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Shadow Work

Hello witches, and thank you for joining me today, we have got a lot to talk about. First of all, Mercury is in retrograde as we speak. Part of the reason we are talking about shadow work at this time is because it’s kind of a recurring retrograde theme, for the past to rear its head and remind us that our traumas aren’t quite as healed as we like to pretend they are, this is a time when it’s easy to fall back into destructive habits, or answer those late night texts from that toxic ex. Incidentally, next week’s episode will be on meditation, for similar reasons. 

But now let’s answer a question. This witch is in a really cool situation and I thought it was so interesting.

Hey Eli,

Loving listening to and learning from you on your podcast. Just speaking about magick is such a powerful and connecting practice in itself).

Girl, I agree. 

I listened to your episode about spirit guides and have done a lot of other research around this subject too. I know (because I feel a sense of almost guilt when I go to say this) that my guides are around me and speaking but I’m often unsure whether they REALLY are or whether the tiniest fractions of what could be called genuine communications are just my wishful thinking.

There have been a lot of suggestions that one of my guides is a “great bear”. These signs have been both internal and in this material world too. Pretty cool actually and I’d be happy to list them here.

Yes, actually, please write back and tell me more about that, it sounds really interesting. 

Anyway, it’s led me to a realization (or -again- wishful thinking) that one of my guides may actually be a goddess called Artio. I had never heard of her before and I’m not sure what led me to finding that name but I stumbled upon it and it resonated. It feels incredibly fortunate to have a goddess as a spirit guide and that makes me somewhat doubtful. What are your thoughts on this?

Second thing – my friend who is further along his spiritual journey believes that he has reasons to believe that all gods worshiped now and before are indeed real and live in some other plane. Since knowing this, it’s made my want to pray or worship challenging. I want to connect to one or two deities but to know I could choose any is overwhelming and I fret about which one to select for myself. Is it a case of turning in and seeing who comes to me?

Ok, so I told Sandy that I know someone very personally who is blessed to have Orion (yes, THAT Orion) among her spirit guides, so the possibility of Artio having chosen to reveal herself to Sandy isn’t hard for me to believe. Artio incidentally is a Celtic bear goddess and pretty obscure. Now, I went back to that Spirit Guide episode and checked and I didn’t really talk much about transient Spirit Guides because I wanted to focus more on the guides that stay with us our whole lives.  

But, I do believe that we attract guides from time to time in our lives whose purpose is to just guide us through a certain phase of life or certain major life events. Once our time with those guides has run its course, they will move on and so will we. It is my suspicion that major entities (like your Orions and your Artios) are probably some of these temporary guides, rather than our lifelong Ride or Die guides. So while it is an enormous honor and a hell of a lot of pressure I suspect, I told her to try to enjoy this time with Artio while it lasts and learn all she is here to teach. 

As for your second question, I think your friend is probably on the right track. I don’t know that I’ve decided what I think the gods precisely are, but I believe that whatever they are and wherever they may actually exist, they represent very human experiences and qualities and frailties. Their strengths can be conferred upon us when we need it, if we just ask. As for how to approach them, I know folks who have had luck just meditating with the intention of receiving communication from deities, and I personally have found the deities I work with through casual research. Basically, I like to read about different gods and goddesses in different cultures and every once in a while, one of these beings will catch my attention and I feel called to learn more. So I say, try whichever method sounds most likely to work for you, and if that doesn’t work, try it the other way.   

I believe the gods are a lot more like us than we probably realize. They’re not as recognized and celebrated as they used to be, and they appreciate and respond well to the honor and the attention. I think as long as you approach them in humility and with respect, someone will take notice. Whatever happens, please let me know!

Today’s topic is Shadow Work, and hopefully this is going to help us resist sliding back into the old patterns that no longer serve us. If we can stay focused on growth, or at least if we can stay focused on the fact that retrograde makes it easy to stunt our own growth and to even regress, then maybe we can at least minimize the damage we do and thank you so much to Running Maggie who is the witch that reminded me that I had said ages ago I was planning to do an episode on Shadow Work, and also Sydney, who just sent me an email on Saturday asking about Shadow Work and reminding me that the Universe has ways of making sure I follow through. 

