What Lies Beyond the Myths of Shadow Work


You’ve heard the term “shadow” work… which basically reflects all that you don’t know about yourself. What’s hidden in the dark, or “shadows” of your psychic experience.

What you can’t see.

Yet it’s not some strange, dark, dank place where demons hang out.

Shadow is just what hasn’t been exposed to light. Yet.

You also may have this conception that meeting your inner child may be a strange, dark, painful, traumatic or disturbing experience, based on the notion of “shadow.”

I grew up in the era of the Dark Shadows TV series (filmed in black and white, ironically,) which was the precursor to my believing that everything dark or shadowed must be evil.

I slept with lights on until I was ten. I was afraid to cross a dark room to find the light switch til I was in my late teens.

That was a doozy myth to unwind, and probably responsible for most of us not wanting to touch the unseen hidden elements of our past.

Or you may have heard that all the sub-psychic parts (e.g., the critic, the saboteur…) formed as part of our childhood experiences are just different versions of our Inner Child.

None of those myths are true.


What Happens When You Finally Meet Your Inner Child


From my own experience, and that of most of my clients, and in the current conception of Parts using one of the most advanced mental schemas for this work (Internal Family Systems,) the “meeting” of your true Inner Child is very different than most imagine.

Meeting your Inner Child, the one that was exiled or repressed due to a childhood scenario that didn’t accept or allow your full Self to be present, is…

…anything BUT scary.

Meeting your Inner Child may be the most nourishing experience you’ll ever have, to welcome that child back home.

… anything BUT generic or abstract.

When you truly access your Inner Child, who’s been exiled from your full adult Self, you’ll begin to see parts of yourself that you intuitively knew. The facets of your Inner Child feel almost like “secret” aspects of you, but that had been hidden (thus the exile, because they weren’t allowed in your childhood context.)

…and also anything BUT protective or mean/evil/shadowed.

Your Inner Child is NOT the repository of the Parts who tried to protect you in childhood (i.e., the Protector or Firefighter Parts,) also specific and nuanced, and described in Internal Family Systems work and explained in this article and in this one).

…and your Exiled Child Part is NOT responsible for the unconscious ways you’ve shown up in the world (i.e., the parts of you that you don’t like,) as those were mostly the Protectors of your innocent child self.

Your Exiled Child Part’s reemergence in your life is only possible when you’ve begun to acknowledge and integrate the other (Protector, Firefighter) Parts that were literally keeping the inner child safe from harm in your early years, when you couldn’t protect yourself.

…and, even though those Protector and Firefighters Parts may have shown up in ways that felt like sabotage, they were the heroes of your childhood, attempting to thwart off true threats to your essence (your purpose, or the essential facets of your nature,) and just haven’t grown up with you as your adult Self.

In other words, you typically need to deconstruct those Protector roles (acknowledge, allow, accept, alchemize) to lessen the fear of your Inner Child emerging in your current adult setting.

As you gain an Inner Mastery of who you truly are (and are not), and lessen the constraining power of the Protector and Firefighter parts through the steps of:

  • Gaining awareness about Core Beliefs (and the specific sub-beliefs of each Part),
  • Creating Alternate Beliefs,
  • Visualizing a new parallel Reality that represents the embodied and full version of you,
  • Evoking an embodiment of the new Reality
  • Integrating the Protector parts, now that you have a new foundation for your emerging identity…

…your Inner Child will begin to make itself known as you unleash the constrictions that bound you in another identity represented by your Protector parts.

As you create space for the Inner Child to emerge as itself, you can become whole again.

Yet this emergence probably won’t look like you expect.


Here’s What the Inner Child “Meet and Greet” Looks Like


One of my clients, Kasey (a pseudonym), woke up one morning with a huge constriction in his throat.

He’s a performer, studying music and performance arts at a college in Europe.

This “gripping” on the sides of his vocal cords was related to the anxiety of completing his academic career and leaping into the real world of performance auditions.

He noted that his self-talk (one of his Protector Parts) voiced some fear, asking “what if I screw up after all these years? What if I wake up (on a performance day) not feeling well? What if I’m not good enough?”

