If you spend enough time hanging around witches, you will inevitably start hearing about shadow work. This subject tends to be greeted with either morbid curiosity or deep fear. There’s something just so visceral about the term shadow work. In the mind of the uninitiated, it can call up images of black magic, dark rituals, or illicit midnight jaunts to do magic. But in truth, shadow work is much less racy than that, though no less exciting to myself and other witches who make use of these practices. Today, we’re going to clear up all the confusion around shadow work so that you can understand what it is, why we do it, and how to get started doing it in your own practice.
What Is Shadow Work?
Shadow work is a concept and practice that stems from the field of psychology. Carl Jung referred to the subconscious and the darker aspects of self that often hide there as the human “shadow”. When we work with our shadow as witches, we are blending our spiritual and magical practice with techniques for psychological self-exploration and self-improvement. This has many benefits, not only for our magic and its effectiveness but also for improving our overall happiness and helping us to relate to the world around us in a healthier way.
The shadow itself is many things. It’s the culmination of every experience we’ve ever had, every thought we’ve ever had, every belief that we hold about ourselves and the world. Much of the shadow is created and set very early in life. Our formative years help to encode into our subconscious what we view as “normal”. That version of normal is what many of us then go on to judge the rest of our experiences by for the rest of our lives. For example, if you grow up in a household where your parents are very busy and rarely have time for you, it will feel normal as an adult when your romantic partners never have time for you. More than that, a partner who actually has time for you will feel abnormal and you may sabotage these good relationships without really knowing why. This may be what your subconscious thinks is “normal”, but it’s far from ideal! By identifying these kinds of patterns and underlying assumptions, we can rewrite them to allow ourselves to be happy and comfortable in a new normal of our choosing, say, with a partner who is caring and attentive!
Magic connects to this process deeply. We can use magic both in identifying, collaborating with, and shifting these shadow parts of ourselves and in enhancing our magic with the use of this work. Within many magic traditions, the pursuit of self-knowledge is a vital part of becoming an effective magician. Witchcraft is no different.
Make no mistake, while shadow work may sound like boring therapy nonsense to some, this is powerful stuff! I very rarely make statements about things ALL witches should do because witches and their craft are an incredibly diverse bunch but I firmly believe that all witches should practice shadow work in some form or fashion. There’s simply no better way to understand yourself and the interactions between you and the magic that you work.
Why Shadow Work Is Essential In Witchcraft
The reasons why we do shadow work as individuals vary widely. They all boil down to the same simple goal though: To be better. To be better in our craft. To be better for the people we love. To be better for ourselves. This is a process of finding the dark, hidden parts of yourself, the parts that are ignored, and unwanted, and corroded, and learning to not only look at them and change them but also accept them fully as a part of you. This is self-love at its most radical. Love not just for the lovable parts of yourself but also for those parts that the world does not want you to love.
This is no crusade against the darker aspects of self. We are not here to cut off pieces of ourselves to try to match some idealized image of who we should be. Our aim is to uncover all the forgotten and hurting parts of ourselves and tend them until they flourish. In this way, we achieve the freedom to be who we are entirely, to create the life we want without restraint, and to release any shame in doing so.
When we do magic, our beliefs are core to the effects that we receive. Have you ever cast a spell for something you desperately wanted or needed only to have it fall flat and do nothing? Do you have a particular kind of spellwork that it seems like you cannot hack for no apparent reason? These kinds of blockages are, more often than not, a result of beliefs that we hold on a subconscious level.
For example, if you feel stuck in your dead-end job, barely making enough to scrape by and you find that every money spell you cast turns up nothing while the rest of your magic works fine, you likely have a belief about money or self-worth limiting you. Perhaps you believe deep down that you don’t deserve money, that you aren’t capable of making money, or that money is the source of all evil in the world.
With beliefs like these, it’s no wonder that the magic doesn’t work! While you may be pouring tons of energy into your money spell consciously, you can only do that for so much time out of your day. Meanwhile, your subconscious can dump energy into that “Money is evil and corrupting” belief all day, every day. Which do you think is going to win out? 99 times out of 100, it’ll be your subconscious.
