Shadow work and shadow work journaling may be a totally new concept to you. People who have participated in Jungian therapy and different kinds of self-discovery workshops may be familiar with the idea of “shadow work,” but you don’t have to embark on a formal journey of seminars and professional guidance to reap the benefits of shadow work journaling.
In this post, we’ll explain shadow work journaling and why understanding your shadow self can be beneficial.
What is Shadow Work?
The term “shadow work” was first introduced by Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology.
Jung proposed the idea that the human psyche contains three main components:
- The ego (conscious thought)
- The personal unconscious (the information stored in your unconscious mind)
- The collective unconscious (a form of the unconscious mind that is common to all humans)
Jung also believed that every person has a dark side to their personality or ego. This “shadow self” reflects a person’s negative thoughts and behaviors, such as jealousy, greed, and the desire for power. Jung believed that, for the most part, humans tend to suppress their dark side and may feel ashamed of their shadow qualities, even if they don’t act on them.
What is Shadow Work Journaling?
Shadow work journaling is based on Jung’s idea of making the unconscious conscious. When you examine the “dark” parts of your personality in the light, you can heal and resolve them instead of ignoring and repressing them. Shadow work goes even a step further, suggesting that these dark traits can contain information to inspire and enlighten.
A shadow work journal is a place to document and process the negative or upsetting parts of your personality without judgment. The practice of shadow journaling is often described as “soul searching” because it requires a person to be courageously honest with themselves.
A shadow work journal is a place to document and process the negative or upsetting parts of your personality without judgment.
At its core, shadow work is an effort to look at the parts of yourself you don’t like and embrace them as parts that need love and attention.
For example, imagine a person struggling with strong envy and jealousy. Their jealousy is so severe that it gets in the way of their success because they constantly compare themselves to others instead of focusing on their own goals. They may be able to react with happiness when a friend shares good news about a recent accomplishment, but inside, they feel angry and may even secretly wish for others to fail. The person in this scenario realizes they are jealous and feels ashamed of it. They do their best to repress their feelings, but it seems like the more they push them down, the more intense those unwanted feelings become.
Shadow work journaling techniques could help this individual discover the root of their emotions, allowing them to understand themselves and their motivations better. They can use that understanding to motivate their own success as well as to become the sincerely supportive person they wish to be.
How Shadow Work Journaling Helps
To understand how shadow work journaling helps your personal growth, you must first recognize how your shadow impacts your well-being. You may want to start with thinking of your shadow traits as “misbehaving children” who are ignored, blamed for everything that goes wrong, and constantly told they are naughty.
Imagine if the only feedback a child got were messages of shame and disappointment. Repressing and shaming the less appealing parts of your personality can lead to:
- Poor self-esteem
- Offensive or even violent behavior toward others
- Unhealthy and unsatisfying relationships
- Being self-absorbed and egotistical
- Dishonesty with yourself and others
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
People who reject their shadow selves also tend to project negative thoughts onto others. Projection is the act of getting upset with others when they portray negative traits you recognize but ignore in yourself.
Instead of repressing them, shadow work brings these “misbehaving children” into a loving atmosphere where they can be embraced, guided, and loved unconditionally.
6 Benefits of Shadow Work Journaling
While it may take some time for you to feel ready to dive into shadow work journaling, once you do, the benefits can change your life for the better in many ways.
1. Increased Self-Awareness
If the starter in your car doesn’t work properly, you don’t park the vehicle in the garage and say, “That’s a bad car. It doesn’t work.” You take it to a mechanic who knows how to repair starters and get it worked on. Shadow work is similar.
Instead of saying, “I’m a bad person, and I don’t work right,” you can use shadow journaling to deepen your self-awareness. The more you understand how you operate, the better you can care for yourself.
Everyone gets stuck in emotional cycles that can lead to knee-jerk reactions in uncomfortable situations. Shadow work encourages people to look deeper into what they are feeling and how they are reacting.
