Shadow work: how to overcome self-sabotage and prevent learned helplessness

Shadow work: how to overcome self-sabotage and prevent learned helplessness

Are you in a situation where, despite concerted effort, you aren't able to grow, develop, change or progress? Here's how to use shadow work to overcome failure and self-sabotage.

Are you in a situation where, despite concerted effort, you aren't able to grow, develop, change or progress? Are you doing everything you can possibly think of — consistently putting in 200% — but still feeling stuck in a rut? Is your creativity stagnant, your business flatlining or your personal growth stymied — even though you are focused, strategic, and intentional?

No, w’ere not talking about a temporary setback or slight bump in the road. We’re talking about months, even years, of you not being able to break free from the same self-limiting patterns.

We’re talking about being intelligent, motivated and dedicated, yet experiencing repeated failures that are immobilizing you. We’re also talking about the feeling that there's some unseen force purposefully holding you back. If this sounds like you, you can have a breakthrough. We’re going to walk you step-by-step through the process we use to understand and overcome self-sabotage — and prevent it from developing into learned helplessness.

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Before starting, let’s define a number of scientific and psychological terms we reference in this article. Some of these concepts can get technical so it's important that you have a general understanding of them.

  • Ego — the conscious mind or thoughts, memories, and emotions you are aware of

  • Personal Unconscious — forgotten or suppressed memories (information present but not recallable)

  • Collective Unconscious — archetypes or primordial beliefs and behaviors we share as a species

  • Inertia — the tendency for things to resist a change in its current state (an innate desire to remain as is)

  • Learned Helplessness — the belief (that forms after repeated failure) that you can't change the course of negative events or outcomes and they are inevitable

  • Self-Sabotage — self-defeating or self-limiting behavior that causes life problems or setbacks, often without you realizing it

  • Shadow Work — the shadow is the unconscious part of yourself the is hidden from your ego and shadow work is the process of bringing this aspect of yourself to light

Just by reading these definitions you can probably see the direction we’re going in with this article, but allow us to provide an overview just to set the tone before diving in.


Here's a summary of what the article will address in-depth:

  • The symptom — your conscious effort is not translating into desired results and you don't know why or what to do about it.

  • The problem — your shadow self may be secretly self-sabotaging you, causing inertia and perhaps learned helplessness

  • The solution — shadow work will help reveal how you are self-sabotaging so you can break this systemic cycle of failure and start making progress

Got it? Good. Now let's get into the details so you can fully understand how these psychological forces are acting through you, and take control of them.

Shadow work: how to overcome self-sabotage and prevent learned helplessness


The following process is one we developed after being frustrated with our own setbacks and searching for solutions for our one-on-one coaching clients.

Most people don’t realize when they are facing self-sabotage. Usually you are just frustrated that you are struggling for months or years to see results in this particular theme in your wheel of life. So the first step is with being able to actually discern the real problem.

Step 1: Develop A framework for addressing the problem

For purposes of this article, let's assume that your conscious thought is a form of matter. This may seem like an outlandish hypothesis but physicists are beginning to see it this way. Moreover, the concept of thoughts as things was not coined by New Ageism but existed long before in a variety of spiritual and philosophical schools of thought.

It makes sense because the whole universe is made up of either pure energy or energy in mass form (Einstein's E=mc2 states that matter is concentrated energy). So we can look at consciousness as merely a type of stuff made up of energy. With that, the same laws of nature that govern matter must govern consciousness. So it is possible to find and use a law or set of laws that illuminate the root of the problem.

Step 2: Redefine the problem using a framework

First let’s rephrase the problem based on our hypothesis: the energy you are exerting does not appear to be working. But that is impossible, because the very definition of energy is work being done, so if you are exerting energy something has to be happening to it.

So the energy you are exerting is working. It's doing something. The better question is: but what? Understanding what is happening to the energy you are exerting is key to solving the problem. Let's use a more tangible example so the problem is easier to comprehend (dealing with invisible stuff like consciousness can be hard to grasp).

If you push a boulder and it doesn't move, what happens to the energy exerted? Newton's laws of inertia can explain what is happening: whether at rest or in motion, inertia is the tendency of an object to resist a change in its current state. The object will remain constant until it is acted on by external forces, however the net sum of all these forces must be greater than zero or it will remain as is.

In other words, the massive boulder does not move when you push it (at least not a detectable distance) because there are other forces (such as gravity, the weight of the boulder and the ground) counteracting your force. This causes friction which ultimately results in the boulder not moving and all the energy you exert being transformed into heat. Ever wonder why you warm up after trying to move something heavy? This is why.

