Shadow is which resides in the unconscious mind and humans are predominantly unaware of their shadows. They are the impulses, qualities and emotions which are buried away from public display and even ourselves because of the fear of societal norms, need of belongingness to the society and our personal constructs of right and wrong. Carl Jung describes the shadow as “It is a world of water, where all life floats in suspension; where the realm of the sympathetic system, the soul of everything living, begins; where I am indivisibly this and that; where I experience the other in myself and the other-than-myself experiences me.” Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1990).
It consists of feelings such as guilt, resentment, manipulation, weakness, control, aggression, uncivilized impulses, morally inferior motives, childish fantasies and even our past trauma but it may also contain a positive face like that of kindness, sensitivity, empathy, love and more. The contents of our shadows depend on our environment and personal beliefs. It is what is referred to as ‘the dark side’ of a person. Pink Floyd’s Album: The Dark Side of the Moon, addresses the dark side that is conflict, greed, death and mental illness for them. The album ends with the song Eclipse which is when darkness takes over the light and cannot be called the unity of those two; in reality we have to strive to be aware of that darkness rather than be engulfed by it.
The What and Why of Shadow
Carl Jung’s Shadow Archetype
Shadow is one of the archetypes described by Carl Jung in his psychoanalytic theory who called it the ‘tight passage’ between the conscious and unconscious.
“The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. But one must learn to know oneself in order to know who one is.” Carl Jung, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1960)
According to Jung, the shadow contains a lot of potential which if not recognised and owned, maintains a state of impoverishment in the personality and deprives the person of sources of energy and bridges of connectedness with others. This failure of recognition further results into projection of our shadow towards the people around us. Projection is a way by which each person perceives the events, environment and the elements in it according to their own beliefs but do not stand responsible for the origin of that belief. When we judge others on their choices and resent people for their ways of living, coping and understanding, it may be the result of what we have in our shadows. The world is a canvas, we are all artists and our art is projection of our deeper selves.
Ever wondered why ‘you do not talk about Fight Club’? The narrator in the movie Fight Club leads a fairly good life but isn’t able to sleep after which he establishes an alter-ego played by Brad Pitt who is everything the narrator desires to be. Here, Brad Pitt is the shadow of the narrator and Fight Club is the result of that shadow which the narrator has repressed and cannot bear to show the world what that shadow can do.
The shadow differentiates by the ‘personal’ and ‘collective’ unconscious of a person. The personal unconscious is a collection of one’s own beliefs, thoughts, values and ideas whereas the collective unconscious is of the human experiences while interacting with society and a collective thought process of the environment and cultural background of a person. The personal shadow is one’s counter-reaction to the society and the environment’s reaction towards their behaviour starting from day 1 of existence. This counter-reaction consists of maintaining a ‘log book’ in our minds and deciding what can be done and what cannot. This dualism stems from the need to belong to the society. The personal shadow is the bridge to collective shadow or an open door to it, but collective shadow results in those terrible mass psychosis’ which makes it terribly important to be aware of one’s personal shadows to avoid events like Holocausts, Massacre and Mob lynchings (Von Franz, 1979).
Jung adapts a great amount of philosophies around shadow from religions like Hinduism and Buddhism which talks about self-transformation through awareness of our true self and maintaining a middle path between the conscious and unconscious. Carl Jung similarly emphasises on the power of bringing the shadow to the conscious level and gaining that self-knowledge to lead a complete life. In Hinduism, Advaita philosophy focuses on the realisation of Brahman which is one true self and not different from Atman (the other self).
The Theory of the Anti-Self
The Anti-Self theory is a result of Life Mission theory proposed by Søren Ventegodt. The Life Mission theory has existential roots and it says that we all are born with a life purpose (something as simple as ‘I bring joy’ or ‘I create’) and along the way when we face failures in the achievement of that purpose, we pick up new missions which aren't aligned with our true self. This displacement of the purpose, forms the ego and separates it from the original higher self. The anti-self develops with the repression of the original positive purpose which has negative experiences and decisions attached to it. Knowing this and taking responsibility for both good and evil allows the person to take the learning position and little by little develop their consciousness and transcend their "shadow". In doing this, they integrate all their inner conflicts and let go of all their self-destructive decisions and attitudes, and so they become beautiful, good, and true (Ventegodt, 2003).