This is why we as witches do shadow work. Yes, it is great for us to know ourselves and cultivate self-awareness and self-acceptance as people, but in our magic, this shit is rocket fuel. Rather than trying to climb a mountain, fighting against the underlying convictions of your subconscious to get your magic to work, you can simply start the ball rolling and watch momentum carry your magic to fruition with glorious ease.
4 Ways To Start Using Shadow Work In Your Craft
Hopefully, by this point, you are more than ready to jump in feet first and start trying shadow work out for yourself. There are so many ways to go about doing this work. I could easily write a book on the subject and never even come close to exhausting the sheer mountain of ways that shadow work can be done. To start with, we’re going to discuss three ways that you can begin using shadow work in your craft and one ritual that you can try out today.
1. Make room for your unpleasant emotions
The first and most important part of shadow work is making room for the parts of yourself that are unpleasant. This can be really hard to do. We’ve been taught our entire lives that we have to hide, ignore, and repress the parts of ourselves that are unpleasant, difficult, or unsavory. This step may seem arbitrary or too easy, but it is by far the most important and potentially the most difficult step in shadow work. You have to learn to be with yourself even when it feels bad and even when you don’t like yourself very much. Because let’s be honest, we all have pieces of ourselves that we don’t like very much. It’s those pieces, the ones that we’ve rejected and that we wish didn’t exist that are most in need of our love and attention. I want you to start thinking about those unpleasant or difficult aspects of yourself as small children.
If you saw a child or small animal having a problem, crying, upset, or displaying behavior that indicated something was wrong, you’re not likely to jump immediately to vilifying that child or animal. We understand intuitively that small children and animals haven’t yet learned how to handle the difficulties of the world. It’s too big for them, it’s too scary and it makes sense why they would be having these difficult reactions. This is the mindset I want you to take toward your own emotions. These emotions, these difficult parts of yourself, are essentially parts of you that never learned how to manage and understand the world around them. They are confused, frightened, hurt, and just generally freaking out. Your job is to approach that emotion or that part of yourself with compassion and understanding and allow it to be where it is.
This means that if you’re sad, let yourself cry. Don’t try to bottle up the tears, don’t try to muscle through the emotion, don’t try to hold it back so that you don’t make other people uncomfortable. If this means you have to take yourself to another room or go home or whatever you need to do, do that, but let yourself cry. If a part of yourself hates someone else or something else, you need to allow that hate to rip free in a context where it cannot hurt other people. That last part is very important. Shadow work is not about just unleashing your every emotion onto the people around you. People can absolutely help you process your emotions, but you shouldn’t be taking your emotions out on other people. If you’re experiencing hatred or anger, let that anger and hatred out on paper or record yourself speaking stream of consciousness about that aspect of yourself. Find some space where you can move and let the anger and hatred out of your body by shaking, thrashing, and moving with whatever it is you’re feeling. If you need to break things, you can go to a secondhand store and buy a bunch of cheap dishes, take them somewhere that you can easily clean up like an unfinished basement, and go nuts. Break shit!
The idea here is just to let the emotions be. We are so used to repressing our emotions, trying to change the way we feel, and trying to be someone we’re not that many of us haven’t genuinely felt our emotions since we were very small children. Again, it’s important that you set this up so that you can do it in a way that will not hurt other people. This is the entire reason why we’ve been taught to repress these emotions in the first place, rather than being taught how to let them out in a constructive way. It’s easier to just teach us to bottle it up inside even though this does huge amounts of damage to each of us as individuals. When you let your unpleasant emotions out, do it in such a way that isn’t going to damage the people around you. Don’t scream at people, don’t make huge confessions that are going to ruin other people’s lives, don’t hit things, don’t break other people’s stuff. If you need to express something, express it to yourself out loud or on paper first so that you can come back to it with a clear mind and decide whether that is something that you need to say to the other person. If you need to express yourself physically or break things, do that in such a way that doesn’t hurt other people and doesn’t break anything that’s important to anyone else. As I said, you can just buy some $0.50 dishes from the thrift store! I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to break a bunch of dishes and know that there are no consequences to doing so.
