What is the Shadow? Discovering the Darkness

We may be born whole and complete, but over the course of our lives we are taught to reject certain parts of our selves. From the time we are children, we begin to learn about what is right and what is wrong. We are told what emotions and behaviors to hide or suppress, and we are taught what is appropriate. Our actions and outlooks are continuously labeled and categorized, a line drawn between what is acceptable and what is not. This is how the Shadow begins to take shape.

The Dark Side of Human Nature

Within each of us, buried deeply, lies all of the dark, shameful parts of ourselves that we desperately try to keep hidden. Our shadows.

Coined by psychologist C.G. Jung, the term Shadow has come to mean the sum total of all the unpleasant, lower qualities of the self. These aspects are largely unconscious, and comprise the darker, unknown, hidden parts of our personality. 


Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is – C.G. Jung

We each carry a Shadow comprised of everything we (or society) deem evil, lesser, inferior, or shameful about ourselves. Referring to the Shadow as the long bag we drag behind us, Robert Bly explains how the Shadow is formed in this passage from A Little Book on the Human Shadow:


Let’s talk about the personal shadow first.  When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality.  Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche.  A child running is a living globe of energy.  We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball.  They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.”  Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.  By the time we go to school our bag is quite large.  Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.”  So we take our anger and put it in the bag.  By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota we were known as “the nice Bly boys.”  Our bags were already a mile long.

Then we do a lot of bag-stuffing in high school.  This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age.  So the student’s paranoia about grownups can be misplaced.  I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players.  Any part of myself that was a little slow went into the bag.  My sons are going through the process now; I watched my daughters, who were older, experience it.  I noticed with dismay how much they put into the bag, but there was nothing their mother or I could do about it.  Often my daughters seemed to make their decision on the issue of fashion and collective ideas of beauty, and they suffered as much damage from other girls as they did from men.

So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice.  We’ll imagine a man who has a thin slice left-the rest is in the bag-and we’ll imagine that he meets a woman; let’s say they are both twenty-four.  She has a thin, elegant slice left.  They join each other in a ceremony, and this union of two slices is called marriage.  Even together the two do not make up one person!  Marriage when the bag is large entails loneliness during the honeymoon for that very reason.  Of course we all lie about it. “How is your honeymoon?” “Wonderful, how’s yours?”

Different cultures fill the bag with different contents.  In Christian culture sexuality usually goes into the bag. With it goes much spontaneity.  Marie Louise von Franz warns us, on the other hand, not to sentimentalize primitive cultures by assuming that they have no bag at all.  She says in effect that they have a different but sometimes even larger bag.  They may put individuality into the bag, or inventiveness.  What anthropologists know as “participation mystique,” or “a mysterious communal mind,” sounds lovely, but it can mean that tribal members all know exactly the same thing and no one knows anything else.  It’s possible that bags for all human beings are about the same size.

We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.  Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed.  Suppose the bag remains sealed-what happens then?  A great nineteenth-century story has an idea about that. One night Robert Louis Stevenson woke up and told his wife a bit of a dream he’d just had.  She urged him to write it down; he did, and it became “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”  The nice side of the personality becomes, in our idealistic culture, nicer and nicer.  The Western man may be a liberal doctor, for example, always thinking about the good of others.  Morally and ethically he is wonderful.  But the substance in the bag takes on a personality of its own; it can’t be ignored.  The story says that the substance locked in the bag appears one day somewhere else in the city.  The substance in the bag feels angry, and when you see it it is shaped like an ape, and moves like an ape.

The story says then that when we put a part of ourselves in the bag it regresses.  It de-evolves toward barbarism. Suppose a young man seals a bag at twenty and then waits fifteen or twenty years before he opens it again.  What will he find?  Sadly, the sexuality, the wildness, the impulsiveness, the anger, the freedom he put in have all regressed; they are not only primitive in mood, they are hostile to the person who opens the bag.  The man who opens his bag at forty-five or the woman who opens her bag rightly feels fear.  She glances up and sees the shadow of an ape passing along the alley wall; anyone seeing that would be frightened.



The Shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself, and represents a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well – C.G. Jung

The Shadow, as ugly and unpleasant as it can seem, plays a vital role in our lives. It is not a separate being or entity; it is a part of ourselves. An unintegrated shadow can present itself as hostility, projection, self-destructive behaviors, guilt, shame, or maliciousness. And the more we repress it, the more dangerous and malignant it becomes.

Meanwhile, to own your Shadow is to be made whole. Embracing the Shadow does not mean indulging in self-destructive behaviors, however. Instead, it means total acceptance of oneself while taking responsibility for your actions.  Those that have made the darkness conscious – without self-identifying with it – are in full possession of their actions. By acknowledging your darkness, it’s power over you will diminish.

Mateo Sol of LonerWolf explains: “A whole and balanced self is a reconciliation of all parts, an inner unification.  It is not an indulgence of the darker parts of our natures, but an acceptance and direct experience of them in the light of mindful awareness and deep honesty.  This is the entire opposite of many self-denying traditional spiritual methods of subduing, denying, or ascetically disciplining the self.”

Be sure to stay tuned, as we’ll explore Shadow Work, or how to integrate the Shadow, in future posts.

Doing The Work: Byron Katie's Four Questions


The Healing Effect of Nature


Samantha Roberts is an artist and writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She is a lover of foggy mornings, yin yoga, Bukowski, and The Cure.

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