Overview: shadow work is one of the most powerful forms of personal development we can undertake. Learn about shadow selves and how to uncover yours to heal and grow.
What is the Shadow Self?
The concept of shadow selves was coined by Carl Jung, and refers to the unconscious part of our personality which we reject and/or repress.
The shadow is comparable to Freud’s ‘id’ – the primitive and instinctual part of us which is also largely unconscious and therefore devoid of good manners, existing only to satisfy and ensure our needs are met, at any cost.
Jung’s theory differs in that the shadow self evolves in response to our experiences, as a form of protection of those basic needs.
Shadow Work in Context of Jung’s Personality Theory
Before we get to the info about shadow work, I’m providing a brief outline about Jung’s theories regarding personality. Okay, not that brief, I recommend grabbing a coffee for this one. If you want to skip this bit you’ll find headings for each section in the table above, or click to find out more about shadow selves to skip to that segment.
Jung on the Shadow
According to Jung, developing the shadow self is an inevitable aspect of being human. He explained this using enantiodromia, a concept that Jung introduced to the West and which he defined as “the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time.”
“This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition is built up which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.”
Jung and Enantiodromia
Enantiodromia is similar to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme is opposed by the system in order to restore balance.
Old Heraclitus, who was indeed a very great sage, discovered the most marvellous of all psychological laws: the regulative function of opposites. He called it enantiodromia, a running contrariwise, by which he meant that sooner or later everything runs into its opposite.Jung
Seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.Wikipedia
To understand shadow selves and how they develop in context, it’s necessary to also understand Jung’s broader theories regarding the structure of the psyche.
Jung believed the human psyche was composed of three components:
- The ego – the conscious mind;
- The personal unconscious – the unconscious mind, including suppressed memories;
- The collective unconscious – the hereditary, innate part of the unconscious mind.
Jung proposed that forming the collective unconscious, we each possess multiple archetypes, manifesting as instinctive behaviours. These archetypes are unlearned, and function to process how we perceive experiences. They are innate, universal, and inherited from our ancestors.
The hierarchy or dominance of these dynamic archetypes determines our personality.
To further complicate matters, archetypes are also categorised within ‘cardinal orientations’.
What Are Jung’s Four Cardinal Orientations?
Cardinal orientations define the primary motivation that archetype seeks to realise. They include:
- Ego – to leave a mark on the world
- Order – to provide structure within the world
- Social – to connect with others
- Freedom – to feel liberated
What Are the Main Jungian Archetypes?
In resources about the Jungian archetypes, you’ll find mention of the main or chief archetypes, and depending on where you do do your research, you may see references to four or twelve of these principal archetypes. Jung defined the primary archetypes to represent the range of instinctive human motivations.
It’s worth noting at this point that Jung’s theories around archetypes have been widely criticised in modern psychology as poorly defined, eluding rigorous systematic study, and inclined towards the mystical. While I don’t personally buy into psychology that strays away from science into metaphysical territory, I absolutely buy into the concept and value of shadowing work, and having an overview of Jung’s archetypes allows for a better grounding of the principle of shadow work.
In terms of the major archetypes, the inconsistency in available information demonstrates the complexity of the theory. There are many archetypes (running into hundreds), each with an active and passive side – it gets complicated! Not least when we see the shadow itself being referred to as an archetype…
While I won’t claim to be an expert, based upon my own research, my understanding is that the shadow is not technically an archetype, but an aspect of each archetype, incorporating those active and passive sides.
Here are several examples of chief archetypes and their corresponding active and passive shadows:
Archetype: The King
- Active shadow: Tyrant
- Passive shadow: Weakling
Archetype: The Lover
- Active shadow: Addicted Lover
- Passive shadow: Impotent Lover
- Active shadow: Sadist
- Passive Shadow: Masochist
- Active shadow: Detached Manipulator
- Passive Shadow: Innocent One
While there are many more, the following are usually mentioned as being principal archetypes:
You’ll notice that list is longer than 12! Again, different resources will vary which archetypes they suggest as being major.
There are two more archetype which are not usually included in this list yet deserve a special mention:
The word ‘persona’ derives from the Latin word which literally translates to mask. Representative of all the different social masks we learn to adopt for various situations, the persona is the personality we project to the world, but is not necessarily reflective of our authentic self.
As children we learn to inhibit socially unacceptable impulses, in order to fit in with society. The persona acts as a social mask we wear in order to adapt to our circumstances. However becoming too closely aligned with any of our social masks can result in a loss of our true self.
The Self is a dynamic concept signifying the union of the conscious and the unconscious, and representing the psyche as a whole, and is established during a process known as individuation, during which the various components of personality become unified.
Jung’s theory suggests that a lack of harmony between the conscious and unconscious mind can lead to psychological conflict. Bringing this incompatibility into conscious awareness is key to individuation.
