Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions. – Carl Jung.
Exploring your shadow can lead to greater authenticity, creativity, energy, and personal awakening. This introspective process is essential for reaching maturity (which is rarer than most think).
So, what is the shadow? It can be described as the unknown dark side of the personality. The shadow forms part of a projection, you deny the existence of all the things you despise in yourself, while attributing them to others. So, whatever qualities we deny in ourselves, we see in others.
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges your ego, it affects you in the deepest roots of your personality. To become conscious of it, you must recognise the dark aspects of your personality as present and real.
For one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious, that is, by confronting the shadow.
To become a better version of yourself, getting closer to your true self, it is essential to integrate those elements of your psyche that have been repressed and have thus, formed your shadow.
These are all the elements that are considered immoral by society, even though they might be good for you. All we deny in ourselves, whatever we perceive as inferior, evil, or unacceptable, become part of the shadow. All the wrath, selfishness, greed, and envy within us produce resentment and repression, making our shadows bigger, darker, and stronger. To avoid this, we must develop virtues such as temperance, patience, gratitude, and humility.
It is very possible that once we undergo the examination of our shadow, we are likely to discover how much hypocrisy, complacency, and fear many of the moral aspects we obey have, even those dictated by social norms.
With our past incidents and our current desires, it is only with considerable effort that we can detach ourselves from the shadow. If it comes to a neurosis, we invariably have to deal with a considerably intensified shadow. And if such a person wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which his conscious personality and his shadow can live together.
The shadow plays an important role in the overall psyche, and a weak adaptation can result in becoming a passive victim of your own shadow, constantly worried with what you think that other people think of you. You become a walking persona, putting a mask in social environments, concealing the true nature of yourself. This is especially true now in the era of social media, whereby we only display the pleasant parts and highlights of our lives. Thus, one could say that “the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is“.
As a consequence of acting with our fake self and repressing our real intentions, we remain obedient, and perhaps likeable, however, it is at the cost of our own mental stability and limiting our self-improvement and growth.
It must be you who integrates your shadow, and not the other way around. Otherwise you will become the slave of your autonomous shadow.
We not only repress the negative elements of our life, but we also repress the positive aspects: our honesty, creativity, competitiveness – these must be rescued from within our dark shadow.
How can we take back those virtues? Acting as a hero would act, mythologically speaking.
The hero is the one who conquers the dragon, and not the one who is devoured by it, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it, discovers the hidden treasure.
He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself. Everything that menaced him from inside he has made his own, acquiring the right to believe that he will be able to overcome all future threats by the same means. He has arrived at an inner certainty which makes him capable of self-reliance.
Self-reliance is a key part of what Jung calls individuation or self-realisation, a lifelong process of distinguishing the self out of each individual’s conscious and unconscious elements, maximizing one’s human potential. This he believed to be the main goal of human psychological development.
Imagine that you had a fairly hostile father who was not very well controlled in his aggression, decent person other than that. Your reaction is that “I am never going to be aggressive”, and you build a moral structure that’s part of your personality, stripping the idea of aggression of any ethical utility.
When Nietzsche said that Morality is cowardice, he meant that most of what people claim to be moral virtue is merely their fear to do anything that they would actually like to do, but that society would deem inappropriate.
It’s not that a person is good and doesn’t hurt someone, it’s that the person is afraid to hurt someone, and therefore doesn’t want to admit he is afraid, claiming that he is moral, masking his essential fear and cowardice in a guise of morality.
Being harmless and being moral is far from the same thing. This simplified version of morality stops you from tapping into the deeper parts of your psyche, by denying the worst in yourself, you prevent the possibility of the best.
For those who have weapons and the ability to use them, but determine to keep them sheathed, will inherit the world. Those who are capable of force but decide not to use it are in the proper moral position.
No one can achieve wholeness of personality without integrating their capacity of aggression. Jung’s idea of integrating the shadow, especially in the idea of evil, in part came from the experiences of what happened in Nazi Germany and during the Second World War.
What do you do with the part that’s aggressive and malevolent? You can’t just put it behind you, its existence must be admitted and brought into life, otherwise it will be lurking in the unconscious and, eventually, strike as an autonomous being when you least expect it.
To gain an in-depth perspective, it is highly recommended that you read Jung’s Collected Works Vol. 9 – both Part I: Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious and Part II: Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self.
Apart from psychotherapy and talking to friends or family about how they think you are, you must notice and contemplate your resentment and decide what you need to do to remove it. Radical honesty and genuine moral effort are good substitutes for psychotherapy.
Let’s say that you go to a party and you’re trying to impress the people that are there, you are trying to get them to like you. Maybe you get a little drunk and you laugh at some jokes, going along with everyone so that they like you, and then you go home. Now you are bitterly resentful about the way you were treated at this party, that’s going to make all sorts of regrets, aggressive and vengeful thoughts flash through your imagination.
The first part of the problem is that you were acting as your Persona, sacrificing yourself at the party so that people would like you. The second part is that you were refusing to admit to the existence of those elements of you that would have actually protected you from doing that.
Now you are home and you’re all bitter and resentful and you have fantasies of revenge. That reveals to you the shadow part of you that’s aggressive, present in every human being, but if you would have integrated the shadow more successfully into your personality, you wouldn’t have had to let people treat you differently to get them to like you.
But most people have already adopted a morality that says:
“Well, I have to be likeable, and I shouldn’t do anything that causes any conflict, I shouldn’t ever hurt anybody’s feelings”.
There is no integration of the shadow in that situation.
Resentment is a good emotion for making contact with the shadow side, it reveals that you are either immature and you should stop whining and get on with things or that people really have been poking at you too much, so you have got things to say that you haven’t been willing to say or don’t know how to say.
And in order to stand up for yourself you must know when you can unsheathe your weapon, and let others know that you are willing to use it, this again might be something that violates your morality. However, when you are able to do this, you generally don’t have to, but they need to know that you can.
So, what would be a practical approach to integrating your shadow?
This practice is known as shadow work. Self-awareness, watching your emotional reactions, being radically honest and recording your dreams and discoveries are the main parts of shadow work.
An integrated person is not one who has simply eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from his life, who is fearless and wooden. He is a person who feels all these things but has no recriminations against himself for feeling them.
Integration of your shadow should be a lifelong process; this will help you get closer to self-realisation. Improving not only yourself, but also your relationship, your perception, your energy and physical health, your maturity, and your creativity.
“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”
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Jung’s shadow archetype