I returned to journaling after many years of inconsistency. Partially, because I got locked out of my “Girl Tech” password journal in the early 2000’s. Later, in my teen years, journaling left me cringing at my own emotions to the point of giving up. I could never stick with it very long before I was too embarrassed to write another word or ran out of things to say. Over the years I’ve made attempts at getting back into it to no avail, until last year. I was catching up with my cousin at the family Christmas party when she told me about her use of shadow work. Sugar cookie in hand, I listened to all the benefits she’d seen in herself, musing if this time journaling could stick for me. Almost a year later, I’m dedicated to the point of wanting to share the practice with others. But what is shadow work? It’s less ominous than the name insinuates…
Shadow work – Working with your unconscious mind to uncover the parts of yourself that you repress and hide (BetterUp).
Our “shadow” can become the thing that keeps us from making the changes we want. It takes practice, self-awareness and a bit of courage, but when faced, shadow work can help us accept/be our most authentic selves. The discomfort I felt looking back at my journals, I realized, was me pushing away those feelings. Once I understood this, I could begin accepting them as a part of myself and to write/create more candidly. I wanted a safe space to reflect and work on personal growth, while also taking personal imagery into my own creative outlet: my illustrations. For you, this might be something else, but regardless, inspiration is probably important.
The creative process is personal. Introspection can help it flow more organically. For the sake of this article, I’m referring to creative journaling and shadow work as being interlinked. I like mixing creative prompts with shadow journaling because it prioritizes emotional reflection along with creative growth. I’m going to include quite a few different methods that might not necessarily require writing, but maybe drawing, collage, or photography instead. What’s important to keep in mind is that you may be addressing topics that are close to your heart or even unpacking certain traumatic experiences. It’s 100% ok to skip certain prompts if it feels too heavy, or take breaks from journaling as needed. Creative journaling + shadow work are not meant to replace therapy with a professional. If you are at all like me though, you may see some self-growth and find it easier to pull ideas for your creative outlets. If that sounds appealing, this modest creative guide for beginners could be for you.
Phase One: Pick your journal
There are limitless options for the type of journal you can select. Some have lines or grid paper, but you could also choose to find a sketchbook as a journal if you’re doodly like me or want more control over how your journal is laid out. If you have a phobia of the blank page, colored paper journals or incorporating aspects of collage can make starting less daunting.
Some nice-to-haves when working in your journal include (but are definitely not limited to) washi tapes, highlighters, different kinds of pens or pencils, or maybe a Polaroid camera if you want to hold onto photos that have meaning for you. You can do as much or as little of this as you like and enjoy. I recommend keeping a physical journal instead of a digital one, but even that is entirely up to you.
Phase Two: Create your safe space
It’s easy to forget or become super busy, so set a recurring time to journal. Make your space optimal for you. Light candles, turn on music, grab your pet, or go somewhere outside, even for fresh air. My favorite space to write is on my patio in the evenings or with coffee in the mornings, but do whatever makes you feel the best.
Phase Three: Set your intentions
Knowing what you want out of journaling + shadow work is very helpful in staying on track. Crack open your new paper companion and settle in to think it through in depth.
What are you hoping to get out of journaling? Are there specific topics you hope to address? Is there some change you hope to see in yourself? Once you get to writing, reflect on how this prompt made you feel. Above all, remember to always speak to yourself with compassion. Et voilà! You’ve completed your first journaling passage.
Phase Four: You take the lead!
Below, I’ve included 20 creative and introspective prompts to help you along. There are also a number of sources online for shadow work journaling that you can explore if you’d like to learn more. You may have seen a number of shadow workbooks popping up on social media recently. These tools can be a good start, but they do cost money when it’s very easy to do these types of exercises on your own. Not to mention, they usually don’t incorporate creative exercises. All of these prompts can be altered to your personal taste. If it says to write but you’d rather draw, go for it! If you wanna sculpt with clay, tape-in photos with your passages or write a poem, do that too! From here, it’s all a pick-your-own journey that can suit any type of person or creative interest.
1) Try mirror work.
Find a mirror in your home and set a timer for five minutes as you gaze into your reflection. Look into your eyes and repeat a mantra of self-love. If you need help picking one I recommend “I love you.”
Take notice of what emotions pass through you or what you are most drawn to during the process. After the time is up, sit and reflect on the experience in your journal. How did the whole process make you feel? Sometimes we can feel emotions physically. For example, if you felt stress, did that stress manifest physically? If so, describe that feeling.
2) What kind of music does your “inner child” like the most?
By inner child, I mean “the childlike usually hidden part of a person’s personality that is characterized by playfulness, spontaneity, and creativity usually accompanied by anger, hurt, and fear attributable to childhood experiences” (Merriam-Webster). Thinking about our inner child can be helpful in understanding our behaviors as well as reveal our most vulnerable side.
3) Draw/Write a map of where you’ve lived your life.
What memories/imagery comes to mind for these locations?
4) Draw/Write about boundaries you have.
Are your boundaries a moat, a field, a wall, a tower?
Describe these boundaries and what they mean.
5) Do a ‘Thought Vomit’.
This prompt I must credit to my high-school art teacher. Set a timer for 7 minutes and write out your train of consciousness with as little forethought as possible. See what organically flows out and reflect on the direction your thoughts have taken.
6) How has outside influence shaped your personality?
7) Create a playlist that describes you as a whole.
8) If you were to create a still-life of objects that represent you, what would they be and why?
Feel free to actually draw this self-portrait or to simply describe it. If you like photography and have these items close by. You could also stage a photograph as well.
9) How does your inner critic impact your self-perception?
10) What expectations feel hard to live up to?
11) Reflect on a time/place you felt at peace.
Maybe it’s a recipe your grandparents used to make, or a place you used to visit. It can be anything. Was anyone there with you?
12) What do you wish others knew about you?
13) I feel happiest in my skin when…
14) What does love look like?
Paint, doodle, write a poem… whatever feels right.
15) Describe something beautiful.
16) What emotions do you avoid?
What would happen if you addressed these emotions?
17) How would you describe your life to your inner child?
18) How do you define failure?
19) What makes you feel ______?
(Valued, beautiful, creative, excited…)
20) How can I show more compassion to myself?
Phase Five: Reflection
Following your journal escapades, reflection is the big red bow on top. When written/visually represented, it’s a whole lot more conceivable to find patterns in your way of thinking, behaviors, and relationships. Take a look into all you’ve poured out and identify if any beliefs you have may limit you. An example of a limiting belief could be “I am not a good enough artist to do (insert goal).“ Consider how these beliefs affect your daily life. “I am not good enough” could display itself in someone’s behavior by making them feel unworthy to chase what they hope to achieve. Compete against your limiting belief with a challenging thought such as “I don’t need to be perfect to be a good artist.“ Challenging thoughts like this one can be healing and make great mantras for when you need reassurance. Creative journaling + shadow work can be an amazing tool, especially for creatives. Including it in your routine can help increase self-awareness, emotional intelligence, self-acceptance, provide clarity and support greater creativity (BetterUp). I hope this guide can help crack the code for your creative and personal fulfillment. It’s an investment in yourself to practice self-care, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun too!
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Inner child. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved September 26, 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inner%20child
8 benefits of Shadow Work and how to start practicing it. BetterUp. (n.d.). https://www.betterup.com/blog/shadow-work