Shadow Work: Transforming Emotional Suffering into Freedom

GoodTherapy | Shadow Work: Transforming Emotional Suffering into Freedom If you read last month’s blog, Creativity vs Shadow, you will remember a brief mention of Deepak and Gotham Chopra’s book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes. In the book Chopra identified shadow as a “force of the unconscious that can be destructive, divisive and/or self-sabotaging if it remains unconscious”. Shadow is difficult to recognize because left to it’s own devices it remains unconscious. Shadow is a zapping energy that lurks in the area of emotional suffering caused to oneself or to another. The concept can be broadly applied to families, groups, religions, governments, countries, etc. if we consider them bodies of energy.

It is often easy to recognize someone else’s shadow energy because it is not unconscious to us. It is recognizable it in the behavior of someone who is ‘acting out’ or conversely, someone who appears emotionless. Pointing out someone’s shadow is often met with resistance because shadow is tenacious. It develops as a coping mechanism over time. It pulls vital energy to it to enforce its stronghold.

Shadow is often the very issue that brings someone into therapy, although they may not recognize that aspect of themselves when they begin therapy. They come to therapy because they are suffering in some way and are looking for relief. Often therapy provides relief by helping people to understand their part in their own suffering and to develop new strategies to cope with their emotions.

Art therapy is a powerful tool for helping to get in touch with shadow. Art therapy brings images out from the unconscious to the surface where they can be experienced and felt through the senses and processed verbally. Creative arts therapies can include painting, drawing, collage, movement, sound, video, performance art, writing, dreams, digital media: such as dating profiles, pornography choices, avatars, gaming environments, etc.

Therapists often try to help clients to transform their emotional suffering (shadow) into well-being (freedom) through awareness and change of behaviors that do not ultimately serve their goals. Many of the blogs here on Good provide examples of shadow work. For example: Darren Haber, MFT, Addictions & Compulsions Topic Expert Contributor wrote about The Abused Husband a topic that is gravely under-reported. In Haber’s scenario, the most obvious example of shadow resides with the abuser. The abuser often does not know how s/he gets caught in the cycle of abuse that often escalates and can become very dangerous. The abused person on the other hand, not only suffers the abusers wrath but s/he is not able to understand how to stop the cycle of abuse by recognizing their complicity in it. I realize that my statement may jar strong reaction. Abuse is a dynamic between people. Darren Haber’s blog also contains a subtle example of shadow in the Abused Husband scenario. It resides with the onlooker who “even pumped her fist happily as she watched the woman slapping her partner.” Shadow is present in any violent act, or superficial judgment against another. In this example the onlooker’s shadow was triggered. It is particularly difficult to unravel a dynamic of abuse when it involves people whose lives are closely bonded.

Shadow is the part of the self that most humans get glimpses of but ignore or deny in favor of a self-perception that is ‘inflated’ or in some cases ‘deflated’ by ego. Neither ego inflation nor ego deflation can be sustained without some form of destructive result. For example: Jim Hutt, Ph.D., Family Problems Topic Expert Contributor too Good recently wrote in his blog, Resentful Compliance vs Commitment about a relationship where one person is “resentfully compliant” by doing what their partner wants, while they are “resentful about doing it”. Resentment falls to shadow. The resentful person may say to themselves, “oh, it doesn’t matter that my partner is getting their way again, it’s no big deal”, (ego deflation) when in actuality, resentment grows into a big deal because their true feelings are denied. The result can often be passive-aggressive behavior. The other partner may think that there is nothing wrong with being persistent and that getting their way is a sign of strength (ego inflation). Oftentimes that ego inflation comes out of a profound fear and vulnerability. Most of the time, without realizing how they are complicit in the toxic environment of the relationship both parties continue to project their emotions out onto the other.

In therapy, the therapist encounters shadow in the painful experiences that their clients share. The therapist and client build a safe relationship where shadow can be explored. Shadow is very difficult work because of resistance. The outcome of examining oneself and facing what has happened in one’s life, however, gives a person freedom to create change and use the wealth of energy that was tied up in shadow.

© Copyright 2011 by By Barbara 'Basia' Mosinski, LCAT, ATR-BC, MA, MFA. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • leonard

    July 13th, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    these ‘shadows’ do sound like something that hinders us from good things.and if art can help deal with such feelings then I seriously need to pick up my brush again and do what I used to do so passionately until a couple of years ago-painting.

