We chatted with Danielle Massi — founder of The Wellness Collective and Self(ish) Philly — about her new book Shadow Work, which comes out today.
In one of her lesser-known (but totally underrated) songs, “Dark Side,” Kelly Clarkson sings about a “place that I know / It’s not pretty there and few have ever gone.” I was always struck by the synthy, semi-spooky pop song, but never really understood what Clarkson might be referring to.
Until I read Danielle Massi’s new book, Shadow Work, that is. In it, Massi — licensed marriage and family therapist, founder of Center City-based (now virtual) holistic healing center The Wellness Collective, and creator of local self-care conference Self(ish) Philly (taking place on October 2nd) — aims to help people access their shadow: the hidden or repressed part of ourselves that, when not addressed, is often the root cause of internal and external problems, according to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who coined the term.
The over-100-year-old concept went viral on TikTok last year, as more and more millennials and Gen Zers sought new-to-them ways for self-discovery and self-awareness — especially in an age where persona seems to rule (ahem, social media).
For Massi, though, shadow work — the process of engaging with information buried deep within the unconscious — became prominent in her life when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018, just days before her 30th birthday. Through the doctor’s appointments, hysterectomy, and depression that followed, Massi turned to shadow work as a way to heal. “Over time, shadow information builds up and overwhelms the mind’s delicate balance … interrupting thought patterns and sleep cycles,” potentially leading to mental and physical health issues, Massi notes in her book.
In light of Shadow Work’s official release today, we chatted with Massi about her journey, her new book, and how facing our “dark side” can lead to a fuller, healthier life.
Be Well Philly: How did you get interested in shadow work?
Massi: I went to Temple for psychology and cognitive neuroscience, where I learned about Carl Jung, but didn’t really give his specific theories that much thought because we were studying so many others, too. The same thing happened when I went to graduate school and when I was an adjunct professor at Penn State Brandywine. Shadow work was something I talked about, but never really delved into.
It took my cervical cancer diagnosis in 2018 to make me start to really consider using shadow work myself. Up until that point, I had my own therapist, and knew how I was supposed to heal. But after my diagnosis, I spiraled into a pretty dark place, and it was at that low point that shadow work came back up for me. I decided to give it a chance and booked a session with a UK-based shadow worker, Allison Kelsey. It changed my life. It was that moment I realized shadow work was the most effective way to get to the root cause of trauma.
What happened during your first shadow work session?
My first experience was over Zoom! At the very beginning, we set an intention to get to the root cause of whatever was holding me back. She then helped me get my whole body calm — which is so important to accessing the unconscious mind (a.k.a. the shadow) — through meditation.
She then had me visualize Earth spinning and told me to stop it at the location of my past life. When I did, I started to drop down and fall from wherever I was in space to — what I found out later — was Scotland. As I hit the ground, I could feel my surroundings: I was standing on a rocky edge, could feel the wind through my hair, could smell salty sea water. Focusing my attention on these sensory details allowed the whole scene to come into view. The memory just flooded back, as easily as remembering what I ate for breakfast this morning. It was the most visceral thing I have ever felt — like a dream brought to life.
As we walked through that moment, I started feeling really scared. My senses were very heightened because of that fear. But feeling that fear, along with all the other sensory experiences, is how a person is able to change the way a moment or a trauma exists in one’s brain. It’s about interrupting the processes your brain undergoes in order to store away the trauma or pain — that’s shadow work.
Shadow work, auras, tarot, mediums, etc. are still considered taboo, though I do think they’re all becoming more and more mainstream as time passes. Why do you think people have been/are still resistant to anything that falls in the spiritual realm?
I was one of those skeptics. I grew up believing that science has to rule out everything. My grandmother was actually a spiritual healer and my parents thought she was a crazy person and kept me away from her, which only drove home the idea that you need hard facts to prove anything.
From my perspective, the facts — the stuff we can prove with scientific data — give us comfort. The human brain prefers the known because it helps the brain to sort out information. There’s a level of ease that comes with being able to take information and put it into a mental box and say, “This is something I understand and have reference points for.” As we do this, we limit ourselves greatly because not everything can fit into that box. We have opinions and experiences that counter those original beliefs.
