Exploring Carl Jung’s shadow

Confronting the shadow in ones personal unconscious is usually the first major endeavor in the course of depth psychotherapy. Jung defined the shadow as:

the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious.

Jungs definition is an important one because it reminds us that the shadow is not altogether bad. It can contain parts of ourselves that are childish, undeveloped, rudimentary, and in some cases, genuinely positive. Jung also believed that the shadow could be the seat of creativity.

Parts of ourselves end up as shadow material because they are deemed inappropriate by those around us or stand in contradiction to who we believe ourselves to be. As Anthony Storr notes, the shadow contains feelings and motives which the conscious self disowns. Shadow material is therefore repressed and exists as an unconscious personality. As a result, it has an autonomous, emotional and possessive nature. Storr says that it is the shadow that accounts for embarrassing slips of the tongue (commonly referred to as Freudian slips) that Freud noted in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

If understanding the shadow proves to be difficult, consider this: the shadow is an archetypal figure that is depicted in art and popular culture. Shelleys Frankenstein, Shakespeares Caliban, and the most recent vampire craze are all representations of the personal and collective shadow. Artists, songwriters, authors, playwrights, and even screenwriters are, knowingly or not, inspired by the depths of the unconscious. If their characters and themes resonate with the public, it is usually because their creations resonate with the unconscious of the public.

Recognizing our shadow material is part of the journey to embracing the totality of ourselves. However, this can prove to be a difficult task. As Jung notes, it takes considerable moral effort, insight, and good will to embrace the dark aspects of our personality. Some parts of the shadow can be recognized more easily than others but because the shadow is a moral problem, there is usually some resistance to confronting it.

Resistance to confronting the shadow often takes the form of projections, the unconscious process by which we see undesirable parts of ourselves in others. When we project, the other is always guilty because we cant recognize that the darkness is in ourselves. Projections essentially isolate a person from their environment; instead of having a real, truthful relationship with the people and things around them, they have an illusory one. Jung likened the shadow to a cocoon that, if unregulated, can gradually encapsulate the ego or conscious self.

Some readers may be familiar with one of Jungs more notable quotes, what you resist, persists. In other words, the less embodied the shadow is (or for that matter any part of the unconscious), the darker and denser it gets. Embracing the shadow does not involve the suspension of ones morality; rather it is the process of reconciling opposite forces within oneself. This requires thought, questioning, periods of uncertainty, and as Jolan Jacobi notes becoming unsparingly critically conscious of ones own nature. Some readers may be disappointed to find out that embracing the shadow does not rid oneself of undesirable traits. Actually, it begins the process of integration whereby conscious and mindful relationships are created between parts of oneself.

The shadow stands at the threshold of the unconscious. In order to fully understand oneself, it is imperative to confront it. Developing a relationship with the shadow may not be easy but doing so allows a person to move further into the depths of their unconscious life.