Shadow Work and the Magic of Critical Introspection

Shadow Work and the Magic of Critical Introspection August 5, 2020

At first glance, “shadow work” can sound like an edgelord, revel in selfishness and baneful magic kind of thing.  In reality, it is an important part of modern psychology and key to achieving mental health and emotional wellbeing.

That sounds mundane, and it can be, but in spiritual and magical circles shadow work has far reaching affects.  Our minds and our hearts, in their entirety, down to the most buried shadows, inform how we interact with ourselves, other people, our communities, our traditions, deities, and magics.  All those things in turn affect our minds and our hearts, all the way down to our deepest shadows.

Through shadow work you can cultivate the ability to understand yourself to the core of your being. Image by Helmut Strasil from Pixabay

If you do not understand what lives in your shadow, you are never going to fully understand yourself, or why you do and believe all the things you do.

Shadow work is gritty, painful, difficult work to address those aspects of yourself around which you feel trauma, pain, avoidance, fear, anger, shame, hubris, and other “negative” emotions.  It is about taking those parts of yourself which are hidden or buried (deliberately or unintentionally) and bringing them to conscious awareness so they may be healed or otherwise dealt with.

Shadow work is simultaneously one of the most intimidatingly difficult things to commit to, and also one of the most rewarding.  It is a means by which you can come to better understand yourself, and consciously bring your full being into alignment with your truest self.  It is the path to inner peace, self-respect, self-love, and self-realization.  It is the path to overcoming or fully managing the things about yourself that bring you frustration, pain, and shame.

Shadow Work Can be Profoundly Intimidating

It is not easy to examine the deepest, most hidden and painful aspects of yourself.  They ended up in your shadow for a reason, and that reason usually involves wanting to ignore it, not being able to process or deal with it at the time it happened, or the full ramifications being too big to handle all at once.

Your shadow is where you hold the reasons behind your coping mechanisms and behaviors which once helped you through traumatic or abusive events, but now create problems or perpetuate trauma and abuse cycles.

Your shadow is where you hold formative learned behavior, like subconscious and unintentional racism, sexism, bigotry, ableism, and xenophobia.

Your shadow is where you hold formative and learned culture, compulsions, manners, and techniques for interacting with your fellow humans and yourself.

Your shadow is where you hold your fears and insecurities and doubts and shames, and the source of that internal voice which discourages you or tries to keep you down.

Your shadow is where you hold the causes of reactions and knee-jerk responses which you find problematic and baffling.  i.e., “I don’t know why I always do that!”

Your shadow is where you hold those integral, joyous, empowering parts of yourself which you have been taught to hide from the world.

That which lurks in the shadow can be extremely intimidating to face. Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Facing those things is never easy, but for just one moment, imagine how wonderful it would be if you did.  Imagine how you could be if you brought yourself into a place where you had mastered your reactions and coping mechanisms, freed yourself from behaviors and responses that are self-destructive or bring you pain, cleaned up all the skeletons in your closet that bring you anxiety, and felt the joy and fulfillment of embracing your truest self.

Just imagine that for a moment, no matter how fantastic or insane or unachievable that may seem.

It will not be easy, and it will not be quick, but it is possible, and it is entirely worth doing.

What is Critical Introspection?

Critical introspection is the skill of examining yourself with a critical eye, free from emotional responses and judgments like good, bad, anger, or shame.  Through critical introspection, you can cultivate the ability to consciously examine the roots of the thoughts, behaviors, reactions, beliefs, and opinions you have.  Then you can address those root issues and fundamentally alter your thoughts, behaviors, reactions, beliefs, and opinions so they are more fully in line with who you are, and who you want to be.

It is introspection because you are examining your inner self, down to the very core.  It is critical, because you are analytically examining the what, why, when, and how of your very self.

Critically Inspect One Thing at a Time

Shadow work can be overwhelming.  If you try to work on more than one thing, or worse, everything all at once, it is very likely you will quickly lose your bearings and find yourself drowning in a sea of issues that seem absolutely insurmountable.

It is essential to pick just one thing at a time to work on, so you do not overwhelm yourself. Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Metaphorically, when you first engage in shadow work it is not unlike being on a boat in the middle of an ocean that is full of garbage.  In order to do shadow work, you need to fish some of that garbage out of the water and reclaim, reform, recycle, or dispose of it.  This is going to be easiest to accomplish if you bring up a small about of garbage at a time so you can fully evaluate what it is, and deal with it in the best possible manner.

