Owning Your Own Shadow: The Dark Side of the Psyche

“To honour and accept one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Robert A. Johnson was an American author and Jungian analyst (a follower of Carl Jung’s analytical psychology).

At the age of 11, he had a near death experience in a car crash and was rushed to the hospital. He found that the nothingness, the blackness, was also the ecstatic world, he saw the world golden in visions. When they saved his life, and the visions stopped, he could not bear to live. In therapy, he was convinced to live because without the human faculty, he could not see the things which he treasured so much.

Robert had a great difficulty with the outer world. At one point he was known as Parsifal, an innocent fool. He experienced many slender threads between life and death during his life. Exploring the inner world helped him tremendously. His encounter with Jung was decisive, he wrote:

“Dr. Jung told me to spend most of my time alone, have a separate room in the house to be used for nothing but inner work, never to join any organisation or collectivity… Dr Jung told me that the unconscious would protect me, give me everything that I needed for my life and that my one duty was to do my inner work. All else would follow from this. He said it was not the least important whether I accomplished anything outwardly in this life since my one task was to contribute to the evolution of the collective unconscious.”

Robert A. Johnson, A Collection of Remembrances (Carl Jung, Emma Jung, Toni Wolff)

At the age of 54, and feeling lost in his life, Robert visited India alone. After a long and exhausting trip, and having lost his luggage, he went to his hotel and wanted nothing else than to sleep the whole day. He looked outside the window, and was struck by the beauty of the sight. He experienced the golden world a second time, after many decades. He was given a second chance. If you trust the inner world, it will take care of you.

The golden world is there all the time, it is a misconception to think that we produce it or earn it. It is not some other place or time, but a state of consciousness, an experience open to anyone, at any time, and at any place. The Kingdom of Heaven is within.

Robert has published books such as: He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, and Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, among others. We will be focusing on the third one.

In our times, the water of life lies not in the external world, but rather within. The exploration of our inner world is the most important task in our lives.

For this, one must go beyond the ego (what we are and know consciously), and delve into the shadow. Robert refers to Jung’s early usage of the term, the part of us we fail to see or know (anything that is part of the unconscious).

Misconceptions of the Shadow

There are many misconceptions regarding the concept of shadow. It is commonly seen as evil, dark and something to be avoided. However, this is not the case. The shadow is not a detached thing that is not part of oneself, or the embodiment of the devil. It is a part of you. It cannot, and should not be avoided, for you will be going against yourself.

We all have a shadow walking behind us (both literally and metaphorically). It is the mirror image of ourselves that we cannot see. It represents those aspects that we lack. It has a compensatory role that seeks to restore our wholeness of personality.

For instance, the shadow of a criminal would not have murderous impulses, but the opposite, sincerity, relatedness, tenderness, etc. The shadow of a shy person would be assertiveness, commitment, responsibility, etc.

By displaying only the pleasant parts and highlights of oneself, and by denying one’s emotions and inner feelings, because one wants to, for example, be likeable or avoid conflict, one will build resentment that will go directly to the shadow and be projected onto others unconsciously.

We must recognise that we are capable of both good and evil. That is the only reality. To deny darkness is to deny half of oneself. With this in mind, most of us strive for a life of goodness, tranquillity and happiness.

The shadow is not to be seen as our enemy, but our friend. It contains pure gold waiting to be integrated into our personality. The shadow only becomes hostile when it is ignored or misunderstood, that is when it takes control of us, because we are not willing to. You can either be led and guided in life by your shadow, or be dragged through life by it, leading to neurotic behaviour.

It is not good that makes holy, it is the union of both good and evil that gives way to the transcendent.

How the Shadow Originates

So, how does the shadow originate? Our refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own—the shadow life. If it accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage.

Someone once told Jung, “how do you find your shadow?” He replied, “how do you find the dragon that has swallowed you?”

By definition the shadow is a part of you that you don’t know. You don’t talk about your own shadow. If you can talk about it, it is already conscious and no longer shadow. As such, other people are more likely to see your shadow first, an embarrassing reality.

We are all born whole, but somehow culture demands that we live out only part of our nature and refuse other parts of ourselves. We divide the self into an ego and a shadow because our culture insists that we behave in a particular manner. This is our legacy from having eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, gaining consciousness of good and evil. The shadow can also be seen as sin, and the self as the figure of Christ.