“At a young age, our full range of aliveness, feeling, and dependency was too much for our caretakers to bear. Unknowingly, they betrayed our young souls again and again, inflicting the wounds of neglect, intrusion, cruelty, and shame. To survive this wounding environment, as children we made a Faustian bargain, concealing the unacceptable parts of ourselves in the shadow and presenting only the acceptable parts (or ego) to the world.” (Zweig and Wolf, 1997).
The day we are born, we start experiencing different things and situations; just our existence in a society and our time spent alive is proof that we have shadows. No one is born with shadows, they are the result of our environment and the society that we live in. Early in our childhood development, we find where the line between what is socially “acceptable” and “unacceptable” is, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to work around it. When we cross that line, as we all frequently do, we suffer the pain of society’s backlash. We decide and internalise the dualism of behaviour in life, what to do and what not to do. Urie Bronfenbrenner, in the 1970s, came up with the Ecological Systems Theory which elaborated on the five different systems existing in a child’s environment throughout development which interact with each other and affect the child’s ideas, and the way they see the world. Because the five systems are interrelated, the influence of one system on a child’s development depends on its relationship with the others. For example, if a girl child grows up in a culture where women showing skin is looked down upon, and due to that culture, the mass media also relays information around the world with respect to that cultural aspect and having a large focus on the skin shown in reports related to it. Instances like these make people realise throughout their life, what will provide them social validity and belongingness and thus they conform to the societal norms and unconsciously decide their personal morals.
India and its collectivist and religion based culture will have a lot to do with our shadows, we seek approval of the whole society and such dimensions before even thinking about personal beliefs, while a westen country with a more individualistic orientation will have a completely different effect on the shadow of people living there.
Further, shadow is the result of the trauma our mind and body has accumulated throughout our lives. They are hurt, that we have repressed and they are too painful if they come out. Once an action is adapted to deal with a triggering situation, the person keeps repeating it as a pattern and following this we adapt self-destructive patterns rather than working with the trauma. The character Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders is one such example whose shadow is a culmination of his trauma which he faces when he is posted in France during World War 2. His trauma resurfaces in the forms of nightmares and he has been shown using self-destructive methods of drug use to deal with his shadow.
It would be inconsiderate for a person to think that everyone has a shadow as intense or similar to each other. Marginalised societies and groups have a larger impact on their shadows due to the present or past trauma of discrimination and prejudice. In his study, The Legacy of Trauma (2019), Brent Bezo said, “Each generation seemed to kind of learn from the previous one, with survivors telling children, ‘Don’t trust others, don’t trust the world,’”. So it would be fair to say that in these communities, children are born in a dark collectivist shadow. Therefore, even if shadow accumulates in a similar way, there are always personal and societal differences for the same.
“The underbelly of the human psyche, what is often referred to as our dark side, is the origin of every act of self-sabotage. Birthed out of shame, fear, and denial, it misdirects our good intentions and drives us to unthinkable acts of self-destruction and not-so-unbelievable acts of self-sabotage.” Debbie Ford
Types of Shadow
What I am afraid to become.
All of us are living in the fear of becoming someone that we do not like, someone that wouldn’t be accepted in society. There is a constant inner struggle to try to stay away as far from our shadow as possible, we also exhibit this in our behaviours. During these times, shadow may erupt in unwanted moments and can cause a lot of pain and shame to us, which only darkens the shadow.
Suga (Min Yoon-gi) from the boy band BTS wrote a track called ‘Interlude: Shadow’ for their album Map of the Soul:7. This song comes from his personal struggles with his shadow. Suga raps, “Flying high is terrifying, No one told me how lonely it is up here, No one told me that my leap could also be my fall…. Please don’t let me shine, Don’t let me down, Don’t let me fly, Now I’m afraid”.
