Have you ever found yourself reacting or responding in a way that you later regret? Sometimes, we may react negatively and then wonder why we responded in that way.
This question of “why?” indicates the presence of a blind spot – something we do not recognize in ourselves. Although we may justify our reaction, the lack of control reveals a different person lurking beneath our carefully constructed idea of who we are.
Your ‘shadow’ self: What is it?
The term “shadow” was first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who used it to describe the parts of our personality that we choose to reject and suppress. We all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t like or think will not be accepted by society, so we push them into our unconscious mind. These repressed aspects of our identity are what Jung referred to as our shadow.
In simpler terms, the shadow can be considered our dark side, the parts of ourselves that we have forgotten, lost, or denied. It’s the place within us that contains our secrets, repressed feelings, primitive impulses, and parts of ourselves that we consider unacceptable, shameful, sinful, or even evil.
In simpler terms, our shadow is the dark side of our personality, which comprises the parts of ourselves that we have forgotten, lost, or denied.
It consists of our secrets, repressed feelings, primitive impulses, and aspects of ourselves that we consider unacceptable, shameful, sinful, or even evil. This dark place that exists within our unconscious mind is also where repressed elements and rejected emotions such as anger, jealousy, hatred, greed, deceit, and selfishness reside.
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.
Carl Jung, Aion (1951)
Perhaps you believe that you fully love and accept every aspect of yourself, but I encourage you to keep reading and allow yourself to explore and understand yourself on a deeper level.
The “shadow” represents the parts of your personality that you are unaware of or reject without realizing it. As per Jung’s theory, we tend to distance ourselves from behaviors, emotions, and thoughts that we deem dangerous or undesirable.
Our conscious mind tends to ignore things that we don’t like or find unacceptable. These could be aggressive thoughts, shameful experiences, irrational desires, fears, taboo mental images, and unacceptable sexual desires. These are some examples of shadow aspects that we all possess but often deny.
The crucial thing to understand is that we cannot eliminate these shadow aspects from our personality. They will always be a part of us. However, it is essential to acknowledge and bring them to the light of our conscious awareness to integrate them into our personalities. This integration helps us to lead a more balanced life and prevents these shadow aspects from hindering our growth and development.
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.
Examples of shadow behavior
Perhaps the concept of the shadow self appears daunting to you, or you may feel that it’s impossible to possess such traits within yourself. However, I will provide you with some examples of behaviors that are widespread in our society today.
Although you may not like them, you may have engaged in them at some point, which will help you understand how this shadow self manifests in our daily life without being aware of it. Moreover, for those of us who have undergone emotional trauma, shadow work can be a transformative way to heal our emotional wounds.
Projecting negative traits onto others:
This is when we deny our own disowned qualities like anger, greed, vulnerability etc and instead see them only in other people. It prevents us from owning up to and working through our flaws and shortcomings which feeds shadow growth.
Repressing uncomfortable emotions:
When emotions like fear, shame, sadness are too difficult to feel consciously, they come out indirectly through self-sabotaging behaviors. This can look like substance abuse, overspending/food issues as coping, passive aggression where we avoid direct communication, and getting into relationships where we replay childhood wounds.
Rigid beliefs and judgments of others:
Struggling to see viewpoints besides our own and have empathy. Judging others harshly when we haven’t done the inner work to acknowledge our humanity which includes capacities like imperfections, hypocrisy, and moral ambiguities.
People pleasing at the expense of boundaries:
Going along with what others want without regard for our own needs due to deeply fearing disapproval from authorities. It stunts self-awareness and leads to codependency, losing our sense of self to expectations and demands of others.
Seeing experiences as absolutely one way or the other with no gray area. It distracts from being present with complex realities and observing with nuance. Inner conflicting emotions and shadow pieces are too threatening to acknowledge.