Trying to work on your entire shadow all at once is like pulling up as much garbage as you can, until you cannot move around the ship, reach the controls, or adjust the sails, while the weight of the garbage threatens to sink the ship entirely.  Sure, you have brought it all to light, but to what end?  You cannot effectively examine or deal with it, because you are now too busy simply trying to survive under the weight of it.

Pulling up one chunk of issues has a tendency to lead to another chunk of issues naturally.  Our emotions and traumas and responses tend to be interconnected and complex.  Deal with the first thing you pull up.  When you are ready, then pull up the next chunk, and so on.  It keeps it manageable.  It also means that when life inevitably happens and you do not have the emotional energy for your shadow work, it is relatively easy to set aside for later.

If you are using magic to augment your efforts at shadow work, take care that you are specific about what you are addressing, or how much you are seeking to address at the time.  Simply including the intent of “no more than I can handle right now” may do the trick.

Magic follows intent.  When using magic on your own psyche, it is astonishingly easy to impatiently say, “I want to get better right now,” and find yourself drowning in all your issues all at once.  Please take care not to do that to yourself.  Shadow work is hard enough when you give it the time it needs, and it does take time.

Part of doing shadow work is embracing your shadow through deeper understanding. Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Having a Shadow is not a Bad Thing

The goal of shadow work should never be to completely eliminate your shadow.  It is a genuinely important part of your psyche.  It allows you to compartmentalize and deal with pressing matters despite trauma, pain, and hardship.  It is key to coping with difficult and stressful situations, which are a natural and inevitable part of being alive.

Shadow becomes problematic when you leave things there to fester and stew, so they cause problems or adversely affect other parts of your life.

Shadow work is a life-long endeavor.  You never stop adding to your shadow, and there is always something old lurking in the depths, yet to be uncovered.  Some of the garbage life throws at you is bound to be internalized and descend into your shadow, no matter how careful you are about shielding and warding.  Also, traumas and coping mechanisms tend to be multi-layered, meaning that you can find yourself pulling up new aspects years after you thought you had finished dealing with something.

It is the process of ongoing shadow work that keeps your shadow ocean clean and healthy, even as it continues to hold unknown aspects yet to be discovered.

Focus on judging your shadow aspects only reinforces the problems you hope to heal. Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay

Critical Introspection Must be Judgement Free

When you first endeavor to address shadow work or engage in critical introspection, the natural tendency is to combatively judge everything.  This makes sense, since most things that you hold in your shadow are things you probably already feel guilt, shame, fear, or anger about.  You most likely already think they are bad, so it is natural to judge them in that light.

It may make sense, but being judgmental is also highly counter-productive.

Instead of healing your problems, being judgmental reinforces the root causes of your problems.  It makes them even more entrenched.  If you pile negative judgement onto something you already feel guilty about, it will only make the guilt worse and prevent you from addressing the core issues that are causing the guilt.

The things that exist in your shadow, exist in your shadow.  They must be examined and dealt with as they are.  Toxic positivity, spiritual bypassing, and judgmental behavior are not going to change that or make them miraculously go away.

“It is bad that I feel guilty for being awkward in public,” focuses entirely on the badness of the guilt, and ignores the cause of the guilt.

“I am awkward in public, which makes me feel guilty,” frames the problem such that it can be addressed and helped.  It shifts the focus from “guilt” to “awkward in public”.  We do not choose our emotions.  We just feel them.  “Awkward in public” is a problem that can be helped over time and with work, whether that is by making peace with your awkwardness, by working to be less awkward, or a combination of the two.

If you are having trouble not judging yourself, please make this the very first piece of shadow work you address.  Avoiding self-destructive judgement and being compassionate with yourself really is key to being successful at critical introspection and shadow work.  It will probably also help with other aspects of your life in tremendous ways.

You must be compassionate with yourself in order to succeed at shadow work. Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Critical Introspection is a Skill That Must be Developed

When you start out, you are likely to be terrible at critical introspection.  I know I was, and despite my frustration at the slow pace of my improvement, that was a blessing.  It makes the work slower, and inefficiently.  This helps keep your introspective efforts from overwhelming you, and helps keep you from trying to do too much all at once.

Over time and as you get better at it, you will develop your ability to understand how much load you can handle at once.  You will get better at asking yourself the questions you need to answer to work through things, and at discerning the answers to those questions.  You will get better at addressing root problems, and making changes you need to make to find peace with yourself.

It never gets easy, but you will get better at it, and it will make a difference in your life.

Key Questions to Ask Yourself When Doing Critical Introspection

These questions are suggestions, and the ones I tend to ask myself when doing critical introspection.  You may find that the questions you need to answer are a little different, or very different.  That is fine.  The important part is to ask yourself questions, and be critical about the honesty of your answers, even if the answer is “I don’t know.”

