Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash
After recently discovering the concept of ‘Shadow Work’, I finally decided to give it a go. I did a plan of action to write forgiveness letters and do inner child work. I scheduled these in my planner to ensure I didn’t ‘bottle out’ of my commitment to heal and find my authentic self.
What is Shadow Work?
I discovered the concept of ‘Shadow Work’ on ScottJeffrey.com a self-development website. Your shadow side or hidden self, is the side of you that you keep hidden, hidden from others, even from yourself. It is deep inside your sub-conscious, but lurks and can rear its head by projecting on to others. You hide your shadow because you are ashamed of your ‘negative emotions’. Why do you do this? you have been programmed and conditioned your whole life by your parents and pretty much the whole of society, so much so, that you bury your ‘true’ self deep inside your sub-conscious. Carl Jung, Swiss Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst came up with the concept.
Apparently, uncovering your shadow side and fully accepting it by integrating it (in a positive way if possible) into your personality, can help you to become your authentic self, heal old wounds and even help with addictions. I thought this was really interesting, who doesn’t want to be healed? Although, it isn’t that easy, you need to do some shadow work on yourself, by doing certain practices to bring your authentic self to the surface in order that you can fully accept yourself. One of these practices is writing forgiveness letters, so that’s what I chose to do first.
So why is forgiveness of others including yourself important? It releases suppressed feelings of hurt which are constantly in the back ground, ‘aka’ your sub-conscious. These suppressed feelings ultimately surface in one way or the other, whether that’s through addictions, anxiety, depression, anger, seeking out toxic relationships, etc. if you don’t deal with them through shadow work, you can bet your arse they will deal with you. A word of warning here, if you have been sexually or physically abused, I would recommend seeking out a professional’s help with this, because be warned it will bring strong emotions to the surface.
Once you decide to go ahead and write forgiveness letters, make sure you are alone and won’t be disturbed for a while, give yourself plenty of time. Having others present may block certain emotions, so alone time I think is essential. I would do these on a day you have plenty of time, so you can do some self-care or self-compassion practices before or afterwards.
These letters aren’t usually meant to be sent to the person you are forgiving, that could bring you unnecessary conflict. Ideally, if you handwrite them, you should burn them afterwards (outdoors, always in a safe place, never in the home).
How I wrote my Forgiveness Letters
I took some time, going back over my life to remember all the times I felt hurt, I mean really hurt, you will usually remember these fairly easy because you will have relived them over and over many times in your head. What I found surprising is I remembered things I thought I had forgotten about, I recalled details quite clearly, this is probably indicative of the impact each experience had on me. Although, some may be suppressed that deeply, you cannot easily recall, in these instances, again professional help may be useful.
Firstly, I wrote my ‘forgiveness’ list, all the people in my life that I needed to forgive, not for them but for my own healing. I was quite surprised that I had a lot of people to forgive. Initially, I had in mind two or three people, but as I thought back to the people who had hurt me throughout my life, I was quite shocked at what I replayed over and over in my mind, sometimes only occasionally, but enough to keep the pain alive. The total amounted to eleven people who truly hurt me, not only hurt me but because I have held on to these memories continued to hurt me to this day, this was clear as I wrote the letters and my emotions erupted. It’s worth pointing out that one of these forgiveness letters is to myself, yes myself, I haven’t always treated my self kindly, in fact I have probably been my harshest critic, like most people, so in the name of self-compassion I included a forgiveness letter for myself, probably one of the most important letters.
These were all quite vivid memories, some were words people said, some actions they took or both, whether they realised or not had hurt me and have had a negative impact on my life, my self-esteem and my emotional health.
Once I knew the amount of forgiveness letters I needed to write, I scheduled time in my planner to write two forgiveness letters a week. I didn’t want to overwhelm myself and also wanted to be flexible, if two was too much, I would scale it down to one a week. It is entirely up to you how many you want to write a week, you could even do one a month if you wanted. I should have all my forgiveness letters completed in 4 weeks, although, this is not a race, this was what I felt comfortable with.
So, I started to type (I didn’t handwrite them), as I started to type my first one, things came into my mind what I had forgotten about, I got angry, the tone of the letter was extremely angry to start with, I let that anger out in the letter. I then tried to put myself in their position, whilst not condoning their words or actions. I viewed them as if they had no idea of the hurt they had caused or the impact they had, with the view that had they known they would not have done it or they would be sorry for what they had done, but been unable to undo their actions. This was easier said than done, when you hold resentment against a person for many many years, I tried to overcome this by tapping in to my compassion, just like me, they want to be happy, just like me, they have made mistakes, just like me, they have let their own fear turn to anger.
I cried as I typed most of the forgiveness letters, I cried hard at times and instead of holding on to anger and hurt, I expressed that I forgave them and wrote reasons why I forgave them, e.g. they knew no better. Okay, I make it sound easy, trust me, it is not. I would recommend doing a self-compassion meditation before doing a forgiveness letter, as this would put you in a more ‘compassionate’ state of mind, which does help. I did soften, as I typed the letters as I realised I do not want to hurt anyone, even people that have hurt me. I ended each letter with the Metta of ‘May you be happy, may you be at peace and may you be free from suffering’ and I meant it, to wish suffering on others is to wish it on yourself.
I have not finished my forgiveness letters yet, but I did do the most difficult ones first, some people may choose to write the easiest first, but I thought I would keep putting the difficult ones off, so I ‘Ate that Frog’ and got the most difficult ones out of the way. As I started writing them I did remove one person from the list, as I realised I held no resentment or anger towards them, they spoke the truth, they just bruised my ego, there was nothing to forgive.
So how do I feel?
I don’t feel hugely different, but it has definitely softened me towards each person, and that can only be a good thing, right? Prior to doing the letters, I had a lot of underlying anger towards some people and to wish them well and mean it, would have been pretty much impossible. But even just writing the words and ‘feeling’ them, I think I actually do forgive them.
I am probably on someone’s forgiveness list somewhere (I hope not), because although I consider myself to be a caring person, writing these letters has revealed ‘anger’ to be lurking in my shadow self. If you asked anyone that knows me, they would say I don’t get angry, those that know me well, know I may lose my temper once every 5-10 years, but in a big way, so much so that people are shocked because it is out of character. The character I portray to the world is a calm laid back type of person, the truth is, ‘anger’ is part of my shadow self. I carry this anger mostly hidden within me and the forgiveness letters have brought this to the surface. I will do more shadow work to get to the bottom of this ‘anger’. I have denied this anger in me, although it has surfaced on occasion, when I would lash out at people verbally, say words I didn’t mean because I was hurting. I have no doubt my hurtful words and actions on occasion has hurt others, if they have, I’d like to think that they would forgive me!