Kasey’s entire life was characterized by his desire to perform, usually showing up as a boisterous “always on” enthusiastic yet slightly inauthentic version of himself that was rooted in his desire to be witnessed by others. He often showed up hyper-energized and unrestrained to be seen and to feel worthy.

We’d worked on at least two of his Protector parts, the “performer” and “sensitive” roles, that stifled the quieter, reflective versions of himself. Occasionally a dramatic and overly emotional Firefighter would show up, especially during childhood, to distract the Performer and which represented a radicalized version of the repressed Inner Child.

Kasey had already garnered a summer job after graduation, so he wasn’t worried about finding work. Just about being his best after all this time in school.

When we explored the somatic expression (throat gripping paralysis,) he realized he’d never had a “bad day” in college, where even if he was tired, depressed, or under-the-weather, he’d still learned how to show up and perform.

So he realized the thoughts were irrational. Unfounded. And must be tied to something much deeper than some internalized fears of being “good enough.”

We explored where the specific energy lived in his body as the throat constriction. Then we began to hear the voices or messages of the constriction.

The voices seemed very child-like, reminiscent of that earlier belief work we’d done that was related to the sensitive Protector part we’d uncovered.

And yet… he leaned in to listen even deeper, and then heard the still, small voice of a child wanting to be loved.

He listened intently. He felt the child’s withered presence as himself, likely a result of parental expectation for perfection… the need to be something which at least one of his parents hadn’t accomplished.

[Note: this depiction is not intended to bash parents… this is just how Inner Child work goes… which we all choose and reflectsour soul’s journey to create obstacles on purpose. It usually looks like a parent who creates barriers for us, exactly what we need to learn, which we then need to overcome. It’s all perfect and our work in the world is intended to create resolution. Believe me, as a parent I regret having had to play a part in this tragicomedy…]

As Kasey listened to this small voice, it validated that he (the Inner Child) had withdrawn (or been Exiled) because he seriously couldn’t keep up with the expectations of his family. In typical form, the Exiled child was replaced with a Protector part, who was happy to show up boldly, gregariously performing for all family members through singing, dancing, and acting.

The Protector Part had gladly ‘played the part‘ of family expectations, and had thus met expectations and become acceptable in his family.

That is, other than when the Sensitive Part showed up and slightly derailed the entire experience. This part would dramatically express the innate fears and cause the family to question the safety of Kasey being a performer, thus sabotaging Kasey’s deep desire to be known for his art.

Kasey’s Performer Protector Part had been leading the show for years, and had taken him into college to study theater. He literally became the star of the show, garnering leading roles at an early age. He was already being recognized as a talented stage performer, well before graduation.

And then the constriction in his throat on this fine day before final auditions into the real world.

“What if I really can’t do it?,” he asked.

We allowed the energy in his body to speak for him.

It was dense, constricted, tight on his throat box… warm and heavy. We stayed with the sensations of the energy until Kasey could hear its message.

Kasey voiced the words that he heard it speak.

“I’m afraid.”

I encouraged him to love the child that was represented by this energy in his body. This fear was natural for a (formerly Exiled) child learning to step out on a limb, without the earlier Protectors standing in the way of its authentic expression.

I described to Kasey how a parent might teach a child to swing, starting with slow back-and-forth movements, watching the child’s face to look for delight, then backing off when fear arose.

I encouraged him to modulate the exposure to being free, unrestricted, uninhibited, with a new safety gained by his own preferences. At his own pace.

Perhaps he could do something like that for his own child?

Kasey went inside and began to tend to his child, compassionately. Carefully. Slowly.

He witnessed the child and tended to its fears and reservations, allowing the child to acclimate to this new freedom of no expectations, no judgment, no limitations.

In about 15 minutes, the child became animated and realized that he was safer with Kasey than he’d been by himself.

Kasey began to succumb to the nurturing role of a caregiver, as if he was parenting his own child for the first time. He felt the Inner Child looking to him for support, acknowledging the need to be reunited and be cared for by Kasey, the full whole adult Self.