Culture is the great levelling process, it brings everyone down to the same level. This means that also some of the pure gold of our personality goes into the shadow. Robert writes:

“Curiously, people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides. To draw the skeleton out of the closet is relatively easy, but to own the gold in the shadow is terrifying. It is more disrupting to find that you have a profound nobility of character than to find out you are a bum.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Ignoring the shadow is to ignore the inner gold. And many only discover their gold when they suffer from severe or life-threatening illness. This intense experience shows us that an important part of us is lying dormant.

The archetype of the wounded healer is one who has learned to cure himself and find the gold in his experience. This is typically the role of the shaman who often falls ill only to gain the insight needed to heal himself and bring wisdom to his people, the elixir of life.

As we reach adulthood, we have a clearly defined ego and shadow, a system of right and wrong. The religious task is to restore the wholeness of personality. Religion means to put things back together again, to connect whatever is fractured.  This is the job of the religious life. We modern people are broken within. The truth is hard to bear and we do not want to hear that there’s something in the world more important than our ego. Something needs to die, not our bodies, but the ego.

Robert writes:

“Generally, the first half of life is devoted to the cultural process—gaining one’s skills, raising a family, disciplining one’s self in a hundred different ways; the second half of life is devoted to restoring the wholeness (making holy) of life.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Balancing Culture and Shadow

Robert uses the image of the teeter-totter or seesaw to illustrate our personality. On the right side we have our acceptable qualities (the righteous side), and on the left side we have those qualities that are unacceptable (the forbidden side). No quality can ever be discarded, it can only be moved between these two sides of the seesaw.

A law prevails that most of us choose to ignore completely. The seesaw must be balanced if one is to remain in psychic equilibrium. If one indulges characteristics on the right side, they must be balanced by an equal weight on the left side. The reverse is equally true. This instability is what causes mood swings or suddenly acting as a completely different person.

On the other hand, if the seesaw is too heavily loaded, it may also break at the centre point. This is a psychosis or “breakdown”. While we take the balance of say, our body temperature, for granted – we rarely recognise that the psyche also has its way of keeping a balance.

This idea is illustrated in a medieval manuscript of the tree of knowledge produced from Adam’s navel. On the left, the Virgin Mary is clothed as a nun, picking fruit from the tree and handing it out to a long line of penitents for their salvation. Eve, naked, stands on the right, picking fruit from the same tree, handing it out to a long line of people for their damnation. This single tree gives a dual product.  Whenever we pluck from the fruit of creativity, our other hand plucks the fruit of destruction. We would love to have creativity without destruction, but that is not possible. Our resistance to this insight is very high.

The prevailing attitude of goodness or sainthood is to live as much as possible on the right hand, the good side, of the seesaw. But such a condition would be unstable. The holy place is the centre point. While we must hide our dark side from society, we should never hide it from ourself.

Robert writes:

“Of course we are going to have a shadow! St. Augustine, in The City of God, thundered, ’To act is to sin.’ To create is to destroy at the same moment. We cannot make light without a corresponding darkness. India balances Brahma, the god of creation, with Shiva, the god of destruction, and Vishnu sits in the middle keeping the opposites together. No one can escape the dark side of life, but we can pay out that dark side intelligently… The balance of light and dark is ultimately possible – and bearable.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

This is one of Jung’s great insights: that the ego and the shadow come from the same source and exactly balance each other. To make light is to make shadow; one cannot exist without the other.

“To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place – an inner centre – not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one’s own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

It is not perfection that we must strive for, but wholeness – this is how the joy of life is created. It is embracing our own humanity, our strengths and flaws, and not a one-sided goodness that has no vitality or life.

Robert writes:

“I remember a weekend when I put up with very difficult guests who stayed days beyond their invitation. I exercised herculean patience and courtesy and sighed in great relief when they left. I thought I had earned something nice by my virtue so I went to the nursery to buy something beautiful for my garden. Before I knew what was happening, I picked a fight with the nurseryman and made a miserable spectacle of myself. Since I did not pick up my shadow consciously, I landed it on this poor stranger. Balance was served, but in a clumsy and stupid way.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

The Shadow in Projection

One has to honour one’s shadow, for it is an integral part of oneself; but one must not push it onto someone else. The shadow will claim its dues in some form, intelligent or stupid. Projection is always easier than assimilation. It is only possible to do one’s best and live a decent civilised life if we acknowledge this other dimension of reality. We all have the potential for evil, that is what unites all of us. Those who deny this, are often those who fall prey to their own shadow.

To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents.

