Poetry as Therapy: Seven steps for writing poetry for shadow work

We are familiar with the idea of writing down our personal and private feelings and thoughts. Some of us use diaries, journals and loose notes to record our internal motions to give them an external form. This transfer from the inner to the outer through writing is shared by the practice of writing poetry. What I want to describe today is how the two – expressing private feelings and thoughts, and poetry – can benefit from each other when combined. 

Poetry has helped me process complexes, some of which I did not know were even there. It has helped me in my struggles of depression and anxiety. It has also forced me to address issues to do with my family and upbringing, relationships and love, appearance and self-worth. It has been a tool that I continuously pick up in my personal journey for healing, self-knowledge, open communication and deep confidence.

Before we go on, it is perhaps worth emphasising that writing poetry as a therapeutic tool is not sufficient for therapy. At the same time, there should also be a motive to heal. Positive consequences of poetry as therapy could include identifying sites of trauma, beginning the process of awakening and healing, and writing better poetry!

  1. The primary condition when writing is to create a safe, judgement-free and encouraging space, in which barriers are removed from letting emotions and ideas roam free. It may help to close the doors and shut off outside distractions. Or perhaps you feel safe in an open park or field with only the trees and birds to keep you company. I would encourage you to make the space as silent as you can, particularly in terms of music and other artificial sounds. Silence can help you hear, and listen to, those thoughts that are quieter than others. These are often those that are deeper inside. Also, give yourself time to let certain internal things come up. They often have to be invited, which can only come with patience. Finally, be gentle with yourself. Do not judge or otherwise treat yourself harshly, and always be quick to forgive.

  2. Always retain a sense of control and reassess your situation whenever you feel it being compromised. The next step is to write. Easy right?! If you want exercises and techniques for how to start writing your poem and how to get inspiration, then let me know, and I can write a separate post dealing with that. 

  3. The aim of using poetry as a tool for self-administered therapy is to dig deep into yourself. Similar to Jungian shadow work, the deeper you go, the darker it gets. Try to get to the kernel, the root or the essence of the issue that you are dealing with. Poetry is an ideal form for doing this, rather than prose, because you can challenge conventions of grammar, be playful with syntax and semantics, and focus purely on the subject. Make use of imagery and phonetics to imbue the words with the power to create reactions in the body; similar to those that inspired the words in the first place.   

  4. It is challenging, confronting and can be painful to enter the abyss. You should therefore feel ready in yourself and, like I said before, always feel in control of the process. If something feels difficult to channel, then that is a good sign that it needs to be addressed. If it feels like TMI, makes you vulnerable to see it revealed, feels uncomfortable, obscene, tense, and so on, then it is promising that you are on the right track. This is the case so long as in the process you are being honest, open, direct and real, or authentic, to yourself.

  5. The aim is to uncover old parts of yourself that you have kept hidden, sometimes since childhood. It could be a narrative, a memory, an image or a statement. It is likely to be a network of relations to all these things, including those that are happening in your life right now in different guises. Through the process of civilising and integrating ourselves in society, we transform or bury those parts that we perceive could cause us to be alienated, marginalised or ostracised. The benefit of poetry as therapy is that you have created a safe, private space, away from (the perception of) unwelcome eyes. There should be no fear that what you write will be judged and, instead, it is for you only. You decide whether you tear up the paper, work on it more or even share it with others.

  6. With this in mind, as you write, you should be stripping away layers of social acceptability. Whereas in daily, socialised life, you would not dare touch a stranger, crawl into bed with a recent crush or shout at your boss, you absolutely can in the little world that you have created. This ability to fantasise for creating a place for your desires can help access the subconscious, which is to say the less-than conscious. You may penetrate something close to what we could call the heart of the matter.

  7. When you write, you create distance from the trauma, the pain, the longing and the fear. It helps you realise that you are not identified with that trauma; it is not you; it does not even have to be part of you. You will see it whenever and however it manifests itself in the present; be able to point at it, observe it, without losing yourself to it. Ultimately, you can take control of the trauma, which is not to say that the trauma gets lost completely but you take away its power.

Working through pain and accepting your fuller self is often largely an introspective and individualistic experience. However, if you want to take poetry as therapy a step further, then I recommend performing, or reciting, your poetry in front of (the right) people, even a crowd, so long as it is a safe space.

At the same time, I fully respect and understand that performing private poems in front of people who you may not know sounds like a terrible and daunting idea.

In my experience, performing poetry has helped in gaining self-confidence. When you are received by people, you get validation, connection and a shared appreciation of each other’s struggles. This can be hugely empowering but can also help you socialise those parts of yourself that you thought were anti-social. This can allow you to accept your fuller self – including the ugly parts – and integrate your entire being into daily life.

I am curious to know whether this post resonated with you. I thrive on feedback and connection, so please let me know <3