By being willing to examine yourself more closely — even when you feel angry or ashamed — you can gain clarity about your behavior. Instead of repressing feelings of envy, a person who is doing shadow work might think, “Oh, there’s that feeling again. I wonder why I’m reacting this way when what I truly want is to be supportive.”
3. A More Fulfilling Life
Jung believed that integrating your shadow qualities can lead to a more fulfilling life. Shadow work gets right to the root causes of your wellness challenges. By acknowledging and integrating the aspects of ourselves that we typically try to ignore, repress, or deny — which are often referred to as our “shadow qualities” — we can gain a deeper understanding of our true nature and become more balanced individuals
4. Relationship Healing
Building a healthy relationship is impossible when you feel you have to hide part of your personality or project your negative personality traits onto another person. Shadow journaling helps to reduce projection, so you can interact with others more authentically, leading to increased compassion for yourself and others. Once you see yourself as a whole person with inner battles to overcome, forgiving and understanding others is easier.
5. Emotional Resilience
Looking at your shadow side isn’t easy. It can evoke negative feelings and painful memories. But, as difficult as it can be, thinking and writing about difficult topics will help you. Often, people avoid dwelling on their dark side because they fear the pain or embarrassment of doing so will be too much to handle.
Doing “hard things” actually helps you build emotional resilience. The more shadow work you are willing to do, the more you are capable of doing.
6. Honesty and Vulnerability
How can you be honest with others if you’re dishonest with yourself? How can others trust you enough to be vulnerable if you are unwilling to be vulnerable with them? Keeping a shadow work journal helps to address both of these issues.
As you practice honesty and emotional vulnerability with yourself and your shadows, you learn how to extend that practice to other important people in your life.
Preparing for Shadow Work Journaling
Shadow work can help you grow as a person and discover talents and dreams you may have forgotten you had, but getting started takes commitment. Prepare for the possibility that you may challenge some of your personal beliefs.
As you become more adept at journaling, remember your job is to observe yourself, not judge your behavior or choices.
1. Find Support
Writing about your shadow traits can be an emotionally triggering experience, so it may be wise to get a support system in place before you start a shadow journal. Working with a mental health professional isn’t required, but it may be the best approach if you have mental health concerns. Otherwise, joining a support group or speaking with a trusted friend about your plans to do shadow journaling may provide the support you need if the process gets difficult.
2. Finding Your Shadow
Every person lives with their shadow self every day, but recognizing shadow behaviors may take practice. Shadow traits are feelings and behaviors that result from those feelings.
Examples of shadow behaviors include:
- Spreading hurtful gossip at work
- Acting defensively
- Extreme jealousy
- Sabotaging others
- Name-calling or being purposefully cruel to your partner during arguments
- Engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors like excessive spending
- Reacting to any inconvenience with disproportionate anger, sarcasm, or rage
Many times, recognizing shadow traits in others is easier than seeing them in yourself. But, you can put the power of projection to work for you. If you’re having difficulty recognizing your shadow traits, think about something that bothers you about another person. Chances are high that the negative you see in others is a reflection (and projection) of your own shadow.
3. Set a Goal
Shadow work journaling is purpose-driven and ongoing. So, beginning your shadow work experience with a goal is helpful. That goal may change as you continue on your journey of self-reflection. In fact, if you are truly growing, your goals should change.
Ask yourself what you hope to gain from keeping a shadow work journal. Do you want to improve your relationships or meet career goals? Maybe you’re tired of negative feelings and behaviors running your life and are ready to move forward and grow. There is no right or wrong reason to engage in shadow work. Your reason is valid, whatever it is.
Set realistic goals for your journaling. Don’t view your efforts in terms of pass or fail. If you spend an hour writing in your journal one day and don’t have any amazing insights, that’s OK. The insights may come when you’re not consciously thinking about the work.
If you only have the time or energy to write in your journal once a week, that’s OK, too. Shadow work can be emotionally exhausting. Go at your own pace in your own way.
Let the experience take you where you need to go. Self-growth can be slow and messy, and it can be quick and clean. Try to avoid having expectations of yourself or the work.