  • Charley

    July 13th, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    Getting to the bottom of your issues always involves alot of very hard work. Don’t let that negative shadow energy hold you back from discovering the true you, the you that you are and want to be.

  • DOUG

    July 14th, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    Hmm…this is like having a negative force or an enemy within ourselves…Not a very comfortable thing to have with you at all times…But I also believe that it is possible to overcome this inner enemy and in fact turn it to our benefit…And the sooner we do that the better it is!

  • j m

    July 15th, 2011 at 12:04 PM

    there always a part of us that obstructs our advances and also a part that helps us move forward…it’s natural to have this holding back part in you , the shadow. but successful is the person who is able to move ahead inspire of this shadow.

  • Kaye Ratner

    July 17th, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    You know, I was rooting for you there on the benefits of art therapy because I believe it’s true. That is, until you listed “pornographic choices” in the same breath. Since when did porn become part of art therapy?? There’s not an ounce of creativity involved in that and it definitely isn’t “art”.

  • K.V.

    July 17th, 2011 at 7:54 PM

    Hi Basia. I want to be 100% sure I’m reading this part right.

    “The abuser often does not know how s/he gets caught in the cycle of abuse that often escalates and can become very dangerous. The abused person on the other hand, not only suffers the abusers wrath but s/he is not able to understand how to stop the cycle of abuse by recognizing their complicity in it.”

    By “their complicity” do you mean the victim’s complicity? Is that what you’re saying there? Thanks.

  • jonah sanderson

    July 17th, 2011 at 8:34 PM

    Interesting. So if as Chopra says the shadow is a “force of the unconscious that can be destructive, divisive and/or self-sabotaging if it remains unconscious”, what other doors are open to us apart from art therapy to be more conscious of its existence and effect upon us?

    Indeed, is that the goal, to be more conscious of the shadow? Does that diminish its power?

  • Michelle

    January 5th, 2018 at 11:16 PM

    There are a lot of different therapeutic techniques that can be helpful in finding your shadow (light and dark). Any modality that gets you to face core beliefs is helping you do shadow work. Charles Morely has a great book Dreaming the Darkness that has some exercises in it that others can do. As a Marriage and Family and Clinical Hypnotherapist I do a lot of shadow work. EFT/Matrix Reimprinting is a very powerful method of finding and working with the shadow and often takes only a few sessions. I would encourage you to do some research on the shadow. There is some great stuff out there!

  • Leah Crawford

    July 17th, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    Sounds to me like the shadow is just the personification of anything we feel negative about that makes us upset or angry. We can’t be happy all day every day. Expecting to be is unrealistic and that alone could make us upset and angry. How ironic!

    We have hearts, emotions, blood pumping through our veins, and we have minds. We have to embrace the shadow self, not crush it.

  • Basia Mosinski

    July 18th, 2011 at 2:01 PM

    Dear KV, I want to be very clear. By ‘complicity’ I don’t mean that a victim is at fault. I mean that in the case of doemstic violence, for example, a victim is part of a dynamic. Their part in the dynamic might be denying a voice inside of them that says “this relationship is crazy, I should leave” but instead they stay. Staying may excellerate an unconscious, distructive dynamic.

    Of course, when we talk about shadow and unconsciousness we are not talking about children or people whose mental abilities are impaired.

    Victims are not to blame for acts of violence but it is incredibly useful for them to understand the dynamic that they got caught in so that they spare themselves from making the same mistake.

    I hope this helps.


  • Wanderer

    July 18th, 2011 at 8:31 PM

    “Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” – Carl Jung.

  • Brendan Millar

    July 19th, 2011 at 1:16 PM

    @Kaye Ratner-oh, it’s an art form alright to some. Here’s one definition of art from – “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”

    Ask any horny teenage boy if porn qualifies as that to them. Why else do you think they desperately want to work as pizza delivery guys? It’s not for the two dollar tip. They live in hope that life imitates art LOL. ;)

  • Basia Mosinski

    July 20th, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    Hi Kaye,
    In therapy it is important to work with clients in an atmosphere of acceptance. Entering a clients world and gaining an understanding through verbalization of where they are not free can be sufficient. In addition, Art Psychotherapy engages one or more of the senses in understanding a client’s world. Art psychotherapy is more than gaining freedom to express. Oftentimes, it means working with the most difficult images that are contained in one’s memory, in the case of trauma, or in understanding visual or audio triggers to risky behavior.

    Thank you for your reply. I appreciate this forum.


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