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The power of Shadow Work in bringing the unconscious aspects of our psyche to conscious awareness


The unconscious

The unconscious is that mysterious realm where much is hidden from us, yet which continually spills out into our world. The problem with the unconscious is that it is unconscious and because of this we can't approach it directly, but we can track, engage and interpret its manifestations in our behavioural patterns, our thoughts and how it shows up as sensations and manifests in our bodies. Each of these offers an avenue, a trailhead into a psyche that is actively seeking healing.

Healing the shadow

The first part of a Healing The Shadow session looks a lot like a conventional relational, client-centred psychotherapy. A conversation in a space of non-judgemental acceptance and trust within which the client can feel safe to inquire deeply and show up exactly as they are.

Symbolic representation and parts work process

When exploring the shadow, we make use of a central carpet in the room as a metaphor to represent the client's inner world or psyche - that is, a place where we can represent the parts showing up in whatever current or historic issue we are exploring, and also other people or in fact any other entity with which the client interacts: this could be a dream, an organisation, an idea, concept, story or myth (for an in depth overview of parts and the multiplicity of the psyche, see here). These people and these parts are symbolically represented on the carpet using coloured cloths (or props and objects).

I am often mesmerised at the way clients drop into the symbolic nature of this work as a session progresses, placing cloths to represent an aspect of themselves onto their carpet with great care and consideration as to its size and shape, its exact location and its proximity to other parts. As soon as it is represented and appears in the room it is present for the client, the client immediately begins a relationship with it. Perhaps the client doesn't like or trust that part of her or feels frightened of it but knows its power over her and so places the cloth over a large part of her carpet in representation of it. Perhaps she loves this part of herself and wants it more in her life but right now she places the cloth on the far side of the carpet, it is rolled and tucked up very small... The way a client represents her parts takes on significance and an importance in helping her understand herself and witness aspects of her inner world as she is right now.

Accessing unconscious thoughts, feelings and beliefs

As we move through our life and its busyness we are constantly blending and unblending with our inner parts. We do this unconsciously, below our level of awareness as we move through different environments, experiences, and between different people. In a shadow work session we bring intentionality into the space, separating out and representing the parts with an intention to bring a new awareness to the client, to bring some clarity to the confusion. It can be uniquely shame-lifting for a client to see and experience their inner parts, for example they may begin to see that it is not the whole of themselves that they believe is dysfunctional, but just a part, one aspect of a greater whole.

This representation is key to bringing aspects of our unconscious to conscious awareness as we symbolically build up in front of the client a picture of what they are carrying in their inner world. The client is invited to step onto to the carpet and into their inner world, and to ‘step in’ to a part and explore the thoughts and feelings of these parts of themselves, speaking from that place, inhabiting and embodying it, building relationship with it in a new way and experiencing the energies and emotions hidden there. This separating out of the psyche, stepping into a part and directing the attention internally, brings into awareness the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of that part.

Accessing the intra-psychic relationships - the relationships between parts

What also comes to light through this experiential process is the relationship between parts of the psyche, between parts of the psyche and the people in our lives, and between parts of the psyche and any other entity which has an influence on us and with which we interact in our lives. When in a part we are able to feel and experience the impact of other parts or people on that aspect of ourselves and this can provide much insight into what needs to shift within us. For example, as I step into a part that feels shame, I may feel small, less than, and want to hide. From staying with these feelings, thoughts and emotions that are aspects of that part, I may become aware of a person or voice close by, judging me. I may be able to hear clearly the words being said and realise that they are loud and repeating and there is a sense that I cannot get away from them and I get to experience the impact of this inner voice or person on this part of me that falls into shame from time to time. This inner voice or person can also now be represented, bringing it into relationship so it can be worked with.

In this way, the wider dynamics (the relationships between these parts, or between an inner part and the other) can be experienced and explored and through representation these dynamics become visible where before they were below the level of awareness.

So, what emerges are the messages we are hearing from the people around us and how these impact us; metaphorical entities that are blocking our way forward, protecting us or holding us back; unhelpful patters of behaviour or ways of being, repeating relationship dynamics; and the truthful nature of the parts and inner relationships that comprise our inner world.

It is through representation and this parts framework that an effective way of relating with the aspects of self becomes available, and a space emerges to start to unravel and make sense of our emotions, drives, feelings and sensations.

Process work - working with our inner relationships

Once we have these unconscious dynamics, inner relationships and parts represented we can do something with them, we can work with them. This part of a session often involves some process work, working with the parts brought out on to the carpet. Returning back to an ‘observer’ place away from the carpet, the client can look at her own psyche from a different perspective, from a unique angle and place of altered awareness. It becomes clear how these unconscious themes and experiences are present in our inner world, and we are able to identify where in our outer lives and relationships this pattern is being repeated. What is more, from this stepped back place we may begin to see and understand earlier impacting experiences in our lives, and how these are now repeating in our current lives and current relationships.

This opportunity to view the inner world as it is right now, represented in real space in front of the client often leads to great insight, compassion for ourselves and our inner system of parts, and an clarity within the client around what needs to shift internally in order for her to move forward in her life. These changes may include taking some action that rebalances or alters the energy of those parts into something more useful and less dysfunctional. It may involve other reparative work or the processing of emotions or stuck feelings. It may involve expressing anger or grief, working with parts that are experiencing guilt or shame, creating or working with personal boundaries. It may involve delicate and sensitive Inner Child work. The nature of the work naturally emerges.

I believe that much of the relational aspects of the external world are a reflection of our inner world and that If I change the dynamics that I carry in my inner world I will change my experience of life and what I live out in the wider world.

My sense is that strengthening new ways of being through experiential process, and exploring the inner relationships between all the aspects of Self can lead to real inner change, and a transformation that can allow us to move forward in our lives.


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The power of shadow work therapy


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