I can’t only talk about fun stuff like faeries and gardening. I have this little notebook of episode topics and when I first started, I was so diligent about doing them in order. But as we’ve gone along, I have begun to bounce around and pick and choose what to speak about based on suggestions or questions that witches send in to me or what’s topical in the news or popular media at a given time, or just based on what I personally want to talk about.

And I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Shadow Work isn’t my favorite topic. Not because it isn’t important. Not because it doesn’t help me to grow and evolve as a witch and as a human being. The reason I have put it off is simply because it is uncomfortable to confront these things and I am a classic avoider. It’s one of my shadows. Doing shadow work truly is in essence, removing the bandages that cover our emotional wounds and seeing if they’ve healed into scars that simply remind us of those old injuries, or if they’ve become infected. Have we allowed those injuries to quietly fester and to infect other aspects of our lives.

Now the term Shadow Work has become ubiquitous in witchcraft circles, but it’s actually a concept that comes from Jungian psychology. Carl Jung was a Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst and although he was greatly influenced by Freud at the outset of his work, the two men eventually had a falling out and Jung went on to deviate a great deal from Freud’s work and thank the gods for that. Jung went on to do some fascinating work and I recommend any and everyone to read about some of the concepts he pioneered because he was a visionary. Not everything is going to ring true for everyone, but he truly was a forward thinker and it is remarkable how revolutionary his work really was, especially for that time.

So this next bit is going to be a super condensed crash course in Jungian psychology so we can have the tiniest bit of a foundation before we get into the meat of the matter. So Jung identified numerous archetypes in the collective human psyche, which he defined as images or symbols or concepts that come from the collective unconscious. These archetypes have universal meanings across cultures and show up in dreams, they will show up in a culture’s literature, or art or even the predominant religion within a culture. He explained that the reason all these recurring themes keep showing up across cultures who may have had no historical interaction is because they have emerged from archetypes shared by the whole human race. 

Jung identified many, many archetypes among individuals but focused on four which he asserts are present in each and every one of us. These archetypes are the Self, the Persona, the Shadow and the Anima/Animus. The Persona is the mask we wear when we face the public. This is the role we play when we perform as ourselves. The Anima/Animus refers to the unconscious masculine aspects that reside in women (this is the Animus) and the unconscious feminine aspects that reside within men (this is the Anima). The Shadow represents the animalistic, base aspect of ourselves. It is the source of both our creative and destructive energies. And then the Self is the final archetype. This is the archetype that we are all aspiring to, which is a recognition and acceptance of all the archetypes that come together to make us a whole. 

The Self, when it is actualized, understands and accepts all the different versions of ourselves and all the experiences that shape who we are and who we hope to become. And this is of course only possible once we examine, understand, and accept all these archetypes. And the most difficult archetype for each of us to reconcile is typically the Shadow. I am not suggesting that Carl Jung got it all right or that his philosophies are one hundred percent correct and accurate. I’m just laying the foundation for the principals of Shadow work. So all that was the basic framework of the concept. 

Shadow work as a practice seeks to bring to the forefront those aspects of ourselves that we repress or that we try to deny, or that we are ashamed of. And the reasons we may repress those aspects may not even be because they are quote-unquote bad qualities. These may just be qualities that we were shamed for, or that we were punished for, whether it was deserved or not. So we may be really conscientious of talking too much because we used to get teased for it, but talking too much isn’t a quote-unquote bad thing. It isn’t evil or wrong. But if it’s something we were made to feel embarrassed of, we may as adults compensate for that by overanalyzing every social interaction we have trying to determine whether we were annoying everyone. Something as simple as this can lead to terrible social anxiety.

And there can be much larger consequences as well, for example if we weren’t exposed to healthy expressions of anger and disagreement or even if we weren’t allowed to express those feelings, we may compensate for that as adults by either turning every minor disagreement into a full-blown fight, or we may practice total conflict avoidance altogether. Which is something I personally have been working on for years and it’s very difficult to undo. 

