“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
In this single sentence, Carl Jung describes an essential truth about the human experience: Without evil, there can be no good. You contain both darkness and light, and in the story that is your life, you play both hero and villain. Our souls are fulcrums on which morality tips; our conscious psyches are maps outlining civilized territories, beyond which are dragons. This article is about the Shadow.
Explaining the shadow is difficult without relying heavily on complex language used by professionals, but I want this article to be useful to non-professionals as well.
Today, “shadow work” is a big part of my practice. But when I first encountered the idea of the shadow as a teenager, I wasn’t able to understand it easily. I didn’t know how literally to take the metaphor, and it took me a few years to fully get a grip on all the terms and concepts needed to understand what is meant by the shadow, and many more to grasp its clinical significance and how it can be addressed in psychotherapy.
I can’t promise that this article will not rely on some concepts of depth therapy you might find unfamiliar, but what I can do is offer lots of examples to illustrate what I’m talking about. While that means this will be a longer article, I think it will make it much more useful.
What is the “shadow”?
The psychoanalytic tradition often thinks of people as having multiple selves, or personalities. That might sound weird, but when you think about it, you are different versions of yourself every day. The “you” people encounter at your workplace is not the same as the you your family knows. The “you” that is so hungry that you’re starting to snap at people and can’t care about anything except where to get food from is not the you that shows up just minutes after you finally get something to eat.
The shadow was Carl Jung’s extended metaphor for the disavowed, unwanted, ignored part of the self: A collection of drives, or sub-personalities, that our conscious self has banished from the territory of our everyday consciousness. This part of us is symbolically linked with darkness (hence the “Shadow”) because the parts of ourselves that are in our shadow are the ones we “can’t see”.
The shadow is also symbolically involved with the concepts of good and evil. It is not that the shadow itself is good or evil, although it may be tempting to see things that way. It is more accurate to say that regardless of whether we are aware of the contents of our shadow or not, it is a force that influences our actions nonetheless, and our actions have moral implications. If our motivations are enshadowed, it is difficult to act virtuously. A person who doesn’t know why they do what they do — and instead acts disproportionately out of subconscious impulses without being thoughtful — can’t be trusted to do what is right.
One common way a person’s shadow can manifest is that they project it onto others. For such individuals, people and situations become a mirror. They are looking at someone else, but what they see are unrecognized and unwanted aspects of themselves. Maybe you can recognize this phenomenon in people you know. For example:
- A selfish person may see others as inconsiderate of their needs when it is actually they who do not consider others.
- Or, someone with repressed rage who covers up their deep anger with a false smile and “niceness” might see another person as an angry bully, when that other person is actually just assertive and confident.
- Or, a man who was once rejected harshly by a beautiful woman has come to see ALL beautiful women as shallow and spiteful. Who is really being shallow and spiteful in this situation?
- Or, a woman who was once told that men seek to hold women back has become quick to judge men to be self-serving and oppressive when they seek to excel. Is this worldview not stricken with the very flaws it seeks to reject?
- Or, close to home for those in my profession, a therapist may become frustrated at his client’s lack of progress in communication skills, all while being a poor communicator in his own life.
In each case, what is being perceived is actually the perceiver’s shadow — negative aspects of themselves they don’t see due to lack of awareness or willful blindness — rather than truths about other people.
Why does the shadow exist?
If the shadow causes us to sometimes act foolishly and misperceive reality, why does it exist at all?
It’s worth mentioning that we gain something through our unawareness of what is in our shadow: temporary stability and comfort. Consider the examples above. In each case, a person was able to ignore unwanted or negative things about themselves, and instead attribute them to other people.
Unawareness of unwanted parts of ourselves allows us to maintain an idea of ourselves, both in our own eyes as well as the eyes of others, that would be disrupted if what was in the shadow were to come to light. We all have secrets, even from ourselves. And just as we may fear venturing from explored territory into the unknown darkness, so too we may fear what we will learn about ourselves if we explore our shadow. Although we have much to gain from venturing forth, for many, this fear causes a reflexive avoidance of shadow exploration. And it is not completely wrong! There are reasons to value the stability of our personalities and lives, and the shadow is a protective and useful mechanism evolved for holding unbearable truths about ourselves away from our awareness until we are ready to deal with them.
Why should we do the work of exploring our shadow?
In the long run, “shadow work” is worth sacrificing a little stability.
The solution of relegating something to the subconscious is one of minimal adaptation to circumstances. It is a method of surviving, not necessarily one of thriving. And, just because something is repressed, does not mean it no longer affects us. Strong needs and drives find their expression in our feelings, thoughts, and behaviour, and when they flow from our Shadow, we lose the ability to guide their expression in a controlled manner.