How is the shadow formed
According to Jungian theory, the shadow arises early in life as we develop an ego and sense of self. In attempting to form an identity, children unconsciously disown aspects of themselves that don’t align with the values and behaviors rewarded by caregivers. These disowned parts come to make up the shadow.
A young child exists in an almost entirely unconscious state, driven primarily by instinct and emotion. As they grow, behaviors and feelings that bring disapproval, punishment or shame from authority figures like parents become too threatening. To maintain secure attachments, parts of the self must be cast away and repressed.
For example, a child who frequently feels anger may repress this emotion if they learn through subtle cues that anger is unacceptable. Rather than feeling the anger consciously, it gets banished to the shadow domain. Another child prone to melancholy may hide vulnerability for fear of being seen as weak. These natural human experiences are judged by the developing ego as incompatible with survival in their environment.
As human beings, we all have basic needs that are instinctive and biological. These needs include physiological needs, safety and security needs, and belonging needs. However, as children, we often express certain parts of ourselves and receive negative responses from the people around us. For example, if we got angry and threw a tantrum, our parents might have scolded us and sent us to our room for unacceptable behavior. Similarly, if we acted boldly, playfully, spontaneously, or foolishly in our elementary classroom, our teacher might have embarrassed us for our lack of decorum in front of the class and told us to sit down. Each time this happened, it threatened one of our basic needs.
From the moment we are born, we possess the potential to survive and thrive in different ways. However, as we grow up, we tend to adopt certain character traits and reject others based on our environment and personal preferences. For instance, if we are raised in a family that lacks emotional warmth, we might develop self-sufficient personality traits and become more aloof or cerebral. Similarly, if we grow up in a family that values conformity and discourages rebellion, we may learn to be submissive and adopt that as part of our ego structure.
Repression begins as a coping strategy, allowing the ego to form under external influences. But it leaves innate parts of the self unintegrated. Disowned feelings like anger, sadness, and vulnerability lack a healthy outlet and do not achieve conscious awareness or regulation. This split between conscious ego and unconscious shadow underlies future psychological problems.
As the ego matures, the shadow comes to embody everything the ego is not. It represents inferior complexes, weaknesses, ‘primitive’ instincts, and other attributes that threaten the carefully crafted self-image. By projecting these shadow elements onto others, one remains blind to their existence within. This shadow projection serves to protect the ego further.
Over time, what is disowned and cast into shadow becomes a hidden well of unconscious influence. Repressed parts seek indirect, often destructive forms of expression. Only by making the shadow conscious through depth psychological practices like active imagination can one achieve self-knowledge and self-mastery. Bringing light to the darkness within is essential for full maturation and integrity of the ego and self.
This repression of unwanted parts creates what psychologist Carl Jung called the personal shadow.
There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out, life calls not for perfection but for completeness; and for this the “thorn in the flesh” is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.
What happens when you reject your shadow
It’s important to remember that any part of ourselves that we reject can turn against us. This collection of repudiated parts is known as the personal shadow.
The issue is that the shadow can operate without our full awareness, almost as if our conscious self goes on autopilot while the unconscious takes over. As a result, we may do things we wouldn’t voluntarily choose to do and then regret them later on. We might say things we wouldn’t normally say, or our facial expressions could convey emotions that we don’t consciously feel.
Not being aware of our shadow can harm our relationships with loved ones and friends, as well as impact our professional relationships and leadership skills. It’s important to acknowledge and address our personal shadow to live our best lives.Any part we reject within us turns against us. The personal shadow represents a collection of these repudiated parts.
So here’s the problem: the shadow can operate on its own without our full awareness. It’s as if our conscious self goes on autopilot while the unconscious takes over.
We do things we wouldn’t do voluntarily and then regret it (if we understand). We say things we wouldn’t say. Our facial reactions express emotions that we do not consciously feel.
Remaining unaware of the shadow harms our relationships with our spouses, family, and friends, and will affect our professional relationships as well as our leadership skills.