The reunion took place for about 30 minutes, and thus started the early stages of integration.

As Kasey began to recognize how this part was truly a fundamental element of who he was, not some distant or foreign child to which he had no connection, he began to experience an opening, a spaciousness in his throat, and an aliveness he’d never known before.

This phase of Kasey bonding with his small Inner Child lasted another 20 minutes during our session [note: this was just the start of the integration process, which continues well into the future as the Inner Child becomes known to the adult Self.]

At one point during this bonding, I could see that Kasey’s affect was turning to sadness.

I asked him to tell me about his experience.

Kasey expressed that he was sad that he’d spent so much of his life denying his little boy the opportunity to sing and dance, as he now knew the true joy of his Inner Child.

I assured him that his little boy had been there all along, but that “you (Kasey) weren’t quite capable of holding him safely yet. The Protector Part was still a dominant player, and you needed to feel safe in your own wholeness before the Protector could loosen its dominant role.”

We discussed how his childhood had required him to play these Parts, and reemphasized the essential role (and brilliance) of each and every Part (not just the Inner Child) in his journey to who he was now.

I assured Kasey that there are no mistakes, and for each of us, all of our Parts are doing exactly what they need to do to help us become whole and healthy. And then when we’re ready, we recognize this and allow the parts to heal (acknowledge, allow, accept, alchemize) and become integrated.

As Kasey realized the sanctity of this arrangement, he became even more spacious and felt immense gratitude for the entire experience.

As he did so, he began to witness himself (the adult whole Self) holding the hand of his small Inner (formerly Exiled) Child. He listened internally as they together practiced singing all the songs he’d perform for his auditions the following week.

He claimed that he felt more joy, more wholeness, more love and gratitude than he’d ever felt in his life.

He then witnessed the joy and gratitude of his young child.

I began to witness this small child growing up inside of him, truly becoming a part of his adult Self experience.


Kasey stayed in this posture for quite a while, just allowing the integration to become more coherent. Complete.

In that session, I was not able to witness what stage of integration occurred, as Kasey and the Inner Child began to truly know each other for the first time. It’s possible that the Child may have reached an adolescent or young adult stage, given the level of coherence they were experiencing.

What became clear is that Kasey was able to finally identify with the small child that had been fractured from his whole Being for most of his life.

He was able to welcome in that part who’d been shy and distant, not fully participating in the joyous celebration of who Kasey was truly and authentically becoming.


The Real Work of Becoming Wholly Ourselves


I’ll attest that there is no end to this work to become wholly and fully ourselves.

After having done this work for decades (lifetimes) myself, indeed, I surmise it is the only reason we return to these human experiences. To resolve the inconsistent, incoherent and misaligned parts of us that beg to become a part of our lives again.

Yet, what I’ve neatly and summarily described as Purpose is the reclaiming and embodiment of who we’re truly meant to be, as whole, authentic and fully expressed humans.

What else could be as enticing a reason to be here in the human experience, than to be able to show up as yourself?

While this path can take decades or even lifetimes to traverse, we have so many opportunities to practice.

Each life event is an experience to be savored and treasured for the opportunity to teach us something about ourselves.

Finally, in this stage of life (perhaps on the other side of much of my own integration work,) I can gladly celebrate that there were no shortcuts, and no one else could do the work for me.

The joy on this side of the awakening to True Self is utterly astounding.

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About The Author

I’m the Author of the bestseller, The Golden Thread: Where to Find Purpose in the Stages of Your Life. Download this free audio course to learn about your own Golden Thread of purpose.

I am a purpose activator and catalyst. I warn people they shouldn’t be near me unless they want to become a new version of themselves. That scares some people, delights others.

I’ve spent my life imagining a world where we could all become who we’re meant to be, awake and alive in a way that allows us to express our most innate, natural and purposeful gifts. I’m the creator and dreamer behind the Purpose Flywheel™.

Stay tuned or contact me to get started now.

Emergence Institute

Holly Woods, PhD

ⓒ 2020 Emergence Institute