Working Through Your Shadow
You’ve recognized some of your shadow traits, found support, and started writing in your journal, but what does it mean to do shadow work? Working through your shadow can be as simple as examining your behavior when triggered.
For example, let’s say you feel slighted because a co-worker got more praise for completing a group task than you feel they deserve. You write about the incident in your shadow work journal and realize you often feel unacknowledged, but you also have a habit of giving others credit for your work.
Now that you see the situation more clearly, you can behave differently. Instead of being angry at someone else for excelling, you can become a better self-advocate, take more leadership roles, and allow others to see your efforts.
5 Steps for Using a Shadow Journal
You want to get the most from your shadow journaling experience. To do that, follow these steps.
1. Find a Safe Place
You don’t have to be completely isolated, but remember that shadow work journaling can be an emotional experience. Select a place where you’ll feel comfortable and safe to allow your emotions to flow as you write.
2. Choose a Topic
Some days you’ll sit down to journal with an idea of what you want to write about or explore. On other days, you may not know exactly what you want to document.
If you’re uncertain about what to write about, a writing prompt can help. The Day One journaling app provides an extensive list of prompts that can enhance your journaling no matter the topic.
3. Set a Timer and Start Writing
When you first begin journaling, filling a single page with words can be challenging. Forcing yourself to write for a set number of minutes may be necessary. On the other hand, you can get so involved in journal writing you lose track of time. In both cases, a timer is a great solution.
4. Add Reflections and Drawings
It’s your journal, so you should use it how you want. No rule says shadow work journaling can only include text. Draw, add photos, create a collage, and write symbols or emojis. Express yourself in whatever way seems most authentic at the time.
Remember, the work of the unconscious is often expressed in metaphors. Your doodle may trigger something in your memory that a well-crafted, double-spaced, spell-checked page of text never would.
5. Review and Reap the Benefits
Self-reflection is the key to meaningful shadow work. Part of the exercise is reviewing previous entries, not just making new ones. As you look through your journal, notice patterns in your thinking or behavior that may provide further insight into your shadow traits.
Tips for Shadow Work Journaling
As you become more experienced with shadow work journaling, you will develop your own system and style. Until you feel confident about the process, these tips can help you make your journaling practice more meaningful:
- Describe your joy and pain
- Be honest with yourself, even when it’s difficult
- Celebrate all growth, even if it’s a small step
- Enjoy the journey of learning about yourself
- Observe without judgment
- Understand the need for uncomfortable truths
- Celebrate the fact that you are trying
Don’t forget the value of shadow work aftercare. Developing routines that help balance and restore your emotions for those occasions when journaling brings up distressing memories or feelings may be helpful.
Ending each writing session with an affirmation, such as “I accept myself fully,” “I forgive myself for making mistakes,” or “I am proud of my willingness to grow as a person,” may be helpful.
You also may want to schedule a coffee date with a friend or do something good for yourself after an especially emotional journaling session, like go for a walk or prepare a healthy meal. Allowing yourself to recharge after working on yourself can help you stay motivated and fulfilled for the next time you’re ready to journal.
30 Shadow Work Journal Prompts to Try
Experienced journalers and those who are new to the practice often benefit from using journal prompts to help guide their journaling. Prompts help you get out of old ways of thinking and examine your shadow traits from a new perspective.
Shadow work journal prompts can help facilitate the process of exploring and integrating the repressed, hidden, or darker aspects of yourself in your shadow journal. Shadow work journaling prompts can sometimes seem unrelated to what you are currently experiencing, but if you trust the process and start writing, almost any prompt can take you to the places you most need to go.
Here are a few shadow journaling prompts to help you get started:
- What negative feelings did I experience today? What emotions did these feelings bring up, and how can I better understand and process them?
- What situations or people triggered the negative feelings I experienced today?
- What are some emotions or feelings I tend to avoid or suppress? Why might I be doing this, and what might be the root cause?
- What feelings of guilt or shame have I experienced lately?
- What are the underlying beliefs or fears that might be driving my feelings of guilt or shame, and how can I address them in a constructive way?