Now, as for why shadow work has become such a major concept in witchcraft, I believe this is because witches understand that we perform our best and most powerful magic when we don’t have a shadow self in the background who may be unconsciously undermining this work with doubt, with negative self-talk, with insecurities, with shame. If we can call these shadows forward and begin to understand them, if we can recognize where they came from, why they were created, what circumstances they were created from, we can get to know them and begin to heal them. We can integrate these shadows into our Self and start working with them rather than against them. 

And remember, these shadows were created as a way to protect the Self. So, they aren’t the enemy, they’re simply a part of us that developed as a means of coping with events that shamed us, or shielding us from events that harmed us, or defending us from events that frightened us. We can recognize and thank the Shadow for this service, and also relieve the Shadow from duty. But only if we recognize when and how and why it’s triggered, and this requires the difficult shadow work.

One other factor of Shadow Work that Carl Jung sort of understood but not really, is ancestor work. Jung did acknowledge that humanity has an inherited consciousness. He didn’t really take that concept all the way to the conclusion of ancestral curses or generational curses, but understanding this and understanding that we are merely the most recent in a long line of our ancestors who were all carrying within their very DNA the scars and shadows of their own histories, is also a major part of healing the shadow.

So that’s all cool and interesting, but how do we actually DO shadow work? Where do we begin? Well, first and foremost, understand that shadow work can be very distressing for people. Particularly if there are severe traumas in your past that haven’t been effectively addressed with a competent professional, then probably you should start there. If you have access to a counselor or a therapist, please, please start there. 

However, if you feel like this work is something that you’re able to safely move through on your own, then a good way to begin is to simply start paying attention and noticing when our shadow appears. We need to pay attention to what triggers us. What makes us feel anxious? What makes us feel angry? What makes us feel uncomfortable or ashamed? What makes us feel vulnerable? Once we recognize certain events or circumstances or people who trigger these feelings in us, we can start to do the hard work of figuring out why these things cause us to feel the way we do.

And one way this is typically done is through journaling. Now you can buy shadow journals and they can be very helpful for sort of walking a person through the process, but there are plenty of online sources for what are called shadow prompts. And these prompts are used to get the ball rolling. You can google the term shadow prompts and find lists and lists of journal prompts like, What is a memory you are ashamed of? When was the last time you self-sabotaged? Write a letter to the person who’s hurt you the most in your life, and tell them everything you’d like to say. 

It’s heavy stuff, isn’t it? And it’s something we shouldn’t do all at once. This is a process, and I’m sorry to say it’s never fully done. It’s like exercise, or like learning an instrument, you don’t just do it once, or for a week, or for a month, and expect to have it down. It’s a practice and a process. This is a journey of healing and forgiveness, and there are going to be a lot of tears and there are going to be a lot of surprises. When I began incorporating shadow work, I was very surprised how much baggage I was still carrying from my own childhood. I felt as though, because I seem very settled, and I am very even tempered, and I am good at making people like me, that that meant I managed to make it through 40-something years of some pretty fucked up shit completely unscathed. But y’all when I tell you the first time I journaled a shadow prompt I cried. It wasn’t even an especially provocative prompt. 

The question was simply, what makes you angry? And I had to stop and think. And my first instinct was to hop up on my high horse and write, I never get angry. But I felt a little knot in the pit of my stomach and I just had to let the floodgates open. When I was growing up, my defining characteristic was that I was a very good girl. I was calm and well-behaved and polite and helpful and friendly. Because this is how I received approval and recognition and praise. I remembered, when I was writing this journal entry, a time when my mother had sort of accidentally revealed a secret in front of my cousins that was very embarrassing to me. And my cousins mocked me really mercilessly about it.

Later, I told my mom that they were making fun of me, and in my anger and embarrassment about that, I had kicked a tire. Immediately, my mother reprimanded me for lashing out like that. In that moment, the fact that she had broken my confidence did not matter. The fact that my cousins were assholes didn’t matter. What mattered was that I had admitted to acting out in frustration and anger, and for that, I was in trouble. I was the one in the wrong. Now, obviously, that story isn’t a one-and-done incident; my early childhood was marked by events and circumstances in which it was made clear that no matter what happened to me, I was responsible to rise above it. Expressions of anger were not something I was permitted.

