By Melissa Ko
Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of the shadow has become quite popular in recent years. But what exactly is it? To understand the personal shadow, we must understand Jung’s perspective of the human psyche, also known as the soul. In short, Jung believed that we are born with an innate personality, which we discover and grow into throughout our lives. Our shadow consists of parts of our personality that have been rejected and pushed into the unconscious. They are not part of how we present ourselves in the world and contain unresolved conflict, unrecognized desires, and other aspects we are aware of. Hence, these “shadowy” characteristics may carry shameful feelings or seem foreign. Robert Bly explains the shadow as an invisible bag we carry behind us from birth. According to Bly, in the first twenty years of life, we focus on shoving the qualities that our parents, school, and social groups deem unworthy into this bag.
There is a common misconception that our shadow only contains our negative, evil qualities. While it can contain some of our socially deemed immoral aspects – such as urges related to violence and aggression, other qualities may only seem negative from our conscious perspective. In other words, the shadow could also contain positive and valuable aspects of ourselves that had been rejected due to external pressures. One example of this is a person who is naturally gifted in the arts who grew up in a family that only valued sciences may learn to reject their artistic talent in favour of meeting family expectations. Another example could include an individual who was told not to cry as a child may learn to repress their emotions from being outwardly expressed.
Putting these qualities in the bag does not mean they no longer exist. Instead, these exiled parts of our personality get increasingly angry and may come out strongly – such as anger outbursts, intense negative feelings, psychological or physical symptoms, substance abuse, or engaging in behaviours that are seemingly out of our control. These symptoms could be seen as a calling to break old habits and confront our shadow. Integrating these disowned qualities could free us from the power of the unconscious and give us conscious control, allowing us to choose how we would like to navigate the world. Acknowledging and embracing our shadow also allows us to become more self-aware and self-compassionate as we deepen our relationship with ourselves.
Learning to integrate our aspects of shadow is a transformative process and one of the first steps in Jungian Psychology. One way we can begin recognizing our shadow, thus taking the qualities out of the bag, is to attend to our dreams – especially the figures we find ourselves in conflict with. Jung believed that the unconscious tries to communicate with us through our dreams. Robin Robertson suggests that the shadow may initially personify itself as a non-human creature (e.g., aliens, zombies, vampires) that may cause feelings of fear and discomfort, occasionally taking the form of nightmares. Over time, they may become human figures, initially presenting as nefarious and later taking the form of loved ones as we begin holding compassion for these parts of ourselves. Eventually, these figures are no longer personified, signifying that integration has been achieved. It could be helpful to identify the traits these characters possess to understand what may need to be integrated. However, it is essential to note that shadow integration isn’t linear. Instead, different shadow figures will continue to emerge at different times, depending on what the unconscious wants us to attend to.
The Jungian shadow is a profound concept that reminds us that our journey to deeper self-knowing is highly personal and unique. Embracing our shadow is not about embracing negativity but finding meaning and acceptance within ourselves. By exploring and integrating the shadow, we unlock the potential for personal fulfillment, symptom reduction, and a deeper connection with our authentic selves. As we journey into the depths of our own psyches, we come to understand that the shadow is not to be feared but to be welcomed as a crucial aspect of our self-discovery. It is within the shadow that we may discover the hidden treasures within.
Robertson, R. (1992). Beginner’s guide to Jungian psychology. Nicolas-Hays Inc.
Zweig, C., & Abrams, J. D. (1991). Meeting the shadow: The hidden power of the dark side of human nature. TarcherPerigee.