The parts of us that are in our shadow tend to leak out uncontrollably. A good example of this is passive aggression. Returning to an example I described earlier, imagine a person who always just smiles when they are angry – we’ll call him Repressing Ron. One day Ron’s coworker teases him in a lighthearted way. Ron’s been teased everywhere he goes for so long that now when someone teases him, he has a huge internal reaction! He is, as they say, “triggered”. So, Ron is upset, but as always, he just smiles and acts like nothing is wrong. But the next day, when that coworker is relying on Ron to do his job, he drags his heels and finds a way to seriously sabotage his coworker as well as the whole project. That’ll show ’em. It’s an overreaction to a little joke, but Ron doesn’t realize that, because the rage that is fueling his actions is something he does not fully accept about himself, and therefore, he is not able to reel it in. He thinks his coworker is a jerk, but really it’s Ron who’s being the biggest jerk, and in a pretty sneaky way that makes everything worse.
It is also the case that many aspects of ourselves exiled to the Shadow leave us poorer for their absence. Exploring and integrating the shadow creates self-awareness, which in turn enables us to trust our judgement and our motives for doing things. It also makes us more worthy of the trust of others.
Another example: Imagine a child who, in the face of his father’s strict and abusive discipline, vows to be everything his father was not. Then, when he becomes a father himself, he becomes incredibly permissive. He refuses to show firmness in disciplining, mistaking it for the cruelty that he experienced long ago. His child, meanwhile, has gone uncorrected, is poorly behaved, and is not well-liked by other adults. In fact, the man himself begins to resent his child, and their relationship deteriorates. After all, he has treated his son so kindly, and been repaid with ungrateful behaviour — or so he thinks. While this man is seemingly the opposite of the man who raised him, in reality, he is just as enslaved by the wrathful violence in his shadow as his own father was, but in a different way. If this continues, the darkness will live on through another generation.
But, it does not have to be that way. Instead, the man could reassess the lesson he learned from his father’s cruelty. He could recognize he has been projecting his need for more lenience and kindness onto his son, even though that has nothing to do with what his son needs. He can realize he no longer has to live as a product of his childhood circumstances, no longer has to pay the price it exacted from him, and that his own son doesn’t have to either. He can focus on using his aggression consciously and wisely, when appropriate, as a force for good, instead of exiling the drive to use force itself to the Shadow, like his father. He can give his son what his son really needs, instead of what he needed from his father, but didn’t get.
Once we’ve explored some of the things in our shadow, they can be integrated. This allows orphaned aspects of ourselves to come back to us and act as allies, like wayward children returning to help their community. That which is exiled in the fog is often exactly what we need to resolve persistent issues in our life. Rage, when integrated as clean anger, is needed to recognize and assert interpersonal boundaries. Grief, integrated as the capacity to express pain, is needed to show up in our full authenticity so we can speak to the hearts of others. Recklessness, integrated as courage, is needed to take the necessary risks that living a life full of meaning entails.
How to explore your shadow
A reasonable question that might come to mind is, if the nature of the Shadow is that we are unaware of its contents, how can we explore it and recognize its influence in our lives?
In a general sense, one answer to this question is that while we are unaware of what is in our Shadow, we are complicit in that unawareness. Much of the ability of the Shadow’s contents to stay endarkened can be attributed to the willful blindness of its owner. You can see this in a great deal of people’s behaviour that is both repetitious and also reliably leads to suffering. For example, imagine someone who has had a string of failed relationships with women in the past that, despite the presence of a completely different woman in each case, nonetheless play out in almost exactly the same way. Perhaps each woman has even complained about the same behaviour, before the end. Nonetheless, the individual continues to seek a solution in a new relationship, refusing to look at what is obvious to anyone else who is viewing the situation from the outside. He never follows the telltale clues into the unexplored territory of his Shadow, and by refusing that opportunity for self-reflection, perpetuates the cycle in which he is ensnared.
We receive both internal and external clues about our Shadow and its role in our lives.
Internal clues can be derived by analyzing our thoughts and feelings. In particular, emotional patterns of rage, shame, resentment, pathological obsession, spite, contempt, fear, self-hatred, wrath, narcissism and unresolved grief can be analyzed to guide us into the Shadow.
On the other hand, external clues can be derived by analyzing patterns outside of ourselves. If we find ourselves to be repeatedly ineffective in some external situation, relationship or at some task, no matter how much we practice, persevere or how much technical knowledge we gain, the answer might be found in self-sabotage, which in turn can be traced back to the Shadow’s drives.
Often, shadow work is difficult on our own. That’s where, if you are my client, I come in as your therapist. By asking careful questions and identifying emotional and behavioural patterns in your answers, I can draw on my experience to help you:
- Identify the contents of your shadow
- Explore why they are there and what to do about that
- Reintegrate aspects of yourself, previously enshadowed, as strengths.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. Let’s explore it together.