Shadow Work Series – Healing Depression

I’ve been meaning to write a post for this blog for a long time. It’s taken a while because I’ve been sitting in some depressive spaces lately, but you’re reading it now, which means I’ve learned some things about healing depression through shadow work. I’d love to share them with you. But first, I’m Nikki, and I’m a witch of the Wyrd. Meeting you like this is abnormal for me in that it’s one-sided, but otherwise pretty typical—my heart’s open wide, and I’ve spent a long time feeling through what I have to say. I hope it’s as helpful for you as it’s been cathartic and healing for me.

Doing Versus Depression

Last November, an intense and expansive spiritual download awakened me to the observation that I’d been allowing depression to make my life smaller and smaller for months without even realizing it was there. Shit. 

It’s August. I still haven’t found a simple cure (spoiler: there isn’t one), but today I take up more space and feel a lot more joy than I did last fall. Progress! Getting here has felt like building a staircase, step by step, out of a pit that once felt like a literal black hole. Each step represents something that makes me feel a little bit better. Or, at least, a little bit Not Worse. 

The first stair was starting ceramics lessons—filling one evening per week practicing something I’d been curious about for years. Making wonky but beautiful things out of clay that I can use every day. It turns out doing something generally feels better than not doing anything. And yet, the process of getting myself to do anything so often has felt like a full on wrestling match. It felt like my depression had its own will to live—a strong one. I’ve spent a lot of time visualizing myself rising up in flames to battle my sentient depression monster, my negative self talk monster, and anything else foolish enough to enter the ring. 

  

Me as Chandra Nalaar from Magic the Gathering, preparing for battle against monsters of my own creation in all of my David and Goliath fantasies.

It’s been exhausting, but eventually, each new habit transitioned from a fight to a slog to a peacefully integrated new part of my life. Sorta. Great. Time to build a new step.

Taking the fight out of healing

The whole time, I felt like there had to be a more self-compassionate way to heal than waging an internal war between Doing and Depression. I wove my method in three stages, integrating wisdom from different sources: Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa; Dr. Carolyn Elliot, a powerful witch and shadow work master; and Marie Kondo, a sensational organization consultant.

Phase one: befriend who you are already

Not unlike the twelve-step program, this first step was about admitting to myself that there was, in fact, a problem with my approach to beating my sentient depression monster over the head with a stick in hopes that it would go away. One of my absolute favorite teachings from Pema Chödrön’s book Comfortable with Uncertainty got me there. The gist of the teaching is this: any self-improvement goal—in my case, getting rid of my depression so that I could do more things and feel more worthy—is a subtle aggression against the person you are right now. Instead, Chödrön offers the goal of extending loving-kindness towards yourself so you can befriend who you are at this moment. She suggests cultivating gentle curiosity and openness towards the self as a path to tending this precious friendship. 

What parts of your being and do you find yourself wanting to change or cutaway in the interest of becoming better, happier, more productive? What would happen if you approached those elements of self with compassionate curiosity? What does that even look like? For me, deciding to befriend the monsters I’d created in myself meant it was time to step out of the ring and point some curiosity within—at the relationship between Doing and Depression. 

Phase two: embrace your existential kinks

Now that we’ve decided to heal through self-compassion instead of waging an internal war, the real shadow work begins. In essence, shadow work is conducting honest, curious personal inventory with the goal of integrating or transmuting aspects that are either hard to accept or simply no longer serve you. It’s so named because it’s all about uncovering what lurks in the shadows of your ego. It can be uncomfortable and ugly, but diving in with self-compassion, acceptance, and patience sets you up to move through your shadow gracefully.

A friend recently recommended the book Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliot. It’s turned out to be my absolute favorite resource for shadow work I’ve had the genuine pleasure of coming across so far. The basic premise of the Existential Kink (EK) practice is identifying a recurring situation in your life that you (ostensibly) don’t like, then identifying what it is about those situations that you actually do like deep down in the murky, shadowy depths of your unconscious mind. 

The shadow realm: kinda spooky, kinda sultry, spectacularly witchy.

You see, humans are naturally very curious creatures. We crave a full experience of life, and sometimes that means parts of us genuinely take pleasure in situations that don’t mesh with the ideals of our external persona: that ego self who’s all love, light, grace, and boundless creativity. But when our conscious preferences and actions don’t create space for these subconscious desires, that doesn’t make them go away. It just makes us unconsciously manifest situations where they get to be felt in secret. Meanwhile, we scream into the void because we can’t figure out why we always seem to be stuck in the same damn ruts.