Due to the complexity of Jung’s theory, I find it helpful to visualise overlapping layers when thinking about archetypes and the various components of the psyche and personality.
So, to summarise:
- The conscious mind, the unconscious mind and the ego make up personality;
- The Self lies at the centre of personality;
- The ego lies at the centre of the conscious mind;
- Cardinal orientations of archetypes exist, with dominating archetypes determining personality traits;
- Each archetype has two polarising shadows;
- The Persona is the social mask we wear in order to ‘fit’ into society and be accepted.
Hopefully you feel a little more familiar with Jung’s archetypes now, so let’s get back to shadow work!
Does Everyone Have a Shadow Self?
If somebody asked you to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? I’m guessing you wouldn’t choose to list out all your worst traits. But you know as well as I do that they exist all the same: we all have aspects of ourselves we know do not flatter us. Worse, as well as those characteristics we’re not proud of, we each have shadow selves hiding other grim qualities, the existence of which we’re not even aware of!
The good news is, shadow work can help us to recognise and make peace with that dark part of ourselves. But what is shadow working, how do you do it, and how can it help?
What Causes Our Shadow Selves to Develop?
As children when we express certain elements of our personalities which are deemed to be inappropriate, we receive negative feedback in the form of admonishment from parents of caregivers. When criticism of an intrinsic part of us gives rise to feelings of shame or threatens our sense of security, it provides the perfect environment for our shadow self to develop.
Shadow traits will often be negative, but not always – it can be any fundamental feature of our character that has received disapproval.
Each of us adapts our behaviour according to these external cues, in order to attain acceptance, first from our parents and later from our peers. This process inevitably leads to us shutting down and rejecting or repressing aspects of ourselves which we’ve learned are undesirable.
Any attribute that we perceive to be inferior, wicked, or otherwise incompatible with our conscious self-image, is consigned to our unconscious and becomes part of our shadow self.
How Do I Find My Shadow Self?
Awareness is the first step to beginning to work on acknowledging and accepting your shadow parts – but how do you recognise the unconscious parts of yourself that you’ve repressed and hidden for so long?
If you consider that like photograph images, every facet of personality has a negative, you can begin to apply the concept to your own character.
The qualities you would use to describe yourself are those of which you’re consciously aware, and their negative is likely to be tucked away in your shadow.
Psychological Projection of the Shadow Self
Fascinatingly, part of Jung’s theory is psychological projection: those characteristics we find most unflattering or irritating in others, are likely to be ones which we ourselves also possess, but are unconscious of or deny. Therefore the people in our lives who provoke strong feelings within us offer clues about our shadow parts: they mirror and reflect the qualities in ourselves which we repress.
A perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.Wikipedia
You may, for example, consider yourself to be an introvert; but that may be because as a child you were discouraged from being excessively loud and as a result you now dislike extroverted behaviour because your own is repressed. Or, if you have colleagues at work whose arrogance infuriates you, perhaps if you look deep within yourself you may find a similar trait consigned to your shadow.
Anybody who rubs you up the wrong way or, conversely, who you greatly admire or perhaps even envy, can help you to identify your shadow parts. You could ask yourself these questions about the people who evoke powerful reactions in you:
- Who do you have strong feelings about?
- Who do you despise or place on a pedestal?
- Who fascinates you?
If you feel an overwhelming rage coming up in you when a friend reproaches you about a fault, you can be fairly sure that at this point you will find a part of your shadow, of which you are unconscious.Von Franz
But, remaining blind to our dark shadow and refusing to acknowledge these projected characteristics in ourselves gives them power, and that’s why shadow work is so valuable.
How Does Your Shadow Self Manifest in Conscious Daily Life?
Anything in your life which you know is a trigger for you, but you don’t understand why; any destructive patterns of behaviour; any irrational or defeatist thought cycles are likely rooted in your shadow self. Leaving these issues unresolved is what allows them to fester and continue to control and negatively impact your life and relationships.
Have you ever said something and instantly regretted it? This phenomena is so common that the phrase ‘opened mouth before brain engaged’ has been created to describe it – and it’s surprisingly accurate. It’s widely accepted in these types of circumstances that the shadow self has spoken.
Here are some of the ways your shadow may express itself:
- Lack of confidence
- Anger and aggression
- Power struggles
- Guilt and Shame
But, if we face and accept our negative shadow qualities, then we can bring them into the light and make peace with them. Likewise, we can rediscover those attributes which were not encouraged or endorsed when we were children and which we therefore turned away from. We do this with shadow working.
What is Shadow Work?
Shadow work or shadow working is the commitment to actively working on the shadow self; it’s the unearthing of our unconscious self, tuning into those unexamined characteristics we’ve disowned for so long, so they are no longer hidden.
