The latest mental health trend on TikTok is a curious one.

“Shadow work” is rooted in ideas developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, repackaged into a viral book written by a self-help author and proliferated across the platform by thousands of creators spanning from real therapists to spiritual gurus.

Supported by the hashtag #shadowwork, the trend has garnered more than 2.3 billion views on the platform. The viral trend involves people digging deep into their subconscious patterns to reach “inner child wounds” and trauma spots in order to get to the root of anxieties, fears, self-sabotage and other mental health issues.

While seemingly well-intentioned, as with so many viral trends on the platform, shadow work brings with it an array of controversy. 

Some users claim that shadow work has transformed their mental health for the better, while others call it a scam and “demonic” in nature.

Looking for truth in the darkness

One video posted by the TikTok account @zenfulnote tries to explain the viral trend in simple terms. 

“Shadow work is the process of identifying and integrating your unconscious psyche,” the video says. “The hidden, darker aspects of yourself that you may feel shame or guilt about.”

@zenfulnote

Shadow work is the most liberating experience 🦋 grab a guy to journal today #shadowwork #whatisshadowwork #shadowworkprompts #shadowworkjournal #zenfulnote what is shadow work?

♬ original sound – Zenfulnote

The shadow work trend, the video explains, first involves identifying your triggers — “things that impose strong emotional reactions in you, like a person, a topic, a situation or environment that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

From there, it asks users to figure out their behavioral patterns — bad habits or negative cycles that you constantly feel trapped in. Finally, it asks users to explore their projections — or how they appear in the world.

“Our egos naturally repress our shadows in order to keep us safe, but we will never stop experiencing our shadows unless we work to face them and transmute them,” the video states.

Journaling, answering shadow work prompts and staring into a mirror to “meet your inner child” are all practices that fall under shadow work.

@theofficialitgirls

😅😅😅 save these for when you have a day off. Shadow work is tapping into the darkest parts of ourselves that we subconsciously hide. There’s so much healing in these prompts and working through the things youve been avoiding #wellness #shadowwork #journalprompts #wellnessjourney #journaling

♬ original sound – Bella ☮︎

What to make of shadow work

Upon coming across shadow work videos, users might wonder how legitimate the concept is. What gave the trend mainstream popularity was a book that went viral earlier this year. 

Written by 24-year-old self-help author Keila Shaheen, The Shadow Work Journal is a mental health guide that allows readers to fill in answers to shadow work prompts as a form of self-help or self-therapy.

After getting posted to the TikTok Shop, the book skyrocketed in popularity. Just this fall, the book outsold every other book on Amazon, including Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk. Nearly half of its Amazon sales were driven by TikTok.

Numerous videos show TikTok users buying the The Shadow Work Journal and trying it out for themselves, as a sort of cheap alternative — or complement — to traditional therapy.

@kartierkloe

Bro just buy it tbh. I skipped so many ads and its honestly so healing and so worth it😭 #theshadowworkjournal #shadowwork #zenfulnote #fyp #shadowworkjournal

♬ son original – Découverte 💡

When digging further into Shaheen’s background, one finds that she’s far less of a therapist or psychologist than she is a marketing and brand strategist with a focus on self-help. 

According to an article published in The Atlantic, Shaheen has a bachelor’s in psychology and marketing, but has nowhere near the real mental health or psychological training that licensed therapists must undergo.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Shaheen’s background is mainly in content and creative strategy, including a stint at TikTok as a creative and brand strategist.

Shaheen often posts videos on TikTok under the aforementioned @zenfulnote account, in which she personally dictates to her followers how to engage in shadow work.

The book, and Shaheen’s take on shadow work, however, falls more in the self-help section rather than a real mental health tool — even if some aspects of shadow work can be useful.

As with most other health trends on TikTok, plenty of providers and public experts have expressed their doubts.

Roger Bretherton, an associate professor in the school of psychology at the University of London, is one of them. In an article recently published in The Conversation, Bretherton explained that TikTok’s take on shadow work isn’t exactly what Jung originally intended.

Delving into Jung’s theory of the shadow is incredibly complex and beyond the purview of this article. However, the main takeaway is that self-help gurus on TikTok shouldn’t always be your guide to mental health work.

“It is not a bad idea to invite people to think about some of the more difficult areas of their lives,” Bretherton wrote. “In this sense, TikTok is onto something. The problem is that to learn from confrontation with something difficult, we must be able to do two things at the same time: feel the negative emotion (fear, shame, sadness or whatever) and be able to think about it enough to come to a more helpful perspective.”

Shadow work that is truly effective, he argued, is not simply “raking up old psychological wounds for the sake of it” – but reaching a new level of acceptance and understanding of them to build resilience.

To accomplish this, he argued, people need a community — friends, family, a therapist or some other support system. We also need to reach a certain level of “psychological recovery from our trauma,” he wrote.

“This is something that Jung knew but seems to be missing from the TikTok trend,” he concluded. As a result, shadow work isn’t to be taken lightly and he urges people who tout shadow work to do so with a “sober note of caution.”

If not conducted properly, shadow work can either be unhelpful or even potentially risky for certain people — such as those struggling with psychosis, eating disorders or substance use disorders.

Still, with the guidance of a trained therapist or mental health professional, shadow work can be helpful in untangling painful parts of the subconscious — and opening the way to leading a more fulfilling life, according to therapist Jenn Kennedy.

“Most people have shadow self elements that develop in response to situations that feel overwhelming, foreign and frightening,” Kennedy told Healthline. “They likely have been using it as a coping strategy to avoid discomfort. However, it ultimately holds them back from a full, authentic life.”

In other words, if you want to try shadow work for yourself, the most appropriate advice is to take action with the guidance of a trained therapist.