That’s the premise of Elliot’s idea that “having is evidence of wanting” described in her book. EK is a new practice for me, so I didn’t aim it directly at this depressive episode. It’s generally a good practice to avoid biting off more than you can chew in the shadow realm. But, I’d been using the practice to explore different recurring frustrations in my life. For example, feeling like I was doing more than my fair share of emotional labor in certain relationships or social situations. Eventually, accidentally, this work did end up helping me reframe my internal battle between Doing and Depression. A pervasive desire to give myself Permission to Not Do was keeping me from getting off my ass and living the life I ostensibly wanted to live. 

As I sat with it, I discovered that some of the times I felt this way, there was a genuine desire to be doted on without lifting a finger beneath that feeling. It’s a desire to receive love in the language of Acts of Service but to the millionth degree. I call it “taking pleasure in being Princess Baby.” 

Basically, pay attention to me or I’ll die.

True to her name, when Princess Baby wants to be seen, she does not rest until she gets what she wants. Making space for her when she asks for it has become an important part of my self-care practice. Maybe I once would have felt disdain for Princess Baby, seeing her as useless, but now I see she’s sweet and joyful and an absolute well of gratitude and pleasure. She’s actually pretty cute.

Dear reader, I wonder what would happen if you really got to know your hidden desires and gave them space to express themselves fully. When I started EK, I was hoping the practice would help me process these feelings faster and then move on with my life. This has definitely happened, but it’s also introduced so many new pleasures into my life. 

Phase three: trace desires that no longer serve back to their origins

The new opportunities for pleasure and for working through inner miscommunications certainly represented another few steps on my staircase out of my depressive space. But I still wasn’t out. The problem was, sometimes inviting Princess Baby to the table when I felt compelled to give myself Permission to Not Do just didn’t work. It wasn’t her knocking at the door. So what was it? 

I prayed, meditated, and contemplated about the origins of this compulsion. I remembered how I used to work myself past the point of burnout every day for years. I remembered how PTSD triggers sent me deep into panic attacks. And then I remembered how hard it was to even get to a point where I could give myself permission to disengage from those emotionally charged situations. Permission to Not Do—Avoidance—was the best coping mechanism I had. 

But it’s not anymore. I’m deeply dedicated to a practice of setting boundaries that offers me far better tools for dealing with burnout. I’ve healed my trauma and my neuroses far beyond the point of having regular panic attacks. I don’t need avoidance as a coping mechanism anymore.

Me @ my responsibilities, though, still to this day.

You’re probably already familiar with Marie Kondo’s process for helping people live more minimally by getting rid of belongings that don’t spark joy. My favorite part is that she asks us to thank each item that no longer serves before letting it go. She asks us to honor the part of its past when it was of service. This animist practice is nice to do for clothes purchased years ago with the tags still on, but vital to do for old coping mechanisms that no longer serve us.

Avoidance still wants to be there for me. The pathways in my brain that offered avoidance as a solution to overwhelm are well worn, even though I have healthier strategies now. I can accept and understand that. I can be grateful for the ways disengaging kept me safe in the past. But I can interrupt the thought process when I feel avoidance bubbling up. Maybe it shows up as the urge to absolve myself of a personal responsibility. Or maybe it shows up as the urge to grab a drink—to ease the discomfort of having procrastinated on lots of personal responsibilities. 

The whole picture: healing depression doesn’t mean conquering it

Avoidance, my rusty old coping mechanism that went totally rogue, has been the self-perpetuating engine of my depression. When I first faced it head-on, it seemed so unstoppable and out of my control that it felt like a monster living within me, but with its own agenda. I was convinced it was hell-bent on destroying me and most certainly not trying its best to help.

Try as I did to vanquish the beast, approaching my challenges with force was never going to work. It’s unsurprising in hindsight, but trying to conquer a misunderstood part of myself was not a healthy or effective way to heal the pain.

That’s because healing isn’t about winning a fight, it’s about accepting that pain and struggles have a purpose and integrating wisdom gained from showing up at shadow school back into your life. Integrating the lessons I learned along the way (from Pema Chödron, Carolyn Elliot, Marie Kondo, and so many not mentioned in this already-very-long essay) served as a model and mirror for developing my process for creating a healing space for my depression.

The headmistress of shadow school is oh so fabulous, you should go.

At its simplest, it’s a process for responding when I feel avoidance arise, and it looks like this:

First, I check in with my inner Princess Baby. Does she need a moment? If so, I make some space for her favorite brand of self-care (doing nothing, receiving everything) and commit to fully taking pleasure in the experience. If it’s not Princess Baby, if it’s my rusty old coping mechanism showing up to help, I extend gratitude. Thank you for offering. Thank you for trying. But I’ve got this now.

Thank you for reading.

May you be safe
May you be healthy

May you be happy
May you be at ease

May you sow pleasure where you once reaped shame
May you thrive where you once merely survived

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