It should be no surprise that you have heard the term "shadow self" or "shadow work" every now and again. Especially in the last 3-5 years, this practice has gained popularity among many therapists, spiritual leaders, self-help gurus, etc. It's pretty popular in it's own right that people are seeming to interpret their own "shadows" or want to have someone else do it for them.
This is because it is working towards being a very positive thing to do for yourself when you feel like there are things about yourself that you don't understand or care much for because they make you feel uncomfortable. A shadow could be anything from lackluster social skills to obsessive lying tendencies. If you are interested in learning more about shadows and shadow work, I think its important to understand its history and role within society. While not by any means a new concept it has gone through philosophical, spiritual and scientific makeovers.
The term "shadow self" was originally coined by Carl G. Jung, who is one of the most well known pioneers in the field of psychology. But we have reference points as far back as Sigmund Freud who academically seemed to be the first person that really took this idea of some kind of disconnect inside yourself. But philosophically we have been asking this question since we could document it. For reference, Plato's work "Allegory of the Cave" where he addresses multiple layers of the human condition. He describes how society is like seeing shadows on the cave wall and children are raised to believe that these shadows are real. Then when someone somehow escapes the cave and sees what is behind the shadows, they come back to talk about their experiences and people think they are crazy. Shakespeare, in MacBeth , writes about the "vaulting ambition" which Macbeth describes how "tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy". This is also a great example of Freud's idea of "narcissism of small difference" where people are more willing to kill each other over small differences then join forces over large commonalities.
So when we really think about this "new" concept, it really isn't that new. From the very beginning, there have been people that are asking themselves why things, including themselves, are they way they are.
Each of the individuals above have different ways in which they explain the reason why someone would behave in a way that seems odd to them. For the sake of this article and to avoid the deep dive academic philosophical vs scientific rabbit hole, I will be focusing on Carl G. Jung's work and how he explains the shadow self.
What is a Shadow?
A shadow in psychology represents something that's missing, unknown or unconscious. At any given time you are only aware of parts (or shadows) of yourself that your personality is willing to let others see; this is the only part you consciously know of yourself. The rest is hidden within your unconsciousness.
In Carl Jung's school of analytical psychology, a concept called individuation exists as a method for becoming whole and maintaining inner balance . This includes assimilating elements from both an individual's unconscious that their consciousness doesn't identify with to become conscious or integrated with their conscious self. So human beings are always embroiled in a balancing act between the persona, that part of themselves they show to others, and the shadow, everything else which is hidden within their unconscious mind.
A major aspect of Jung's work was distinguishing between the personal and collective unconscious. The latter contains archetypes universal to the human psyche, such as the anima and animus. The shadow is a representation of the personal unconscious in that it's made up of the aspects of self that an individual has consciously or unconsciously rejected, denied or projected onto others to dissociate from their own personality.
The shadow represents both our primitive animal instinctive drives, but also hidden fears, desires and motives. Sometimes the shadow is experienced in dreams as an unknown person; this does not necessarily mean it's evil or wholly negative in its representation, however. Jungians view the shadow much like Freud viewed the human psyche - inherently selfish, seeking pleasure and gratification.
The Personal Shadow, for example, when you do something that goes against your morals or code of behavior, then guilty feelings may arise. This is because we've just done something that we perceive as bad - as well as feeling guilty, you feel ashamed as your shadow appears as a possible projection within yourself. Jung believed the role of an individual was to become conscious of this other side and integrate it so both aspects can exist in unison - resulting in a balance between the two.
"the shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious." ~ Carl Jung (Aion)
The Personal Shadow & Integrity
How you feel about yourself affects the person you project to the world. Jung believed it was not possible for a human being to achieve wholeness without addressing their shadow side, otherwise inner disharmony would prevail.
In order to have an integrated sense of self - a state of psychological health and integrity - you need to be aware of your true feelings, motives, drives and personal ambitions. This includes being aware of your anger, rage, envy, greed and lust - feelings not all human beings are willing to admit exist within themselves.
