What is shadow work, a not-so-new mental health tactic trending on TikTok?

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published November 9, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Shadow work is trending on TikTok

  • The mental health technique was coined in the 1900s as a way to explore hidden parts of the personality and inspire personal growth.

Working on yourself can require exploring personality traits you are uncomfortable with or ashamed of. One way to do this is through “shadow work,” a psychology technique developed over a century ago and now trending on TikTok.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the term “shadow work” in the early 1900s. Jung is also the founder of analytical psychology, which is the psychological process of exploring how the conscious mind interacts with the unconscious.[][]

Per Jung’s description, the term “shadow work” denotes a method for exposing and exploring “aspects of yourself that you don't usually acknowledge,” also known as their shadow, says Michelle English, LCSW, the executive clinical director of Healthy Life Recovery, a mental health and substance disorder treatment facility in San Diego, CA.

“Shadow work entails exploring these hidden parts of yourself and figuring out how to accept and integrate them into your overall self,” English adds. 

For some people, this process can increase self-awareness, facilitate emotional healing, or help people improve social connections with loved ones, she says.

What is your “shadow”

People can have different shadows or things that they struggle to come to terms with within their personalities. Among other examples, “These could be emotions, desires, thoughts, ideas, or aspects of your personality that you have suppressed or ignored because you believe they are bad, wrong, or unacceptable,” English says.

James Scholl, PhD, clinical psychologist and owner of Always in Reach Mental Health & Wellbeing, adds that “the shadow represents repressed ideas, instincts, feelings of inferiority and guilt, or weaknesses.”

“The shadow is believed to be part of the unconscious mind and referred to as a ‘blind spot’ of the psyche,” Dr. Scholl explains.

Benefits of shadow work

For some people, shadow work may benefit their emotional health or help them overcome barriers. It may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the personality or inspire self-acceptance, among other outcomes.

“There is no explicit empirical basis to shadow work, [but] there are certainly potential benefits to exploring aspects of your personality and sense of self that you may otherwise avoid,” Dr. Scholl says. “Different mental health practices and treatments work for different people and depend on an array of factors, so there is no guarantee of success.”

Dr. Scholl adds that he frequently helps patients develop introspective skills by encouraging them to examine “their own mental and emotional processes in relation to their life experiences as a starting point towards self-optimization,” which overlaps with shadow work.

“It's all about getting to know the parts of yourself that you don't usually pay attention to, the bits you might not be proud of, or that you hide away,” says Michelle Landeros, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist atTherapist Pages. “When you start to understand these parts, you can feel more complete.”

“Shadow work can open your eyes to who you are and help you get rid of the bad influences that you didn't even know were there,” Landeros adds. “It can help fix the broken parts inside you, calm fights inside your head, and make you feel more genuine. It can also help you understand other people better.”

Risks of shadow work

Like most things in life, shadow work may not be for everyone. People who are struggling to work through trauma may find the practice too intense, or people may not be ready to explore the darker sides of themselves. It can be helpful to talk to patients about their comfort with the concept and their sense of safety within themselves before recommending they try shadow work or while engaging in the technique.

Further, shadow work should not be viewed as a substitute for therapy or medication but rather “a complementary practice that can improve your overall mental health,” English says.

“Exploring your shadow self can bring up difficult emotions and memories, so it's important to have someone to talk to while you're going through this," English adds. “People with severe mental health issues or a history of trauma should proceed with caution and seek the advice of a trained mental health professional.”

Landeros recommends that patients try shadow work when they “feel stuck,” but also “feel strong enough to handle whatever comes up.”

“If you're struggling mentally or you don't have good support around you, wait until things are more stable,” Landeros says. “It's powerful, but it's not the only way to help someone. We must always look at the person's situation before suggesting they try shadow work.”

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