If a man does not know the wounds of his own soul, he can deny not just his own pain, but also be unmoved by the suffering of other people. More than that, he will tend to put his wound onto others. He may only be able to see the wound that secretly troubles him when he forcefully projects it into someone else, in forms of abuse or violence. ― Michael Meade
Rejecting, repressing, or denying your shadow, whether consciously or unconsciously, can be dangerous. The self that is part of your shadow seeks to be understood, explored, and integrated. It longs to be taken into account. The longer you keep your shadow buried and locked in your unconscious mind, the more opportunities it will find to make you aware of its existence.
Modern religion and spirituality tend to focus on the positive and uplifting aspects of spiritual growth, often neglecting the darker and more difficult parts of the journey. This overemphasis on the “love and light” can result in superficiality and a fear of anything too real or earthly. It’s commonly believed that personal development requires being only positive and always thinking positively, leading to the denial of negative emotions and causing emotional repression and frustration.
Spiritually overlooking one’s inner darkness results in a wide variety of serious problems. Some of the most common and recurring problems of rejection of this shadow that we commonly see in the spiritual or religious community include pedophilia among priests, financial manipulation of followers among gurus, and of course megalomania, narcissism, and God complexes among spiritual teachers.
Other problems that arise when we reject our Shadow side can include:
- Perpetuating trauma
- Hypocrisy (believing and supporting one thing, but doing the other)
- Lies and self-deception (both towards oneself and others)
- Uncontrollable outbursts of anger
- Emotional and mental manipulation of others.
- Greed and addictions
- Phobias and obsessive compulsions
- intense anxiety
- Chronic psychosomatic illnesses
- Depression (which can become suicidal)
- sexual perversion
- Narcissistically inflated ego
- Chaotic relationships with others.
- … and many others.
The projection of our shadow
Have you ever wondered what happens to all the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden in the dark? It turns out that whatever qualities we deny in ourselves, we often see in others. This psychological phenomenon is known as projection.
For example, if you get annoyed when someone is rude to you, it might be because you don’t tolerate such behavior in yourself. In other words, the behavior is so obvious to you because it’s something you reject in yourself. However, this doesn’t mean that the person isn’t genuinely being rude to you.
Projection happens unconsciously, and it’s a way for our egos to defend themselves from how we perceive ourselves. When we identify ourselves as “good,” we often suppress our darker thoughts and emotions. As a result, we create a dividing line between who we are and how we behave in reality. Unfortunately, these projections can distort our perception of reality and make it harder for us to understand ourselves and others.
5 benefits of shadow work (Jungian Shadow work)
Shadow work is not a topic that many people like to talk about, but it’s becoming increasingly popular. The truth is that accepting our negative aspects, and being aware of our flaws, weaknesses, selfishness, hatred, and other negative traits, may not be appealing.
However, exploring our dark side can help us grow and develop in amazing ways. By doing so, we can gain a better understanding of ourselves and our true potential.
Let’s take a look at five benefits that come from doing Jung’s shadow work:
By acknowledging disowned parts of ourselves, we develop a deeper understanding of our own motivations, behaviors and vulnerabilities. This allows us to recognize shadow projections onto others more easily.
More authentic relationships
Owning our shadow material like jealousy, greed or insecurity helps us relate to others from a place of empathy versus defensiveness. We’re able to form connections based on reality rather than projections.
Greater emotional regulation
No longer fearing difficult emotions gives us opportunities to sit with feelings like fear, anger or grief as they arise. Over time this teaches emotional regulation skills to process situations with poise versus reactivity.
More compassion for self & others
Coming to terms with our humanity – including flaws and imperfections – fosters self-forgiveness. We recognize our shared experiences more than superficial differences. This cultivates appreciation and kindness.
Stress & mental health benefits
Repressing energy is mentally and physically draining. By consciously integrating shadow aspects, we achieve inner harmony versus inner turmoil. This reduces things like anxiety, unhealthy coping, and prevents shadow from emerging indirectly.