What Chronic Pain Can Teach Us About Avoiding Shadow Work

What Chronic Pain Can Teach Us About Avoiding Shadow Work December 23, 2020

Doing shadow work is painful.  It is hard.  It takes time and energy, and can seem like there is no end in sight.  It can be incredibly difficult to understand or believe in the benefits of shadow work before you start to attain them.  Sometimes a single issue can remain poignant your entire life no matter how much you work on it, and dedicating yourself to doing shadow work is definitely a life-long process.  Given all of that, it is no wonder that many people look at shadow work and decide it is not for them.

Just contemplating working on a shadow issue can invoke pain and fear.
Just contemplating working on a shadow issue can invoke pain and fear. Image by Etienne Marais from Pixabay

It is easy to look at all the pain and work involved in addressing shadow issues, because that is tangible.  It is easy to feel the pain of simply contemplating addressing an issue (not working on it, just thinking about working on it), and decide that those dubious benefits are not worth it.  It is easy to decide that it is better to live with the known, familiar, “ignorable” pain of never healing your trauma.  It can seem far easier to just continue with the mental/emotional equivalent of chronic pain, because you already know how to live with it.

A Brief Summary of Living with Chronic Pain

I have lived with chronic pain for well over a decade now, and I dedicated myself to doing shadow work nearly three decades ago, so I have some experience in both these areas.  Honestly, it surprises me I did not draw this correlation sooner.

If you have never had chronic pain, it is easy to think that it would be a consistent thing, but it is not.  My pain is neurological in nature, but I know people who have chronic pain from physical injuries, and it is not consistent for any of us.  There is usually a baseline expectation, an “average” or “typical” level of pain, but some days are markedly better or worse than others.  If you have lived with chronic pain long enough, you eventually figure out triggers which make it worse, and therapies which usually help, but there will still be days where the reasons for higher or lower pain are a mystery or even contrary to expectation.  Yes, that is as frustrating as it sounds.

When you live with chronic pain, it also becomes part of the background of your life, an inconvenience that you grit your teeth and ignore as best you can so you can continue doing the things you want to do.  We really do end up with a totally different idea of what level of pain can be ignored, because some amount of pain is a constant.  I was a pain wuss before I got sick, and now I tend to give little to no indication of my pain unless I am hitting at least a 6 on a 1-10 scale.  When I hit a 9, I tend to close my eyes, stop engaging with the world, and squeak a little.  Thanks to medical care, these days my typical pain is between 3-5, rather than the 5-7 of a few years ago.

Despite becoming in many ways capable of “ignoring” the pain, it still impacts life and must be kept in mind.  That is, if you completely ignore the pain and what is triggering it, and instead just do whatever you want to, you will usually end up paying a hefty price and in the long run accomplish even less.  That means that in order to accomplish as much as is possible, you must make adjustments to what you do and how you do it.  If you do not make adjustments, you are setting yourself up for failure as your body responds with a, “Ignore me, will you?!?!” and punishes you with increased pain (and likely other symptoms as well) which are too intense to be ignored.

If you completely ignore chronic pain you are going to let yourself down hard.
If you completely ignore chronic pain you are going to let yourself down hard. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

It is also worth mentioning that the longer you live with chronic pain, the harder it is to remember exactly what it was like to live without that pain.  By the same token, when the pain reduces, it is hard to remember exactly what it was like to live at a higher pain level.  The human mind is funny that way.  I can remember that I daily lived at a 5-7, but the memory is softened by time, distancing the recollection of exactly how that level of constant pain felt.  I can remember that I used to live pain-free, along with all the things that allowed me to do, but when I think about being pain-free it feels like a fantasy outside of my direct personal experience.  I rarely even dream about it anymore.

The Price of Not Doing Shadow Work Involving Trauma

When you experience a trauma, big or small, it creates a wound in your psyche.  I believe the phrase, “Time heals all wounds,” refers to the fact that as time passes, the wounds caused by trauma have a tendency to settle into the shadow self.  As they do so, they become buffered from the conscious mind, and thus likely to seem less painful and immediate.  The pain feels healed because it is possible to stop thinking about the trauma constantly.  It is possible to somewhat ignore the trauma and the wounds it caused so you can go about your life in a relatively normal way.

