The Stranger Inside Me: The Shadow Part 1

This is the fifth post in the Mythology and the Psyche series, a list of all the posts in the series can be found here.

In myth, the physical world emerges from the eternal realm which is characterized by Oneness. The spiritual realm crystallizes into the material world, and it is only when this visible world emerges that duality comes into being. In the unmanifest, divine realm, there is no such thing as opposites, no male or female, no up or down, no good or evil. These separations and paradoxes are only concepts that arise with the birth of the physical world, and only exist in the visible world. As the visible world itself, ultimately, this duality is an elaborate illusion and these divisions are not substantially real. The Self is a microcosm of this same process. Like the eternal realm, the Self, in its fullness, contains absolutely every human potential – for good and ill alike – until the psyche splits itself into its various elements in order to be able to function in a world of apparent duality and its specific society. Just as it is only when the physical world emanates that concepts like good and evil come into focus, so too when the Self splits into comes the rise of judgement and morality. It is from this seam which arises the shadow.

Simply put, the shadow is the dark side of the Self, it is all that’s excluded from the ego in order to be accepted socially. While the persona and the anima/us are the relational aspects of the psyche, defining your particular relationship with the external world and those in it, the ego and shadow are the internal facets of the psyche, and construct your identity, how you view yourself. But while the ego is the seat of the conscious mind, the shadow resides in the unconscious realm, this is critical because while the ego and persona form your public face, the shadow is all that we do not, and cannot, express in the world, or even admit to ourselves. If the ego is what and who you believe you are; the shadow is what and who you believe you are not. However, the ego is not aware of the shadow, as Joseph Campbell explains in his lecture series Mythos, the shadow is “the blind spot for the ego: that about yourself of which your ego is completely unconscious, of which it has no knowledge whatsoever.” But this is not to say that the ego and the shadow are separate, Campbell, in Pathways to Bliss, is clear that “the nature of your shadow is a function of the nature of your ego. It is the backside of your light side.” The shadow is shaped alongside the ego in its mirror image, although it is largely hidden from consciousness. Campbell calls the shadow “the landfill of the self,” and describes it as “that which you might have been had you been born on the other side of the tracks: the other person, the other you.” Or, according to Jung, “the thing a person has no wish to be.”

The shadow has both a personal and a collective aspect. It is made up of everything you have personally cut out and repressed, but one’s society also plays a role in what is shunted into the unconscious. As Campbell explains, “society will give you a role to play, and this means that you’ve got to cut out of your life many of the things that you, as a person, might think or do.” Each particular society has a wide variety of expectations and taboos regarding behaviour as well as attitudes. In the West, for example, homophobia is increasingly not only unacceptable, but may create social isolation and rejection. Yet, in many parts of the world homophobia is not only acceptable, but the prevailing position of the state and law enforcement. There are also more universal social taboos which prohibit violence and murder. For at the deepest levels of the shadow, are the universal archetypes of evil. As Campbell reminds us, the shadow “is interred down there” in the unconscious “for a reason.” Namely, because “it swallows those things that it would dangerous for you to express, such as the murderous intent that you have for that son of a gun over there who’s been interrupting you all evening, the urge to steal, to cheat, to destroy.” You shouldn’t kid yourself, Campbell’s meaning here is absolutely literal. You may have said at some point in your life “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” and it may well be true, in fact, especially if it is true, you’d better believe there’s a blood-thirsty, murderous son-of-a-bitch lurking in your shadow. This is a high stakes game. To a great extent, civilization is only possible because the shadow has been split off from the personality and kept hidden. Morality is the backbone of civility, the sustainability of society largely depends on taboos against things as serious as violence, rage, and abuse, as well as behaviours as common as excessive rudeness and double dipping your chips at a party. But in the end, the boundaries of society are really nothing more than rules we’ve made up and mutually agreed to follow.

