By Adam J. Pearson
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1. Shadows and Shadow Work Recap
Shadows are those contents of the mind that feel uncomfortable, painful, terrifying, infuriating, anxiety-inducing, or otherwise disturbing to us. We know them when they arise because they hurt, anger, disturb, or make us feel limited in some way. When our shadows are triggered, they tend to elicit powerful emotional reactions, or shadow charges. We are usually only conscious of shadows indirectly, through the emotional charges that are their symptoms; however, the shadows themselves lie deeper within our minds and tend to express themselves in unconscious projections and dissociations. They often appear as parts of ourselves that we have disowned and either submerged in unconsciousness or projected onto others so we can attack the disowned qualities in others rather than face them in ourselves.
Most of the time, shadows are rooted in thought-patterns that bring up these disturbing feelings. ’Shadow work‘ is the process of actively acknowledging, facing, exploring, working through, reowning, 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,’ but our experience as it is–and explore it fully. The fruits of shadow work carried out over time can be 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. This peace flows naturally as we begin to live with greater consciousness rather than being run by unconscious repressed, dissociated, and projected parts of the mind.
2. Two-Way Attention, Interrogating the Shadow, and Shadow Integration
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.
In “Interrogating the Shadow: A Tool for Shadow Work,” I introduced yet another tool for shadow work: shadow interrogation. Interrogating the shadow is a process of asking progressively more precise and detailed questions about a shadow and its various aspects– underlying motivations, repressed reasons, connections to idealized self-images, effects on patterns of feeling/thinking/behaving, roots in particular memories or experiences, etc.–in order to gain insight into it. The shadow interrogation process effectively makes previously unconscious aspects of our experience conscious through a process of question-based inquiry and discovery. “Interrogating the Shadow Part 2: The Process in Practice” introduced a practical example of the interrogation process drawn from a real conversation.
This article will focus on how we bring all of these tools and techniques together to comprehensively work through and reown or integrate a shadow. I call this the shadow integration process: (1) choose a shadow to integrate, (2) face it with two-way attention, (3) question it in ‘it’ and ‘you’ terms, and (4) own it and lovingly release your hold on it through forgiveness.
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3. Background: How I got into Shadow Work
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of shadow integration, I’d like to say a brief word about how I got into shadow work because this will provide a sense of why I think shadow work is important and worthwhile and how the shadow integration process emerged in my life. For most of my life, I struggled with difficult shadow patterns that severely limited my experience in important ways. Among these were deep anxiety about being around other people out of fear that they would judge me, fears of drowning, heights, and large animals, and feelings of insecurity and inadequacy (shame). For years, these shadows arose within me again and again and constellated painful feelings and depressing thought patterns around themselves. Because I felt anxious, insecure, and afraid, I would often chicken out of social opportunities and prefer to be alone.
I felt deeply unsatisfied even after I went through a variety of spiritual experiences in which I came to realize the interdependence of all things in the universe and the ultimate freedom of awareness. These realizations brought great peace and joy, but the shadows remained in the background. When the light from these awakening experiences faded out, the shadows took over once again. The feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, helplessness and hopelessness hung like storm clouds over my life, even as I did my best to be happy, have fun, and move on.
Eventually, I began to have the sense that these persistent ‘problems’ in my inner life had to have solutions. There had to be something I could do to work through them or some way of seeing them that could allow me to see through them. The dots were there already; it was only a matter of connecting them.
Photo: Scott Kiloby
In May of 2011, I joined a Facebook group led by Scott Kiloby, which he called “No Holds Barred.” The premise of the group was that it would be a forum with no rules; members would be free to verbally attack and call each other out with as much ferocity as they wished. It was like psychological Fight Club. No one was safe from the attacks, not even the group’s own administrators or Scott himself.
Throughout my life, I had been told to be kind and caring to others. NHB was a shock. This was a form of unorthodox therapy that seemed like the opposite of therapy, a counterintuitive process of overcoming pain by attacking. In NHB, all of my insecurities were attacked. My worries about my appearance, my fears, even personal aspects from my life were used to attack me brutally. At some points, the attacks got so deeply personal that I had to leave the group for a few days to work through all of the material that had been stirred up within me. The attacks pointed to the shadows; where it hurt was where I was stuck.
The funny thing, though, was that I began to feel progressively more immune to the attacks. I thought, “what can they possibly attack me for? Being anxious, feeling not good enough, being afraid? But I already know I feel these things. They are not telling me anything new.” Over time, I even started to laugh at the attacks! This was something totally new for me: laughing at my fear, laughing at my insecurity. I attacked and was attacked and we had a good time for a while and made some major progress working through shadows through this aggressive Fight Club approach. Powerful shadows that had held me under their control for years and years began to gradually lose their pull over me… I accepted and integrated them and found that a new way of living was possible for me, a life liberated from the prison of the shadows that I had clung to for so long.