- How do I think others perceive me? How does this perception differ from how I perceive myself, and what might this reveal about my shadow aspects?
- What have others communicated to me about myself? How have these comments affected my self-image, and what do they reveal about qualities I may not be fully aware of?
- When was the last time I reacted to a situation strongly or defensively? What might this reaction reveal about an unresolved issue or hidden aspect within myself?
- How do I respond to compliments? What emotions or beliefs might be influencing my reactions to praise, and how can I work on embracing my positive qualities?
- What is a recurring pattern in my relationships or life circumstances? What might this pattern say about my unconscious beliefs or fears?
- What is a trait or behavior in others that triggers annoyance or discomfort in me? How might this be a reflection of something within myself that I need to address?
- When do I feel valued and loved? Are there times when I struggle to accept love or feel undeserving? What might this say about my relationship with myself?
- What challenges did I face as a child? How have these challenges shaped my adult self, and what unresolved issues might still be affecting me today?
- What are my best and worst traits? How can I identify any patterns or connections between these traits, and how can I work to integrate and balance them?
- What is a part about myself that I feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment about? How can I offer understanding, compassion, and acceptance to myself?
- Think about a time when you felt out of control or overwhelmed by your emotions. What can this experience teach you about your unmet needs or unexpressed feelings?
- What do I need to forgive myself for?
- How has holding onto guilt or regret impacted my life, and what steps can I take toward self-forgiveness and healing?
- What do I judge others for, and why? How might these judgments reflect my own insecurities or unacknowledged qualities?
- Reflect on a past decision or action that you regret. How can you reframe this experience as an opportunity for growth and self-forgiveness?
- Write a dialogue between your inner critic and your inner nurturer. What would each voice say to the other, and how can they find common ground?
- How do I support others? Do I show myself that same love?
- What do I consider to be healthy boundaries? Are there areas in my life where I struggle to set or maintain boundaries, and what might this reveal about my needs or fears?
- What are some limiting beliefs you hold about yourself or your abilities? Where do these beliefs come from, and how can you challenge them?
- When do I feel the need to lie? What is the worst lie I’ve told?
- What motivates me to be dishonest, and how might this relate to my shadow aspects?
- What parts of myself do I hide? Why do I feel the need to conceal these aspects, and how can I work on accepting and integrating them into my whole self?
- When do I feel most authentic and true to myself? In which situations or relationships do I find it challenging to be my authentic self, and what might this reveal about my hidden fears or beliefs?
- What are some dreams, aspirations, or desires that I have suppressed or abandoned? How do these unfulfilled dreams relate to my shadow aspects, and what can I do to rekindle or honor these parts of myself?
- If I imagine I am at the end of my life, looking back on the journey I’ve taken, what advice or guidance would I offer to my younger self about embracing and integrating my shadow aspects?
Remember that shadow work can be an intense and emotional process, so be gentle with yourself as you explore these prompts. If you find that any prompt brings up strong emotions or feels too overwhelming, consider seeking support from a mental health professional or a trusted friend.
Understand Yourself Better with Shadow Work Journaling
Are you ready to start the meaningful practice of shadow work journaling? By courageously delving into the depths of your subconscious and acknowledging your hidden thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, you can begin to heal and integrate these aspects of your psyche. Embrace the journey with openness and self-compassion, knowing that with every journal entry, you are taking a step closer to a more authentic, empowered, and self-aware version of yourself. Don’t shy away from the shadows; instead, unlock the benefits of shadow work journaling and pave the way for profound, lasting change in your life.
About the Author
Kristen Webb Wright is the author of three books on journaling. With a passion for writing and self-reflection, Kristen uses her experience with journaling to help others discover the benefits of documenting their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In her role at Day One, she helps to promote the power of journaling so people from all walks of life can experience the transformative power of journaling.
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Here at Day One, we’re on a mission to share the benefits of journaling for well-being and living a more meaningful life. Download the Day One journaling app today to start a daily journaling habit. Journaling reminders, daily writing prompts, and journaling streaks are designed to help keep you motivated.