What Is The Shadow
Few of us are willing to admit that we have a shadow. The reality of the unconscious mind makes us uncomfortable. We like to think we are awake, aware, and in control of our lives at all times. Yet we’re quite good at seeing the shadow in the people around us. We may even get a little self-righteous when we notice it in another person, a little indignant. We become judgmental and point our finger, saying “Look at that terrible person!”
In reality, every person has a shadow. From the most exalted guru to the lowest criminal. You can’t be human without one. Even if you’d rather think you are the exception to the rule, you aren’t.
But what is the shadow? Blogs, books, podcasts, and YouTube channels have popped up to explore what this term means, and how we should work with it. There’s even an entire Reddit channel devoted to shadow work.
Some of the material is accurate, and some of it is helpful, but some of it is harmful. There are sites that make shadow work an opportunity for self-abuse and self-hatred. My aim is to correct some of this misinformation, and to guide your shadow work in a spirit of self-acceptance, compassion, and love.
Shadow is sometimes called the id, the alter ego, the repressed self, or just simply your demon(s). Sometimes it is called the lower self, as opposed to the favored, Higher Self. As if one could exist without the other.
In the Jungian sense, shadow refers to those portions of your personality that your ego has chosen to repress, because these do not fit with the ego’s ideal of itself. Mostly, these are parts of your personality are viewed as negative by your ego and by the society at large—your parents, friends, teachers, and your culture. Your culture’s value system is conveyed to you in your upbringing, in school, and in television, movies, and books.
Behavior that is considered unacceptable gets stuffed into your shadow, as do feelings that were forbidden or discouraged in your particular family. Often, we banish thoughts that are classified as bad. “You shouldn’t think that way,” someone says to us when we’re young, or not so young, and then bam—the thought pattern gets repressed, put into your shadow.
If you find yourself saying things like, “I wasn’t myself when I did that,” this is an indication that your shadow has taken over. Whenever you regret what you have done, or feel embarrassed and ashamed about your behavior, shadow has been present.
The tendency is to then deny what you have done, or to explain it away. Or worse: to admit what you have done, but then beat yourself up for it. All of these defense mechanisms only serve to move the shadow even further away from the ego, which is your conscious mind. Shadow is then strengthened as it feels even more ignored, neglected or abused. And yes—it has its own feelings, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs.
Yet, the shadow is not something you can consciously control. The ego is made exquisitely uncomfortable by this. Ego likes to think it is in control of everything all the time. To make matters worse, Western culture places a high value on personal (ego) responsibility. But how can you be responsible for a part of yourself that you are completely unaware of and that you are unable to consciously control?
Shadow has the power to completely hijack you, to literally change your brain. The frontal cortex is that part of your brain that is in charge of executive function. The limbic system is the part of your brain that governs your emotional responses, and it has the power to take charge of your frontal cortex, to shut it off temporarily. This is by design.
Let’s say you are in a natural environment, and you encounter a threat to your survival. There isn’t time for your frontal cortex to determine whether that really is a bear over there behind that tree. If you took the time to reason through it, to use your frontal lobe to investigate, or figure out what to do, you could die.
And so you are wired to react. You are wired to have an emotional response that tells your frontal lobe to shut down while the limbic system takes over, while it floods your system with chemicals that make you fight or flee (or freeze) and it gets you out of danger.
This is your shadow at work, and it doesn’t take being in the woods and encountering a wild animal to trigger it.
Any situation that triggers a threat response causes your shadow to come forward, to take over your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It wants to protect you. It has been trying to protect you all of your life.
Your personal responsibility is therefore to get to know this part of yourself. It is your responsibility to work with your triggers, to know them, to calm them and to tame them. It is your responsibility to learn to love this part of yourself, so that you can become a whole human being. This is shadow work.
In my next post, I will continue to lead you through what shadow is and is not, how it shows up in your life, and to help you find ways to spot it in your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I will show you how shadow is responsible for things like racism, sexism, and other hate-isms. In the meantime, be sure to hit the subscribe button to sign up for email notifications, and head on over to the discord channel to share support with other people who are on the same journey you are. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.
References And Further Reading:
Abrams, J., & In Zweig, C. (1991). Meeting the shadow: The hidden power of the dark side of human nature. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher
Jung, C. (1959). Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology. In Collected Works, number 10. Civilization in Transition. P.872
Johnson, R. (1991). Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche.
Masters, R. A. (2018). Bringing Your Shadow Out of the Dark: Breaking Free from the Hidden Forces That Drive You. Sounds True, Incorporated.
Zweig, C. & Wolf, S. (1997). Romancing the Shadow: Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul.