What's The TikTok Viral Shadow Work Trend And How Can It Benefit You?

Most of the time, our social feeds are filled with content that's glamorous and aspirational. From an influencer's envy-inducing vacation selfies to covetable fashion inspo and game-changing makeup hacks, there are plenty of posts focused on external goals. But now, social media personalities are using their platforms to promote the hard work of internal development.


You've probably seen some evidence of this movement already. The hashtag #manifestation has over 26 billion views on TikTok, with thousands upon thousands of videos espousing tips to visualize and implement your ideal lifestyle. Meanwhile, positive mantras have become a staple on Instagram, where the hashtag #affirmations has been used on more than 6.4 million posts.

Now, these self-development mainstays are joined by a new viral trend: a psychological concept known as shadow work. But what is this practice, how is it done, and how can it benefit you? Here's everything you need to know about shadow work and how it can support your path toward better mental health.

What is shadow work?

At its most basic, shadow work is about confronting the so-called shadow side of your personality. This hidden, subconscious facet is made up of the personality traits you might prefer to ignore or repress. This can include negative emotions like fear, sadness, laziness, or rage. Often, these qualities can lead you to despise the same traits in people around you, while not recognizing that your dislike may be rooted in shame or self-loathing (per Harley Therapy).


Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who popularized the shadow concept in psychology, suggested that unaddressed shadows could contribute to interpersonal issues, prejudice, and a lack of fulfillment (via the Society of Analytical Psychology). In short, poor self-awareness can be the root of many problems in our lives. Shadow work is the answer to this lack, providing a therapeutic frame work to learn more about your hidden depths.

"To become the best version of yourself, you need to know what the bad bits are that are holding you back or are hidden," neuroscientist Tara Swart, Ph.D., tells MindBodyGreen. "A lot of people put off that work because they're afraid of what they'll find. But often, if you're mature enough or personally developed enough, doing shadow work can be a huge relief because you realize it's not as bad as you think." Consider it this way: In horror movies, the scariest monsters are the ones you can't see or look at directly. So by bravely confronting the dark sides of your own personality, you may be able to remove some of the dread or guilt buried underneath.


Why is shadow work trending?

With the recent resurgence of shadow work, you can be excused for thinking that it's a modern innovation. But Carl Jung, the pioneer of shadow theory, died in 1961 (via Biography). Clearly, the idea behind shadow work isn't exactly new. So why is it suddenly blowing up on social media, even garnering over 889 million views of the hashtag #shadowwork on TikTok?


In the wake of other self-development trends like manifestation and affirmations, shadow work is a natural heir to the public's interest in personal growth. Plus, the stigma on mental health issues is beginning to wane. According to a study published in JAMA Network Open, the U.S. has seen improvements in the public perception of conditions like schizophrenia, alcohol dependence, and depression. Changing opinions and the reduction of stigma means that there is more opportunity for individuals to confidently explore and discuss personal issues like Jung's shadow concept. So it's no wonder that we're beginning to see more content in this vein.

Granted, you shouldn't trust everything you see on social media, and it's important that you know how to recognize bad mental health advice on TikTok and other platforms. But there's always value in more transparency and open discussion of mental health issues. And already, social media users are touting the many ways that shadow work has enriched their internal journey.


The benefits of shadow work

It seems like your shadow side can play a significant role in your mental well-being — for better or for worse. That's why shadow work and self-reflection can be so impactful, as well. So what kind of benefits can you expect when you start exploring shadow work? Medical News Today reveals that proponents of shadow work report a number of positive effects. These can include identifying and mindfully working to improve negative personality traits, learning better self-love and self-acceptance, becoming more understanding of others, overcoming trauma or grief, and managing the weight of societal expectations.


Healthline adds a few more potential benefits to this list, suggesting that shadow work can be a tool to improve your sense of personal fulfillment, foster more productive and positive interactions with your peers, heal generational trauma, and exchange vices or shortcuts for healthier habits that still meet your needs. In short, understanding yourself is the first step toward improving yourself.