Yet, those wounds remain, and they cause pain whenever you are reminded of them.  They inspire coping mechanisms to avoid future wounds, or to avoid reopening the existing wounds.  Reminders can bring the trauma back to the conscious mind, where the pain and immediacy of the wounds it created can seem just as poignant as when the trauma was new, because it never truly healed at all.  During those times when it feels healed, it is in a place of out of sight, out of mind.  That is a very different thing from healing.

Chronic pain, whether physical or emotional, becomes part of the background noise of life, familiar and known even when it causes problems.
Chronic pain, whether physical or emotional, becomes part of the background noise of life, familiar and known even when it causes problems. Image by kalhh from Pixabay

How Shadow Issues are Like Chronic Pain

Like with chronic pain, wounds from shadow issues become part of the background noise of your life.  The constant presence of it makes it mostly ignorable, because the human mind is funny that way.  That which is omnipresent becomes something you can avoid looking at, even if it continually affects you, like the proverbial elephant in the room.  Even if you cannot ignore it, it becomes comfortably familiar, and thus less intimidating than worst-case scenarios brought about by change.

Just like with chronic pain, ignoring it does not mean the pain does not exist.  You can ignore an obstacle in the road, but if you hit it with your car you are still going to get into an accident.  You can ignore chronic pain, but if you ignore it to the point of doing things that exacerbate the pain, you are probably going to have a very bad day (or maybe several bad days).   You can ignore your shadow issues, but when you encounter triggers for the trauma or your coping mechanisms, it is going to hurt and you are likely to respond in a traumatized way.

Also, just like with chronic pain, trauma pain and shadow pain are variable things.  Some days are better or worse than others, even after doing shadow work.  If you never consciously understand how and why you are triggered, the ups and downs will all remain a mystery.  Since it is that much more difficult to manage triggers when you do not understand them, it is natural to instead turn to avoidance and other coping mechanisms.

Those coping mechanisms can give the impression that the pain and trauma is managed, even when it is not.  Letting the wounds sink into your shadow can give the impression that the pain and trauma is healed, even when it is not.  This is very much like when people avoid activities and situations that exacerbate chronic pain in order to avoid seeking medical treatment or dealing with skeptical doctors.  It can mitigate, sort-of, but it is not a real solution.

Even thinking about working on shadow issues can bring up intense pain, because until you do the shadow work, the trauma is not healed or truly managed.
Even thinking about working on shadow issues can bring up intense pain, because until you do the shadow work, the trauma is not healed or truly managed. Image by Ajay kumar Singh from Pixabay

Shadow Work is Intimidating

Shadow work can seem profoundly intimidating because just thinking about addressing shadow issues, especially issues around trauma, brings those wounds into your conscious mind where the pain can be felt.  It is completely natural to believe that actually working on them, which involves deliberately contemplating them, is going to be even more painful.  Most of the time that assumption is correct, at least in the short term.

It is also frightening to think about reaching down into murky depths when you have no idea what is hiding there.  When you have done no shadow work, it is likely you are ignorant of exactly what might bite you if you start pulling up your issues.  Fear of the unknown is a very real thing for most people.

Also, shadow work is not instant.  It takes time and effort to unpeel the layers and genuinely address and heal the wounds.  Sometimes complete healing, where the issue no longer affects your life, is not possible, like a wound that leaves a bad scar that pulls and regularly needs lotion to keep it supple.  When the trauma is severe (like events that cause PTSD) or formative (like childhood abuse), dealing with a single shadow issue or cluster of issues can be a lifelong process with no true completion.  I have a great many persistent shadow issues stemming from childhood abuse which are too pervasive to ever be entirely a thing of the past, but I am much better off for the healing I have done and continue to do.

It can be very difficult to believe that shadow work is worth the pain and effort.  This is especially true when the touted benefits seem like pipe dreams, just thinking about working on it is overwhelmingly painful, and/or you understand that the work may never end.