In time, however, Scott left the group, the administrators were thrown out and other members seized power in a series of manipulative coups. Others came into the group without understanding its philosophical foundation in trying to work through shadows through confrontation. They turned the group into a place of bullying for bullying’s sake, attacking for attacking’s sake. It ceased to be a productive place and, thus, many of the old members began to leave. I hung on for a while, but eventually I had to leave as well. I left with the firm conviction, however, that the only way to work through these ‘problems’ that had hounded me for so long was to boldly face them head on, dive into them, and reown them. Only this, and not retreating into some spiritual belief system to dissociate or ‘spiritually bypass’ the feelings or losing myself in pleasurable addictions, would take me through the shadows into healing and wholeness and not just temporarily away from them. Escapism and denial were no longer options. I was ready for shadow integration.
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4. Background: Ken Wilber’s 3-2-1 Process
While I was at NHB, Scott Kiloby introduced me to a way of working with shadows, specifically, shadows associated with particular people and their particular qualities. Ken Wilber and some of his associates at the Integral Life Institute had developed the 3-2-1 process. Kelly Sosan Bearer describes the process with great clarity in her article, “Practice: The 3-2-1 Process.” Ollis at Ollis Integral Life has another fantastic article on the subject as well. Kelly writes that the 3-2-1 process involves the following steps:
- “Choose an experience in your life that you want to work with. It’s often easier to begin with a person with whom you have difficulty (e.g., lover, relative, boss). This person may irritate, disturb, annoy, or upset you. Or maybe you feel attracted to, obsessed with, infatuated with, or possessive about this person. In any case, choose someone with whom you have a strong emotional charge,whether positive or negative.
- Face It : Now, imagine this person. Describe those qualities that most upset you, or the characteristics that you are most attracted to using 3rd-person language (he, she, it). Talk about them out loud or write it down in a journal. Take this opportunity to “let it out.” Don’t try to be skillful or say the right thing. There is no need to sugar-coat your description. The person you are describing will never see this.
- Talk to It: Begin an imaginary dialogue with this person. Speak in 2nd person to this person (using “you” language). Talk directly to this person as if he or she were actually there in the room with you. Tell them what bothers you about them. Ask them questions such as “Why are you doing this to me?” “What do you want from me?” “What are you trying to show me?” “What do you have to teach me?” Imagine their response to these questions. Speak that imaginary response out loud. Record the conversation in your journal if you like.
- Be It: Become this person. Take on the qualities that either annoy or fascinate you. Embody the traits you described in “Face It.” Use 1st-person language ( I, me, mine). This may feel awkward, and it should. The traits you are taking on are the exact traits that you have been denying in yourself. Use statements such as “I am angry,” “I am jealous,” “I am radiant.” Fill in the blank with whatever qualities you are working with: “I am__________.”
- To complete the process, notice these disowned qualities in yourself. Experience the part of you that is this very trait. Avoid making the process abstract or conceptual: just BE it. Now you can re-own this trait in yourself.”
There is a great logic to this process, which Wilber lucidly explains in his book Integral Spirituality. Dissociation (disowning parts of myself) and projection (seeing something that was inside me as outside me), the processes by which conscious contents become unconscious shadows proceed in a specific sequence.
1st person (I, my): A feeling comes up in me and I see it from the first-person perspective (e.g. “I’m angry” or “this is my anger”). However, for whatever reason, something in me does not want to own this anger (or shame, or fear, etc.) because it sees it as a threat.
2nd person (you, your): So, instead of owning it as “my anger” I project it onto others from the second-perspective perspective and say “I’m not angry, you’re angry!” I deny my ownership of the feeling. I put the feeling “outside of the I-boundary” as Wilber says.
3rd person (he, she, it): When I have completely dissociated and projected the feeling, I become unconscious of the fact that it was mine in the first place. I now see it from a third-person perspective. Suddenly, my whole world seems to be angry. “He’s so angry… she’s so angry… he’s so aggressive… she’s always attacking me. I don’t know why… I’m not angry, I didn’t do anything…”
Thus, projection and dissociation involves some content of my mind moving from 1st person consciousness to a 2nd person intermediary state and finally to the 3rd person view in which it is totally disowned; my original ownership is unconscious. And because this is logic of the process that turns conscious contents into shadows, shadow integration must reverse it and work in the opposite direction: starting with the content in third person (worded in “she,” “he” or “it” terms), addressing it in the second person (in “you” and “your terms”), and finally, reowning it in the first-person (in “I” and “my terms). This is Wilber’s 3-2-1 process in a nutshell.