So while I was writing all that in my little journal, I had to admit that there are plenty of things that make me angry. There just weren’t any ways that I allowed myself to express it. It is incredibly difficult to make myself admit, out loud, to others, when I feel angry, or when I feel wronged, or when I have been hurt. It makes me feel bad, like I am being bad, like people aren’t going to like me, that people are going to think I’m high maintenance, or I’m too sensitive, or that I’m not justified in feeling that way, or whatever. As a result, I have throughout my life put up with a lot of bullshit that I shouldn’t have. I have allowed people to walk all over me, I have allowed myself to be taken advantage of. Not because I didn’t know I was being taken advantage of, but because I couldn’t bring myself to say something.

This particular shadow developed as a way to help little Eli behave the way she was expected to so that she wouldn’t get in trouble, and so that she could continue to receive the praise that was so important to her. But this shadow doesn’t serve me anymore, and it’s time to bring it to the light, recognize and accept why it developed, and understand that denying and suppressing my feelings doesn’t actually help me. That was the first prompt I ever did. And it wasn’t the hardest one, it should probably have been very easy. But being easy isn’t the point. And that is the essence of shadow work.

Art therapy can be another way to kind of work through the feelings and emotions that are kicked up when we begin to do this work. If journaling isn’t a method that appeals to you or that works for you, perhaps poetry, or music, singing, drawing, painting, sculpting, dancing, or any other artistic medium will be a better fit. Any way that you can pull those shadows out in front and work through them is going to be crucial to this process.

And we can use magic as well to reinforce this work. Reinforce the work, not instead of the work. As we are confronting our shadows, we may find it helpful to do banishing work, we may need to do a cord cutting, we may want to do candle magic, we might write down certain experiences or shadows and do a ritual burning of those things. We may find it helpful to carry specific crystals or stones to support us while we work through these issues. We might find it helpful to create an infused oil using specific herbs and plants that we can then anoint ourselves with as another layer of protection and support.

And especially as we begin to identify these generational shadows, it can be very beneficial to call on our ancestors to help us. If we have within our ancestral lineage certain recurring shadows, then it is going to be really healing for not only yourself, but for the folks who came before you, and the folks who will continue after you are gone. So call them to you and work through these things together. Performing shadow work is not a quick fix, and it’s going to stir up a lot of uncomfortable feelings. It’s going to be messy and it’s going to seem awful. But what we can expect is an improvement in our emotional well-being. Shadow work is crucial for self-forgiveness, and we have to go into it ready to forgive ourselves. We are going to confront things during this work that we are deeply ashamed of, things that we have done, things we have allowed others to do, maybe things that were forced upon us, and we can’t hold judgment against ourselves for any of it. We have to be compassionate and understanding toward ourselves, because the whole point is that we are trying to break these cycles and these patterns.

And that is something we deserve to feel proud of ourselves for. And a side-effect of this work is that it helps us to be more understanding and accepting toward others. Especially when we recognize our shadows in other people. If we have become very cognitively aware of these shadows and how and why they exist in us, we are going to be more sympathetic and empathetic toward others who are harboring those same shadows.

And of course, as an added bonus, we will also begin to see an improvement in our magic. Particularly if we happen to suffer from self-doubt. That little voice in our head when we are performing magic that whispers things like ‘this isn’t going to work’ or ‘you’re not really a witch’ or ‘witchcraft is bad’ is going to get a lot quieter, and it’s going to interfere a lot less. So, there are plenty of really good reasons to start doing Shadow Work, and Mercury Retrograde is actually a good time to begin. We can already expect these toxic cycles and patterns to start cropping up in these next few weeks, so we might as well make it work for us.

And this is also why we are going to talk about meditation next week. It’s going to be important for us to remain centered and calm and at peace, so that’s going to be next week’s topic. And I’m looking forward to it; meditation is a really fundamental skill to witchcraft. The hippies were right all along, meditation is key.

So, please practice your shadow work safely and ask for help if you need it, please keep sending messages and emails. Please don’t let Merc retrograde get under your skin and we will talk again next week. My name is Eli, and this is the Middle-Aged Witch podcast.

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