When you understand what is hiding in the depths of your shadow, you have less to fear, and fewer surprises to encounter.
When you understand what is hiding in the depths of your shadow, you have less to fear, and fewer surprises to encounter. Image by Please do not use my photos show people for commercial use from Pixabay

The Magical and Social Benefits of Shadow Work

Despite all of that, there are profound benefits to shadow work.  When you do shadow work, you bring conscious awareness to your motivations and behaviors.  This means that as you go through life you are able to consciously choose your actions, instead of just reacting.

Our shadows, no matter how well explored, always have an element of mystery to them, but the more familiar we are with what is in there, the less likely we are to encounter genuine surprises.

When you do not understand what is in your shadow, those unknown depths can and will influence or even determine what you do in different situations.  This includes unhealthy or damaging coping mechanisms, self-destructive behavior, reactions to triggers, and more.  When you do the work to bring your shadow issues to conscious awareness and heal them, you can finally understand why you do things, and over time choose a healthier course of action.

Magic is at its most powerful and effective when we can act with fully conscious intention.  If you do not understand what is in your shadow, your motivations, intentions, and emotions will never be fully conscious and understood.  This easily leads to spells that misfire, misdirect, or fizzle out, as your shadow issues and motivations interfere with your conscious intentions.  That is a large reason why shadow work is emphasized in witchcraft and magical communities.

Shadow work is effective pain management, and a key ingredient to effective magic.
Shadow work is effective pain management, and a key ingredient to effective magic. Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay

Shadow Work is Effective Pain Management

Some forms of chronic pain can be effectively managed by pharmaceutical options, but most of the time medications are just one of many tools a chronically ill person uses.  The more therapies and treatments a person has access to, usually the better the pain and any other symptoms are managed.  Under ideal circumstances, all medications, therapies, and other treatments are conducted under the supervision of a competent doctor, so that they can be adjusted as needed over time for greatest efficacy.

Inebriation can soothe emotional and mental pain, but on its own it is unlikely to be a practical or healthy option for daily management.  Prescription psychological medications can be incredibly helpful for many people, but for full efficacy they require simultaneously working with a mental health professional.  Just popping pills is rarely enough for effective management, let alone healing.

When you engage with a shadow issue, at first it can be far more painful than ignoring or avoiding it.  Exactly how painful and how long this stage lasts depends on the issue, the person, and how it is being treated, but as the work continues and the wounds heal, the pain lessens.  Unlike with letting the wounds sink into your shadow, this reduced pain is genuine.  When reminders happen, you no longer get slapped in the face with a gaping, festering wound that feels just as, or maybe more painful than when the trauma first happened.  You no longer need to avoid reminders, unless you consciously decide that is what you would rather do.

As you do shadow work, you can find healthy ways to genuinely manage your pain and trauma.  Like my average chronic pain dropping from a 5-7 to a 3-5, even if some pain remains, most days it can be managed and mitigated through conscious action.

Depending upon you and your trauma, you may even be able to eventually live mostly pain-free, like a person who endures multiple surgeries and months or years of physical therapy, and eventually regains their health after a serious injury.  When the weather changes suddenly such individuals may be poignantly aware of the injury, but most days they do not even have to think about it anymore.

Everyone can benefit from shadow work, but not everyone is in the right circumstances to do it in a healthy way.
Everyone can benefit from shadow work, but not everyone is in the right circumstances to do it in a healthy way. Image by John Forster from Pixabay

Shadow Work Both Is and Is Not for Everyone

I am a firm believer that anyone and everyone can benefit from shadow work, but that does not mean every person can or will do so.  There are situations and people for whom stubbornly diving into shadow work, especially without the aid of a skilled mental health professional*, can be more damaging than leaving the shadow alone.  With severe trauma, it can be a lot like trying to set a broken limb without even understanding basic first aid or having access to pain killers and anti-inflammatories.  You may inadvertently cause more damage than good, and would be best off doing all your shadow work with the aid of a skilled mental health professional.