“We are presently dealing with the accumulation of a whole society that has worshiped its light side and refused the dark, and this residue appears as war, economic chaos, strikes, racial intolerance. The front page of any newspaper hurls the collective shadow at us. We must be whole whether we like it or not; the only choice is whether we will incorporate the shadow consciously and with some dignity or do it through some neurotic behaviour.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

The tendency to see one’s shadow “out there” in a specific person or a group of people is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche. Not only does it affect others negatively, but also oneself. It is only by taking the shadow back into one self, that one can assimilate it. It must return to where it first originated and where it is required for your own wholeness.

It is common for two people’s shadows to be at each other. This rarely leads anywhere, as both of them are entirely at the mercy of the unconscious. To be in the presence of another’s shadow and not reply is nothing short of genius.

Goethe’s Faust is a great example in literature of the meeting of ego and shadow. Faust is a scholar who finds that life is meaningless and contemplates suicide, his seesaw has reached the breaking point. At this moment, he meets with his shadow, Mephistopheles. Through their perseverance, Faust is saved from his lifelessness and becomes capable of passion, and Mephistopheles discovers his capacity to love. Love is the one word in our Western tradition adequate to describe this synthesis of ego and shadow.

The Gold in the Shadow

One of the hardest things to understand is that we often refuse to accept our noble traits and instead find a shadow substitute for them.

“People are as frightened of their capacity for nobility as of their darkest sides. If you find the gold in someone he will resist it to the last ounce of his strength. This is why we indulge in hero-worship so often.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

All our energy lies in our shadow and ignoring it makes us feel lifeless, exhausted and lazy. A confrontation with one’s shadow fills one up with energy and stamina, which we can use for our daily tasks and work. Robert writes:

“A wise woman once showed me how to get more energy when I complained that I was exhausted before lecturing. She instructed me to go to a private room just before the talk, take a towel, dampen it so it would be very heavy, then throw the towel, wrapped up into a ball, at the floor as hard as I could—and shout. I felt infinitely foolish doing this, for it is not my style. But when I walked out to the lecture platform after such an exercise there was fire in my eyes. I had energy and stamina and voice. I did a courteous, well-structured lecture. The shadow backed me but did not overwhelm me.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Parrots learn profanity more easily than common phrases since we utter our curses with so much vigour. The parrot doesn’t know the meaning of these words, but he hears the energy invested in them. Even animals can pick up on the power we have hidden in the shadow!

The Shadow in Middle Age

In middle age one gets tired of the involuntary round trips between the two ends of the see-saw. To our surprise, that middle ground is not the grey compromise that we feared but the place of ecstasy and joy. If we learn how to take the energy of the shadow and use it correctly, it can set the stage for a whole new phase of life.

The Ceremonial World

In a shadow ritual, one must find one of the left-hand contents and give it expression in some way that does not damage the right-hand personality. One can offer a sacrifice in multiple ways, such as writing the shadow material down and then burning the paper. A symbolic or ceremonial ritual affects one as much as any event, as long as it means something for you.

All healthy societies have a rich ceremonial life to pay out their shadow in a symbolic way, through fasting, sacrifice, sexual abstention, etc. We must acknowledge the whole of reality, destruction and creation, evil and redemption. Our fondness for the light blinds us to the greater reality and keeps us from this larger vision of wholeness.

Paradox as Religious Experience

Paradox is that water of life we need so badly in our modern world. All the great myths give instructions on this subject and remind us that the treasure will be found in one of the least likely places. Strangely, the best can come from the most neglected quarter. We will go to almost any length to avoid this painful paradox; but in that refusal we only confine ourselves to the useless experience of contradiction. Contradiction brings the crushing burden of meaninglessness. One can endure any suffering if it has meaning; but meaninglessness is unbearable. Contradiction is barren and destructive, yet paradox is creative. It is a powerful embracing of reality.

Every human experience can be expressed in terms of paradox. Day is comprehensible only in contrast to night. Masculinity has relevance only in contrast to femininity. Activity has meaning only in relation to rest. Up is only possible in the presence of down. Where would I be without you? Where is joy not bounded by sobriety?

To advance from opposition (always a quarrel) to paradox (always holy) is to make a leap of consciousness. That leap takes us through the chaos of middle age and gives a vista that enlightens the remaining years of life.

Winning and losing, eating and fasting, earning and giving – these are not opposites, but are all necessary to the human condition. Everyone one of us lives in this contradiction.