We are always scared of the unknown, but if we make the unknown shadow known, we will be at least aware of where the danger lies.
“As you go higher, your shadow will grow even bigger. Although you cannot fully overcome that difficulty, becoming a friend with your shadow is an important thing.” Kim Namjoon (BTS)
What I am and don’t want to be.
Another type of shadow is when we do not like who we are. We know what is our dark side, we have adapted that side but we do not want to continue to be that way. The darkness here is our reality and everyone is aware of that but it is when we reach the level of self-hate due to the same shadow. This is the point where we decide that there is something we do not like about ourselves and everyone adopts different ways to deal with this realisation. This shadow can also be marked as a sudden awareness but the shadow only increases with hatred so much that people with this self may fall into self-destructive behaviour. If a person, after this realisation takes steps towards acceptance of this shadow self, then he will be released of the hate.
This type of shadow is what comes from our past experiences and trauma that we have faced. The shadow here, becomes a part of us and we become connected to it and is enmeshed within us. This shadow is made up of the pain and grief of loss and failure. We become no more aware of the distinction between the results of the repressed trauma and our real feelings. The main motive then becomes to separate us from those experiences and rather than letting go, accept it.
Inception by Christopher Nolan, gives a great example of enmeshment. The character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, keeps seeing his wife in his dreams and we can see him struggling to deal with the death of his wife. The death of his wife had thus become a traumatic event for the character and those feelings were enmeshed within him that do not magnify directly in the reality as much as when he was dreaming.
The various types of shadows have to be faced and conquered in different ways. Throughout years, people have come up with different perspectives to make the unconscious conscious but all seek the same result.
Importance of the Shadow
Shadow is what coexists with light. Shadow is the sign that there is light present in the person and that there is life present there. It is only human that a shadow exists, it is an inevitable consequence. It acts as a shelter with a positive intention to save us from the world. It is uniquely ours and contains our enormous abilities which can lead us to fruitful results and a burst of creativity. It helps us in co-existing with the society with a moral compass and provides a skeleton to existence. It serves us to respect ours and other people’s boundaries and act in a ‘civil’ complementary manner.
Making the Unconscious Conscious (New and Old Ways)
According to Jung, to live only the “good” sides of life – that which feels light, joyful, easy, and happy is to live an unbalanced life. Life is a multifaceted experience that desires to be experienced from all angles to be understood and lived fully; the good, the bad, the light, the dark, the pretty, the ugly, and all the grey areas in between. If you continue to bury your shadows, you may feel fractured and compartmentalised. You may never actually move past them to see what else life has to offer.
Jung asks us to confront our shadow. For how long can we take the other road which is hard and long? We have to take initiative to understand and report that dark side to ourselves. The internal clean-up is also important and for that we need to communicate with ourselves and and provide space to the shadow in our mind.
Character Analysis by Wilhelm Reich
Reich theorised a character analytic way to understand and unite the conscious with the unconscious. He pointed out that Jung’s psychoanalytic perspective talked about bringing the unconscious to the conscious but it should rather be that the therapeutic goal is to remove the barriers that block the unconscious from coming up. The dynamics of analytic affect do not depend on the contents but on the resistances which the patient puts up against them and on the emotional experience in overcoming them. According to him, people have fixed character armours which they use as defense mechanisms against the upheaval of emotions from their shadow which only disappear through neurosis.
“The good and the evil manifest themselves in the patient as well as in the consciousness of the therapist and the patient is temporarily able to enter into the evil valence in order to confront it, mirrored from the outside by the therapist, and from the inside by its own good side. Through this double reflection, the light of the consciousness is thrown onto the patient's dark side, which brings the historic conglomerate of negative experiences and decisions amounting to man's dark side, the anti-self, or shadow, to collapse in a series of
painful memory pictures, which can be belabored subsequently and integrated one at the time, e.g., by group therapy. By this process, the patient goes from the surface, the esthetical, first to the ethical layer and then, simultaneously with the inner contrasts being admitted and transcended, onto the deepest existential
layer.” (Ventegodt, 2003)
In the existential holistic therapy, therapists often take people into deep regression into the womb and
back to the beginning of life because of the belief that it all begins at the time of birth.
