“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… But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”
Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East
Carl Jung talks about two types of shadows: the personal shadow (the unknown dark side of our personality) and the collective shadow (the unknown dark side of society).
Starting with the personal shadow, Jung calls it:
“the thing a person has no wish to be.”
Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 16: Practice of Psychotherapy
It represents unknown or little-known attributes and qualities of the ego. It is the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide from ourselves. The shadow contains inferiorities which everybody has but prefers not to know about, they seem weak, socially unacceptable or even evil. The shadow is most visible when one is in the grip of anxiety or other emotions, under the influence of alcohol, etc., one may suddenly blurt out a hostile remark during a friendly conversation. When we do not want to assimilate what we despise, we project it unto others.
It is possible for one to be acquainted with one’s shadow and be partly conscious of it, that is, under ego control. Many people, however, refuse to recognise their shadow so completely that the ego is not even aware of shadow behaviour and thus has no possibility of commanding it. Under these conditions, the shadow is autonomous and may express itself in inexplicable moods, irritability and cruelty.
Throughout his writing, Jung refers to the importance of developing awareness of the shadow in psychotherapy and its projections in the individual’s life. Although the shadow is usually perceived as negative it can also be positive. In fact, exploring our shadow gives us access to many positive qualities, Jung writes that the shadow:
“displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc.”
Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9 (Part 1): Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
One of Jung’s closest collaborators, Marie-Louise von Franz writes:
“The shadow is not necessarily always an opponent. In fact, he is exactly like any human being with whom one has to get along, sometimes by giving in, sometimes by resisting, sometimes by giving love – whatever the situation requires. The shadow becomes hostile only when he is ignored or misunderstood.”
Man and His Symbols. Part III: The Process of Individuation, “The Realisation of the Shadow” – M.L. von Franz
The shadow contains all sorts of qualities, strengths and potentials, which if remain unexplored, give us a state of impoverishment in our personality, creating unconscious “snags” which inhibit the growth and embodiment of these good qualities that lie dormant in our psyche.
For instance, a person might believe that being assertive is being rude or aggressive, losing the qualities of confidence and the ability to speak up for himself in an honest and respectful way, which in turn may lead to less proactivity, make it more difficult to get a raise or job promotion, struggle with money, and so on.
So, when a person encounters an assertive person deep down he feels resentment and guilt, which makes his shadow blacker and denser. These valuable aspects ought to be assimilated into actual experience and not repressed, it is up to the ego to give up its pride.
We also encounter our shadow in our dreams, as a person of the same sex as the dreamer. It is what seems to be a “criticism” of our character from the unconscious, an inner judge of your own being that reproaches you, and the result is usually embarrassed silence.
We must identify the contents of the shadow and integrate them into our personality. This is the process of “the realisation of the shadow”, also known as shadow work.
Here begins the painfully and lengthy work of self-education, one must enter into long and difficult negotiations with the shadow, a work, we might say, that is the psychological equivalent of the labours of Hercules. Through shadow work, one can observe one’s shadow outwardly by watching one’s emotional reactions and being radically honest about one’s interactions with others, and inwardly by exploring one’s dreams.
This allows one to become enlightened and reduces the shadow’s destructive potential, not so much, as it were, by waging war against the darkness, but by bringing the darkness to the light, the light to the darkness. As Jung writes:
“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”
Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12 “Psychology and Alchemy”
One must not strive for perfection, but rather wholeness of personality. The lifelong process of individuation creates a balance between one’s conscious and unconscious realms, aligning the ego to the self, the totality of one’s personality.
However scary or dark it is to confront our shadow, finding truth brings relief. Discernment of the truth is the process of authenticity; a painstaking excavation into the depths of our being to explore possibilities and limitations, distortions and the buried and often forgotten parts of ourselves and abilities.
Most people, however, are too indolent to think deeply about even those moral aspects of their behaviour of which they are conscious; let alone to consider how the unconscious affects them.
The shadow can also consist of factors that stem from a source outside the individual’s personal life. Here is when we stumble upon the collective shadow, the dark side or the unknown or little known aspects of a society and culture. It consists of that which opposes our shared and collective values.
The collective shadow refers to a huge, multidimensional, often horrifying, yet elusive aspect of human life, to an immensity of harm inflicted by human beings upon each other and the natural world and to the vast aftereffects of such harm in subsequent generations.