This approach is brilliant and works marvelously for projected and dissociated shadow feelings. However the 3-2-1 approach left me with a key question: what about feelings that I wasn’t actually projecting or dissociating, feelings I already saw were clearly mine?
As it turns out, I already had two tools that could be helpful for these kinds of shadow feelings, namely, the methods of ‘two-way attention‘ , ‘shadow interrogation’, and releasing the hold of the past on the present through forgiveness. If I could integrate these tools with Ken Wilber’s 3-2-1 process, then I would have a powerfully comprehensive tool that would work for both repressed/projected/dissociated contents and shadow contents that weren’t projected onto others, but were still appearing within consciousness. And so, I decided to tie all of this together in a single four-step process. I call this process shadow integration.
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5. The Shadow Integration Process
The shadow integration process works in the following way:
1. Choose a shadow to integrate: I usually choose with whichever shadow is coming up most strongly in my mind at the time, but you can also choose ones you notice recurring in your life. The shadow you choose can be any thought-pattern or feeling-pattern at all that you find disturbing, upsetting, angering, shaming, or depressing. Thoughts connected to fear, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, insecurity, clinging, aversion, hatred, anger, sadness, depression, apathy, and other such strong emotions work particularly well. You can also use shadow integration to reown positive aspects of yourself that you have projected onto others and been unable to see in yourself. In any case, pick a single shadow to integrate. That’s step 1.
2. Face the shadow with the method of two-way attention: Focus and direct your attention to both the shadow feeling itself and the clear space of awareness in which it is arising. Initially, it may be clear this is your feeling or it may seem external, like the anger is in another person, not your anger for instance (3rd person perspective in Wilber’s 3-2-1).
In either case, start by consciously facing the shadow. Notice its qualities. Notice how it makes you feel. Really try to see and feel it clearly in your mind’s eye. If you feel yourself wanting to resist it or distance yourself from the shadow, notice that too. Two-way attention means that part of your attention is on the shadow itself (the first way) and another part is on your mind in which the shadow is appearing (the second way). Face the shadow while noting how it is affecting you, what images and thoughts and feelings are arising along with it. Intuitively dive into the feeling. Feel it out. Explore it from all angles. Be present with it and aware of the responses it is eliciting in you.
3. Interrogate the shadow first in “it” terms and then in “you” terms: Begin the shadow interrogation process. As I described it in the previous two articles, the process uses questions to explore the shadow. If you are familiar with Byron Katie’s The Work questions, those can be used to inquire into the shadow at this stage as well. The twist we are going to make on the interrogation practice for the purposes of shadow integration is to change the wording of the questions to shift from questions phrased in ‘it’ terms (3rd-person view of the shadow) to questions phrased in ‘you’ terms (2nd-person view of the shadow).
Begin by asking simple, basic questions. As you gain practice, you can move on to more precise, detailed questions about the shadow and its various aspects. For example, you can ask questions like the following and notice any thoughts, feelings, sensations, or impressions that come up in response to them. At first, we will start with 3rd-person questions and ask about the shadow in “it” terms.
Ask as many or as few questions as you wish. Approach the questioning organically; let the shadow dictate the questions in a natural way. For example, you can ask questions like the following:
- What is the form of this thought/feeling pattern?
- How does it really, honestly make me feel?
- Is this 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 this shadow 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?
Now, address the shadow itself. We’re now moving in to the 2nd-person stage of Wilber’s 3-2-1 process. Face the shadow and ask it questions in “you” and “your” terms and see what impressions, thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up in response. Remember, no one will see you do this this but you, so don’t worry about “looking crazy”; shadow integration is the opposite of illness; it’s a form of healing. Questions you ask at this point can include things like the following. Recall that you can ask as few or as many of them as you feel a need to; trust your intuition:
- Why do I see you as a threat?
- Why do I hold on to you?
- Why do I refuse to own you as mine?
- Why do I resist you?
- Why am I afraid of you?
- What would life be like if I didn’t hold onto you?
- Where did I develop the tendency to cling to you?
Observe whatever comes up. Notice any thoughts, feelings, sensations, or impressions that arise in response to the questions. Meet these arisings with open curiosity and a kind and loving attitude rather than judgment. Whatever comes up is perfectly fine. And even if nothing arises, that’s alright too. Our goal is to address the shadow in the second-person perspective so we can prepare to re-own it. And the purpose of the questions is to gain insight into the shadow.