Also, these questions do not necessarily need to be asked in this specific order.  I have placed them in roughly the order I typically use, but even I do not use every question or this order every time.  Sadly, there is no one method, one road map, which will allow you to work with every shadow aspect effectively.  You must adapt for each issue, avoid focusing on judgmental valuation, and be compassionate with yourself.

When first engaging in critical introspection, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay

What is the visible problem?

This can be anything about yourself that you find painful, difficult, or problematic.  In the example above, it was “awkward in public”.  Other broad categories of problems are knee-jerk responses to circumstances, unexpectedly strong emotional responses to minor events, bad habits, self-destructive behavior or thoughts, self-depreciating behavior or thoughts, denial of self (gender, sexuality, neural type, mental illness, etc.), cultural conditioning (manners, racism, morals, religion, etc.), and so on.

Since these are all general categories, please be more specific about exactly what you want to work on.  For example, if you have a lot of self-destructive behaviors, using that entire category as your focus could land you with a boat overflowing with garbage you cannot sort through.  “Stop pushing away friends,” is a much more specific and manageable (if still intimidating) focus compared to “self-destructive behavior.”  You can get even more focused than that, by choosing one single behavior that tends to alienate friends.

If you are working on not judging yourself, the visible problem and focus is going to be something like, “I judge myself and my emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ too frequently,” or, “I need to extend to myself the same compassion I give to other people.”

Using critical thinking and compassion, write down all the reasons your focus is a problem. Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Why is this a problem?

Evaluate in what way this problem brings you pain or difficulties.  Be completely honest and contemplate or write down as many “why” answers as you can.  Realize that no matter how many you write down, there will probably be more that come to the surface as you work on the problem.

For the “awkward in public” problem, it could be that it causes embarrassment, you don’t know how to talk to strangers, you feel like everyone is staring at you even when they aren’t, you feel like everyone is ignoring you, you wonder if your friends actually like you, you freeze up when attention is focused on you, etc.

This is a drill-down question, which can bring up a mountain of tangled issues and garbage.  Do not attempt to process all of it right now.  The most important part is to acknowledge all those why’s, so you have a good bearing on what may need to change in order to heal that problem.  You may even discover a different problem that will need to be addressed first, and that is fine.  Don’t forget about the rest of it, but choose just one to focus on.

Being too judgmental, for example, causes you to dwell on negativity.  It obstructs progress by focusing on moral valuation, when your attention should be on how to address and fix the problem at hand.  It causes you to beat up on yourself, when you could instead be changing the things that upset you.  It feeds depression and anxiety, and destroys self-worth and self-confidence.  It can create self-destructive behaviors, and alienate friends and allies.  It can lead to tolerance of abusive behavior directed at you, because abuse feels deserved and validates the judgmental feelings.

It is profoundly important to acknowledge and allow your feeling, all of them, without judgement and with compassion. Image by John Hain from Pixabay

How do I feel about this problem?

Part of being non-judgmental is recognizing how things make you feel, no matter what those feelings are.  Acknowledge your feelings, and respect them.  The results of doing so, with sincerity, may just astonish you.

What caused this problem?

This is where we start diving deep into shadow and looking for roots to dredge up.  You may find that there was one single event which triggered the problem, that there is a whole host of events, or that you have no idea where it came from.  There is no wrong answer, and if the problem is a big problem, it can take years to sort it all out.

This question is important because it is the path to healing.  Let us say your problem stems from a coping mechanism which at one point helped you to survive a traumatic situation or event.  If you only focus on the mechanism, it is like treating a wound that is infected without cleaning it or applying antibiotics.  Sure, it might form a scab, and might even scar over, but it will keep itching and breaking open now and again because the underlying infection has been allowed to fester.

When you examine and heal the root issues of your problems, you have the best possible chance of achieving true recovery and permanent alteration of the problem.  Healing at the root level also often means that other visible problems stemming from the same root will often resolve themselves along with your focus problem.

Sometimes the things we think are problems, are not. Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Is this really a problem?

When you examine the why and the what, you may find that it is not as bad as you initially thought it was.  Perhaps you thought it was a problem because you had been taught that it was a problem, as often happens to people who are queer or genderqueer, or who are drawn to spiritual paths which are different from that of their parents.  It might be a result of inherent traits, like neurodiversity, disability, or personality, which can be managed, but not changed.

Take the time to consider if the problem is a problem for you, or if it is really a problem for other people.  If you find it is the latter, examine those expectations and that conditioning, and you may just find the problem you need to work on instead.  It is important to be considerate of your fellow humans in order to live in a society, but at the end of the day, you are only accountable to yourself.