We find the collective shadow in the projection of “darkness” and inferiority, in violence and oppression, in the invisibility of current suffering, in the denial of current responsibility.
While collective shadow material may be acted out brutally in wars, massacres and genocides, it may also hide under the often attractive cloaks of missionary activity, such as mandating the use of particular languages, an Orwellian reality that we are experiencing in the present time.
As is the nature of all shadow material, whether individual or collective, its existence and influence may be pervasive without being obvious.
The collective shadow manifests outwardly in atrocities, persecution, physical suffering, sickness, poverty, malnutrition, alcoholism, crime, the death of cultures and so on. It may also manifest more inwardly, amid the complexities of each individual psyche, as hatred toward oneself, one’s heritage, and one’s culture, depression and feelings of impotence, the desire for revenge (so that others might experience something like one’s own pain), etc.
The collective shadow is what has historically been labelled “evil”. In the Christian tradition it would be the devil, and someone who is possessed by the devil loses his human quality and acquires a demonic nature. Our primary response to evil, for Jung, must be the quest for self-knowledge, for wholeness, which presumes the assimilation of shadow material. The individual:
“must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of”
Carl Jung “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” Chapter XII: Late Thoughts
When there is an issue known in a particular society, it can be called a shadow issue if there is evidence of denial, projection and a lack of taking individual and collective responsibility. Therefore, taking responsibility – morally, politically and spiritually – is particularly crucial. The courage with which we bear our darkness frees others from having to carry it for us.
For instance, to respond to examples of massive historical suffering: wars, genocide, holocausts, pervasive oppression, etc., the effects of which persist. As human beings we have much to learn in that regard. Denial, often connected with a wish to “get on with things” and “put the past behind us”, seems the most common approach and usually the first reaction.
There are and have been many attempts to deal with difficult, painful pasts through public apologies for supporting atrocities, repentance, reparation payments after wars, pilgrimages to places of great suffering, etc. But how do we deal with the past in such a way that the integration of the shadow occurs deeply and broadly within a population, rather than simply at a symbolic level through leaders or policies?
Remembering and speaking what often seems unspeakable is inevitably a painful process for victims and perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses. Any such process can only be regarded as successful or reasonably complete once the pain, outrage, betrayal, suffering, and all the other feelings have been voiced and heard and once responsibility has been taken. Truth-telling is both the most desirable and the most feasible way to grapple with a difficult past.
One example of a terrible mass psychosis represented by the collective shadow is Nazi Germany where people fell into the demonic nature through their personal shadow. They joined the Nazi party and did worse things than they could have ever imagined or would have done under normal social conditions. In this sense, the personal shadow is the bridge to the collective shadow.
Therefore, it is important to solve one’s inner conflicts first (one’s personal shadow), so that one does not fall into the collective shadow unconsciously. One may then later influence other people and society would be better off as a whole.
“If we practice mindfulness, we will know how to look deeply into the nature of war, and, with our insight, wake people up so that together we can avoid repeating the same horrors again and again… The war is in us, but is also in everyone… Everything is ready to explode, and we are all co-responsible.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living
Summary – Facing the Collective Shadow
To summarise, we must first acknowledge our personal shadow and enter into long and difficult negotiations with it (being honest with ourselves and our interactions with others, watching our emotional reactions and exploring our dreams), in order to not become passive victims of our shadow and of our unconscious projections, allowing us to rescue the good qualities that lie dormant within us, which improves our lives and the lives of those around us.
We can then be consciously aware of the collective shadow and not fall prey to it and take responsibility to address the denial of important issues and a lack of individual and collective initiative, the courage of bearing our darkness brings relief to others, as telling the truth is the most desirable way to deal with a difficult past, rather than dismissing the atrocities and having the shadow grow blacker until it can no grow no more, and thus history repeats itself.
Facing the Collective Shadow – Carl Jung’s Warning to the World
Carl Jung warns us against the dangers of the collective shadow (the unknown dark side of society) and urges us to develop our personal shadow (the unknown dark side of our personality) to be consciously aware of the collective shadow and not fall prey to it. We must acknowledge our personal shadow and enter into long and difficult negotiations with it through shadow work.