: if you scored above 90% in your final exams, you’d receive a complimentary sundae of your choosing.)

This was the session when my therapist identified one of my limiting beliefs: “I’m not good enough.” At the onset, I could not really understand it. Of course, it’s difficult to accept something like this. But I wrote it down on the sheet of paper, nonetheless. Somewhere during the middle of the session, it dawned on me that I unconsciously felt that I was not good enough! 

I’ve struggled with body image issues at several stages of life – face full of pimples and being overweight during my teenage years, donning a bob cut from childhood through my first year of college, and being stuck with my height for the rest of my life. But at other times, I really liked myself – like when I cracked the CAT, the MBA entrance exam, when I got my dream role of being a product manager, or when I lost 13 kgs with diet and exercise.

Amidst the crests and troughs of life, I seldom felt that I was not good enough. I mostly felt that I was truly capable of accomplishing any task, challenge, or goal. And yet, at an unconscious level, I believed I was not good enough. 

How do I solve this conflict within myself? CBT turned out to be key in solving this. The first step was to acknowledge that this negative belief existed inside me. Only then could I move on to removing it for good. My therapist made me write positive statements against each negative belief.

For example, “I’m not good enough” became “I’m good enough in all areas of my life.” As I started inculcating these habits, I could feel happiness and peace returning to my life. My colleagues started noticing a difference in me. I could deal with the most stressful situations at work with an upbeat attitude.

But what exactly happened? What changed? The CBT exercise for turning negative beliefs into positive ones was nothing but shadow work. Our shadow encompasses fears, insecurities, traumas, limiting beliefs, and unexpressed emotions.

By acknowledging and accepting our shadow, we can integrate and heal these aspects, leading to personal growth and self-awareness.

And just like that, I could bring the suppressed and repressed emotions to the surface and accept them. I spoke to the 10-year-old Noopur and told her that “she is good enough.” She is loved. With this, something healed inside of me.

I hear so many people saying, “I need to be busy with something all the time, if I am still, then my mind starts wandering.” Like the old adage – “Khaali dimaag shaitaan ka ghar” (An idle mind is the devil’s workshop).

How do I tell them that you need to stay still for your repressed thoughts to come to the surface? You must go through these turbulent waters to reach the calmer shores eventually.

As Carl Jung says, “If we are able to see our own shadow and can bear knowing about it, then a small part of the problem has already been solved: we have at least brought up the personal unconscious. The shadow is a living part of the personality and therefore wants to live with it in some form. It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness.”

So accept your shadow and show it the light that it needs.

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