In many cases, shadow work is a part of formal therapy. But, as evidenced by the TikTok trend, you can also embrace this mental health practice on your own. One of the best ways to get started is by creating a shadow work journal.

How are journals used in shadow work?

Whether you're working with a therapist or trying to start improving your mental health at home, shadow work journals can be a useful tool to help plumb the depths of your psyche. For one thing, shadow work journals are a technique that's available to everyone, regardless of personal circumstances. "Not everyone can afford therapy and not everybody has access to therapy, so [I support] whatever people can do to learn more about themselves," psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D., tells Allure.


For individuals who don't yet feel comfortable talking through their issues with another person, shadow work journals also provide a safe, judgment-free space for self-reflection. In this way, journaling can encourage more honesty and self-expression. As a study in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment observes, "Participants often reveal a considerable range and depth of emotional trauma in their writing." So for individuals taking on the deep self-examination of shadow work, journals can be an ideal way to unearth and record each psychological breakthrough.

How to start your own shadow work journal

When starting a new shadow work journal, it's important to set yourself up for success. This process can be mentally challenging and uncomfortable, so it helps to limit friction everywhere else. Select a journal that inspires you to write, and a writing utensil that's easy to use. Make sure you're in an environment that's quiet, comfy, and distraction-free (per Penzu). If you like, grab a relaxing beverage or even light a candle to establish a creative ambiance. And don't overdo it! The journaling pros at Silk+Sonder recommend starting small with 10-minute timed sessions so you don't get in over your head.


The mental health experts at BetterUp also suggest a few psychological tips as you start your journey with shadow work. First and foremost, keep an open mind and be compassionate toward yourself as you start exploring the less desirable aspects of your personality. Remember, the goal is not to punish yourself for dark impulses, but to understand and work around them. Next, be patient with your progress, even if it is slow or difficult. Baby steps are better than no steps.

Finally, devote sufficient time to the process. Let yourself focus completely when journaling, without trying to multitask or contend with distractions. And don't forget to reflect on your discoveries, whether that means meditating afterward or rereading previous journal entries before you start a new prompt.


Using shadow work journal prompts

Once your journaling stage is set, now comes the hard part — actually writing down your thoughts. When embarking on a major project like shadow work, it can be tough to know where to begin. But as Lao-Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (via University of Nebraska-Lincoln). In other words, feel free to start small.


Shadow work writing exercises can also help point your journal entries in the right direction. Soberish presents a number of potential prompts to kick off self-reflection in your shadow work journal, from questions that reveal your intrinsic traits to those that delve into important events from your past. For example, try asking yourself a few of the following prompts. What are your toxic traits? What are common misconceptions people have about you? What lies do you tell yourself? Can you remember a time you felt wronged as a child?

As you work through these questions, let your brain explore new avenues of thought. Start creating questions of your own and allow yourself to linger over memories as they resurface. Soon, you may not even need prompts as you get to know the different aspects of your shadow side.


When to seek support for your shadow work

Shadow work can be a valuable way to unpack behavioral patterns and destigmatize mental health issues in your life. But this process isn't always easy, especially when you're coming face-to-face with difficult memories or unresolved traumas. If practicing shadow work at home is dredging up painful feelings that you can't overcome alone, don't be afraid to reach out for support. There are many mental health resources to get or give help wherever and whenever it's needed.


There's a reason that shadow work is often used hand-in-hand with formal therapy, and it may be safer and more productive for you to work with a mental health professional as you navigate your inner landscape. "When the anxiety has manifested itself to a point where you are unable to function, it's important to seek help," certified counselor Manreet Kaur tells Forbes.

She also cites mood swings as a telltale sign that you may need a professional in your corner. "Mood swings can be triggered by stress, but if a person is cycling between a high (manic episode) and a low (depression) consistently, it's a definite sign to seek help from a provider." And, of course, if you're having any thoughts of self-harm, it's imperative to get professional support.


If exploring shadow work on your own seems to be doing more harm than good for your emotional well-being, take a step back and find a trained therapist to help you on your way. To locate a mental health provider, consider looking online, connecting with nonprofits, or reaching out to your support network for help (per The New York Times).

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.