Note: If you find thoughts underlying the stressful or painful feelings, you can do inquiry on them or question them to see if they are true. Byron Katie’s The Work offers the simplest and most effective way I know of to do that. You’ll find an example of how to question thoughts using four questions and a turnaround in the comment to Dave C. below this article.
When you are doing the shadow interrogation, it may be helpful to write out your questions and answers or to communicate them to another person if you are doing group shadow work. This will give you a record of insights you discover at at this stage of the process.
4. Own the shadow and lovingly release your hold on it through forgiveness: We are now ready to reverse the dissociation, projection, repression or resistance and reown the shadow we disowned. Accept it fully as being the the reality of what you are living now. As Kelly Sosan Bearer puts it,
“Embody the traits … Use 1st-person language ( I, me, mine). This may feel awkward, and it should. The traits you are taking on are the exact traits that you have been denying in yourself. Use statements such as “I am angry,” “I am jealous,” “I am radiant.” Whatever you are repressing; take it on, accept it and embody it. Fill in the blank with whatever qualities you are working with: “I am__________.”
Finally, lovingly release your hold on the shadow through forgiveness. We now consciously refuse to let the past run our experience in the present and, through forgiveness, we release the past’s hold on our present. We are ready to let go rather than cling to the shadow and let it keep driving our actions, thoughts, and feelings. We now meet the negatively charged emotions with warmth and self-compassion, the final piece of the shadow integration puzzle. Where there was judgment, we now offer ourselves love. If this feels cheesy, just go with it. It’s an important step; the previous steps address the ‘thinking’ part of the shadow, but this one addresses the ‘feeling’ part. You’ve now reached the end of the shadow integration process.You may find that with particularly deep-seated shadows, you may have to go through the process multiple times to really notice a majour difference. This is perfectly natural. In any case, by practicing shadow integration, you have made a courageous effort to make the unconscious conscious and achieve a new level of inner wholeness. That takes bravery and inner strength. You are indeed more powerful than you believed yourself to be; you have proven it through action!
To summarize, shadow integration involves these four steps:
- (1) choose a shadow to integrate
- (2) face it with two-way attention
- (3) interrogate it with first “it” questions (3rd person) and then “you” questions (2nd person)
- (4) own the shadow in 1st-person I-language, and lovingly release your hold on it through forgiveness
7. Final Words
Further Reading and More Resources
- “The Prison and the Key: Why I Write About Shame” offers an orienting overview and guide to all of my writings on shame and shame-resilience.
- “Silencing the Praise: Why Seeking Approval Fails to Fill Our Inner Void” introduces shame and identifies it as the name of the void we feel within us, the void that says we are “not good enough” and are thus unworthy of love and belonging. It then explains why approval-seeking fails to fill the void of shame. We are not hopeless, however; the end of the article offers a few healthy alternatives and powerful strategies to meet shame with resilience and compassion.
- “The Heart of the Void: Finding the Assumptions at the Heart of Shame” breaks shame down into two key components: a feeling part and a thinking part. The feeling part involves the painful emotions at the heart of shame (e.g. fear, anxiety, inadequacy) and the thinking part involves the core assumptions about ourselves that are at the root of the feelings. This article specifically explains how to discover these assumptions and then how to reality-check and transform them once we find them. This practice is a powerful tool for our shame-resilience arsenal.
- “Finding the Calm Within the Storm: Shame-Resilience in Practice” breaks down Brene Brown’s powerful shame-resilience method into clear steps and gives a real-world example of how I applied it to one shame story in my own life. I’ve seen tons of articles about the method online, but very few concrete examples of how we apply it in our own inner experience. This article was written in an attempt to fill that void and also to practice “the courage to be vulnerable” that Brene Brown champions.
- “Forgive and Be Free: The Liberating Power of Forgiveness” offers a useful practice for compassionately addressing the feeling part of shame through forgiveness. Forgiveness was a subject that I took for granted for a long time because I didn’t realize how powerfully liberating and empowering it truly is. However, it was a key part of the shame puzzle for me.
- “Release the Past to Free the Present: Another Meaning of Forgiveness” expands on the previous article to explain how forgiveness helps us lovingly liberate our present from the stranglehold of the past. Since shame is powerfully rooted in our past thoughts, perceptions, and experiences, forgiveness thus is a powerfully compassionate practice for skillfully handling shame. This article explains how this works.
- If you are working with catastrophizing (obsessive worst-case scenario thinking) as a shadow, “Catastrophizing: How to Handle Worst-Case Scenario Thinking” offers a specific approach to handling it so that it ceases to drive us towards unintentional self-sabotage and drag us out of the joy of being present.