So what do we do with this apparently insufferable contradiction? That is essentially the question that is at the base of every neurotic dissociation and every psychological problem. If we go at the question wrongly we are bound in a neurotic paralysis in which we can do nothing. We cannot act or be still. This is where many people stand and their suffering is intense.

Danish philosopher Kierkegaard expresses this as exemplifying the life of the aesthete, who chases pleasure but is struck with despair. He writes:

“I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent; I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I just can’t be bothered.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Kierkegaard, too, believes that paradox is the solution to despair, which can only be found in taking the leap of faith towards God.

To think that one way of action is profane and another sacred is to make a terrible misuse of language. This is a flaming, flagrant error and is the seat of most of the neurotic suffering in humankind.

Religion bridges or heals, it restores and reconciles the opposition that have been torturing each of us. It helps us move from contradiction—that painful condition where things oppose each other—to the realm of paradox, where we are able to entertain simultaneously two contradictory notions and give them equal dignity.

The English poet William Blake also spoke about the need to reconcile both the light and the dark parts of the self. He said we should go to heaven for form and to hell for energy – and marry the two.

Most people spend their entire life energy supporting the war of opposites within themselves. This only brings despair. In the miracle of the paradox, it is good to win; it is also good to lose. It is good to have; it is also good not to have. Each represents a reality, a truth. To stay loyal to paradox is to earn the right to wholeness.

Fanaticism is always a sign that one has adopted one of a pair of opposites at the expense of the other. The high energy of fanaticism is a frantic effort to keep one half of the truth at bay while the other half takes control. This always yields a brittle personality of “always being right.”

The Shadow as Entree to Paradox

But what has paradox to do with the shadow? It has everything to do with the shadow, for there can be no paradox—that sublime place of reconciliation—until one has owned one’s own shadow and drawn it up to a place of dignity and worth. To own one’s own shadow is to prepare the ground for spiritual experience. Conflict to paradox to revelation; that is the divine progression.

Who does not spend much of his time debating whether to do the disciplined task or to goof off a bit longer and stay in dreamy “nowhere”? Neither is holy; but exactly in the paradox between them lies the holy place.

To be in a situation where there is no way out, or to be in a conflict where there is no solution, is the classical beginning of individuation or self-realisation. In this state, the unconscious wants the hopeless conflict in order to put ego-consciousness up against the wall, so that one has to realise that whatever one does is wrong. This is an act of humility, that invites one to see beyond the ego, to that which is greater than ourselves.

The Mandorla

We know that the mandala is the holy circle that represents wholeness, the Self. Mandalas are devices that remind us of our unity with God and with all living things. In Tibet a teacher often draws a mandala for his student and leaves him to meditate on this symbol for many years before he gives the next step of instruction.

The mandorla, however, is an idea that is rarely talked about. The mandorla also has a healing effect, but its form is somewhat different. It is an almond-shaped segment that is made when two circles partly overlap. This symbol signifies nothing less than the overlap of the opposites that we have been investigating. It instructs us how to engage in reconciliation. We can often see Christ or the Virgin Mary in its centre.

By definition, Christ himself is the intersection of the divine and the human. He is the prototype for the reconciliation of opposites and our guide out of the realm of conflict and duality.

When one is tired or discouraged by life that one can no longer bear to live, the mandorla shows what one may do. When the most herculean efforts and the finest discipline no longer keep the painful contradictions of life at bay, we are all in need of the mandorla. Our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not the light element alone that does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is the most profound religious experience we can have in life.

We like to think that a story is based on the triumph of good over evil; but the deeper truth is that good and evil are superseded and the two become one. When one is truly both a citizen of heaven and earth, one finally realises that there was only one circle all the time. This is the fulfilment of the Christian goal. The two circles were only the optical illusion of our capacity and need to see things double.

If one makes a mandorla in the privacy of one’s interior life, it is heard for more than a thousand miles. People often asked Jung, “Will we make it?” referring to the cataclysm of our time. He always replied, “If enough people will do their inner work.”

The acknowledgement of one’s shadow diminishes shadow projection and helps to contribute less to the general darkness of the world by not adding to the collective shadow that fuels war, division and strife. But we also prepare the way for the mandorla, that ultimate place of wholeness in one’s inner life, the great prize of human consciousness.

“In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes, ‘The fire and the rose are one.’ By overlapping the two elements of fire and flower, he makes a mandorla. We are pleased to the depth of our soul to be told that the fire of transformation and the flower of rebirth are one and the same.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow


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Owning Your Own Shadow: The Dark Side of the Psyche

American author and Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson states that to honour and accept one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime.

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