In this galaxy, everything but the sun has a shadow. Last month’s total lunar eclipse was the shadow of our planet moving across the face of the moon. Where there is light, there is shadow, and all people contain light and shadow. You might think that the wonderful, bright people in your life don’t have any negative characteristics – what’s more likely is that they have done the work of integrating shadow and have become brighter as a result.
So what is shadow? How does it start? How do we start to investigate it?
The term ‘shadow’ was first brought into Western psychology by Carl Jung. He described it as the unconscious and disowned parts of our personalities that the ego fails to see, acknowledge, and accept (Jung & Franz, 1978). It is any aspect of ourselves that is not exposed to the light of our consciousness. “For Jung, the creative resources to grow and develop the self in its unique way rest, oddly enough, in what we consider as deficient or inadequate. To be whole means to be full of contradictions, ambiguities and paradoxes” (Schellhammer, 2020. p. 117).
So let’s begin at the beginning. It starts in childhood as we learn that some parts of us are ‘acceptable’, and others are not. To keep safe and protected, we suppress what our caregivers don’t approve of and, conversely, exaggerate what they do approve of. Instead of learning and being helped to integrate and continue whole, we split ourselves apart, causing the shadow.
‘Boys don’t cry – be a man’ = boy hides emotions because they are ‘bad’ = grown man who can’t show emotions and bottles them up, where they fester.
He is probably completely unaware of why he can’t be emotional, why his emotions scare him, why he hates the thought of having to open his heart to his friends or lover, why he self-medicates with alcohol so he doesn’t have to feel. Having relegated those parts of himself to the shadow, they have become lost. What goes into our subconscious is everything we reject about ourselves — the unacceptable and unwanted bits.
‘You’re too much – be good’ = girl represses her confidence and strength and labels them as ‘bad’ = woman who is unable to assert herself, leading a painful and often subjugated life.
She’s easily manipulated and led by others. Her husband is controlling because she allows herself to be controlled, because that is how she learned to be loved and accepted. She is full of rage which she drowns in prescription medicine, or puts everyone’s needs before her own so she doesn’t feel worthless. She is split in two – the dark parts weighing her down even though they are actually strengths.
Investigating shadow is often the work of counselling and psychotherapy, and there are three ways we can start to identify shadow in our own lives. The first is projection – the things we dislike in ourselves are often what drive us crazy in others. We criticise others for the behaviours we don’t like in ourselves.
The second is noticing our triggers. A trigger is a reminder of past trauma – and a messenger. If we pay attention, we can notice our wounds and with work, we can avoid the inevitable negativity that comes from acting out when we are triggered.
The third element is noticing patterns. Patterns which repeat in our lives point to aspects of our shadow. Patterns are expressions of the shadow because the shadow mirrors itself into our reality to be seen and integrated. The shadow wants us to become aware of it. It wants to be seen and accepted. Within these patterns, we will find aspects of our shadow self that will keep showing up in different situations until we are ready to look at them and break the cycle.
We encounter shadow all the time. We act out from shadow. The things that cause pain in us are shadow. Most of us are very good at glossing over or ignoring shadow – but that doesn’t make it go away. If anything, it exacerbates the issue. Turning the light off in a shadowy room only makes it darker. In the next part of this article, I’ll be talking about how to work with shadow, how to shine some light on it so it’s not so frightening, not so intimidating, and so it can become more integrated and part of our consciousness instead of repressed in the subconscious. I will also explore another well understood Jungian term called ‘individuation’ (McLeod, 2009). We’re all broken, and on all the edges there is shadow.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above resonates for you in light of your own situation.
Jung, C., & Franz. (1978). Man and his symbols. London: Picador.
McLeod, J. (2009). An introduction to counselling (4th ed.). Maidenhead: McGraw Hill/Open University Press.
Schellhammer, Barbara A. (2020). The philosophy of self-care, individuation and psychodrama: Exploring creative means to encountering the “unknown other” in self. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 48(1), 114-124.