As I wrote yesterday, the Shadow is the elemental, foundational archetype representing all that is instinctual-the latent dispositions common to all people. The Shadow stands at the threshold between the consciously perceived outer world and our unseen, unperceived inner world of which we are unconscious. Jung wrote that the unconscious may be likened to what the Bible calls the “heart” of a person; “in the chambers of the heart dwell the wicked blood-spirits, swift anger and sensual weakness” (Archetypes 20). Regarded from a conscious viewpoint, the unconscious world seems full of dangers and one who descends is always in imminent danger of attack.
In reality, a person’s unconscious is simply a mirror of his own face. “Whoever goes to himself,” writes Jung, “risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face” (Archetypes 20).
Christians will be familiar with this verse from Saint James that speaks to the benefits of self-knowledge:
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does (James 1:23-25 NASB).
The first step in the journey of individuation-of developing personality-is the step toward self-knowledge through the Shadow archetype. This confrontation is the first test of courage on the Quest, so substantial that it frightens most people off the Quest altogether,
. . . for the meeting with ourselves belongs to the more unpleasant things that can be avoided so long as we can project everything negative into the environment. But if we are able to see our own shadow and can bear knowing about it, then a small part of the problem has already been solved: we have at least brought up the personal unconscious. The shadow is a living part of the personality and therefore wants to live with it in some form. It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness. This problem is exceedingly difficult, because it not only challenges the whole man, but reminds him at the same time of his helplessness and ineffectuality” (Jung, Archetypes 20-21).
The essential idea behind the Shadow is that we are not in control. It is no wonder, then, that the most effective of all addiction recovery programs begins with the first step, “We admitted we were powerless . . . and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Far too few strong people, full of ideas about how they are heroically beyond good and evil, admit that there are problems they can’t solve, people and events over which they are truly powerless, and most importantly inner personalities and energies that are beyond their conscious control. Prayer is one example of an attitude that expresses the truth that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to a sanity we cannot possibly achieve ourselves. The person who reads this and objects, “But I’m no powerless addict! I’ve got self-control!” is a perfect example of the individual lost in illusion. Friend, get thee hence to thy Shadow archetype!
Because the Shadow archetype stands at the threshold to adventure in the grand Quest of individuation, a meeting with him or her is inevitable. As I have stated before, the Shadow image in our dreams, daydreams, and often (but not always) our projected shadow contents. If you are male, your Shadow image will be male; if female, she will be female. To whatever extent one’s own shadow is projected outwardly (good riddance!), it will be activated by people who remind us of what we reject in ourselves; this will not always necessarily occur with people of the same gender. For example, a man with a complex of emotions related to his overbearing mother will probably have his shadow contents activated by powerful, middle-aged women. However, a powerful, middle-aged man or a circumstance that feels like mother, or activates unconscious memories of his childish helplessness in the face of Mother, will activate the complex. Then, because his Shadow is not consciously available to help him, the Shadow will collude with the range of emotions connected to Mother, and the hero will find himself helpless to understand, much less control, his reactions to such people or events.
“The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well” (Jung, Archetypes 21). The confrontation with the shadow usually feels so restrictive because it is made up of all the contents that we own but have repressed. Most of us repress some of the qualities we don’t allow into the persona, the self we show the world; most of us face a few of our dark qualities, perhaps enough to support a religious conversion, our faith, or a spiritual life. We may be able to consciously choose when to use that hot temper and when not to; when to cuss and when to withhold the curse. But most of our shadow contents are repressed; these become part of our hidden dark side, hidden and dark because we keep it out of the light.
The shadow lies in the unconscious, but it is part of the psychic content closest to the ego and the conscious world because it has once been, or could have been, conscious. However, it becomes a threat to the person when we shut it away, forget it, and refuse to recognize it. Like a child chained in a cage, it becomes more and more defiant, grows bigger and bigger, and eventually demands a life of its own. Think of stories like Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick; these are just a few examples of stories about how the shadow is has a life of its own. If denied, it eventually becomes a self-willed autocrat over which we have no self-control.
The task of the person on the quest of individuation is to stop identifying with the persona and to consciously assimilate the shadow. One has arrived when she has an ego strong enough to acknowledge both the persona and the shadow without identifying with either. This is easier said than done, because we identify with our strengths, with what comes easily. The socially acceptable persona is rewarded in life, and we have no good reason to give it up unless forced. What force brings us to that face-to-face encounter with the shadow? The force of events that are beyond our control and in the face of which our persona is powerless. The persona is our BFF until he or she lets us down; normally, this occurs when we fall into a pit, so to speak, from which the persona cannot extricate us. This pit is one of the most profoundly meaningful gifts we can receive in life.