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Center for Action and Contemplation
Shadow Work
Shadow Work

Shadow Work: Weekly Summary  

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Shadow work gradually detaches us from our diligently constructed personas (Greek for “stage mask”), often shaped in the first half of life. Our stage mask is not bad, evil, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not “true.” Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, and what we do not want others to see.
Richard Rohr 

On a cultural level, shadow means what our group, our tribe, our religion, our political party deems negative, out of bounds, to be shunned, to be improved, or to be punished. Behind every social oppression lurks a piece of group shadow whose members are exporting it onto others who are not of their tribe.
—Ann Belford Ulanov  

The shadow is like a darkroom in which our feelings, dreams, and images lie dormant. Shadow-work is like the process of development in which our feelings, dreams, and images come back to life.
—Connie Zweig 

The Church’s sanctification of the status quo reveals that we have not been formed by the prophets, who were radical precisely because they were traditionalists. Institutions always want loyalists and “company men”; we don’t want prophets. We don’t want people who point out our shadow side.
—Richard Rohr  

There’s a shadowland into which we’re led by God and grace, and the nature of the journey itself. Many saints have called it “the dark night.”
—Richard Rohr 

Once we have faced our own hidden or denied self, there is not much to be anxious about anymore, because there is no fear of exposure. We are no longer afraid to be seen—by ourselves or others. The game is over—and we are free.
—Richard Rohr 

Masking Pain 

Writer Pixie Lighthorse suggests that a greater understanding of our pain will teach us what shadow work is ours to do: 

Pain doesn’t always present as sadness or victimization. It may present as rage, anger, withdrawal, control, anxiety, depression, illness, dependency, mania, perfectionism, or other afflictions. Your face may be scowling or your eyebrows furrowing. Or pain may not show itself at all. You may feel calm on the outside while feeling like a tornado on the inside.  

To understand what your pain really looks like, begin by observing yourself in stressful or confrontational situations. How do you react in the face of conflict, disappointment, and loss? Do you tend toward resentment? Confusion? Defensiveness? Silence? An open display of sorrow?  

Knowing your default settings under stress tells you about the nature of your shadow and can help you track it. Remember: You were not born with a shadow. It was built by experiencing complex models of interaction that caused you to curb your natural impulses in order to avoid disappointing or displeasing someone close to you. It crystallized in place when it served to protect you with certain behaviors and outward appearances. Shadow works to get your needs met and avoid or control a situation.  

Being hurt results in trying to prevent it from happening again, although what often happens is we end up reenacting the circumstances. Recognizing this pattern means you’ll someday want to take off the mask to shift what you’re painfully reliving.  

In conflict, what do your expressions and posture reflect? Where do you hear yourself becoming confused or childlike? Try going to a mirror when you feel triggered to get a sense for what masks you put on without knowing it.  


Pixie Lighthorse, Goldmining the Shadows: Honoring the Medicine of Wounds (Irvine, CA: Row House Publishing, 2022), 23–24. Used with permission. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—CAC Staff, Untitled. Izzy Spitz, Untitled. CAC Staff, Untitled. Watercolor. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Even if my shadow is out of my sight, it still will make itself known. 

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