On Empty Buzzwords and “Shadow Work”

Look, I’m not immune to buzzwords. I’ve been known to drop a hashtag or two, hoping to catch some internet attention for the things I write. I’m dreadful at SEO, and not nearly on the level of social media influencers or content creators who know how to get eyes on what they make. Frankly, I don’t think of myself as a content creator; to my ear, that term designates a very specific kind of online presence geared toward the cultivation of a brand, and while that’s a perfectly legitimate pursuit, it’s not why I’m here on the blog. Or on YouTube. Or why I write books. The blog is basically my Tarot journal, where I explore things that are on my mind. That includes meditative essays on the significance of individual cards, as well as deck reviews and spreads that other people can use for themselves if they choose, but it also includes a lot of personal reflection on things going on in my life, readings I’ve done for myself, and so on. This blog is a place I come when I have messy thoughts that I need to sort through, or when I’m wrestling with difficult emotions and they’re getting the better of me. Often, the version of myself that I share here is my worst self, because the blog is a place I come to do introspective work in the constant, unending task of trying to be a decent human being. That’s not exactly the kind of blog content that’s liable to get me thousands of followers, but this blog has always been for me first and foremost.

But still, I am vain,* and I do like it when people read the things I write. If the blog were totally private, it could very easily be unlisted, or offline altogether so that no one had access to it. I put the things I write up on the internet, and when I do so, I hope that other people will read and enjoy them. I hope that people will get something out of what I have to say, whether it’s because I’ve provided a spread they find useful or because one of my more personal posts resonates with them in some way. And, well, in order for people to find value in what I write, they have to read what I write. Which means that I have to be at least halfway decent at promoting it.

If you look through any of my deck reviews, you’ll notice that the title of the deck is always given in italics. This is not because titles should be italicized; in fact, most publishers I know don’t italicize the names of Tarot decks. When I wrote Tarot for Real Life,** I never italicized the titles of decks when I referred to them by name. The reason I do so in blog posts is that I once read an SEO tip claiming that search engines are more likely to notice words in italics—so I idly hope that when people google “Tarot of the Golden Wheel,” my review of the Tarot of the Golden Wheel will come up.

I really don’t mind using SEO tricks to try to increase site traffic (within reason; I’m not Buzzfeed). My main regret is that I’m not better at it. I doubt that my google-likes-italics thing is actually true, but I keep doing it anyway, without using other techniques that are probably much more successful—such as instagram giveaways or picking an online fight with someone more famous than me. (The main reason I don’t do either of those things is that neither sounds particularly appealing, and in fact they both sound exhausting, whereas italicizing deck names is a relatively low effort thing to do.)

One of the biggest and most regretful ways in which I make my paltry attempt at appeasing The Algorithm is in the use of the term “shadow work”. (Or should I say shadow work?)

Shadow work is sexy. My blog posts with the phrase “shadow work” in the title always get hits, although weirdly they’re nowhere near as popular as my post about the Empress and the Tower, which is my third-most-viewed post of all time.*** And I’m not above capitalizing on that popularity by writing posts and calling them “shadow work” when really they have nothing to do with shadow work.

The phrase is oft-misunderstood and misused. For everyone who doesn’t know, although by this point I have difficulty imagining that anyone doesn’t know, it derives from the work of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, who talked about the “shadow” as the unconscious part of the psyche that needs to be integrated with the conscious mind. Over time, the word “shadow” has come to be used as a stand-in for everything from “murderous violent tendencies” to “forgetting to thank the cashier at the grocery store.”

“Shadow work,” in turn, has become a nebulous term describing a variety of introspective and personal processes. Sometimes people use it to describe a process of introspection and self-improvement. Sometimes people use it simply to mean becoming aware of patterns of behavior that were previously unrecognized. Sometimes, it’s used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad behavior, along the lines of “I can’t help it if you made me angry, that’s just my shadow coming out.” And in the mix of all of that, the phrase itself has become all but meaningless, because it can mean so many damn things.

I’m certainly not the first person, nor the most articulate or insightful, to claim that the phrase “shadow work” is all but empty now. Frankly, these days, I’m not entirely sure that it was ever all that meaningful to begin with. I think that perhaps in a very specific context of Jungian psychoanalysis, the phrase may be helpful in understanding a particular part of the psychoanalytic process, but unless you’re actively working with a psychoanalyst in this way, I don’t know that it’s helpful or descriptive to call what you do “shadow work.” A couple of months ago, Thorn Mooney suggested in a video that most of what people mean when they say “shadow work” really just amounts to introspection: It’s looking inside ourselves to try to understand why we think, feel, and act the way we do, and if we dislike what we see, it’s taking concrete steps to change those things. That’s a universal human process and something we all can (and should!) do, but adding frills and calling it “shadow work” doesn’t necessarily enrich the process.

I have quite a few posts on my blog where I do exactly that: Take basic introspective work and reframe it by calling it “shadow work,” largely to try to capitalize on the popularity on the term. These include various spreads as well as personal reflections from my own uglier moments. Looking back at those posts, I cringe at the way I’ve framed them. Not only do I think the “shadow work” label doesn’t add to what I had to say, in many cases I now feel that it actively detracts.

Do I regret writing those posts? No, not really. In many cases, I think I actually had something good to say, and I still agree with what I wrote. Even in the cases where I now disagree with what I wrote (and that’s true for a lot of this blog; I change over time, but once a blog post is written, it stays the same forever), I think that having written those posts was an important part of me coming to where I am now. But I no longer like using the “shadow work” label, and I think I’m going to make a choice to stop using it from here on out. There are other valuable ways to talk about introspection and personal growth.

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*See? I present the worst version of myself on here. I’m not actually that vain. Well, maybe.

**Tarot for Real Life releases in the US on May 8th, and is available for pre-order now. I’ll put up a post in the next couple of weeks talking about why I wrote this book, what I think makes it special, and what I hope people will get out of it.

***It’s a shame, really; that’s not a very good post, and I don’t much agree with a lot of what I said therein. I think the popularity is because people do a reading with both of those cards in it and google combination in the hopes that someone will be able to tell them “If you got both of these cards, it means your ex is going to call tomorrow.”

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4 thoughts on “On Empty Buzzwords and “Shadow Work”

  1. My university degree was in psychology but I have never understood what tarot readers mean when they say they have a certain deck for “shadow work”. It just sounds pretentious to me. Isn’t every tarot reading we do for ourselves shadow work potentially?

    Liked by 2 people

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