What Exactly is Shadow Work, Anyway?

We see a lot of mention in tarot circles of shadow work, but what is it, really? It seems to be increasingly trendy in social media, and the term is often thrown around without much explanation or context, so a proper explanation is in order.

Shadow work is a term coined by Carl Jung to describe the collective parts of the psyche which we suppress from consciousness as the least desirable aspects of our personality. He called the shadow “the thing a person has no wish to be.” The more these parts are denied and suppressed, the darker and denser the shadow becomes; thus the more likely they will slip out during our daily interactions, when we least expect them or understand what they are suddenly doing there. Our projections about others, our slips of the tongue, our addictions, our dreams, even our physical symptoms are the manifestations of these parts that have been denied another outlet. We all have a shadow as part of the Self, no matter how much inner work we may have done, and this work can never truly be finished.

The goal of shadow work is to identify those deeper parts and engage compassionately with them to bring them up to the light, so that we may correct their functions and better integrate them into the known parts of the Self. This requires a lot of honesty with yourself. The approach that I like best is to engage them in open dialogue to better understand their role. Most shadow parts are trying to help the Self, and believe they’re doing so. By offering it acceptance and a channel for compassionate communication, we can better understand why and how it’s functioning, and perhaps guide it to a new job in the psyche – one more productive.

So, how do we use tarot in shadow work? I should start by stating that tarot shadow work is absolutely, in no way, shape, or form, an alternative to psychotherapy. If we have complexes which are causing dysfunction in our lives, we really need to consult a trained mental health professional. While health care in the U.S. (never mind mental health care) is often not accessible to those who need it most, there are resources such as betterhelp if coverage is a barrier for you.

Done seriously, shadow work can be an arduous and lengthy process; it really shouldn’t be glamorized and isn’t really meant to be done with a single simple tarot spread. Search Instagram with #tarotshadowspread and you’ll get hundreds, in all shapes and colors and sizes — many so vague or generalized that you’re left with no real insight or next step after having done it. They often portray the shadow as one entity when it’s really a multitude of different parts functioning in complex relationship with the others to, say, protect more sheltered parts or to manage the environment to reduce harm. Sure, these generalized spreads can be helpful in identifying things to work on, but the work doesn’t end there. Shadow work is often a difficult and messy process of reliving old wounds and grinding through the painful memories of a younger you and committing to new practices.

First up, get a notebook or journal. You will be asking yourself a lot of questions with the cards, exploring different aspects of their meanings, and digging down deeper and deeper, like a 2-year old asking “why?” after every single answer you get, and engaging parts of yourself in dialogue — which is all facilitated by free-form writing. Pages of it.

Step one is as simple as identifying a behavior or thought pattern that you’d like to change. I know I have plenty of these, so I’ll bet you can find one, too. In fact, I do actually keep a little list in the Notes app of my phone, which I add to when I’m out in my daily world and notice a shadow part. Later, when I’m aligned and sitting peacefully with my cards, I’ll pull out my handy dandy list and start shuffling the cards.

As a little aside, here: People often ask which decks are good for shadow work, and my suggestion is to use a deck you’re comfortable with and have a good familiarity with. You don’t need a new deck for shadow work, and you definitely don’t need a “dark” deck. The issues that come up for you may be dramatic enough, and you just want a deck that feels like a trusted friend. One of my favorite decks is Bohemian Gothic, with its cold castles and evil dwellers and creepy kids in graveyards — a vibe I love, but don’t necessarily need when trying to create a warm and compassionate approach to shadow parts. Some readers say they want an “honest” deck, but I think each of my decks is honest (or I wouldn’t keep it). Honesty lies in the reader’s interpretation, not a deck of cards. If a certain deck elicits that from you more than another, then that deck would be a good choice.

The key when beginning shadow work is to be in a place of mindfulness or a centered state, free of the complexed parts that often take the driver’s seat. I do this through a simple tripartite soul alignment using breath, but whatever practice allows this for you is right. Many do this as a regular part of their tarot practice before reading, so feel free to adopt whatever works best for you in creating a clear head or channel.

Using the cards in a more conversational style when accessing shadow parts can enable us to tap into them more easily, and function as a tool in deciphering their identities and needs. Start asking questions as you would of any close friend. “Hey, what was up with that outburst, earlier?” Some like to pull 3 cards, some prefer shuffling for jumpers- whatever feels right to you. See what insight is revealed. Ask if there is a part that would like to talk, making sure to create a warm and inviting mental space for that, and start shuffling. Ask who that part is and start shuffling. Ask about the root of that anger / fear / shame / envy / anxiety / whatever, and start shuffling, for as many questions as may be helpful in clarifying the issue or identifying and defining this part. Was there a specific incident or pattern when you were a kid that prompted this? As mentioned above, don’t be afraid to ask “Why?” over and over and over again to dig deeper down. Don’t forget to journal both your questions and the cards – you will likely be able to glean great insight over time as you move through this process, through repeating cards and connecting the dots with the way the cards portray this inner landscape.

Are there attainable goals in shadow work? Meeting our shadows is vital in spiritual practice (and in just being a better person) to help us to correct those things that cause us fear and shame and guilt, allowing us to evolve past our dysfunctions and into growth, so it is an ongoing process. It can be really effective as a tool in goals work. We can establish attainable goals and set action steps til we’re blue in the face, but without identifying the blocks we’ve put in place to protect us from harm (prevent us from stretching outside of our comfort zone), we may remain stuck in our progress without forward momentum.

So, there are many reasons why shadow work can really help to foster growth and unlock our potential, and various methods how. I’ll continue this series with spreads and questions and techniques, and add some resources in the comments, in the hopes that it grows and blossoms over time; but I hope this is helpful in getting you started with a little bit of clarity and inspiration. Now, get yourself a pen and a notebook and pull out your favorite tarot deck. Shadow work can be really challenging, but I hope and believe it’ll be an amazing journey of discovery for you!

One thought on “What Exactly is Shadow Work, Anyway?”

  1. To understand parts work better, see Internal Family Systems, a process of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz. I am not a therapist and have no formal training in IFS, but encourage you to search out podcasts, books, and YouTube videos which can offer more insight into this valuable process.

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