The Dark Side of the Moon
Carl Jung described the shadow as the darker side of 'human nature', ever present but usually lying dormant in everyone's mind. Because of this, the shadow within is not necessarily evil or sinister. However, it's possible for individuals who are unaware of their own dark side to become possessed by it without conscious awareness.
As civilization progressed and society became more law-abiding, societies began to impinge on individual freedoms - people were no longer allowed to act upon all their impulsive, primal urges. To a certain extent, repression has become a part of our collective consciousness as our shadow side doesn't only contain primitive instincts and desires - it also holds all the qualities we consider to be negative or undesirable.
The Battle for Identity
In order to make progress as a person you need to become conscious of your true feelings and motives. If you have a strong ego then the struggle will be easier, but if you have a weak or undeveloped sense of self then it's likely you'll feel threatened and your shadow will react in kind, hence feelings of inferiority and shame.
What this offers is the opportunity to become more conscious as a person, with an increased capacity for discernment. This means you can then learn to reject those characteristics that do not support or align with your moral values and life objectives, but also accept the shadow side as a part of who you are - an integral part of your identity.
In the process of facing the shadow there needs to be a conscious acceptance that you might have some negative or undesirable traits. While these can be off-putting, in some cases they are what helps you function more effectively within society - they're just 'surface' qualities when viewed from a certain perspective.
The shadow is an archetype of the collective unconscious with its own set of meanings, relating to the darker side of life, and a reservoir of instinctual emotional energy. It's usually unethical, sometimes evil, but often holds the key to who you are as a person.
Shadow work is a conscious, intentional process of looking at the dark side of your personality with the aim to resolve, integrate and eventually accept all aspects of yourself. This enables you to develop or strengthen a sense of wholeness and integrity in order to live a more fulfilled life.
It begins by accepting you have a shadow - it exists for a reason - then exploring what aspects make up your 'shadow' (it's not just negative). You can also explore where certain qualities may have originated from, be it family upbringing, cultural influences or personal experiences.
Once you're able to internalize this dynamic within yourself you can begin working towards gradually integrating these disowned parts into your own self image. It requires time, patience and commitment to begin addressing the shadow. It's important to become aware of your deeper motivations - especially those that are hidden or denied. By being aware of your own darker side it enables you to process lingering feelings of rage, anger, envy, greed and lust.
As these repressed emotions are brought into the light they can be acknowledged as a part of your personal reality - there is no need to judge them as 'good' or 'bad', simply accept them as something you will not act upon. What this does is enable you to take responsibility for all aspects of yourself; after all, who knows better than you what is an acceptable drive or motivation, and what isn't?
If you want to develop a strong character and sense of identity, shadow work is an invaluable tool. It's not about becoming evil or corrupt - it's more about becoming fully conscious of why you act the way you do. This process requires courage and inner strength, but if you can grasp what your shadow side represents then it will prove beneficial in the long term.
As with all things, however, there are some risks involved with working through your 'shadow'. For one thing, it can be difficult to resolve feelings like anger and guilt (especially if unresolved issues exist within family dynamics). Also, acting upon certain primal drives may lead to harmful consequences either for yourself or others; while poorly integrating these energies into your psyche could result both emotionally and physically damaging effects.
There also tends to be a focus on the 'dark' aspects of the shadow, but it's important not to overlook what your light side contributes towards your overall persona. Even negative emotions serve a purpose - they help us grow as individuals. We can't avoid these dimensions of ourselves; all we can do is work with them, understand them and learn how best to use them for our development.
The fundamental aim is not self destruction - instead, it's about finding beneficial ways of channeling that kind energy into something creative or productive. As well as this, you could look at the shadow in terms of having two opposing qualities working together harmoniously rather than destructively (e.g yin-yang).
With the right guidance and support, shadow work can be a powerful and rewarding process. Don't shy away from looking at what may seem like your 'darkest' qualities - they're part of you for a reason. Embarking on this journey takes courage, but it could prove to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life as it helps you feel more connected with yourself as an individual.
Ready to start your Shadow Work Journey?