Facing our shadow

“The shadow is the greatest teacher for how to come to the light” Ram Dass

As the nights begin to draw in and we live more in the dark than the light, I got to thinking about our own dark sides, what we call in therapy, our shadow.

What is it?

First conceived by Carl Jung, our shadow is the unconscious part of our personality, which we don’t admit to having (hence it lives in the shadow).  It often contains weaknesses of our personality, which we may regard as inferior or uncivilized. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything in our shadow is “bad” but merely a bit primitive.

If we don’t consider our shadow, it remains repressed, lurking in the dark unchecked, unmonitored and potentially disruptive. Keeping our shadow at bay consumes a great deal of energy. Jung explained that by facing and accepting our shadow, we can re-channel this energy to vitalize our life and live a more whole and authentic existence.

However if we don’t integrate our shadow, we try (unconsciously) to get rid of it. And the most effective method of disposal is our old friend projection. In other words, we project the undesired parts of ourselves onto others to create an even greater distance from our selves and our shadow. For example, say weakness was contained in our shadow, we may reallocate this quality onto others; we may say, “that Bob at work is so weak and pathetic”.

There are lots of well known examples of the shadow at work. Lance Armstrong, the infamous and disgraced cyclist, hid his shadow qualities of greed, ambition and deception and projected them onto others who challenged his unbelievable success, claiming they were all liars, fantasists, non-believers etc.

In the film, Fight Club (spoiler alert), Edward Norton’s character, brings his own shadow to life in the form of Tyler Durden. Tyler, in contrast to Norton’s character, exhibits confidence, freedom, playfulness, vengeance and violence (quite a combo). At the film’s conclusion, Norton is able to acknowledge and integrate these qualities, resulting in Durden’s fatal demise.

Jung also believed that as a society there exists collective shadows and unfortunately we don’t have to look very far for examples. Nazi Germany, football hooligans, Brexit to name but a few. We collectively project the parts of ourselves we don’t wish to own onto another group, to act a bit like a scapegoat.

How to meet our shadow

So how on earth do we get to know our shadow, when after all it’s very defining quality is to be hidden?

One of the most effective ways is to consider people in our life who we heavily dislike. People who get under our skin. People we just cannot stand. These can be people we know personally or figures in the media. When holding these people in mind, think about what qualities we believe them to have (e.g. arrogance, incompetence, neediness etc.). These are the qualities, which most likely are lurking in our shadow, which we are projecting onto others. It doesn’t mean to say that these people don’t have these qualities also, but it is our projection which causes our extreme reaction.

We have an old saying in therapy (there are loads) that if you don’t face your shadow, you end up marrying it. So another way to identify your shadow could be to look at the people you are attracted to as partners or even close friends. Say you are a neat freak and end up dating someone very untidy, then we may have unconsciously looked for someone with our shadow quality of being a slob/messy.

Our dreams, (when we remember them!), can also disclose some shadow material (sometimes as actual shadow’s or as people who we struggle in relationship with).

Easier said than done!

Accepting and integrating our shadow is not a quick or easy process.

First of all I believe it takes real nerve and courage to own parts of ourselves we would much rather not admit to (let alone say out loud to a therapist).

Second of all, as we begin to accept our shadow, the more our ego can feel under threat. We are essentially reconstructing our identity and this can understandably feel quite scary.  Our shadow may have been propping up our ego. An example might be that our ego had been partly relying on a personal script of “I am intelligent and others are dumb”. So when we start to consider what it might mean to accept our own intellectual limitations, then our ego might feel a tad wobbly as our shadow scaffolding is slowly removed.

So the importance of safety and remaining grounded is integral in this delicate process, which is where therapy can help.  Attending regular sessions and building a good working alliance with a therapist can act as the container for this exploration.

Through becoming conscious of our shadow qualities, we can begin to integrate them. Making them conscious, means we have a choice (and responsibility) as to whether to act on our shadow or not. Our acceptance allows for the great energy contained in the shadow to be converted as a source of renewal.

Facing our shadow is integral work on the journey to our transformation and individuation. By accepting our shadow, we are reconnecting with our soul, our true being. Our shadow can never be eliminated; it is part of what makes us human. As Jung wrote “recognition of the shadow…leads to the modesty we need in order to acknowledge imperfection…[which is] needed whenever a human relationship is to be established.”



Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

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