At some point in our childhood, we learn that living in a society means controlling certain emotions. We suppress, in particular, emotions we consider to be “negative”—fear, anger, jealousy, selfishness—for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we consider them shameful.
Although we may not like our shadow emotions, it is important to recognize and acknowledge them, as they often contain important information about our lives. As Claire Nicogossian, a clinical psychologist recently wrote in an article for MindBodyGreen, “Emotional experiences show us what we need to pay attention to in our lives, within ourselves, our relationships, or our experiences.”
This includes emotions we consider positive, such as joy, happiness, and gratitude, but it also includes emotions we consider negative, such as fear, shame, guilt, and anger. Emotions are neither good nor bad, but rather data points about our lives and experiences. It’s important to pay attention to them, in order to gain an understanding of what we need.
Making sense of our shadow emotions is sometimes called “shadow work.” Shadow work is all about the unconscious mind, which consists of the things that we repress and hide from ourselves. When it comes to understanding our shadow emotions, Nicogossian writes that if they are “not paid attention to or managed, they get louder and more intense until we’re forced to deal with our emotional experiences.”
Doing shadow work consists of taking the time to really examine and label your emotional experiences. This involves identifying what you are feeling, in a way that delves deep into the specifics. For example, if you are feeling grief, what does that grief look like? Is your grief due to a specific event, or is it mixed up with other things that have happened to you in the past? What is the reason for your grief, and why?
Once you have identified and labeled your emotions, it’s important to take the time to pay close attention to your thoughts surrounding these emotions. If your primary emotion is grief due to loss, what are your thoughts surrounding that loss? Are you blaming yourself for not being stronger? Are you doubting the validity of your emotions? Are you fixating on how this loss relates to similar losses you’ve had in the past? Are you feeling worried or insecure? Or are you angry about the loss?
All of these are feelings that can evoke a sense of shame or guilt, so our instinct may be to suppress them. However, suspending judgment about our shadow emotions in order to better understand them is critical for our own good.
As Nicogossian points out, if our shadow emotions are “not paid attention to or managed, they get louder and more intense until we’re forced to deal with our emotional experiences.” Put another way, our shadow emotions simply are what they are. As important as it is to understand them, we don’t need to act on them, and they don’t define us.
Ultimately, identifying your shadow emotions is a way of understanding yourself, which can improve your life in a number of ways. One benefit includes being able to tap into your intuition, as doing so requires listening to all your thoughts and emotions, good and bad. Plus, we can only confront and deal with the emotions we are willing to face.
Another advantage of doing shadow work is that sometimes the emotions and thoughts we believe are shameful really aren’t. This is especially true for people who are struggling with low-self esteem and maybe suppressing thoughts and emotions that are actually good. Doing shadow work is a way of reclaiming some of your gifts, and developing a healthy sense of self along the way.