Shadow work is the process of making the unconscious conscious. In doing so, we gain awareness of our unconscious impulses and can then choose whether and how to act on them.
“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)
The “shadow” is a concept first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung that describes those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. For one reason or another, we all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like—or that we think society won’t like—so we push those parts down into our unconscious psyches.
It is this collection of repressed aspects of our identity that Jung referred to as our shadow.
If you’re one of those people who generally loves who they are, you might be wondering whether this is true of you. “I don’t reject myself,” you might be thinking. “I love everything about me.”
However, the problem is that you’re not necessarily aware of those parts of your personality that you reject. According to Jung’s theory, we distance ourselves psychologically from those behaviors, emotions, and thoughts that we find dangerous.
Rather than confront something that we don’t like, our mind pretends it does not exist.
Aggressive impulses, taboo mental images, shameful experiences, immoral urges, fears, irrational wishes, unacceptable sexual desires—these are a few examples of shadow aspects, things people contain but do not admit to themselves that they contain.
Origins of the Shadow
Our society teaches us that certain behaviors, emotional patterns, sexual desires, lifestyle choices, etc. are inappropriate. These “inappropriate” qualities are usually those that disrupt the flow of a functioning society—even if that disruption means challenging people to accept things that make them uncomfortable. Anyone who is too challenging becomes outcast, and everyone else moves on.
Now, we humans are highly social creatures, and the last thing we want is to be excommunicated from the rest of our tribe. So, in order to avoid being cast out, we do whatever it takes to fit in. Early in our childhood development, we find where the line between what is socially “acceptable” and “unacceptable” is, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to toe it.
When we cross that line, as we all frequently do, we suffer the pain of society’s backlash. People judge us, condemn us, gossip about us, and the unpleasant emotions that come with this experience can quickly become overwhelming. However, we don’t actually need people to observe our deviances to suffer for them. Eventually, we internalize society’s backlash so deeply that we inflict it on ourselves.
The only way to escape from this perpetual recurring pain is to mask it. Enter the ego. We tell ourselves stories about who we are, who we are not, and what we would never do to protect ourselves from suffering the consequences of being an outcast. Ultimately, we believe these stories, and once we develop a firm belief about something, we unconsciously discard any information that contradicts that belief. In the world of psychology, this is known as confirmation bias: humans tend to interpret and ignore information in ways that confirm what they already believe.
The problem is that literally everyone possesses qualities that society has deemed undesirable. People fall short of others’ expectations, have a temper flare-up, are excessively gassy, etc. The ideal individual in any society is one who lives up to impossible standards.
What no one wants to admit to others is that we are all secretly failing to meet those standards. Women wear makeup, men use Axe deodorant, advertisers Photoshop celebrities, people filter their personalities with photos and status updates on social media—all to mask perceived flaws and project an image of “perfection.” Jung called these social masks we all wear our “personas.”
“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
— Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (1938)
Enlightenment: The Shadow Formula
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
— Carl Jung
Jung’s proposed solution to this schism is for the individual to undergo “shadow work.” What we repress never stays repressed, it lives on in the unconscious—and, despite what our egos would have us believe, the unconscious mind is the one really running the show.
“Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
— Carl Jung, “The Philosophical Tree,” Alchemical Studies (1945)
Shadow work, then, is the process of making the unconscious conscious. In doing so, we gain awareness of our unconscious impulses and can then choose whether and how to act on them.
We begin this process when we take a step back from our normal patterns of behavior and observe what is happening within us. Meditation is a great way to develop this ability to step back from ourselves, with the goal being to gain the ability to do this as we go about our daily lives.
The next step is to question. When we observe ourselves reacting to psychological triggers, or events that prompt an instant and uncontrolled reaction from us, we must learn to pause and ask ourselves, “Why am I reacting this way?” This teaches us to backtrack through our emotions to our memories, which hold the origins of our emotional programming.
Identifying triggers can be a difficult process due to our natural desire to avoid acknowledging the shadow. Our tendency is to justify our actions after the fact, when really the best thing we can do is avoid acting reactively or unconsciously in the first place. Cultivating an awareness of the shadow is the first step to identifying our triggers—but before we can do that, we must first overcome our instinctive fear of our shadows.