Though some of us take it more seriously than others:

And so, the absolute separation of good and evil at the heart of social order is a serious and real pressure in our lives. But while this division is required to maintain social order, it’s critical to understand that we have made the decisions about what constitutes good and evil arbitrarily. You need not look far to see the extent to which society polices the boundaries of morality and the repression of the shadow. We have laws, state police forces, courts, and a prison system to impose and reinforce taboos against certain forms of behaviours. Religious rules and codes for our conduct, even our beliefs. Our education system to a large extent defines what is acceptable knowledge, and guides us to find an “acceptable” ways to earn a living and use our knowledge in the world (there is no class, which will explicitly tell you how to excel in the drug trade, for example). School also encourage us to “contribute” to the social good. All the way down to the self-censoring we all do in social situations.

Or fail to do…

While the shadow has this collective aspect which defines social order, there are innumerable different societies with different rules and codes of ethics, and it is the conflicting shadow elements which are often at the heart of interpersonal and major social conflicts, even wars. But the shadow is not merely “that part of you that you won’t allow to show through” while you’re in polite society, it is, rather more threateningly, “that which you won’t look at about yourself.”

According to Campbell, the personal shadow is filled with “repressed experiences [and] repressed shocks,” most of which occurred to you as an infant or in early childhood. Obviously, we all have vastly different experiences, and so the personal shadow is as individual as a fingerprint, even though it is also shaped by the ethics and perspectives of our particular society as well. Jung explains that the psyche represses the shadow because it is “a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality.” The ego needs to be accepted, approved of, respected, valued, and it aims to please, so it must reject the impulses, feelings, and thoughts which put its acceptability in danger. The ego is a filter mechanism, separating out the aspects of the Self that would be perilous its survival. The shadow is not just threatening from the point of view that it may shut you out of a social circle, its primary menace is that were you to really face it, the acceptance you would lose is from yourself. It means facing the possibility that you are everything and everyone you hate, fear, and condemn. It would mean the disintegration of your very sense of self.

If you’re honest with yourself, you can probably find a recent memory in which you became defencive, perhaps someone accused you of something unfairly, dismissed an opinion or challenged one of your most deeply held beliefs in some way. Or, regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, they mentioned Donald Trump. That defencive panic is the ego resisting looking at the shadow, for the very perspective, opinion, or behaviour is in your shadow appearing to you, and your instinct is to reject it violently. But these instances are infinitesimally less serious than what it would mean to actually face the full shadow within. In fact, being defencive with others is a mechanism to avoid your own shadow, but the frantic discomfort and fear is the same (only less intense). So, like society, the ego has sorted out the most flattering and advantageous identity for you to hold onto. This is not to say that the ego is made up of solely “positive” aspects, in fact it may be made up by numerous negative traits. Many people, for example, feel safest by controlling their interactions with others through hair-trigger anger, or the dishonesty of emotional manipulation. But make no mistake: in even the seemingly irrelevant defencive moments, you are not just fighting to be right, you are defending the integrity of your self-concept. You are trying to absolutely reject any idea that these unacceptable, irredeemable qualities and beliefs are not a part of you. In many ways, you are fighting to keep from falling apart.

The shadow is an intense problem for the ego because, according to Campbell, “the ego tends to identify itself with the society” and mistakes itself as the whole of your identity: “[the ego] thinks it’s you.” Because the shadow collects all that we find morally reprehensible and unacceptable, Campbell warns facing the shadow means the “destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it.” Jung points out that “to be conscious of [the shadow] involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.” What is at stake here is the very survival of the ego. To accept your shadow as real is to reveal the ego as an anodyne illusion, and your identity would be gravely shaken, if not broken. The ego is only too happy to latch onto society’s game, and, being the captain of your conscious mind, really does not identity with the shadow hidden away within. The danger arises when the shadow reveals itself to you to be accepted, and you reject and deny it: you are rejecting and denying yourself.

The defence against the shadow is to cling more desperately to the persona, but this comes at a cost: “Jung calls the individual who identifies himself with his persona a mana personality; we would call him a stuffed shirt. That’s a person who is nothing but the role he or she plays. A person of this sort never lets his actual character develop. He remains simply a mask, and as his powers fail – as he makes mistakes and so forth – he becomes more and more frightened of himself, puts more and more of an effort into keeping up the mask. Then the separation between the persona and the self takes place, forcing the shadow to retreat further and further into the abyss.” It is safer, of course, to make the shadow something terrifying and alien within you, and to push it out of sight, but as Campell tells us, it is absolutely essential that we “assimilate the shadow, embrace it.” You may be wondering, why bother facing what is repressed in the first place, especially when it threatens to shatter our very sense of self? Well, for one thing, the shadow is made up of incredibly potent energy, and unless you find a way to relieve the inner pressure of this energy, as Campbell puts is, you are going to “crack up.”

