The #1 Most Surprising Benefit of 'Shadow Work' and How To Use This Simple Tool

You may have heard about someone having a "dark side" (no, we're not talking about Star Wars). You may even think you (or a friend or partner) have one. The concept is simple and similar to the Jekyll and Hyde effect. One second you may be friendly, happy and operating within the lines. The next, you may be angry, pushing boundaries or flat-out breaking rules.

You may feel out of character when your dark side comes out and wonder why you did or said something. Well, there's actually a technique—sometimes even used in therapy—that can help you figure it out. It's called shadow work, and it operates on the idea that the "dark side" isn't a figure of speech but a very real part of everyone.

What Is Shadow Work?

"Shadow work is exploring your dark side or the parts of yourself you don't like, don't want to see, or reject," says Iona Holloway, co-founder of the breathwork app Soul.

Holloway explains that Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst, is credited with coming up with the theory.

"The core concept of shadow work is that we shove the parts we don't like ourselves into the dark so we can't see them," Holloway says. "But you can't feel whole if you refuse to acknowledge chunks of your personality—especially the parts that are hard to love."

Shadow work has several more specific benefits, including one that may surprise you. Here's why you should consider delving into your dark side.

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What's the Most Surprising Shadow Work Benefit?

You'll get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

"The biggest benefit of shadow work is building your capacity to sit with discomfort," says Holloway.

Holloway says that you'll need to dig into parts of yourself that you don't like and cast aside.

"You'll practice being kind to yourself rather than judgmental," Holloway says.

Megan Mary, a women's dream analyst who often incorporates the idea of a shadow in her work, agrees.

"[Shadow work] can raise our level of mindfulness," Mary says, adding that this benefit allows us to be compassionate toward ourselves.

Why Is This Benefit So Important?

Getting uncomfortable during shadow work benefits more than the person doing it.

"When you can witness your own dark side and find a way to understand, accept or love it, it increases your capacity to have acceptance and compassion for the darkness that exists in all human beings," Holloway says. "That's a gift to your partner, friends, children and family."

Mary echoes these sentiments.

"Shadow work, by nature, encourages us to not only have self-compassion, but once we acknowledge our own faults, we can more easily extend compassion to others," Mary says.

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How To Take Advantage of This Hidden Shadow Work Benefit

Sitting in discomfort is, by nature, uncomfortable. It's challenging and likely won't be the most enjoyable part of your day. But it's important. Holloway recommends breathwork.

"Tools like breathwork are really helpful when doing shadow work because it's often uncomfortable to sit with these feelings, and your body may start to show signs of stress," Holloway says.

Combine breathwork with statements to calm yourself when you feel emotions rising.

"[Use] slow and intentional breathing and anchoring phrases like, 'I'm not going anywhere. I accept you completely,'" Holloway suggests.

5 Other Benefits of Shadow Work

1. Owning your strengths

Shadow work often involves exploring cast-aside parts of yourself. But Holloway says that people are often surprised to learn that they have hidden gifts in their shadows.

"If you were really intuitive as a child, but your parents said that was nonsense, you might put your inner knowing into your shadow," Holloway says.

Perhaps you were a strong-willed child, but a parent viewed you as bossy or entitled. You may have buried that part of yourself that may actually benefit you as an adult.

"Shadow work can help you reclaim the parts of yourself you've shrouded in shame," Holloway says.

2. Find your purpose

Feeling lost and unable to figure out your place in the world? Holloway and Mary both say that shadow work can help.

"You can't hate your way to self-actualizing and living a purpose-driven and aligned life," Holloway says. "Learning how to accept all parts of you brings you closer to living a more fulfilling life."

Mary says self-reflection can also lead to more self-awareness, including finding silver linings to our darker side.

"Transforming our darkness into light allows us to fully embrace our individuality and sets us on the path to discovering our highest life purpose," Mary says.

3. Setting an example for others

Think no one will notice that you've done shadow work? That it's limited to a therapy room or journal? Think again. Your new energy may inspire others.

"When you model self-acceptance, your loved ones might notice a difference and ask what has shifted," Holloway explains. "This creates a beautiful healing ripple in your life."

4. Heal old wounds

Our "dark sides" can often be the product of hurt, including from childhood (See: the parent who told you that you were "bossy" for being assertive.)

"Examining our past and spending time with it through things like shadow work or inner child breathwork can help us reconnect with parts of ourselves we've lost or left behind," Holloway says.

5. Integration

When you explore your "dark side," you may feel less like you're living a double life—like your dark side isn't a separate side, but part of you.

"By delving into your own shadow, you can integrate your darkness with your light," Mary says.

Holloway says this shadow work benefit can make it harder for someone to get under our skin.

"When you build self-awareness, heal yourself, and integrate your shadow, you'll be less triggered by other people and increase your capacity for love and acceptance," says Holloway.

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How To Get Started With Shadow Work

Holloway says therapists may specialize in shadow work. They'll likely list it in their bio or on their website. If you'd like to get started on your own, she suggests trying breathwork to heal the inner child. You might also try journaling.

Shadow work often involves exploring "negative" emotions like anger and frustration. With that in mind, Holloway suggests thinking about someone who often brings about these emotions in you. Then, ask yourself:

  • Why am I judging this person?

  • What do I feel in my body when they're around (focus on sensations)?

  • Do we share similar traits or personality characteristics?

  • What do I not like or accept about them that I also do not like or accept about myself?

"As you're asking yourself these questions, try to practice being a compassionate witness, even if you don't love your answers or find the experience uncomfortable," Holloway says. "You're doing the work to become more whole, and that's really brave."

Next up, 35 Useful Phrases to Combat Imposter Syndrome as Soon as It Strikes, According to a Psychoanalyst