Eighteen months ago, I faced a painful and confronting decision, to stop running from my depression and learn to embrace my shadow self, my inner darkness.
I was living what some might say the ‘dream life,’ on a small Island in the South Pacific. My partner and I gave up our well-paying jobs and cushy life in Australia to go backpacking. Along the way we scored an amazing opportunity, managing a local bar and restaurant on the island.
From an outsiders perspective, this seemed like a dream. Chilled island living, leaving all the cares and pressure of our society behind. But in reality, I had been unwell for a long time. I battled anxiety and depression through much of my twenties, and now in my thirties I still hadn’t ‘escaped it.’
I used travel as a means of ‘escaping’ my life, because it’s easy to convince yourself that life will be better or easier elsewhere. So, any opportunity I had, I would run and go in search of an ‘easier’ life.
But after months of using travel as an ‘escape’, attempting to stay afloat in our relationship and battling my depression, it all came to a head. My partner and I were at our whit’s end, we were mentally and physically exhausted.
I will never forget that day on the beach. The sun was shining, the ocean crystal clear, it was beautiful… But inside I felt broken. My partner put his arms around me and said “You are sick my love, you need help.”
At that moment I broke down. I knew that I had no choice but to surrender, giving up on our island dream. I had to go home. A week later, I returned to Australia, terrified of confronting my demons, but knowing I had no choice.
My partner remained in the South Pacific for another six weeks, tying up loose ends and then returning home to me. I was eternally grateful he chose to stay by my side and fight for our relationship.
I had no idea what the next eighteen months had install for me. Reluctantly, I made a promise to myself and my partner to stop running and face my mental health issues. I got a referral for a counsellor, upped my dose of anti-depressants, joined a woman’s circle and attended spiritual workshops attempting to find answers.
I felt like I was in the clear in the first few months. Maybe it was all the change in the air from moving back home and keeping myself busy. But once I settled into daily life, my depression began to slowly creep back in, feeling even worse this time.
I experienced more physical symptoms; panic attacks, pain in my muscles, and at times my body would tremble and convulse. It was like my body was trying to rid me of a toxic energy, trapped inside my cells.
I had flashbacks, confronting memories from childhood were resurfacing and at times, my body was in agony. Forcing me to come face to face with the roots of my depression and anxiety. I was feeling emotionally exhausted, and realized I could no longer run from the pain, there was no other option but to stay and do the shadow work.
What does Shadow work involve?
Shadow work is unbearably painful at times. It involves delving into the parts of yourself that are hidden away, deep within your soul. The parts that have been repressed, viewed as shameful, unacceptable and bad. They exist within the shadows of the subconscious, otherwise known as the disowned self.
When parts of the shadow-self arise, our immediate reaction is to try to escape them. Distract ourselves from the uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and memories arising. We are afraid of acknowledging the pain, believing we can avoid it, but the truth is we can’t. No matter how hard we try to run, our body always remembers.
This is know as cellular memory; the cells in our body store and remember every experience throughout our lives. This means that certain experiences, thoughts or emotions can ‘trigger’ a memory buried deep beneath the shadows.
Unconsciously, we replay the remnants of these memories in many forms. We develop coping mechanisms and patterns in order to mask the pain, attempting to protect ourselves. They weigh us down like a heavy fog, and we cannot move through it until we decide to acknowledge the pain.
I existed in a space of pain and darkness for a long time. The all-consuming feeling, persistently niggling at me for acknowledgement but it felt too big and scary to face. It seemed easier to just ‘feel sorry for myself,’ instead of giving in and do the work.
But eventually, I became tired of lugging around the pain. Escaping it only proved to magnify the intensity and prolong my suffering. So, I took the plunge, I delved in head first and spiraled into the depths of the shadows. I decided to sit with the pain and see what happened.
What does it mean to embrace your shadow self?
At first, it felt unbearable. I wanted to reach into my heart and rip it straight out of my chest, I wanted to scream, cry and run. But I stayed, again the pain pulsed through me and I didn’t resist it. I allowed my body to shake and convulse, I gave the pain permission to rise to the surface. Eventually the pain subsided, and something profound happened.
A wave of peace rushed over me, the pain began to ease and the intensity subsided. As I began to embrace my shadow self, I felt present within my body and a deep sense of knowing that everything would be alright. A clear message came to me.
“Pain was just a messenger, waiting patiently for acknowledgement.”
Underneath that pain was a lesson. An indicator that I was rejecting parts of myself that required love and nurturing to heal. Beneath the shadows revealed my inner child, calling out to me asking for the opportunity to heal. She needed love, kindness and compassion.
Daily, I began sitting with my pain, allowing myself to tune into the messages that were underneath the pain. Eventually my fear of staying with uncomfortable emotions slowly began to subside. Through this practice I discovered that the thought of the pain makes it seem much scarier than it actually is.
Painful emotions are just an indicator to stop and pay attention to something. They hold valuable insights about yourself, and when you choose to acknowledged them you discover a sense of clarity. The truth is, we have to walk through the darkness to find the light.
So what did I learn through shadow work?
I learned there is no ‘quick fix’ for the process of self-healing, it’s a long windy, and sometimes painful road. There are many obstacles along the way and things don’t always work out the way you would like them to. Shadow work is not a one-off venture, it takes a life time of dedication. And believe me once you take this road there is no turning back.
Our life’s journey is to experience an abundance of emotions – joy, sadness, happiness and pain, it is not meant to be easy.
By doing the shadow work you learn to accept yourself as a whole, you stop hiding away the parts of yourself that you once rejected and learn embrace them as beautiful, broken, raw and venerable aspects of your being.
Eighteen months after my decision to step into and embrace my shadow-self, I can honestly say that every part of it – the pain, the joy the discomfort was all worth it. I have accepted the fact that I will always live with some form of anxiety, and depression still rears its ugly head from time to time, but that’s okay. It’s part of me, and I no longer feel the need to reject it.
I know who I am, I understand that I’m not perfect and I will always have to do the work. But most importantly I have come to learn, that within the shadows lives a beautifully imperfect, but deeply authentic me.
Have you learned to embrace your shadow self? Leave comment below about your experiences.
To explore more on shadow work check out Teal Swan’s article: What Is Shadow Work?