The Dark Side: A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work

I was doing dishes the other morning and noticed a dirty teacup that happened to have the last remnants of black tea leaves down at the bottom, floating in a tiny brown tea puddle. My body froze and my heart went cold, immediately sweat began to bead along my forehead. I took a deep breath and questioned myself about this reaction, and suddenly I realized that I had not moved on from my past as much as I’d thought.

What a feeling, to believe you’ve completely let go of something and healed, only to learn that you haven’t at all – you’re still haunted. You see, the tea leaves didn’t send me some divine message that stopped me in my tracks. Instead, they brought a memory from my childhood to the surface that triggered fear and anxiety before I could even process it.

The Dark Side: A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work

I won’t say how, but those tea leaves reminded me of my father: a man that caused me great turmoil as a child and who has had no relationship with me or my children for over ten years. The only “why” that is important here is why it was still subconsciously affecting me, even into my late twenties.

Sometimes it’s easier to tell ourselves that we’ve moved on from something or forgiven an action when we really haven’t, because it allows us to move the uncomfortable situation and feelings it gives us to the back of our minds. Occasionally it will dissipate and with time you’ll discover you truly have healed and moved on, but every once in a while, the very thing you were trying to forget about will plant seeds in your subconscious and begin to fester.

Humans have created many remedies, substances and otherwise, to assist with forgetting our deepest troubles, which means we can go a long time without ever knowing that we’re being negatively affected subconsciously.

That’s where “shadow work” comes in. Technically the term stems from Jungian psychology, which refers to an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself, or everything of which a person is not fully conscious, as the “shadow” of ourselves.

Your shadow holds all of your fears, mistakes, anxieties, and darkest thoughts. It’s what feeds you little bits of criticism, what allows you to judge others and yourself, and it wants everything that you were never allowed or too afraid to have – even forgiveness.

My family knows my shadow pretty well as I’ve spent the better part of motherhood struggling against it, and communicating very openly about it. My shadow was the reason I’d been troubled by “mom guilt” for years, the anxiety that suffocated me, the reason that I yelled when I got angry and felt ashamed when I was vulnerable. I began my own journey into actual shadow work last year and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It is the only way that I have ever been able to let go of my past and forgive (and love) myself finally. Finally.

If you’re lucky, you will be able to find someone that specializes in shadow work and can help guide you through it. I prefer to do most of my spiritual work alone, with the assistance of books, the internet, and my intuition. I am here to say that you can do it alone, but you should think about letting your loved ones know what you’ll be doing because shadow work affects your energy, your reality, and your emotions very deeply, and for a long time.

The Dark Side: A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work

The first true step is revealing your shadow. There are many ways to do this but the best way for most is to carefully ease into it. Light a few candles and some incense that makes you feel calm and comfortable and sit on the floor with your legs crossed. It’s best not to have anything going on around you that could be a distraction, but soft music is helpful for some. Basically, you want to feel as much at ease as possible. Do not go into any shadow work ritual if you’re feeling scared or angry or stressed. It can reverse the work you’re doing and amplify the negativity of your shadow. I find that it helps to use some sort of physical anchor such as holding a hematite or black obsidian stone or some form of meditation beads, such as a mala.

Once you’re comfortable, close your eyes and try to think of the first time you’ve ever felt fear in your whole life. More than likely, it’ll be a childhood memory. This is a great first step into shadow work because it can identify the root causes and triggers of your physical feelings and allow you to work on letting go of them. It’s also okay if the first thing you imagine is something more recent, just stick with whatever surfaces first. That will be what your subconscious wants you to acknowledge first. I find that it’s useful to journal the feelings and images that arise but if it feels too overwhelming, focus on your visualization only.

Your first instinct will be to avoid it by trying to think of something else, but keep your memory in your mind’s eye all the way through. Watch it in as much detail as you can and allow yourself to feel every negative feeling that resulted from it. You may notice that the feelings you are forcing yourself to face have actually been present in your daily life frequently.

The more you allow yourself to feel from it, the more you can let go. You may have strange reactions during this process, such as crying, screaming, going into a trance, and lapses in focus and memory. Let it happen – that’s your physical body finally reacting to something it’s held onto subconsciously for too long.

The Dark Side: A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work

Once you reach the point where you either can’t handle the feelings anymore or you intuitively feel like you’ve successfully acknowledged it, turn your mind’s eye to yourself. If it was a childhood memory that you were processing, picture yourself as a child as clearly as possible.