Coming back to your conscious efforts being blocked: this indicates that there is friction in play — some other force(s) equal but opposite in the magnitude of the energy you are exerting.

You are not aware of it, but your efforts are being repelled causing a build up of the excess energy (heat) that's not being transformed into its intended state. You may experience this "heat" as fear, frustration, anger, anxiety, disappointment, hopelessness or helplessness.

If this heat continues you could develop learned helplessness which causes you to adopt a hard-to-break negative mindset that failure in your life is inevitable. And that, of course, only perpetuates the cycle of negativity.

Step 3: Identify the underlying cause of the problem

In order to create momentum, you must find the friction and then override its effects. Though this is no small feat. Unless there are some obvious external actors interfering with your ability to make progress, you will have to turn inward.

There could be hidden conflicts within your own psyche that are sabotaging your success. Looking at science once again, according to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and repeating the aforementioned definitions, there are three parts of the self:

  • Ego — the conscious mind or thoughts, memories, and emotions you are aware of

  • Personal Unconscious — forgotten or suppressed memories (information present but not recallable)

  • Collective Unconscious — archetypes or primordial beliefs and behaviors we share as a species

We tend to think of our conscious mind as something we are in complete control of. We think we act freely and autonomously. But that is not entirely true. Your ego is the boulder. It is self-sabotaging by acting in accord with what we know about inertia — by maintaining the status quo or remaining as is.

The ego is absorbing but repressing the expression of energy and keeping you stuck. This means your conscious efforts are actually preventing you from making progress.

The ego is not doing this on purpose. Your ego is not the enemy, as people tend to misinterpret it. If anything, it is the victim. Like the boulder, the ego is constantly trying to mediate between and balance two very powerful but opposing forces: the two aspects of your unconscious.

This phenomenon is considered the shadow aspect of yourself because it's happening deep within your psyche, which is why you can't understand why you seem incapable even though you know you are a capable individual.

Step 4: Solve the problem by alleviating the cause

So in order to break the ego from this cycle and experience movement, you have to do shadow work. Shadow work allows you to reveal, understand and nurture the hidden elements of yourself that are seeking expression but being repressed.

Even though the term “shadow” is used, understand that it is used to denote that which is hidden, not automatically assume it is bad. As you do shadow work you must have an open mind and be compassionate with yourself. There may be aspects of who you are that you don't like or deem as negative.

We take the perspective that every human has the capability to think or behave in any number of ways. So we prefer to be neutral when analyzing our habits and traits and those of our coaching clients. If it's possible, it's natural — so our thoughts, ideas, beliefs and actions should be managed (not muffled) to maximize positive outcomes, where possible.

Study archetypal patterns

Archetypes, according to Jung, are the patterns of beliefs and behaviors that are rooted in the collective conscious aspect of all of us. Understanding which archetypes are most dominant in your psyche is a great way to reveal elements of your mindset that you may not even be fully aware of.

First, you can study easy-to-understand archetypal theories by picking up the following books:

Second, you can take a free personality test based on Jung's theories as they not only reveal how dominate archetypes may be playing in your psyche but also how you tend to act on them.

Analyze your projections

Looking at how you project onto others is an excellent way to reveal the hidden side of you. Psychological projection is a mechanism that the ego uses to protect itself from impulses that stir up from deep within the unconscious.

When you are quick to judge or call out an unfavorable trait in someone else, it is highly likely that is one of your dominate but suppressed traits.

It's just that some part of your psyche can't accept this aspect of you. So your ego is trying to protect you by denying that it exists in you, and strengthening its stance by attributing it to and condemning it in another.

Observe your emotions

Observing and listening to how you feel is another way to uncover the parts of yourself in hiding, particularly if you have intense emotional reactions — either positive or negative. Keep in mind that your shadow self isn't hiding only negative aspects of who you are. There could be just as many positive aspects that are undeveloped which is causing you to self-sabotage.

So if you find yourself becoming overly joyful, excited or inspired in certain situations or experiences, without really understanding why, that could also be indicative of a positive part of yourself seeking expression.

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Employ self-inquiry

Self-inquiry via journaling is one of our favorite methods of doing personal growth work in general, and it is also a great tool for shadow work. We like to think of self-inquiry as the process of asking yourself a series of thoughtful questions to illuminate the cause of certain situations, your reactions and the impact on your life.