It’s a messy, uncomfortable process. But it holds huge value in terms of personal growth, and can be very liberating.
How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side if I am to be whole.Carl Jung
Shadow working can take various forms, including writing, meditating and mindfulness, or really any process which increases your awareness of yourself, your triggers, and buried shame and desires.
How Does Shadow Work Differ to Inner Child Healing?
If you’ve heard of inner child work you may have noticed that there’s considerable crossover between the two concepts, but there is a difference:
The shadow self consists of the dark parts of ourselves which we reject, deny, and essentially disown. We don’t want them – but they remain nonetheless, as a dark shadow following us around. As mentioned, bound up within our shadow self may also be buried dreams and ambitions which we’ve squashed and repressed.
By contrast, our inner child comprises the wounded parts of ourselves which have never been allowed to heal, resulting in traumas which we still carry around today. These aspects of ourselves are ones which we would ideally acknowledge, feel, and let go of.
So, inner child work may be a facet of shadow work.
Choosing to face our demons, our historic hurts and our crushed aspirations, can provide a new lease of life.
What Are the Benefits of Shadow Working?
Confronting our shadow self is a brave act, because it means looking inside ourselves at the most painful and ugly parts, which we’ve worked hard at hiding, even from our own consciousness. But failing to do so is to allow our difficulties to go unchallenged, and ultimately persist.
Shadow work is critical to personal growth. By committing to it, you are making the conscious decision to take charge of the less attractive parts of yourself, therefore taking away their power.
Living in a shadow is exhausting, it uses up a lot of emotional energy trying to outrun it, yet you never will because it’s simply not possible. The only way to conquer the shadow is to bring it into the light, accept your darkest parts and show them compassion. It’s a big undertaking, but the only alternative is to continue living in your own shadow. Both are draining, but it’s surely preferable to expend your energy on a positive goal, with a valuable outcome, one which promises freedom from the difficulties you’ve repeatedly faced thanks to your shadow self?
If you no longer want to feel stuck in a negative cycle, if you want to be free from the constraints of your own personal demons and finally feel liberated, consider shadow working.
Beginning the process means you can expect to gain:
- Better understanding of yourself,
- Improved insight into your triggers,
- Decreased judgement, of yourself and others,
- Increased ability to set healthy boundaries,
- Clearer sense of self and personal values,
- Improved communication with others,
- Better relationships with others,
- Enhanced state of wellbeing,
- Peace of mind.
How to Get Started With Shadow Work
The starting point with shadow working is having a good understanding of the concept. Once you know the theory, your self-awareness will grow as you go about your daily life, which by itself is beneficial.
If you’re interested in reading more on the subject of the personal shadow and shadow work, you may like to try these books:
How to Do Shadow Work
As you go about your life with this enhanced awareness, so you’ll be in a stronger position to decipher and decode your shadow self, learning which behaviours serve you and which are established reactions.
Over time you’ll find yourself better able to pause and respond thoughtfully and rationally. Your triggers will diminish as you discover their origins and remove their power.
Shadow Work Techniques
Here are a few suggestions for shadow work exercises. Each one provides clues as to what’s really going on for you, below the surface, in your shadow:
1. Journaling prompts For Shadows Work
One of the best techniques to get started with shadow working is through journaling. It’s a valuable tool for self-reflection, and that’s the foundation of working on your shadow self.
While shadow journaling is a really integral part of shadow work because it allows you to record and analyse your progress, the very most important aspect of the practice is self-awareness. Therefore, journaling is a useful method to use alongside any shadows work you engage in.
Why not get started with these 50 shadow work questions and prompts?
2. Noticing Your Emotional Reactions
Noticing things you wouldn’t usually notice is crucial to the process of shadowing work.
Actively engage in noticing:
- Your triggers,
- Your reactions (as opposed to measured responses),
- Your irrational feelings,
- Your negative thoughts and actions.
Most of all, notice patterns.
3. Challenging Your Conscious Goodness
If we’re not being modest or coy, it’s easy to state our good character traits – the very best things we believe about ourselves or strive to be. But, whether or not we like it, for each good quality there is a contrasting opposite one: our shadow part that we’re repressing or denying.
None of us are perfect, and while we’re all capable and even programmed to project our best face to the world, it’s vital for our wellbeing that we also give ourselves space to be our authentic selves. That includes the good bits and the bad, in order that we don’t have internal conflicts which cause us psychological harm or manifest as self-sabotage.
Get curious about that shadow element of yourself which you reject; accept that part of yourself; learn to be okay with being both mature and childish, or sensible and silly.
By showing an interest in shadow work, you’re already working towards self-improvement and personal growth. The ability, desire, and openness to recognise and identify your shadow self is half the battle won.