It is also possible that in examining the what, why, and how of your problem, you may find that the “problem” actually makes sense and should continue.  It may be a good way to do things given your current situation, even if it is in some ways problematic.  Behaviors are rarely entirely beneficial or entirely detrimental, and instead will have pros and cons that can be weighed, and then mitigated as needed.

If you find this is the case, accept and make peace with your “problem” and focus on what you can do to minimize its drawbacks.

Once the root of a problem has been found, the real work starts. Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

What can I change to fix this problem?

This is where the real-world work comes in.  This often involves the incredibly difficult work of changing patterns and habits.  The ways you want to change can require doing things that are uncomfortable or terrifying.  Take it slow, and do not give up on yourself, even when you fall off the wagon or have significant setbacks.  If you sincerely wish to change your problem, you must do the work, and that work is never a straight or smoothly paved road.

As Yoda says, “Do, or do not.”  The part he forgot to mention is that the doing can be a lengthy process full of temporary setbacks, but as long as you are still doing, you are doing it right.

Is this change worth it? Is it something I sincerely want to do?

It is possible that not every aspect of your problem needs to change.  Making the change may require that you sacrifice something of value, or it may simply not be something you actually want to change.  Examine the pros and cons of making the change, and come to a conscious understanding of why you are not making the change.  That way it can be healed and reclaimed, and reluctance will not become an excuse to shove your problem back into your shadow self where it can be ignored while it festers.

It is important to be able to acknowledge when it is not the right time for shadow work. Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

Can I tackle this right now?

Once you have examined your problem, and have a good idea of what changes you will need to make, you need to decide on your specific course of action.  That includes evaluating if, at this time, you have the emotional, mental, and physical energy to actually make those changes.  Try not to procrastinate forever, but be aware of what else is going on in your life.  There is little benefit to intensely focusing on shadow work if it causes undo harm to other important things in your life.

If that is an issue, decide if you need to proceed with smaller steps or pieces of your problem, or if you should focus on an easier, entirely different problem.  There is no shame in setting aside something to work on later, provided doing so does not become an excuse to avoid dealing with it forever.  Be compassionate with yourself.

The voice of fear tends to loudly scream at you and inspire dread. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Are these changes that I can actually accomplish?

The voice of fear is powerful, and it can be hard to distinguish from more reasonable voices.  As you cultivate the ability to be non-judgmental and compassionate with yourself, it will become easier.  The best advice I can give is that the voice of fear tends to be loud and obnoxious and incredibly insistent.  It screams at you, and hates to be ignored.  The voice of limits on your capabilities tends to be much quieter and inspire frustration rather than dread.

I have struggled with disability for a decade now.  I am doing all that I can to mitigate it, but it still exists.  I feel a tremendous amount of frustration when I am not capable of doing things I sincerely want to do, just because of that disability.

This kind of inability to make changes can result from things that are not a disability, but simply a limit on your capabilities.  We all have limits.  However, if you want something it is important to put in the effort, because you may not know your limits.  That voice might be fear and insecurity, telling you that you are not capable, when in reality you are.

If you find that you cannot do something, it becomes increasingly important to make peace with that limitation so the frustration of it does not fester in your shadow and also consume other areas of your life.

Making peace with the things we cannot change is profoundly important. Image by ntnvnc from Pixabay

What do I need to make peace with, and how do I do that?

This is probably one of the most difficult questions to answer, or at least it is for me.  It can be incredibly difficult to make peace with something that you desperately wish to change.  Yet, it is important to accept the things about yourself that you cannot change – the things that are inherent parts of who you are.

Also, the answer to this question can change over time.  You may, for example, make peace with a trauma in your past.  You may feel you have closure, and not think about it for a length of time.  Then, one day, you encounter a trigger or reminder which brings up a new aspect of that old trauma, or the entire trauma, like a scar that pulls and splits and needs attention anew.

Sometimes you can make peace with something because you are not yet in a place to do the work to heal it.  Then, later, when you are able to deal with it, that peace is lifted so you can do the work.

Sometimes you make peace with something because that is truly the way to heal and move on or feel whole.

The Magic of Critical Introspection

Magic is achieved through the application of will.  Shadow work is a way to exercise your will on your own consciousness and subconscious.  Through this work you can become more in tune with your truest self, and your core power.  Magic and ritual can benefit shadow work, and shadow work in turn benefits your magic and practice.

Magic and ritual can benefit shadow work, and shadow work in turn benefits your magic and practice. Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Meditation

It was through the practice of critical introspection that I learned meditation and trance.  Meditation in particular is an ideally suited tool for engaging with your subconscious, no matter the method of meditation you use, or where you do it.

