“That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.” (Carl Jung)

Carl Jung is famous for formulating the concept of the shadow, the portion of everyone’s personality which, through the course of one’s life, is relegated to the darkness of the unconscious.

The Nature of the Shadow

At a young age individuals learn that certain personality traits, impulses, emotions, and behaviours elicit reproach and negative feedback from their family, peers, and society at large. This negative feedback elicits anxiety in the individual, resulting in these “negative” characteristics being relegated to the unconscious. Over the course of development these repressed characteristics of one’s self coalesce to form the shadow – the “dark” side of our being:

“The shadow goes by many familiar names: the disowned self, the lower self, the dark twin or brother in bible and myth, the double, repressed self, alter ego, id. When we come face-to-face with our darker side, we use metaphors to describe these shadow encounters: meeting our demons, wrestling with the devil, descent to the underworld, dark night of the soul, midlife crisis.” (Meeting the Shadow)

While Jung is famous for formulating the concept of the shadow and describing in astute detail its natureNebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
and inner workings, the notion of the shadow has long been recognized as a ubiquitous feature of human beings. In 1886, before Jung made his mark, Robert Louis Stevenson created the now famous story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the former symbolic of the respectable part of the personality one presents to society, the latter of the hidden and socially unacceptable parts of the personality one has relegated to the unconscious.

Given that every human being has a wide variety and range of traits, impulses, and emotions, every individual by necessity has a shadow. Some of these characteristics must be repressed and hidden, both to one’s self and to others – to one’s self so that one can navigate through life with the conviction that one is a wholly good and virtuous human being, and to others so that one can fit in and succeed socially.

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” (Carl Jung)

Making the Shadow Conscious

Since all individuals by nature have a shadow, what differentiates human beings is not the existence or non-existence of a shadow, but the degree to which one is conscious of their shadow.

When one’s shadow is relegated to the depths of the unconscious, it can wreck havoc on one’s life in the sense that it will exert unconscious control over one’s thoughts, emotions, choices, and actions. “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate”, as Jung said. This accounts for the self destructive behaviors so many individuals struggle with and are unable to control despite consciously knowing they would be better off not engaging in such actions.

The task in life which thus confronts everyone, according to Jung, is to become conscious of and integrate one’s shadow into one’s conscious personality: accepting it with open arms not as an abhorrent aspect of one’s self, but as a necessary and vital part of one’s being.

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” (Carl Jung)


However, as Jung alludes to in the above quote, this is extremely difficult. Most cannot and will not admit that deep down they are not wholly virtuous, selfless, and good human beings, but instead contain selfish, destructive, amoral and immoral impulses and capacities. Most would rather deceive themselves with a blind optimism about the goodness of their nature, and according to Jung will thus remain a fragmented individual. As it is only by becoming conscious of and integrating the shadow that one achieves wholeness.

The Shadow and the Hidden Power

What is especially interesting is the idea that the shadow contains not just destructive and evil aspects of the personality, but also potent, creative, and powerful capabilities. Certain personality traits that would be beneficial and lead to greater wholeness and harmony, are frowned upon by one’s family, peers, and society out of envy, ignorance, or self-contempt.

For example, it is becoming more prevalent today for psychologists to diagnose individuals who question authority and show signs of extreme self reliance as being pathological, suffering from a condition they call “anti-authoritarian” (see an article by Bruce Levine here).

When positive traits are relegated to the shadow, one is by necessity less than one could be. When one’s higher energies become trapped, labeled by the conscious ego as negative and bad, the growth of the individual becomes blocked, and life becomes sterile.

“The shadow, when it is realized, is the source of renewal; the new and productive impulse cannot come from established values of the ego. When there is an impasse, and sterile time in our lives—despite an adequate ego development—we must look to the dark, hitherto unacceptable side which has been at our conscious disposal….
This brings us to the fundamental fact that the shadow is the door to our individuality. In so far as the shadow renders us our first view of the unconscious part of our personality, it represents the first stage toward meeting the Self. There is, in fact, no access to the unconscious and to our own reality but through the shadow. Only when we realize that part of ourselves which we have not hitherto seen or preferred not to see can we proceed to question and find the sources from which it feeds and the basis on which it rests. Hence no progress or growth is possible until the shadow is adequately confronted and confronting means more than merely knowing about it. It is not until we have truly been shocked into seeing ourselves as we really are, instead of as we wish or hopefully assume we are, that we can take the first step toward individual reality.” (Meeting the Shadow)

Further Readings