In doing so it is important to beware of self-blame. The goal is not to criticize but to ask, listen and reflect in order to obtain more self-awareness. Also keep in mind that not everything, be it favorable or unfavorable, that happens to you is because of you. There are circumstances that are out of your control and you may not always find an answer within.

Become more mindful

Practicing mindfulness meditation or journaling can help you become more present, centered and focused. Using apps like Headspace or Jour are easy ways to create a mindfulness habit which can lead to more connectivity with your inner self and more clarity around how to resolve hidden tensions.

Interpret your dreams

Dream interpretation is a popular tactic in the field of psychology, but it's important to note that many of these techniques have yet to be validated by rigorous scientific examination. That said, a reputable therapist may use various dreamwork strategies that play on different dream theories such as:

  • dreams as a reflection of real life

  • dreams as wish fulfillment

  • dreams as problem-solving methods

  • dreams as manifestations of biases

Find a therapist

Speaking of a therapist, there are certain situations that may be just cause for you to seek help instead of undergoing this process alone. If self-sabotage is leading to despair or depression, or any desire to hurt yourself or others, this is definitely a wake up call to get support using a service like Talkspace or a local psychologist.

But even milder cases of failure and frustration warrant a look into how therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, can help. One alternative method that's particularly fascinating is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), often referred to as Tapping.

Tapping is becoming a wildly popular means of clearing negative physical and emotional energy in order to restore your mind and body to a balanced state. Psychological interventions have become highly sophisticated and offer a range of techniques for helping you pull out of a rut.

Work with a coach

A skilled life coach can also be very instrumental in helping you break through personal, creative or business barriers especially if your self-sabotage is isolated to one or two areas in your life or work and not a rampant issue. Life coaches provide an unbiased perspective, help put fresh eyes on your situation and can assist in spotting self-limiting thoughts, habits and behaviors you can’t see yourself.

On top of that, life coaches provide support and accountability to offset your weakness and keep you making progress. If you are curious about how coaching can help, set up a complimentary call with us to learn more.

Become a seeker

When looking back at our own failures and feelings of frustration around them, we find ourselves returning to three questions: is this self-sabotage, is this random or is this fate? Lack of a perspective on the latter two questions helped us see that it was time to revisit our opinions on spirituality (our definition of spiritual is not religious but simply immaterial, mystical, ethereal or intangible).

As rational thinkers, you may shy away from personal growth theories that aren't substantiated by modern, Western science — but that is a limiting habit. Our inner selves can be elusive and there are no definitive explanations for all the ways in which we think, feel or behave.

As we discuss in my personal development framework, everyone needs a foundation (or life philosophy) to ground themselves into. When things become particularly stormy in life, this foundation keeps you anchored.

Going through the process of developing a life philosophy can be a highly effective means of reconciling the different parts of self, and it may involve picking and choosing from disparate schools of thoughts and belief systems to satisfy those hidden needs, desires and impulses.

We challenge you to also use this as an opportunity to explore your beliefs and refine them, as the conflict you experience within your inner self could be calling for a personal paradigm shift. Being able to manifest your life vision and dreams from the metaphysical to the physical realm is key to enduring happiness. But overcoming inertia is the inevitable obstacle you must face and that requires a tremendous amount of net positive force.

If deep down you are confused about what your vision is or are conflicted about the means by which you should authentically bring it forth, your force cancels out and you will experience major resistance when attempting to transfer energy into matter (i.e. turn thoughts into things).

Being a seeker means embarking on the journey to clarify your life vision and execute it with intention by questioning and refining old beliefs and, perhaps, exchanging them for more relevant ones. These fresh beliefs may be just what you need to reconcile the different aspects of your inner self giving you the focused force to expend energy intentionally and efficiently and push away those boulders that are blocking you from success.

Persuade instead of coerce

In our drive to thrive we can be quite hard on ourselves. We sometimes hold ourselves to impossible standards, follow rigid rules and pursue many desires that may not necessarily align with what truly makes us happy. The internal blocks we experience are often in opposition to overload, burnout and the inconsequential things we give way more attention to than we should.

But when you understand yourself and have a clear sense of direction, you may not even need to use force. You can persuade instead of coerce yourself into action and often see outstanding outcomes in your life with minimal effort or energy expended.

Just like a body of water can effortlessly sweep a boulder away in an instant, gaining insight into who you really are, using the techniques above, will help you navigate life more efficiently (and dynamically). Ready to do the work to change self-limiting habits, start with our Shadow Work Journal.