Appeal to Deity/Spirits/Ancestors

If you have deities, spirits, ancestors, guides, or other noncorporeal entities you work with, you can appeal to them for help with your shadow work.  This does not absolve you of needing to do the work, but they are often able to help in a variety of ways, from helping to clarify your introspective efforts, providing support to aid in the healing process, supporting necessary changes, and much more.

Ritual and Formal Spellwork

You can craft ritual or spellwork that is focused on aiding you with the process of shadow work.  I recommend being specific about what you want to work on, and in what way.  Exactly what form that ritual or spell will take depends greatly upon your path and how you work.

Artistic and Creative Outlets

It can be incredibly helpful to give solid form to the thoughts and emotions we have around trauma and pain.  If you find yourself running mental circles around an issue, do something to give it form.  If you are artistically or creatively inclined, this can be anything from emotional drawing/painting, to carefully crafting a representational quilt, creating a sculpture, writing or playing music, etc.

Writing can be helpful to understanding and processing your shadow work, especially if you are confused or anxious. Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Writing

Even if you are not an eloquent writer, it can be beneficial to write down your thoughts, emotions, and memories.  Include everything, even if it seems silly, stupid, or pointless.  If you feel it, it matters, and simply giving it the recognition of putting it to reality can be profoundly healing.  It can also help you to organize your thoughts, and be able to more clearly answer your introspective questions.

The more confused you feel, the more helpful this kind of exercise can be.  Start with what you can articulate, even if it is just your frustration and confusion, and expound from there.  Stream of consciousness writing is also potentially helpful when you are truly stuck.  Follow the threads of your emotions and thoughts to wherever they lead.

You may choose to do all your writing by hand in a fancy journal, on scraps of paper that later get burned or thrown in the recycling, on your computer or tablet or phone, or somewhere else entirely.  You may want to share your writings with others, or keep them entirely to yourself.  It really does not matter.  The important part is just to get things out of your head so you can view them with greater objectivity and clarity.

Professional help can be invaluable when engaging with shadow work. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Professional Help

I am writing from a place of personal experience, not academic expertise.  I saw therapists off and on as a child, and I began consciously engaging in critical introspection at about the age of 15.  It took me approximately 10 years to reach a point where I was finally happy with who I was.  I did this work alone, without professional help, because I was poor and most of those years did not have any health insurance and could not access professional help.  As of writing this I am now 42, I still actively engage in critical introspection and shadow work, and the process will continue until the day I die.

The techniques I was taught by therapists as a child proved invaluable to my later shadow work, even though I no longer had access to professional aid.  You do not need to be diagnosed with a specific mental health problem to benefit from the help of a skilled professional psychiatrist or licensed therapist.  They can be profoundly helpful with shadow work, by helping you to identify, clarify, and work through your problems, your questions, your root causes, and the changes you decide to undertake.

If you do have the ability and the desire to seek professional help, interview prospective therapists and psychologists before or during the first appointment.  Not all professionals are good at their job, and not all professionals will be the right fit for you.  Make a checklist of things that matter to you or you are worried about being judged for, and go into it with a good idea of what answers you want, or don’t want.  If they are not a good fit, try someone else.

Since you are reading this blog, I am going to assume you are involved in witchcraft, paganism, or some other alternative spirituality or magical or religious tradition.  In that case, at the top of the list of questions to ask should be how your prospective therapist or psychiatrist views witchcraft, magic, paganism, animism, and other less common religious, spiritual, or cosmological views.  If the professional in question sees belief in magic as insane, or believes animism is a symptom of schizophrenia, they are probably not going to be objective enough to help you.

Ask all the questions you need to, to be sure you can get the help you need. Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

Other common sticking points can be sexuality and gender, and not all professionals are as objective on these issues as they should be.  If they do not believe your sexuality or gender is real, or believe it is a mental illness, opening up to them will create more problems than it solves.

It is also fair to make sure they are not racists, bigoted, ableist, sexist, or xenophobic, even if their prejudice would not be aimed at you personally.  People who hold such views are problematic, and I cannot recommend sharing your shadow issues with them in such an intimate environment.

There is no such thing as a stupid question to ask them in the interview.  Ask anything that you are concerned about.  If they are dismissive or belittling of your concerns, even the minor or “stupid” ones, that is another fantastic indication that you should see a different therapist or psychiatrist.

Additional Resources

Shadow work is so important that there is no shortage of articles written about it.  I am far from the first, and I will certainly not be the last, because there is no one way to approach shadow work.  If you are interested in further reading and other approaches, these are just a handful of the quality articles to be found.

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