Creative Counselling: Shadow Work
In this month’s Creative Counselling, we look at shadow sides and the benefits of doing shadow work with a counsellor or therapist
by Marie Bruce
Counselling can be a gloomy profession at times. Counsellors are faced with the darkest sides of life on a regular basis: when people come in to the therapy room to see us, they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and it is our job to help relieve them of that weight. It can be tough, but it is also very rewarding, as we see our clients begin to recover and live well once more.
Having said that, we do see more than our fair share of sorrow, loss and tragedy, especially when we are doing shadow work with a client. Shadow work is the excavation of old hurts that have been deeply buried, but that still have a negative impact on the client’s day-to-day life. Examples of shadow work include helping people who have been abused in childhood, or who have had miscarriages or cot death, or who have suffered the death of a loved one through suicide or violence. There are many other types of shadow work, but these are some of the more common ones.
When people show up in the therapy room they always bring two things with them – the issue they know they need help with, and the one they don’t like to acknowledge. In psychotherapy we refer to this second issue as a person’s shadow side. It is an emotional abscess that needs lancing, but this has to be done cautiously. Lots of clients don’t want to be that vulnerable in front of a professional counsellor, so we have to give them ways to address their shadow side in the safety and privacy of their own home. Here we will look at exactly that, and how you can begin to excavate your own shadow side using the tools of shadow work.
When to look to your shadow side
Shadow work simply means using psychotherapy tools to dig deeper and address old wounds that may still be festering, so that you can begin the healing process. It is the perfect kind of therapy work for the darker half of the year, as the seasons are in alignment with shadows and darkness, leading some people to become more depressed than usual. Oftentimes this deep depression is a result of old wounds – not quite forgotten, but not fully healed either. As the dark nights creep in and people go out less, they have more time in which to brood on the past, leading to depression. Shadow work can be most effective during the months of autumn and winter, when emotional family festivities like Bonfire Night and Christmas stir up the past like a ghost.
Everyone has a shadow side to some degree. Prince Harry has been most vocal about his shadow side and the lasting impact the sudden death of his mother, Princess Diana, has had on him throughout his life. There is no shame is having a shadow side or holding onto something from the past that still needs to be dealt with. The loss of a beloved parent will stay with you for the rest of your life – it isn’t something to ‘get over’. Because the truth is that shadow work is ongoing. It will never be finished. All you can do is manage the pain so it has less of an impact on your day-to-day life.
Writing a Ghost Letter
One of the best ways to do this is with the Ghost Letter. Ghost Letters are letters you write to the source of your pain – to a lost loved one, to the person who abused you, to the rapist, burglar or mugger, to the drunk driver, to the cancer or dementia and so on. It is called a Ghost Letter because you don’t actually send it to anyone. You write it to the ghost of the past event, then destroy it. But what’s the point in that?, I hear you ask. The point is that it gives you an opportunity to have your say. It gives you the chance to put your own argument forward to an attacker who has harmed you in the past. It gives you the means to have that last conversation with the deceased, so that you can say all that you wished you had said when they were still alive.
In short, the Ghost Letter is a tool of catharsis. It is the scalpel that lances the old wound and as such, it is never a pain-free process. It can be upsetting. It is usually exhausting. But it diminishes the shadow that lingers from your past, clouding over your present and making the future look dim. While the process can be tough, afterwards clients generally report feeling much lighter, brighter and far more optimistic. This is because it’s difficult to move forward when you are dragging the weight of the past behind you.
Writing the Ghost Letter helps you to let the past go, so that you can begin to move on with your life. Obviously, it is a technique that is best done in private, when you have plenty of uninterrupted time. You won’t know how long this process will take until you’ve finished. You might write for 20 minutes or 2 hours. Your letter might be no more than a few choice words, or it could be pages and pages of elegant prose and flowing script. Take as long as you need to.
When you have finished, read it through – then burn it. This is important. You don’t want to hold onto it, as the whole point of the exercise it that you are releasing the past, so make sure you set a light to the Ghost Letter and watch it burn safely. Once the ashes have cooled, scatter them to the wind or bury them in the earth.
As I said earlier, shadow work like this is never really finished, so you might feel the need to write more Ghost Letters and repeat the process over time. Do it as often as you need to. You will know that the healing process is working when you write fewer letters, or when there is a longer period of time between one letter and the next. It might be that eventually you only need to write a Ghost Letter on certain anniversaries or key dates. That’s fine. Write whenever you need to, then burn the letter and let it go.
Shadow work is a difficult but essential aspect of therapy, because it helps to ‘unstick’ people and frees them to make progress in their lives. It is heavy work, and you should be proud of yourself for being brave enough to address your past in this way. I wish you all good things for your future. Until next month,
Marie Bruce x
About the author:
Marie Bruce Dip. T.C. MBACP is a qualified psychotherapist, Cruse Bereavement Counsellor and best-selling self-help author. She specialises in grief and loss counselling, PTSD and military counselling, and life coaching.
In this monthly column, Marie offers simple tools used by therapists to help clients and readers improve their mental well-being.
Marie’s books are available on Amazon UK.