A Neurodivergent Guide to the Shadow Self
In magick, the Underworld looms beneath us: the realm of Shadow Work. This “place” exists in a state of hazy mystery. It is clouded by the barrier the conscious mind forms with the unconscious. Notably, the demons of our pasts live here, forming what Carl Jung refers to as the “Shadow Self.” The imaginal body of our shadow selves hide our secret faces. Beneath these lurk our untamed animal drives and all of the behaviors, thoughts, memories and dreams. Since our rational minds abhor these they drive them further underground.
It often seems that the more virtuous a life someone tries to live, the more shadow behavior manifests. As can be seen with great humanitarians like Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi, great deeds go hand in hand with atrocious acts. According to Jungian psychology, this phenomenon occurs because an unwillingness exists for “good” people to examine darker impulses. In order to understand our shadow self and integrate it into our self-conceptions, we enter into a conversation with it. We do this so that it doesn’t come out as bad behavior. This is called “Shadow Work.”
The Rise of Shadow Work
Shadow Work has become a popular endeavor for modern witches. Our teachers give us abstracted directions to identify and confront this part of our-selves, not to destroy them but to integrate them in a healthy way. Therein, they tell us, lies our true power and path to sovereignty. This metaphor carries weight. The notion that there exists a separate part of us that when tamed, can fix us appeals especially to the neurodivergent among us.
By employing the concept of the shadow, we can externalize our inner struggles.
We ask ourselves:
- Maybe my bipolar disorder is just my shadow acting out?
- Perhaps I can vanquish my major depressive disorder by staring down that pesky shadow.
- Maybe my borderline personality disorder will evaporate with the integration of my shadow?
- Could this be the way to free myself from PTSD, Aspergers or OCD?
Let me state this up front: I love Shadow Work. I adore Carl Jung and his potent metaphors. At the same time, I believe that some neurodivergence has a biological root. Other forms of neurodivergence have implanted themselves, neurobiologically, either through trauma or upbringing. Either way, these conditions are very much a part of who we are on a physiological level. They carve deep grooves into the neural pathways that control dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine and cortisol, among other things. Likewise, they worm their ways into our gut brains and wreak havoc on our intestinal flora.
The Shadow Side of Shadow Work
As a result this means is that for people with neurodivergent conditions, we must take care when approaching shadow work. This is particularly true for those that may present delusional episodes like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD and BPD. Because of a tendency to skew perception, we must take care when confronting or even externalizing our shadows. Any person interested in shadow work who has one of these conditions should first seek a professional diagnosis and treat the underlying condition.
Importantly, we must recognize that the neurodivergent condition is NOT the shadow. As someone with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD, I have come to recognize that these conditions shape my shadow just like they affect my conscious self. If I were not treating my bipolar disorder, I would not feel safe making the underworld journey necessary to confront my shadow. Not alone.
I have seen brilliant, neurodivergent witches get entangled in the web of shadow work. They “lean into it” and exacerbate their underlying conditions. As a result, these witches face significant periods of depression, paranoid delusion, suicidal ideation and burnout. Some of this fallout comes from a resistance to diagnosis and treatment. Nobody wants to be stigmatized as “mentally ill.” There is a strong bias against mental illness and pharmaceutical treatment in much of the witchy world.
In particular, witchy communities say things like: “The mentally ill should not be practicing magick.” “These meds can’t be ‘clean.’” “Pharmaceuticals stand in the way of our witch power.” That said, some of this comes from the difficulty in obtaining proper mental healthcare treatment. I have come to learn through years of adhering to my meds that they do not, in fact, stand in the way of anything. Conversely, with therapy, they help to form the supportive ground that makes me feel safer to practice highly energetic work. They are the tether that keeps me from sinking into the Underworld or shooting off into the Heavens.
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How to Safely Navigate the Underworld as a Neurodivergent Witch
For anybody with a neurodivergent condition, whether diagnosed or suspected, there are a few steps that I recommend taking before diving into the murky depths of the unconscious. These steps will help you safely understand and integrate the shadow and access a great deal of personal power.
Understand your condition
First and foremost, get some footing with your neurodivergent condition. If you suspect you have a particular condition, READ. Join a forum. Don’t just wing it. Rather, find out as much as you can about the science, treatment and potential symptoms. Most importantly, try not to let the idea of a mental illness keep you from understanding or loving yourself.
Seek professional help
If you do not currently see a therapist, find one. In the pandemic age, it’s almost easier because you don’t even have to leave your house. If you suspect a diagnosis, to go through the full psychiatric intake process. The therapist or psychiatrist can confirm your diagnosis or alleviate your fears. In particular, do not fear medication but do your homework on it. Read studies. Bolster this by talking to others who have been prescribed the same medication. Above all, be an advocate for yourself by knowing all of the potential pitfalls of the meds you are prescribed. Remember, finding the right medication can be a journey unto itself and you might not find the right one on your first try.
Do not expect a cure from Shadow Work
Shadow Work can provide a way to understand unconscious drives and can help you start to change unhelpful behaviors. However, it won’t make your neurodivergent condition disappear. That said, it can definitely help you live a better, more conscious life. Confronting trauma and opening your mind to the things you hide, even from yourself, can be healing and empowering. But it’s not a cure for lifelong neurodivergent conditions.
Find Shadow Work “Buddies”
Depending on your therapist, Shadow Work may or may not be something you explicitly tell them you are doing. With this in mind, find other wanderers on this journey. Make friends with people with whom you can check in and debrief about your frame of mind. This is an essential step for ANYONE doing shadow work but in particular those of us who might not stand on such solid ground. In the event that these are internet friends, get phone numbers and meet via video. It’s helpful to know the connection is solid.
Do not feel like you have to “lean in” to Shadow Work. For instance, if you start to experience worsened symptoms either from your neurodivergent condition or from old wounds, step back. Take time to assess the situation. Journal. Additionally, get out into nature and get out of your head. Spend time with others talking about other things. At the end of the day, the best spiritual work happens when you aren’t paying attention.
Remember that your shadow is you
When I did a journey to my past to find my shadow self, it knocked the wind out of me. My shadow self was 14 year old me on the day I had experienced a sexual assault. Surely, I thought my shadow was going to be a scary monster looming over me. Nope. On the contrary, she was a sad, terrified and lonely girl who needed love and attention. I cried. Then the whole thing clicked. My abandonment issues, my unrelenting standards, and my people pleasing all originated from my younger self. In reality, it exists among your deepest and oldest wounds. That is why it is so potentially dangerous for those of us with neurodivergent conditions to jump in, headfirst, with no safety net. So get yourself a safety net!