Are you ready to face your shadows? While shadow work is derived from the ideas of Carl Jung, the decades-old concept has struck a chord with Gen Z on TikTok.
Upon searching “shadow work” on the platform, there are hundreds of video testimonials and links to Keila Shaheen’s popular book, The Shadow Work Journal: A Guide to Integrate and Transcend Your Shadows, which she self-published in 2021. The book first covers the history and tenets of shadow work before moving into self-guided exercises and writing prompts.
On her website, Shaheen defines shadow work as “the practice of confronting and integrating these suppressed parts of ourselves” and “shining a light on the darkest corners of our psyche to bring healing, acceptance, and wholeness.”
On TikTok alone, under the handle @zenfulnote, Shaheen has more than a quarter million followers and 6.9 million likes, and her book has sold nearly 350,000 copies on the app’s new shopping platform. Google searches for “shadow work” have also skyrocketed in the last few months.
Willough Jenkins, MD, a psychiatric emergency and consultation liaison at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, who runs her own TikTok account as @drwilloughjenkins, told MedPage Today that shadow work isn’t for everyone and isn’t a substitute for mental health treatment from trained professionals.
“There’s a difference between somebody who’s relatively mentally well, looking to seek deeper understanding, and somebody who’s struggling with mental illness that is looking for treatment,” Jenkins said.
She pointed out that Gen Z and younger patients are extremely online — and shadow work is just the latest self-help and mental health craze to sweep the internet.
“If a patient of that age group is coming to you with a mental health concern, it’s very likely that they have consumed mental health content on social media, whether it be TikTok or another platform,” noted Jenkins. “Being very direct and asking patients what they’ve been seeing and what their thoughts are can be very, very helpful in guiding treatments.”
Wait, What Is Shadow Work?
According to the Society of Analytical Psychology, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung first defined “the shadow” as “that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors.”
In more current terms, Jenkins explained that “the shadow is thought to be an aspect of yourself that you don’t have full awareness of — an unconscious aspect … most of the time the shadow is something that is a more negative aspect of yourself.”
In Shaheen’s book, some of the exercises are fill in the blank; for example, “As a child, I was yelled at for ____. My response was to ____ and ____. After this, I’ve always been ____.”
Shaheen claims that engaging in shadow work will lead to positive outcomes including healing generational trauma, increasing compassion, setting boundaries, and getting “un-stuck.”
Jenkins said this kind of work would be best done with the safety of a therapist who has the training to support patients through big feelings and past trauma that would likely bubble to the surface. She recommended that people seek out therapists with backgrounds in psychodynamic or psychoanalytical treatment, and upon intake, express their interest in shadow work.
“Saying, ‘look, I’m interested in exploring aspects of myself that I might not be fully realizing,'” is a way to flag to a therapist the kind of progress you want to make, Jenkins said.
She added that while this kind of digging is “kind of a mainstay of most therapy work, to be quite honest,” therapists that use psychodynamic or psychoanalytical techniques might also be familiar with this type of thinking.
Shadow Work Harms
Jenkins noted that some people might write off pop-psychology trends like The Shadow Work Journal as being harmless, but a potential downside is that if someone dedicates themselves to self-guided journaling, it could take away time from proven and effective treatments. Plus, for people with mental illness or past trauma, even guided journals can be a lot to process alone.
“This type of work was always meant to be done with a therapist, because it’s confronting difficult and kind of, you know, in the sense of the shadow, more negative aspects of yourself,” she said, adding that a common emotion that comes up for patients is shame.
While tons of users have raved about the emotional progress and self-reflection that Shaheen’s book has brought out in them, it’s also gotten pushback from some Christians, who claim shadow work is evil, as well as from therapists who are wary of the journal. Shaheen addresses these topics through her content, as well as questions like, is shadow work evidence-based or dangerous?
It’s also important to note the credentials of social media personalities pushing particular ideologies, and in this case, self-help strategies.
For instance, The Shadow Work Journal doesn’t actually have Shaheen’s name on copies of the book. However, the author page from her published book of poetry reveals that Shaheen doesn’t have advanced degrees in psychology or psychiatry, but rather has a bachelor’s in marketing, psychology, and creative studies. She also used to work at TikTok as a creative strategist, which could inform why her self-published book has taken off on the platform.
“Whenever a kind of a psychological term really hits the mainstream and everybody’s looking into it, it’s important to realize that it’s a very specific type of therapy that’s usually very individualized to a specific type of patient,” Jenkins said. “And so that’s one of the concerns that comes up when a very individualized treatment becomes kind of recommended to everybody.”