Just because the shadow is unconscious, it does not mean it doesn’t play a central role in your personality. Campbell notes that the shadow “[sets] up the slant, the posture, the structuring attitude of the individual to life.” The ego champions the values and ethics by which we live and shape our identities, while the shadow guards the rejected values. The persona is a carefully curated self-image whose purpose it is to obscure the rejected and underdeveloped parts of the self. So while the shadow is hidden from us, its absence in our persona/ego complex is as defining of our choices and attitudes as what we choose to prop up our identity. If you have filled your shadow with all of your aggressive and violent urges, when you encounter anger in the world you are going to react in a very different way to someone who has developed aggression and vengeance as part of their ego. In fact, the more a quality is buried, the stronger a reaction it’s going to evoke in you when you encounter it in the world. As Jung warns, “closer examination of the dark characteristics – that is, the inferiorities constituting the shadow – reveals that they have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy and accordingly an obsessive, or, better, possessive quality. Emotion, incidentally, is not an activity of the individual but something that happens to him.” We do not usually choose our emotions, as Jung points out, they are reflexive, automatic responses. The emotions lurking in our shadows are especially potent, they tend to be very easily triggered, and our reactions are very often disproportionate. Many of us have been goaded into “uncharacteristic behaviour,” whether it be snapping at a well-intentioned friend, or being too aggressive with a misbehaving pet or child, this impulsive reaction is the shadow breaking into our lives. We overreact precisely because the shadow has been rejected with such force that when it comes up “there’s hell to pay.” When we consistently repress the shadow, our panic feeds it the energy it needs to overcome our conscious self. Until we learn to accept the shadow and develop its energies, we are possessed by it.

It’s worth remembering, the conceit of the ego is its own self-righteousness. The survival of the ego/persona therefore requires the absolute rejection of the shadow, so society does not support, in any way, a reconciliation with the shadow. But denying the shadow is not just the denial of the less appealing qualities in our character, we bar ourselves from learning what it is to be whole. Thus Jung explains the problem: “As a totality, the Self is by definition always a complexio oppositorum [a union of opposites], and the more consciousness insists on its own luminous nature and lays claim to moral authority, the more the Self will appear as something dark and menacing.” It is naive to ask what the point of facing the shadow is: you have very little choice. The shadow is always asserting itself in your life, threatening to break into your consciousness and shatter the ego. Always. And the more you push it into oblivion, the harder it pushes back. Joseph Campbell calls this the ‘knock-knock principle:’ “the shadow comes up and you have the collision of righteous against darkness.”

Most of us, fearful of the fallout of facing the shadow and the shattering the ego, tend to cling to the ego/persona and its system of morality and judgement. But as the shadow continues to knock on the door of consciousness, a great tension is created within. Campbell explains, “Then the poor man, everything he wants to do, he doesn’t want to do, and so he’s hanging on more tenaciously than ever to the persona system. So half his energy goes into holding on to what he expects himself to be, and the other into wishing it were something else, and then he experiences depression. No energy for anything except that tension.” Campbell is sympathetic with the terror of facing the shadow: “In the myths, the shadow is represented as the monster that has to be overcome, the dragon. It is the dark thing that comes up from the abyss and confronts you the minute you begin moving down into the unconscious. It is the thing that scares you so that you don’t want to go down there. It knocks from below. Who’s that down there? Who’s that up there? This is all very, very mysterious and frightening.” It’s not hard to see the knock-knock principle at work on a social level in much of the Trump presidency, for example. This seems to very much be a shadow-era, where our identities are increasingly defined by the rejection and belittlement of the “opposition.” We are confronted every day with what we despise about each other, which happens to be what we absolutely refuse to see in ourselves.

