“That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.” — Carl Jung
What is the Shadow Self? We’ve likely heard of it referred to as our “dark side,” but what does it truly mean and how is it formed? Is it to be feared or venerated? If the Shadow is so unimportant, why does it seem to assert itself despite our many attempts to quash it’s urges?
The Shadow Self encompasses aspects of our personalities we choose to reject or suppress. We have our own personal shadow, and society reflects our collective shadow – the parts we all choose to ignore.
Much of the pain we see reflected in the world is a form of the collective Shadow. It is no coincidence that the “Shadow Government” and its workings play out as an exaggerated expression of our own sexual perversions, greed, mistrust, moral ineptitude, etc. It is the “real” government that hides in the shadows while the idealized government that everyone wants to believe in parades on like a comedic, nationalistic puppet show.
The “Deep State” is like the deep Self, repressed and ignored for hundreds of years as it goes around the world causing unchecked havoc and violence (until very recently as we all become more willing to look at our own personal Shadows).
Psychologist Carl Jung is famous for formulating the concept of the Shadow, but it has likely been around since human beings had personalities. He borrowed the term from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Both great thinkers warned against the exceptional dangers of excessive unconsciousness.
Anger, selfishness, violent tendencies, the quest for uncontrollable power, and sexual desires are all undesirable traits which are frowned upon by society, and are concealed to avoid scrutiny. In brief, we have an idealized self, and then we have a shadow self. We are more accurately, a combination of the two. However, there are benefits of confronting and developing the shadow, and as such, Jung often referred to this neglected part of ourselves as the “Golden Shadow,” hinting at the gifts which this part of us can bestow if we are brave enough to look at what we’ve repressed – often over an entire lifetime (or several).
‘‘The shadow,’’ wrote Jung in 1963 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.’’
Freud was pathologically oriented. He was focused on what is wrong with us/what is not working, but Jung was teleologically oriented – meaning he was focused on what is right with us or whole within us. And this includes us with our dark sides, and Shadow Selves.
The psychological Shadow is not very different from a shadow formed when we walk in the sun. In physical reality, a shadow is nothing more than a dark area where light is blocked by an opaque object. Light is not allowed to shine fully, and thus a shadow forms. In our own selves, the places we fail to shine light upon develop into an egoic personality, easily and effectively eliminated or lessened simply by allowing light to flood in. Thus, illumination allows us to free ourselves from the chains of the ego.
In Zen teachings, we learn that the ego is the “myth” of the Self – in other words, the parts of ourselves we deny or exaggerate, without a true sense of our Higher Selves. Our self is simply made up by the mind, a flash of being an “I” or a “me” which instructs self-importance. It’s really a story we’ve told ourselves like children, every night before we sleep, and then again when we rise in the morning.
This ego-self we cling to is the source of almost all our problems because it is a self-referential Universe, false in its assumptions of reality.
As such, addressing the Shadow Self helps to minimize this false assumption of reality, and bring us closer to Truth and Freedom. Ironically, it is only when we treat the Shadow Self as real that we become free of its illusions.
Jung said in his 1951 book, Aion,
“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.”
As Theresa Bimka writes,
“The good news however is that when the ego finally does relinquish its control – a recalibration – a new homeostasis is found and the ego embraces its new position relative to the Self archetype. Instead of false or petty ruler, it becomes the loyal servant. This new re-constructed ego has the capacity to be responsive, creative, flexible and is available for the big work of transformation. So, we are not trying to get rid of ego as is often misunderstood, but we are wanting ego to recognize its’ true place of service. Being able to recognize and name this process for someone can bring extraordinary relief.”
How do you address the Shadow Self, and bring it into the light?
There are seven signs that your Shadow is showing. Instead of squashing these tendencies, notice when you engage in them, and sit in silence to ask which aspects of your darker side are asking to be addressed and healed.
1 You Harbor Harsh Criticisms or Judgements of Others
Being hard on other people is usually indicative of things we judge harshly in ourselves, but have yet acknowledged. Judging others is also a sign that our Shadow Self is afraid, feels lonely, or find it difficult to accept those who are different from ourselves.
2 You Point Out Someone’s Flaws as a Reflection of Your Own Insecurities
Mirror, mirror on the wall. . . The famous scene in the Disney movie where a witch asks a mirror who is the fairest of them all, is the perfect example of how we project our insecurities on others. We want to be beautiful, smart, outgoing, and cheerful all the time. We want others to only mirror these traits in us, and like the witch in Snow White be told how wonderful we are, but the mirror of life reflects all that we are – the good, the not so good, and the terrible.
3 You Exercise Unnecessary Power Over Those Who are in Subordinate Positions
As a means to compensate for one’s own feelings of helplessness people in positions of power will exert their will with force or violence (even if it is just verbal) to cover up their own feelings of worthlessness, ineffectiveness or vulnerability.
4 You Play Victim
By never taking responsibility, we never address our innate power to direct our lives and to affect change. We’re not martyrs or victims. We are the architects of our own reality. A victim believes that they are at the mercy of everyone and everything around them. And this can be used as an excuse for the lack of progress in their lives. If you can’t be assertive, feel powerless, don’t trust others, can never see the silver lining, constantly see your life as lacking in some way, get into arguments easily, feel sorry for yourself, or constantly compare yourself to others as a means to put yourself down, then you are playing the victim. Realize when you are doing this, and lovingly allow yourself to choose a different way of living.
5 You Refuse to Confront Your Own Bias or Prejudice
We’re all biased and prejudice. It doesn’t matter how many black friends, gay friends, people of different religions, and cultural backgrounds you have, you still have many biases and prejudices. The minute you use the terms “Me,” “My,” “Mine,” or “I” you leave space for bias to creep in. It’s that self-referential universe the ego is constantly creating. To truly address the Shadow we need to vigilantly address our own likes and dislikes, acknowledging that we live with bias on a daily basis. Bravely enter into self-examination to uncover ways where you are privileged, or you have been using stereotypes to define the people around you. If you have no friends who are different from you, actively seek to make friends with others who are to start to break down your stereotypes. This man who made friends with members of the KKK is a great example of how to eliminate bias.
6 You Jockey for Position by Using Others
Self-confidence has nothing to do with ego. If you listen to others’ advice, but rarely follow it, always look for ways to “get ahead” while ignoring the well-being of others, find that you alienate others over time but you aren’t sure why or think that the bottom line is more important than your relationships with other people, you have some Shadow work to do. Speeding ahead to take that spot in traffic while cutting off the car to your right and almost causing an accident is a perfect example of this, but there are obviously thousands of other ways we try to step over (or on) others to inflate our sense of self.
7 You Have a Messiah Complex
If you think you were put on this earth to save everyone from themselves, consider that your Shadow Self is asking you to save yourself. This is a dangerous delusion that can cause a world of pain for you and those you try to “save,” as you will rob them of the power to save themselves. Maybe you don’t claim to be Jesus Christ, but if you constantly act like no one around you can take responsibility for themselves, you may as well.
While addressing these traits in ourselves may be uncomfortable, there is gold in the shadow. As Jung expressed, “Creativity can spring from the constructive expression or integration of the shadow, as can true spirituality.”
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