As a culture, more people are having experiences that break outside the “norm” or make them feel like that box they’ve created internally for themselves doesn’t fit the full picture. That’s why I think we’re seeing more of an expansion of spiritual practices because more people are witnessing or hearing about their positive results via social media. I think the more we call something “woo woo,” the less likely we are to be fully successful because we’re not using all the tools we have in our natural toolbox — and more people are catching on to that.
And now you’ve written an entire book about shadow work!
Writing a book wasn’t something I originally set out to do. I had an Akashic Records session with practitioner Rebecca Lyons in spring 2020, and during that session, she told me I was going to be an author and that it was going to start with a journal. I laughed out loud!
About a year later, I created a shadow work journal full of prompts because people were constantly requesting them from me on TikTok. I figured it’d be easier to just put them all in one place, and once I was finished compiling them, I self-published the journal. It blew up. Shortly after, Lyons called me and said, “So you did the journal, I guess the book is next.”
At that point, I thought maybe that was a possibility. For the next three weeks during my meditation sessions, I started thinking about what the world might be like if more people experienced the healing impact of shadow work. At the beginning of July 2021, I got an email from Union Square & Co. (my book’s publisher) asking me to write — what they called — *the* book on shadow work.
What was the publishing process like?
Within a month after my publishing company reached out to me, I found an agent and the book was officially a go. I had to have a finished draft by January of 2022 — so, only about five months later. It was a very quick process! I had to make the decision to stop seeing clients one-on-one. I hired someone to replace me at The Wellness Collective so I could focus on my book after Self(ish) Philly — the self-care conference I founded — in October. I wanted to give Self(ish) my full focus, and I felt like the city of Philadelphia deserved that from me. Luckily, I did have an outline finished because I had to submit a book proposal, and that made it easier to write the book because I knew the vision.
What’re the goals of this book?
I wanted to blend spirituality and science to help people access their innate healing ability and understand what exactly is happening to them internally as they undergo shadow work. I also wanted people to get out of their comfort zone, and reset their internal thermostat. If you adjust your inner workings, you might end up feeling so much better than you did before. Anyone who is interested in learning who they really are and how to best help themselves live in a way that is healthy and aligned should read this. Shadow work is the only modality I’ve seen that gets to the core issues and changes them completely to the point there’s a ripple effect on the body. That in itself makes shadow work a necessity for all of us.
Since early 2020, we’ve gone through a shared, global trauma, which has wreaked havoc on so many people’s mental and emotional states. Was the pandemic a motivator for your wanting to get this book out into the world?
I think for me, this book was needed, COVID or not. But the collective trauma put pressure on shadow work’s role because people either chose to deal with what was happening, or repressed it — that choice is going to create long-term ramifications. I know that COVID was a huge reason my publishers wanted to move this forward as soon as possible and pushed the timeline a great deal. (The book wasn’t supposed to come out until 2023!) And I agree with that: The more preventative we can be and the earlier we can attack our stressors, the easier it is to deal with them and optimize your health.
At the end of your book, you note that shadow work “is going to send you into a tailspin” because it brings up all the stuff your brain is protecting you from for survival’s sake. What “safety” tips can you offer to someone wanting to try shadow work?
What I’ve seen from people who have been hesitant to try therapy is that there’s this fear that it’s going to feel bad at first, but then get worse and issues will never resolve. That’s not true. In the same way, though, shadow work can be difficult at first, but it does get better — it just takes a bit of trust. If you think about hard things people do — like training for a marathon, for example — they’re always tough in the beginning! And yet, people still keep training and keep trusting in the process, and they run through the finish line. Shadow work is like that: If you can put in the mental work, show up for yourself, and feel the full breadth of emotions that you have locked away within you, you’re going to get stronger and feel better.
Earlier, you mentioned you thought about what the world would be like if more people practiced shadow work. How do you envision that world?
In a perfect world — one in which everyone tried shadow work in the same way they take a multivitamin — I think we’d have so many fewer arguments, both internal and external, because tension would be more easily resolved. That’s because shadow work aims to target the root cause of stress, pain, trauma, and the like. My shadow work clients have also said they don’t feel as triggered on a day-to-day basis, don’t have trouble falling asleep, are able to better handle situations with more grace and patience, and have improved GI health. Shadow work can help a person feel more calm in their body, and feeling rested and not so anxious all the time contributes to good health. Healing is the most important gift we can give ourselves.