If the state of the world concerns you, the best things you can do is answer the knock, and assimilate your shadow. For there is real danger in ignoring the shadow’s call. We cannot escape the destruction the shadow brings until we understand that nothing in this world is being revealed other than ourselves. As Jung tells us, if the Self is the total ‘union of opposites,’ just as the unmanifest realm is total Oneness, the shadow emerges as, perhaps, the greatest obstacle in the process of self-realization. At the extreme end of avoiding the shadow, Jung warns of the danger of ‘enantiodromia.’ This describes what happens when, psychologically, there is an overabundance of any one force. This is the danger of ignoring the ‘knock-knock’ of the shadow. Too much of one extreme, here, being pushed to cling more and more to the ego/persona, tends to spontaneously tip into its opposite. As Campbell puts it, “If your personal role is too thin, too narrow – if you’ve buried too much of yourself within your shadow – you’re going to dry up. Most of your energies are not available to you. A lot can get gathered there in the depths. And eventually, enantiadromia is going to hit, and that unrecognized, unheeded demon is going to come roaring up into the light.” This process can be seen in “crimes of passion,” where someone is momentarily so blinded and overcome with rage, or jealousy, that they maim or kill someone they love. Society, which only concerned with maintaining its own legitimacy, mistakes revenge for empathy: society’s response to the shadow is to flee into judgement, moral superiority and punishment. But the way to genuine compassion is through the shadow, not righteousness. Deep, truly healing forgiveness and understanding can only come from recognizing we are the same, and that no matter the outward appearance, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

There is also good news (just in time!). Campbell explains that “the shadow is the landfill of the self. Yet it is also a sort of vault: it holds great, unrealized potentialities within you.” In myth and fairy tale alike, the messenger of the shadow is often “the disgusting and rejected from or dragon … for the frog, the serpent, the rejected one, is the representative of that unconscious deep (‘so deep that the bottom cannot be seen’) wherein are hoarded all of the rejected, unadmitted, unrecognized, unknown, or undeveloped factors, laws, and elements of existence. Those are the pearls of the fabled submarine palaces of the nixies, tritons, and water guardians; the jewels that give light to the demon cities of the underworld; the fire seeds in the ocean of immortality which supports the earth and surrounds it like a snake; the stars in the bosom of immortal night. Those are the nuggets in the gold hoard of the dragon; the guarded apples of the Hesperides; the filaments of the Golden Fleece. The herald or announcer of the adventure, therefore, is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world; yet if one could follow, the way would be opened through the walls of day into the dark where the jewels glow.” Ultimately, the hero’s journey is “the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self.”

In the context of the hero’s journey, when the hero leaves the boundaries of his society and crosses the threshold into the realm of adventure, what he is really doing on the level of the psyche, is crossing the threshold of the conscious mind into the unconscious. As Campbell explains, “The ego tends to identity with the society, forgetting this shadow,” so in tales of the journey, as the hero leaves the safety of his society he is bound to meet with dangerous dragons, ogres, and monsters, beings who are spectres of the shadow and who rise up as the hero leaves the comfort of the conscious mind. Fear of facing the shadow is what creates much of the resistance to answering the call to adventure, for as Campbell warns, “Such demons … every hero must encounter who steps an inch outside the walls of his tradition.” That is, an inch outside the walls of his ego/persona’s self-concept.

The shadow always appears just beyond the edge of acceptability. For society, along with the ego and the persona (analogous with society and its pressures in the psyche), is by definition supported by the acceptable and threatened by what it rejects. The monsters met on the journey who are images of the forgotten self, only appear ‘ugly’ because they have been shunted from the light of conscious. And they are only threatening because you believe the ego is you. Campbell reiterates: “Society, of course, does not recognize these aspects of your potential self” because it can’t, to do so would be to expose the great extent to which the bounds of society itself, and not just your identity, are an illusion, rather than absolute truths. Likewise, “You are not recognizing these aspects of yourself either; you don’t know that they’re there or that you have repressed them.” As society does, the ego, your identity, depends upon internal taboos against certain ways of being, of interacting with others, and, let’s be honest, there are many character traits, attitudes and desires you would rather do just about anything than accept could even possibly lie within you. The real problem of the shadow is: do you have the courage to face yourself?

