Shadow Work- Doing Your Side Work in the Dark

Therapy has a bit of a misnomer in people’s minds. We tend to go to therapists and psychologists looking for “cures.” That’s how it works with other health fields, right? If I have a toothache and go to the dentist, I expect the dentist to drill, clean, fill, or whatever else is needed so that I no longer have a toothache at the end.

Therapists don’t work like that though. There is no “curing” mental illness. Instead, care and therapy is directed toward pathology- figuring out how and why a person becomes ill- and managing it to make the experience of that illness less disruptive to daily life. Medication and psychopharmacology is one option where the illness is severe enough that the pathology indicates a chemical imbalance in the brain. “Talk therapy,” what most of us think of when it comes to sitting down with a psychologist, is more like giving people the tools they need in order to piece together their own problems.

Therapists act more like a trail guide than a doctor, giving us the tools and advice we need to face our challenges- but we still need to face them ourselves. Carl Jung called two parts of this practice “Light” and “Shadow work-” and just like skipping Leg Day at the gym, you don’t want to skip on the Shadow work.

But the shadow is merely somewhat inferior, primitive, unadapted, and  awkward; not wholly bad. It even contains childish or primitive qualities  which would in a way vitalize and embellish human existence, but

Light Work vs. Shadow Work

Rather than indulge in a Star Wars cliche, I’ll keep this brief and point out the obvious. No one is perfect, and no one has a perfect life. We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like and we supress- jealousy, rage, bias, hatred, self-loathing. it’s all part of us. Light work is the work we do to empower and enliven the good things in us that we might discount or forget. It includes practicing gratitude, self-love, charitable thinking, and practicing authenticity- anything that raises the spirit and encourages… well, the spreading of light.

Shadow work means dealing with the parts of ourselves that we don’t like and suppress- things jealousy, rage, bias, hatred, self-loathing, and fear. It’s all part of us, and having this “shadow” is a by-product of being alive and living. These are the wounds in our souls, and they are the things that shadow work tries to draw out and heal.

Positivity vs. Toxic Positivity

This is the point in which “positivity culture”– all those well-meaning memes and advice books telling us to look on the bright side, realign our energies, etc- can become toxic. Rather than confront our darkness, heal our pain, and confront our demons, toxic positivity urges us to suppress those things further. Being in pain is “having a victim mentality.” Frustration and anger are “misplaced energy,” and all of our shadows and problems will go away if we just pretend they aren’t really problems.

For the record, there is nothing wrong with being positive. You CAN waste time and energy fruitlessly complaining, and no one likes dealing with a whiner- especially in the tightly-packed, high-stress environment of a kitchen. People who spend more time moaning about problems instead of fixing them can bring an entire team down.

Positivity means believing that a solution can be found to your problems. Toxic positivity says that there aren’t any problems, that the people pointing them out are just whiners and victims, and that it’ll all go away if you stop acting like there are problems.

Yoda Quotes About Fear, Patience and Knowledge
Ok, ONE Star Wars meme

Getting Our Hands Dirty

Doing one’s shadow work means, simply, calling a spade a spade. It means confronting our flaws, biases, fears, and misconceptions, and dragging them into the light. We learn where they came from, what we developed them for, and what role they were trying to fill. Maybe we are suspicious because we thought we couldn’t count on others. Maybe we learned a specific hate or fear because of the pain in someone else. We learn what we were trying to do developing these wounds and- without judgement or self-abuse- we heal them. A lot of therapy (should) be a process like this.

It’s not painless. It means confronting the ugly parts of yourself that you’d rather not dwell on, and digging into the pain that created the hurt. Cleaning up sometimes means putting on gloves, getting on your knees, and scraping out some muck. Self-care is no differentand it’s always worth it in the end.

Me back in about 2009

For so much of my life, I thought I just had to perform better. After culinary school, I figured I was just a hard worker with incredible drive. I had to be so people wouldn’t think I was a useless fuck-up. At my hospital job, my performance review actually said that I “acted with urgency regardless of whether or not a patient’s need was urgent.” To me, that was a compliment. I was moving. I was looking after people, and doing as much as possible. I had “a sense of urgency.” (Hey chefs, recognize those words from any of your job postings?)

It wasn’t until I sat down and had occasion to confront my behavior that I realized I was just “people pleasing.” It was “high-functioning” anxiety talking, and that I was burning myself out trying not to feel worthless, trying not to feel like a bum or a slouch or anything my brain told me I was if I wasn’t working every second of every day. I just needed to cheer up, to relax, to have another drink, to be grateful, and then to work harder…

I’m still a conscientious person. I’m still a hard worker- that wasn’t just the anxiety. It’s still there after doing my shadow work- confronting my demons, going to therapy, and getting on some meds. If anything, I’m better because so much of my energy isn’t spent staving off my asshole brain. I would never have gotten there if I’d just kept repressing my “shadow”- the anxiety, frustration, and anger at myself for not feeling better no matter how hard I worked or how many people I helped. It would have- and did– get worse when I blamed myself for the unforgivable sins of being in pain, for needing help, for needing a break, and for needing boundaries.

Getting to that place was messy, painful, and unglamourous- and it needed doing all the same.

Do the work. Get messy. Be better, and

Stay Classy,

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