If your shadow work relates to bad habits, a simple lack of self-awareness, or other minor issues, the risk of causing yourself harm is extremely low.  Even if you do not know basic first aid, you are not likely to cause yourself irreversible harm cleaning up a skinned knee, although your lack of knowledge might make the healing process take longer.

The risks of harm are increased by severe trauma, some manifestations of neurodiversity, or if you have other mental conditions (OCD, bipolar, and depression, to name just three) that complicate or can easily be confused with shadow issues.  If you have mental complications, I recommend reading A Neurodivergent Guide to the Shadow Self, by Nikki Zang Roszko over at The Way of Witch.

Some shadow issues genuinely are overwhelming, and it is best not to try and do it alone.
Some shadow issues genuinely are overwhelming, and it is best not to try and do it alone. Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If traumas which require shadow work are severe enough, they may not just seem overwhelming.  They may truly be overwhelming, especially if you are thinking about tackling them alone.  In such cases, trying to stubbornly buckle down and do the shadow work anyway can be profoundly harmful.  Even if you approach it with the best of intentions, it is possible to reinforce and more deeply entrench fears, insecurities, and coping mechanisms, instead of healing them.

Even if none of that is an issue for you, shadow work does take time and energy that ignoring shadow issues does not.  If life is already busy or overwhelming with day-to-day demands, adding shadow work to the pile can throw everything into chaos.  Sometimes, for some people, that upheaval is a good thing, but most of the time that kind of upheaval is terrible, or at least not the best way to go about it.

Be Willing to Seek Professional Help if You Can

I wish it was not a privilege to be able to see a mental health professional in the USA.  I have done almost all of my shadow work alone, so I know it can be done, but that is not necessarily ideal, or even possible for many people.  Certainly, my own shadow work probably would have gone faster and been easier with some help along the way.

If you have the ability to access help from a skilled mental health professional, I highly recommend it, especially when you are first starting your journey into shadow work.  A skilled professional is so much more than just a compassionate ear to talk to.  They can help to demystify the process of shadow work, and can provide you with tools for doing your shadow work effectively and safely.  A skilled professional will have the experience to be able to help you sort out the confusing quagmire of your shadow issues, guide you to do it in manageable chunks, and help you know when it is time to either take a break or buckle down and work harder.

And if you were wondering, you absolutely can, and should, be picky about who you work with.  Not every professional will be ideal for every patient (they might be great with someone else, but not so much with you), unethical professionals do exist, and sometimes they just are not as good at their job as you need.

Do your research and ask questions when you are looking for a new mental health professional.
Do your research and ask questions when you are looking for a new mental health professional. Image by Christiana Mergan from Pixabay

Feel free to ask about referrals, check reviews online, and go in with a list of interview questions to the first session.  My interview questions would be designed to ensure the professional I saw was open to animism, polytheism, and magic as components of valid spiritual paths, and that they were not racist, bigoted, etc.

You may have more or less criteria than that, but it is important to bring a list of interview questions.  Do not get personal in your questions.  There is no need to invade their privacy, and if they are ethical, they will not want to be buddies with their patients.  Keep it to questions of ethics and principles, and of openness to different ways of approaching life.  If the professional completely refuses to be interviewed, or seems affronted that you might question their fit for you, those are huge red flags to go somewhere else.

You might end up with a professional who seems good, yet is not working out for you.  Take some time to consider if the impression of it “not working out” is genuine, if you are being impatient, or if you are engaging in an avoidance tactic.  Talk it out with your mental health professional.  They may be able to suggest different approaches, and if none of those pan out, they may be able to recommend someone else who is a better fit for your needs.

If medications can help you, whether you need them short term or long term, the only way you are going to be able to access them is with the help of a professional.  If you know or suspect you will benefit from medication, screen your mental health professionals by their ability to write prescriptions before you ever make an appointment.  It would be profoundly disappointing to find the perfect therapist to work with, only to find out they cannot prescribe you the medications you need.

No matter how you choose to approach shadow work, it is a long, often obscure road.
No matter how you choose to approach shadow work, it is a long, often obscure road. Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay

Going it Alone

It is possible to do shadow work without the help of a mental health professional.  Sometimes working with a professional for a time will give you the tools you need to do it alone, or you can mostly do it alone and only need a professional when working through the rough stuff.  Other times you can just go it alone from the start.  I did see therapists as a child, and although they never used the term “shadow work”, they were invaluable in teaching me skills I would later apply to shadow work.

The two most helpful tools I have for shadow work are meditation and critical introspection.  Divination can also be helpful, especially when you are lost and do not know how to proceed.

Keep your work small, especially when you are new to shadow work.  Pick one small issue to work on.  When you are feeling good about that, move on to the next.  By keeping it manageable, you are far less likely to harm yourself, upend your life, or flirt with burnout.

When you need to take a break, take a break.  Those shadow issues are not going anywhere, and if you need to you can deal with them tomorrow, or next week, or next year.  Also, be willing to shift what issue(s) you are working on.  If you feel stuck, it might be because you need to address other issues before you can do deeper healing.  Traumas tend to interrelate and influence each other, and it is normal to circle back around to earlier issues, even if you thought you were done with them.

Beyond that, read up as much as you can about shadow work, not just from me.  There are a lot of other pagan and witch bloggers who have written extensively about shadow work, and articles written by mental health professionals can be invaluable.  What is effective for one person is not necessarily effective for another person.  Reading multiple perspectives with multiple areas of knowledge will help you to better grasp the techniques that will be most effective for you.

I keep my <a href=”https://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2020/04/the-balancing-path-stress-and-anxiety-management-sigil/”>Stress and Anxiety Management Sigil</a> drawn on my arm. Photo by author.
I keep my Stress and Anxiety Management Sigil drawn on my arm. Photo by author.

Magic and Shadow Work

Be careful with casting magic spells specifically for shadow work, especially when you are first starting, because it is easy to misfire.  If you do a blanket spell for, “I want to heal all my shadow issues,” and it works, you are likely to find yourself inundated with every shadow issue rearing up out of the depths all at the same time like some cthulonic monster trying to drown and eat you.  There is no one, and I mean no one, who can genuinely handle that without creating a lot of personal harm along the way.

Once you have a good handle on how to work with your shadow, it may be possible to craft spells which are sincerely helpful, but they are likely to be very specific to what you are working on at the time you cast the spell.

Spells for helping manage symptoms are usually a safe bet, and I highly recommend doing that kind of magic from the start.  I keep my Stress and Anxiety Management Sigil drawn on my arm, and someday hope to get it tattooed there.  Collect or craft spells to help with the symptoms which make it hard for you to do your shadow work, or which interfere with your ability to live your life the way you want to.  Just remember that these spells are aids, not solutions.  Be sure to continue to do the shadow work along the way.

The work involved in managing chronic pain and the shadow is a journey well worth taking.
The work involved in managing chronic pain and the shadow is a journey well worth taking. Image by Ольга Белая from Pixabay

Shadow Work and Chronic Pain are Both Manageable

Both shadow issues and chronic pain exist whether or not we want them to.  You cannot just magically wish them away.

Doing shadow work is hard.  Managing chronic pain is hard.  Both shadow issues and chronic pain have less negative impact on quality of life when they are deliberately managed in healthy ways.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is worth putting in the effort to have that increased quality of life, but exactly what approach will work best is very individualized.

Figuring out the approach that works best for you will take trial and error.  Just like yoga is not the perfect solution for every chronic pain sufferer, there is no universal cure-all for shadow work.  It will take time to get your bearings and do the work in your best way.  It is also never too late to start or pick it back up, and I hope you will choose to engage with your shadow, whether that dedication occurs fifty years ago, today, or fifty years from now.

I promise you it is a journey worth taking.

 

*I am using the term “mental health professional” and “professional” instead of “therapist” or “psychiatrist” because there are many different kinds of mental health professionals, all of whom are capable of providing valuable services to meet diverse needs.  Choose the kind which is most appropriate for your needs that you have access to.

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