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6 Responses to The Stranger Inside Me: The Shadow Part 1

  1. I’m confused about the Shadow. It seems it’s things that others, or I, considered negative, and therefore I don’t want to acknowledge they are a part of me, they get submerged. However, I ended up very self-conscious and confused about the things people viewed as negative (SO much about me from the time I was a small child) – so I don’t know what is hidden? I still worry about these traits and wish I could cover them up and try – but I suspect they color everything. Next part of the confusion: the traits are things that I feel make me suffer, like being overly-worried, angry, sour, dour, unable to socially engage/uncomfortably quiet – so….am I supposed to embrace those things? Isn’t it natural to want to somehow be rid of those things? I’ve worked hard enough all my life to get rid of some of the social stuff, but people still perceive me as having these toxic feelings, and I think they are still there. So is that the Shadow? Only I am aware of it? Must I accept I’m this person with a toxic disposition? It’s hard to shake – even when I feel happy or neutral, it’s not the “vibe” I give off, apparently. In some ways this has been the bane of my existence.

    • Hi Sheila, I think I see where you are getting mixed up, the Shadow can be tricky! The Shadow isn’t just made up of negative traits and qualities, in the same way the ego isn’t just narcissism. Rather, think about both the Shadow and the ego in terms of identity. Who you believe you are, including all the traits, qualities, addictions, gifts and talents you acknowledge are you: that’s your ego. The rest makes up the Shadow, and this does include your undeveloped positive qualities and gifts. The key word you used is “self-conscious:” being self-conscious means you’re aware of these things as being part of your identity and therefore your ego rather than your Shadow. This isn’t to say that you like these traits, you may even hate them. Actually, the ego loves self-hate because it tends to encourage people to latch onto their egos more desperately.

      So because the ego is “you,” the Shadow tends to be encountered in other people. These are the people you immediately don’t like, that just rub you the wrong way. These are the behaviours, ideas, and qualities you have strong reactions to. This is why the universal idea of “evil” is in the Shadow, because basically no one considers themselves to be evil (and even if other people do, there’s usually a self-rationalization the defends against accepting the “evil” label). Being tied up with evil is probably why the Shadow also gets confused with just being negative stuff. And for the moments where you are possessed by the Shadow and it makes you do things you might otherwise consider to be “out of character,” we protect our self-identity and egos by telling ourselves it’s something we did but not who we are. But also, every undeveloped or unconsidered gift is in there too, so there’s wonderful and life-giving potential in the Shadow, too, but it does mean we must face things about ourselves we have previously refused to see. So, it’s definitely confusing 🙂

      To your second point of confusion, strictly speaking, those “toxic” attitudes sound like your ego and persona. Particularly the things you say people say they see in you, that would be the persona which other people help to shape, but it doesn’t mean it’s absolutely true about you. They may just be projecting their own fears and feelings onto you. But even if all these toxic things are true, there’s nothing at all wrong with wanting to change them. But there is a huge difference between being possessed by anger, for instance, which makes you lash out at people reflexively, and being aware that you’re prone to being angry. It’s very, very, very (I cannot overstate how VERY) important, however, that this awareness is non-judgemental. If you are judging or attacking yourself, you’re going to stay a hostage to it. Having compassion and understanding for yourself will create a little gap where you can make a new choice, or watch the anger rise in you without needing to lash out. It also, ideally, helps you forgive other people if they get angry with you because you know you’ve done the same, and your new self-compassion naturally becomes compassion for others. If your goal is to never be angry again, that’s just not going to happen, because it isn’t human. Negative, nasty, sometimes toxic feelings are part of being here and being alive. Awareness and compassion can help us avoid being possessed by them and therefore avoid hurting others and ourselves, but they will still be in your life, just not your way of life. I hope that makes sense.

      What I’m writing about here is really a way of looking at these things, just a different perception. It’s all really way more complicated than I make it sound. Life is messy, people are messy. And whether these things you struggle with are the Shadow, the ego, or something you ate the basic answer is the same which is acceptance from compassion and non-judgement, understanding you’ve been doing the best you can and you’re now ready to make a new choice. When it doubt: be kind, to yourself and others 🙂 You’ll never go wrong with that.

      • Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and helpful reply! Even just trying to explore these ideas as they might apply to myself feels like wandering through a forest at night without much light.

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About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.