Finally, when it comes to expressing these unpleasant emotions, don’t be surprised if memories, unexpected thoughts, or physical movement such as shaking comes up. Often, when we’ve been repressing emotions for a long time, we’re repressing a lot of other things as well. We’re repressing the memories and thoughts that created those feelings and often we’ve stored all of this repressed energy in our bodies. This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to express their emotions physically in whatever way feels good to them. The body stores a huge amount of emotion and trauma, and moving the body is a very good way to move those stored emotions and traumas out of the body so they can be expressed, experienced, and resolved. The body’s most natural way to process physically is to shake, so if your body starts shaking, let it!
The next thing that you want to do is begin expressing your emotions and learning to dialogue with those emotions so that you can begin to understand them. There are so many ways that you can go about expressing your emotions and you can use any method that you like as long as it allows you to express yourself.
Journaling is, of course, the standard. Journaling allows you to get your thoughts down on paper in a way that is private and allows you to look back on what you’ve written to get a better understanding of what’s happening for you internally. I recommend that pretty much everyone pick up journaling, but you need to journal in the way that works best for you. A lot of people think that if you’re not journaling every single day, then you might as well not be journaling at all, and that’s bullshit. I’ve been journaling since I was 13 and my journaling is very spotty. There are some months when I journal almost every day and then there are some months where I don’t have a single journal entry for that entire time period. I journal when I need it. You might find that journaling when you need it works well for you or you might find that having some kind of schedule helps you keep up with it. It doesn’t have to be every day if that’s too much for you at first, but even a once weekly journaling session can be massively useful. Additionally, your journal does not have to be a notebook with a pen. I’m partial to my moleskin journals but you might prefer to keep a journal digitally or even use voice to text or simply a voice recorder for your journaling. It doesn’t matter how you’re journaling as long as it works for you.
3. Express yourself through art
Most of us are fairly verbal but not everyone is and not everyone expresses their emotions verbally as well as they might express a rational idea or a logical thought process. Art journaling is an excellent alternative if you find that expressing yourself visually with imagery works better for you. You can do this with any medium, in any way you choose. It doesn’t have to look good, it doesn’t have to follow any artistic principles, your only goal is to express whatever it is that you are feeling. Your art journaling does not have to be done in a physical book. You can create your art on canvas, large pieces of paper, butcher paper, using photography, digitally, whatever you like. And you can use any medium you like. Collage, painting, drawing, cut-out poetry, sculpture, videography, it’s entirely up to you.
We touched on this a bit in a previous section but movement is an excellent way to express ourselves and it’s one of the forms of expression that is fairly repressed in Western society. As children, we’re taught to sit still and not run around and not fidget and this takes a lot of the natural expression of movement out of our lives. Movement expression can be anything you need it to be. You can dance, you can flail and thrash, you can run until you’re exhausted, you can do gentle yoga stretches, you can incorporate vocalizations and sounds into your movement. Don’t worry about making it look good or presentable for other people. I would suggest doing this in a place where absolutely no one is going to see you because you want to be able to express whatever your body needs to express without worrying about how it looks to other people. You can put on music and I would suggest picking music that matches the mood that you’re trying to express. If you’re angry, put on music that sounds angry. If you’re sad, put on sad music. For me, I find that there’s usually music that really fits whatever it is that I’m trying to express through movement and I’ll take my time to find that music before I get started. Don’t be afraid to just put a song on repeat as well. If you find a song that is exactly what you need, just play it over and over and over again. No one else is watching, remember?
The important part of this is that you can release and express your emotions in a way that leads you to a new understanding of yourself. That’s what you’re aiming to do in this exercise, you’re trying to gain a better understanding of what’s really going on with this emotion. If you journal, you can read back what you wrote and gain new insights into what’s going on in your mind. If you create art, you’re able to look at your emotions visually outside of yourself and gain new understanding that way. If you decide to use movement to express your emotions, you’re likely to get a very visceral understanding of how these emotions and thoughts are coming up in your body and affecting you physically in your day-to-day life. Again, you might get thoughts, memories, or unexpected physical movement with any of these methods of expressing yourself. If you think of a way to express yourself that we haven’t talked about here, try it! There are tons of ways that you can go about expressing your emotions and learning about your emotions, and the goal is to find the ones that work for you.