“The dynamics of therapeutic interventions with existential therapy based on the life mission theory show that the dark side of man has a relatively simple structure. When the structure of the shadow is worked out and eventually mapped during therapy, it can be integrated, if the patient chooses to let go of it. The understanding of the general nature and structure of the dark side of man is important in this work with the patient.” (Ventegodt, 2003)
Feeding the Demons
Tsultrim Allione, who wrote Feeding Your Demons, talks about giving our shadows what they need from time to time because the constant push does not prove to be healthy. She justified, if we know our demons, and know what it is hungry for, we can feed it in different ways that are acceptable to ourselves and the society. This generally translates into doing what your heart truly desires, once in a while. Rob Preece recollected an incident, in one of his lectures, of his encounter with nuns of a church, who were having a party with food and music in the backyard of the church. When he asked what is this and how can you do this, the nuns replied saying that once in a while they liked to indulge in such fancies, they have got all the other time to be holy and pious.
Open, Release, Reinvent
Therapy focuses on going back to the incidents of our lives and taking a ‘Socratic Approach’ to this by questioning and exploring those experiences and beliefs. Therapists can hold up an interpretative mirror with the help of the client in order to understand those aspects of the self and resculpt ourselves the way we want. Therapy in this area can contain steps to the integration of both selves.
Acknowledgment and understanding the parts of the shadow attached to a certain experience/ behaviour will show the tools that have to be worked with. Understanding that the repressed intentions can be found as “gestalts” carrying both cognitive and emotional data is important to address the different parts of it.
Opening up to the shadow then involves, embodying and experiencing what our shadow is and what we actually truly desire to be. It is the process to give it love and accept and honour the existence and needs of our shadows. This could be done by role play with the therapist or with journaling your thoughts and what you could have done.
Resculpting or reinventing ourselves here takes the form of starting on a new note and establishing a relationship with our shadow. This image of us which is a combination both the conscious and the unconscious and to achieve that we have to release the shadows, the enmeshment and our true self. This gives us control and establishes the shadow as our ally. This acts as the establishment of a healthy relationship and giving it an opportunity to grow. Rob Preece said that once you have adapted the shadow self, having a humour about it helps as it stays on the surface and needs a way to be dealt with in our daily lives.
“Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
— David Whyte
Can we ‘Dispose’ This Shadow Self?
The ‘disposal’ of the shadow self can only be done through acceptance of it. The shadow can never leave us. Its existence is a sign of the existence of life. These inevitable, unique shadows are a part of us and we have to honor it by accepting it the way it is. One must acknowledge the whole of them, to be able to decide which intentions are constructive and destructive based on their needs.
Once we explore our shadow selves, we can finally choose who we actually want to be and accept our different parts, rather than seeking newer qualities. This awareness will increase mindfulness and help us lead a healthier life and tap into our intuition and creativity.
'There is no generally effective technique for assimilating the shadow. It is more like diplomacy or statesmanship and it is always an individual matter. First one has to accept and take seriously the existence of the shadow. Second, one has to become aware of its qualities and intentions. This happens through conscientious attention to moods, fantasies and impulses. Third, a long process of negotiation is unavoidable.” Daryl Sharp
It is also important to understand and listen to our bodies and be graceful and kind to ourselves throughout the approach. The trigger points and the uncertainty of the unknown brings up the need to be grounded and breath work helps largely in this case. It is not a race rather it is a journey within yourself. Therapy is a great way to learn about yourself and start the journey of healing, self-awareness and integrating our bad side with our good side.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’ - Rumi
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This article on ' Our Shadow Self ' has been contributed by Radhika Srivastava who is a student pursuing B.A psychology from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and the article is Peer reviewed by Kumud Poptani who is a BA Psychology student from Raipur, C.G.
Both Radhika and Kumud are part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas. Radhika has a deep interest in exploring the field of psychology and its applications into the current world. Kumud has a major interest in the field of clinical psychology and criminal psychology.
GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.
Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification