‘Interrogating the Shadow:’ A Tool for Shadow Work

By Adam J. Pearson

Shadows and Shadow Work Recap:
Shadows are those contents of the mind that feel uncomfortable, painful, terrifying, anxiety-inducing, or otherwise disturbing to us. We know them when they arise because they hurt, disturb, or make us feel limited in some way. ’Shadow work‘ is the process of actively acknowledging, facing, exploring, working through, and allowing our shadows to arise, be present, and subside. Shadow work involves a willingness to be open to our real experience–not our experience as we think it ‘should be’–and explore it fully. The fruit of shadow work is usually a great sense of freedom from parts of our minds that previously limited us and a greater sense of overall peace with the state of our lives.

Two-Way Attention:

In a previous article, I described the method of ‘two-way attention,’ a way of working with a shadow in which you hold your attention in two directions at once: some attention on the shadow itself, some attention on the awareness in which the shadow is appearing.  This is a technique that has proven tremendously helpful in my experience with shadow work and, beyond this, in how I relate to the people and things I encounter in daily life.

The Method of Interrogating the Shadow:
In this article, I’d like to introduce another technique that has proven useful for me. I call this tool the method of “interrogating the shadow.” Interrogating the shadow involves a situation much like the case of a suspect in an interrogation room in a police station.  The suspect is withholding important information and the police want to get at that information.  How do they do it? Through questions.  They probe and prod with questions until the truth comes to the surface at last.

Interrogating the shadow works in the same way.  It involves asking ourselves questions based on what we notice about a shadow we are working with.  The questions help focus our attention on different aspects of the shadow so that we can consider them more deeply. We can ask questions about many aspects of the shadow, for instance, what is (1) its underlying cause, (2) its motivation, (3) whether it has some connection to a self-image that we or others have created that we feel we must live up to, (4) its effect on our feelings, thoughts, or actions, whether it has (5) its roots in particular memories and experiences from our lives, and many other things.

There is no ‘set method’ for the questioning; it is not something we can artificially impose on the shadow.  Rather, the questions arise organically from the shadow itself, from what we notice about it, and what we want to learn about it.  We ask questions and we try to answer as honestly as we can.  It does no good to lie to ourselves or withhold the truth; this is akin to trying to drive down a road by building a wall in front of your car.  While you are keep putting up barriers, you won’t get anywhere.  The same is true for shadow work.  We need to cultivate a willingness to be radically honest with ourselves.  If what we find is rotten and painful, then we need to open to letting it be rotten and painful.  We want to ‘tell it like it is,’ not ‘how it should be.’ The idea is to face whatever comes up with openness, neither pushing it away nor clinging to it.  We keep questioning and probing until you reach into the heart of the shadow and grasp it as viscerally and deeply as we can.

Here are some examples of questions you can ask to explore the shadow (note: the following questions are phrased in 3rd-person “it” language; you can also speak directly to the shadow in “you” and “your” language in the style of Ken Wilber’s 3-2-1 process):

  • What is the form of this thought/feeling pattern?
  • How does it really, honestly make me feel?
  • Is it his shadow based on any assumptions about me?
  • Why do I think this thought-pattern is true?
  • Why do I hold on to it?
  • Do I have any underlying motivations here that I’m not facing?
  • Am I repressing this feeling? Am I denying it or projecting it onto others?
  • Why do I resist this shadow?
  • Is it related to an idealized self-image, a way I would like to be or people have told me I should be?
  • Is it related to a self-image I’m trying to avoid, a way I would not want others to see me?
  • How does this thought-pattern affect how I behave, think, feel?
  • Does it limit me in some way? What would life be like if I didn’t hold on to this thought pattern?
  • How did I develop this shadow? Did it have any roots in any of my past experiences or things people have told me?
  • Did I learn this pattern? How?

To exemplify how to go about interrogating a shadow, here’s a brief exchange that I had with a friend who asked me to help her interrogate a shadow she was working with.  It is important to point out first of all, however, that Rachel wasn’t even sure if what she was dealing with was a shadow.  As she spoke, however, it quickly became clear that she was facing a shadow, that is, a piece of mental content that was disturbing her and making her uncomfortable.  As you read the following dialogue, notice how the questions in the process of interrogating the shadow arise naturally from the shadow itself and the language used to describe it.  When we are working with a shadow, we look closely at language — small word choices can make a big difference.

Rachel: “My personality has always been into justice, politics, animal rights, and such. Now, though, when I want to post something on Facebook or share an opinion it feels…like I shouldn’t.”

Adam: So there is a feeling of resistance coming up — that is that “shouldn’t” feeling. On the one hand, part of you feels like sharing information about these things, but another part resists. Why? What is the root of the resistance? What are you resisting? Why do you feel a need to resist?

Rachel: “I’m not sure if it’s because I want to fit some spiritual image or if it’s because I don’t really believe it or what…”

Adam: If it’s the former, ask yourself if that idealized ‘spiritual image’ corresponds to who you really are. Is it realistic? Or is it an image, not of the truth of what you already are, but of some image projected as separate from you that you feel you “should” strive to embody? Is it a fair picture of you or an imaginary picture of you? If it is imaginary, what good does it do you? Is it helpful? How does it feel?

If it’s the latter, ask yourself why you want to share what you don’t believe. Does that, too, come down to wanting to look politically or ethically engaged, another ideal self-image? Or do you deeply care about these things? Why do you want to share them? Is it just a habit, or is there a deeper motivation? Explore it. As I’ve said before, this is how we go about “interrogating the shadow.” We ask questions and answer honestly as a way of inquiring into what we are experiencing.

Rachel: “Well, Now I hesitate, second guess, and/or worry what others will think. It is really uncomfortable, like I don’t know how to act anymore.”

Adam: Hesitating, why? What are you afraid will happen?
You second guess, why do you doubt yourself?
You worry what others will think, how do you think they will respond? Why is this something you want to avoid?
There is discomfort arising, what is its specific cause or source in your experience?
You don’t know how to act, do you feel there is a way you “should” be acting? What is dictating that image of behaviour? Is it a moral principle or another idealized self-image? Is it helpful, does it improve your life? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? If so, why do you think that is?

Rachel: “I try to get to the feeling behind the feeling and it is all confusion…Do you think this is shadow related?”

Adam: If there is something arising in your thoughts, mood, or emotions that is disturbing you and making you feel uncomfortable, then a shadow is present. Now, what exactly that shadow is–whether a desire for validation from others, worry of what others will think, a feeling of insecurity, an attachment to looking good and ethical, etc.–only you can figure out. The way to determine it is to be present with the shadow; get inside of it, question it. Probe and prod it. Don’t push it away or cling to it. Ask yourself if it is necessary or not, helpful or not. Explore it. This is the first step in the process of working with your shadow.  As you probe it with questions, you will gain insight into its nature.

The method of “interrogating the shadow” is an ongoing process.  It goes on as long as you feel it needs to.  You are the judge and jury in the court of your own experience. As Rachel reflects on these questions and asks them of herself, she will get new answers, which will give rise to further questions.  She will go deeper into the shadow and examine it from different perspectives she hadn’t seen it from before.  The process is much like what you do when you pick up a strange object you found in a store trying to figure out what it is, turning it this way and that, looking at it from close up and from afar.  Every question and answer gives you a new ‘angle’ on the shadow, a new way of looking at it.  New angles bring new perspectives and new perspectives bring new insights.  Insights help teach you about yourself, about your mind, and about the shadow itself.  They carry you forward and are the ultimate aim of interrogating the shadow.  Every question is a key that unlocks a door in the shadow.  Behind that door, an insight lies waiting to be discovered.

Read More about Shadow Work:
Interrogating the Shadow Part 2: The Process in Practice

Reflections on Shadow Work
Deep Shadow Work and the Method of ‘Two-Way Attention’

Four Kinds of Anxiety and How to Work Through Them

Buddhism in Practice: Exploring the Path Beyond Insight into Anatman

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