'Shadow work' is the latest self-care trend taking over TikTok

Inspired by Jungian psychology, the technique is supposed to unleash your inner child.

by Eve Upton-Clark
06 May 2021, 9:27am

Imagery via TikTok

Logging into TikTok, ready to enjoy some relatable 60 second content, you are instead confronted with a question: “What made you start doubting yourself as a kid?” Too deep? Not everyone thinks so. In fact, the video has over 300,000 views. Scrolling through the other videos on the account of TikTok creator Emma (whose username is @woodlandbaby) will immerse you in crystals, tarot and similarly probing questions like “Do you change your personality based on people you hang out with?” and “What something in your life do you feel you need to release?”. Taking the plunge into the darkest depths of your personality, this analysis and reflection is known as shadow work.

If you search the hashtag #shadowwork, this is one of the many videos that come up, with a combined view count of 175.2M. Some of these videos dispense simple advice and journal prompts, such as “write five things you love about yourself”. Others dive deep into analysing ‘inner child’ wounds such as guilt, abandonment, trust and neglect — in other words, taking some time out to work on the dark, or “shadow” side of yourself, in order to become healthier and more positive, or, in the parlance of the trend, achieve a “higher self”.

During the last year, self-care discourse has taken on a life of its own. Articles encouraging early bedtimes, baths and long walks in nature have bombarded us at every turn, becoming increasingly insufferable as the lockdown counts tallied up. But a combination of isolation-induced introspection and skyrocketing screen time has led many to take solace in online communities encouraging a different form of self-care.

The idea of the ‘shadow self’ was popularised by famed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Writing in Psychology and Alchemy, Jung proposed the idea that “there is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.” This introspective psychological practice dates back to at least the early 1900s, and is fundamentally about bringing the unconscious mind to conscious awareness.

According to Jungian practice, the personal shadow is the disowned self, a self that consists mainly of primitive and negative human emotions and impulses. These include our most unappealing qualities such as rage, selfishness and jealousy. Precisely because these parts of our personality are disowned, we struggle to see these traits in ourselves. 

Either through paying attention to the specific ways in which you react to people and situations in order to be more mindful and healthy in your responses, or by means of certain prompting questions, one can begin to identify recurring themes and patterns. The main takeaway of shadow work; it’s not you, it’s me.

“As it’s an introspective experience there are no rules or regulations on how you approach it," explains Keelin, 23, whose YouTube video “everything you need to know about shadow work” has been viewed almost 20,000 times. “To start off I made 15 prompts from different resources to do over a period of time. From this I learned to question my actions and intrinsic thought processes which are heavily influenced by my surroundings and upbringing.”

However, Keelin also highlights the flattening effect of social media infographics or 60 second TikTok how-tos. “Contrary to the positive aspect and abundance of spirituality content on the internet, it is also a contradiction in itself to constantly regurgitate and water down practice that should be a self-revelation. You can’t teach someone how to have an epiphany or how to heal themselves. You can only offer the tools or explain how you got there yourself.”

According to a report by the charity Mind, “More than half of adults and over two thirds of young people said that their mental health has gotten worse during the period of lockdown restrictions.” Coupled with this, the maximum waiting time for "non-urgent" referrals for therapy on the NHS is 18 weeks. Mind’s report on accessing talking therapies found that one in ten people referred for such a service have been waiting over a year to receive treatment, and over half have been waiting over three months. With the cost of private therapy or counselling inaccessible to many, is it any wonder that people are turning to alternative practices to plug the gaps?

“In some ways it’s a stepping stone”, explains 19-year-old GG. “I would never encourage someone to not go to therapy. I do both, I do shadow work and therapy, because I think that they go hand in hand. But for those people that don’t have the resources they need or can’t access professional help, I think shadow work can be a good place to start if you are interested in growing and getting into the deep stuff.”

Of course, the complexity and importance of mental health and adequate services should not be underestimated. There is a clear and significant difference between those suffering from serious disorders and psychological trauma and those simply looking to better understand themselves and their actions. Different forms of therapy will often incorporate elements of shadow work into practice, offering a safe space where clients can confront difficult aspects of their life and self that may be too confronting to face without professional support.  

“In general I don’t think people are that fragile, I don’t think doing some creative journaling exercises on your own would create massive problems,” says psychotherapist and author Imi Lo. “If it’s some kind of personal development work I don’t see the problem, but then there are certain things that would be more touchy. Things like trauma or psychosis. Then you would definitely want to see a licensed professional.” 

While not undermining its validity, Imi emphasises the importance of not regarding traditional therapy and personal shadow work as interchangeable. “They are apples and oranges; therapy is entirely something else. If it [shadow work] helps then I have no judgement, but if you do struggle with something then it can be like the blind leading the blind,” she explains. “Especially on social media where people can create echo chambers out of their trauma. Then it can become a risky territory.” 

Working to create a kind of visual glossary of his own spiritual practice, in May last year astrologer and psychic Hollow Hollis began posting more psychologically educational content on his TikTok account. “I try to just use it for teaching purposes and connect with those who need spiritual guidance,” the 23-year-old explains. “I also love that my page is a safe place where people can come talk about their spiritual experiences without feeling judged or disbelieved.” Since then, his account has garnered over 17 million likes.

While the practice itself is intensely private and personal, the sharing of shadow work content on social media helps promote the idea that self-care isn’t all consumer capitalism would have you believe. In a neoliberal society that profits from pitting us against one another, most of us can use all the help we can get to unlearn societally-ingrained toxic attitudes and behaviours.

Call it a spiritual awakening, call it self-development, ultimately shadow work is confronting and uncomfortable, addressing the very worst aspects of yourself alongside celebrating the best. Even the most psychologically sound among us will be lugging around a Peter Pan-esque shadow just waiting to trip them up. Acknowledging you have one is the first step, whether that is with the support of a licensed therapist or via prompting from social media. Do the work and reap the benefits.

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