Imagine your adult-self smiling down at your child-self, and then hug them. Feel as much warmth and love from the hug as you can while you hug your inner child, and then tell them, “I forgive you, and I love you.” Feel the words as you say them and pay attention to how relieving it feels to not only forgive yourself, but to be forgiven by yourself. Use this time to tell yourself what you’ve needed and deserved to hear for so long: that everything is okay, that you are okay, and you deserve happiness and forgiveness. You’ve spent enough time being haunted by this event or action and your self-imposed prison sentence is over. Tell yourself that you now understand the reason for what you’ve gone through, but you are free from this suffering now.

The most important thing I’ve learned about shadow work so far is that it will never end. The rest of your life will be spent working with your shadow because you have to compromise with it. There is no fighting or struggling against your shadow because, well… you are your shadow. If your shadow self is constantly haunting you, you will never truly move forward. You will simply be treading water until your shadow surfaces again. By voluntarily going back into a memory that was at the forefront of your emotional turmoil, you are acknowledging and accepting your shadow.

However, this must be done over and over and over again. You can’t acknowledge just one or two bad memories and expect to be healed. You must work through every event, incident, trauma, and emotional wound that has ever occurred during your lifetime and work through this process. I’ve found it helpful to take a piece of paper and draw an actual chronological timeline of every positive and negative event that has ever affected me. I don’t have the greatest memory due to repression but even acknowledging vague outlines of incidents that have happened can be useful. Begin by marking an “X” at the very left end and give it a title such as “BIRTH”, including your birth date.

A centimeter or two from it, put another “X” and label it with your first childhood memory. You can decide how detailed you’d like to be with this process. I try to keep it simple by using the month and year, or even simply the year, for every event and a very short, summarized title such as “FELL & FELT HUMILIATED IN GIRL SCOUTS”. It tells me everything I need to know about the emotional wound left from that event, even as amusing as it may seem now.

If going over your entire life seems overwhelming, you can choose to only work through a certain period of your life that was significantly traumatic, such as high school or college. However you decide to create it, you should end up with a physical timeline of your personal history with specific events that you need to confront. With each confrontation, your shadow is drawn out and into the light. Not to abolish it, but to understand it.

Your shadow is terrified of being revealed, but at the same time, it’s begging you to notice it. It’s spent the better part of your life in hiding because you’ve repressed it and fight against it when it finally rears its ugly head. Ultimately, our shadow self is basically our inner child, and its darkness is a product of our environment and upbringing.

However, if you learn to walk beside your shadow, to accept it for what it is and befriend it, it can be an incredible resource for personal and spiritual growth. We know that there can be no light without dark, and we know how important balance is – whether it’s good and evil, our diets and exercise, our drinking habits, emotional and mental, etc.

The Dark Side: A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work

Your conscious and subconscious work the same way, your conscious being light and subconscious (or shadow self) being dark. One cannot exist with the other. Denying that your shadow exists, trying to ignore it or cover it up, or trying to change it or fight against it can result in an unnecessarily hard and depressing life.

This does not mean that you can use your shadow as a source of blame. If you lose your temper and yell at someone, saying “I’m sorry I got angry, my shadow made me do it” will just further perpetuate the cycle of negativity that you’re already in.

The point of acknowledging your shadow is not to have a reason for your bad habits and behaviors. It’s about being completely, authentically honest about who you are as a human being and accepting the whole you, shadow and all. The point is to identify those emotional and mental obstacles that our shadow builds for us, so that we can break them down, let go of them, and move onto what truly serves us best.

The Dark Side: A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work

The next step in your journey through shadow work is entirely up to you. You can create a weekly or monthly schedule to carve an hour of shadow work out of your daily life. If you’re more of a sociable person and feel more comfortable in group settings, you could find out if anyone around you is interested in joining you to do shadow work together. This works for some people because it holds you accountable and can help you reach long term goals much faster.

My next step was to write down everything I could think of that had ever haunted me; whether out of guilt, anger, shame, or sadness. I spent about a week jotting things down in a notebook when they would come to me and by the time I was finished, I couldn’t believe how much I was holding onto unnecessarily. Pages of resentment, grudges, and guilt stared back at me.

One by one, I’ve been sitting with and acknowledging those terrible memories, and then visualizing hugging my inner child and finally letting go of it. Over and over again. Because that’s what you have to do when you’re finally ready to take over for your shadow, and walk beside it instead of behind it.

The Dark Side: A Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work

I will have more posts about the details of rituals involving shadow work in the future. It’s hard to find a lot of reading on this subject but if you’d like more information about it and how to begin you own journey, I would suggest checking this book out:

Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature

You can also email me with any questions or concerns at

Happy journeys!

By Tylyn Fry

Writer • Educator • Herbal Alchemist