Why Knowing Your Shadow is the Key to Self Growth

depth psychology Dec 01, 2020

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” -C.G. Jung 

Let’s get this out of the way first: Everyone is struggling with something. Nobody is perfect. And, the brighter the light (the ego,) the darker the shadow.

“Shadow” is a term frequently thrown around without much explanation for what it actually is. Before doing “shadow work,” it is vitally important to know what you’re getting into.

It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s also going to be worth it. 

So here’s the rub: There is no self work without shadow work. It’s a dark, weird, and scary place, but it is the cave we all must enter to discover the treasure we all so desperately seek. “No pain, no gain” is the mantra here. Did I mention that its worth it?

The Shadow is Not a Thing, But a Place.

“The person we choose to be … automatically creates a dark double – the person we choose not to be.” –Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

The shadow is a region of the psyche where all of the feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and even sub-personalities that do not match up with our vision of ourselves, go to live in darkness.

Think for a moment: How do you see yourself? How do you want others to see you?  How do you show up in the world? This is what Jung called our personaLiterally the Greek word for “mask,” the persona is the public, acceptable, ego-affirming side of ourselves. We can feel good about our persona.

It is also not the full story of who we are.

Before I go on, let me say this: if ever you meet someone who claims to have “mastered” their shadow, to be above or beyond it, or that they miraculously do not possess one, run away as fast as you can.

The shadow operates in stealth, like a secret intelligence program working without the knowledge of the rest of the government. It is a rogue element, and sometimes takes actions in spite of our better natures. Sound familiar?

The persona represents the known areas of the map. The shadow is off the map entirely.

These parts of ourselves are not of the shadow, but in the shadow. Which is to say: 

The Shadow is Not Inherently Bad.

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” -Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Internal Family Systems, a contemporary form of psychotherapy, refers to “exiles:” parts of our personality that, at one point or another, we decided were not welcome within our inner, psychic family.

“You’re too loud.” “Who do you think you are?” “Boys don’t cry.” “Girls are supposed to be nice.” “Sit still.” Can you remember ever hearing such things as a child? Can’t everyone?

These are all messages that might signal to a child that a part of them is not welcome. We all have heard such messages, and we all have our exiled parts. For many modern, high functioning people, their inner child itself is in exile.  

Imagine if you were kicked out of your home as a 5 year old, and left to fend for yourself? Imagine never experiencing a positive word of support, living through rainy, cold nights without the warmth of a fire, or the happiness of a home. 

If this was you, it is highly unlikely that you would turn out to be a well-adjusted member of society.

These fragmented parts of our self were raised by wolves. Is it any wonder that they shatter windows and light fires when they burst into our carefully ordered lives? From a therapeutic perspective, our shadow parts are starving for our love, warmth, and attention. 

The Shadow is the Key to Self-Growth

“To own one’s shadow is whole making and thus holy.” -Robert Johnson, Owning your Own Shadow

Jung referred to facing one’s shadow as “the essential condition for self-knowledge.” He also makes it clear that this is a long and painstaking process, which leads many people to not even start down the path of introspection.

Self-work and any psychotherapy of depth could not occur without doing “shadow work,” without being open to, exploring, and dialoguing with one’s shadow. Again, the shadow is not bad. It is actually wanting to be met, and related with. 

It could even be said that without a knowledge of and relationship to one’s shadow, that one is not a whole human being. To deny our shadow aspects is to deny deeply important parts of ourselves, even potentially positive traits that our ego has been unable to own or relate with due to self-limiting beliefs or patterns.  

Robert Bly, famed poet and founder of the mythopoetic movement, said, “Eating our shadow is a very slow process. It doesn’t happen once, but hundreds of times.” 

That means we don’t just “do the work” once and move on with our lives. Our shadow doesn’t go away. It is an ever-present and essential aspect of the psyche. That is why learning how to relate to the shadow is so important. We’re not going to fix it, dissolve it, heal it, or change it. 

We might, however, begin to know it, and see it, in Rilke’s words, “as something helpless that wants our love.”

The Shadow is Archetypal

“Where we do not willingly go, sooner or later we will be dragged” -James Hollis, Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places

The shadow is so pervasive and powerful because it is rooted in the archetypal realm, meaning that it is universal to psychic life, the undercarriage to our psychic vehicle.

Now if you’re asking yourself, “What the hell is does that mean?” I recommend you check out another article, 5 Things You Need to Know About Archetypes.

The shadow nearly always conforms to deep patterns of behavior – a classic sign that something has archetypal elements within it. We can see these patterns play out in our personal lives, and through wider cycles throughout history and culture.

The personal shadow shows itself through all of the small betrayals that people do despite themselves: infidelities, rage, self-sabotage, and secretive behaviors.   

The archetypal shadow, however, is different. This archetype takes on many familiar forms in myth and folklore: a witch, a sorcerer, or the Devil himself. In the West, many of these demonized symbols also represent a deep connection to the earth. But that is a story for another time.

The archetypal shadow in human history is immense. This force allows for genocide, war, the slave trade, the trail of tears, and for every violent conquest ever committed throughout history. It allows for the desecration of the earth, and for the marginalization and abuse of innocent people.

We are now living through times where the archetypal shadow is emerging onto the global stage. It accounts for the intensity and polarization we see playing out across the world, with the rise in fascistic thinking, demagogic leaders, and destructive industry. Issues that have long been suppressed by the collective, such as our treatment of the earth, and our histories of colonization, racism, and the chasm of spirituality in Western culture, are now coming to the forefront. This is a signal that we are living through shadow times.

The intense vitriol poured upon marginalized people throughout history and still today is another sign of how the shadow operates:

The Shadow, When Not Owned, is Projected

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams and Reflections

The scapegoat is a figure upon whom the unrecognized shadow of another is projected on. This has happened throughout history to countless marginalized groups: Blacks, Jews, Gypsies, Irish, indigenous, ethnic, or religious minorities, and most perhaps most globally relevant today, immigrants. 

Scapegoating also happens regularly in families, social groups, and organizations. Occasionally in family systems the entire shadow of a family can be thrust upon a “problem” child. Through their acting out, through their symptoms, they magnetically attract the shadow projections of the parents. 

When this goes on for long enough, the scapegoated child (or group) internalizes these projections, and begins to believe the role they’ve been cast in: that there is something wrong with them, that they are worthless, that they can’t do X or must do Y. The rest of their life will involve disentangling themselves from these internalized shadow projections- itself an immense healing journey. Immense, but possible. 

Being scapegoated is a trauma, as a result of a shadow projection. In order to avoid such toxic forms of projection, we must do our own shadow work. 

So how can we actually do shadow work? Now that we know, what is there to be done about it?

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