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.
The Unlived Life
The shadow and everything associated with it is synonymous with the unlived life. Whatever we are today and whatever we aspire to be are also measures of what we are not. Some of it is repressed because it’s unacceptable to ourselves or others; some is merely unrealized potential. Because of our resistance to our shadow contents, we fear the influence of the shadow. Consciously trying to assimilate shadow contents is like a spooky walk down a dark alley: we can’t see what’s there, so even the mundane takes on sinister aspects. This is the problem of repression, not the problem presented by the actual shadowy stuff we’ve kept under wraps.
By way of illustration, take for example the extroverted person. He is unbalanced when it comes to his need to ponder, to introspect and discover his shadowy, repressed contents. His introverted qualities are in the shadows, so they are primitive and unadapted; they do not respond to his calls, because he has refused to work with the shadow side. Thus, when he knows he needs to spend time thinking, doing inner work, pondering, ferreting out answers to some questions, the lure of the active, extroverted world is too large: he accepts a friend’s invitation to go to the movies and puts off, one more time, the call of his inner world. Or, if a student, he postpones the invitation of the quiet library and that term paper needing to be written, and goes to a party instead. The student’s shadow contents will visit him in his dreams, as he dreams of going to class naked or going to class, only to find that the final exam is being given and he hasn’t studied. The shadow always demands its due if we give it nothing.
Or, perhaps an extraverted, happy mood is needed to help carry off that dinner party or other social event to which you committed; but for some reason, you can’t call up the Spirit of Sociability. She has left you stranded, and you find yourself uncomfortable and bored in the midst of the revelers. Once again, you realize that you can’t control your shadow, and she demands a token at the turnstile.
Salesgirl from Hell
An actual example from my own life of manifesting formerly repressed shadow contents occurred in a shocking way, which means I’ll never forget it. From a young age, I had always been a “nice” girl. In fact, once in college I ran into an old elementary school classmate, Chris, at a fraternity party. We were very surprised to see each other again, and reminisced about our old third and fourth grade classes together and what had happened to some of our classmates since. I commented that it seemed so surprising to run into Chris at a fraternity party, since neither of us had seemed the social types in elementary school. Chris expressed surprise at my statement, protesting, “What?! But you were always so popular and well-liked; everyone liked you, and you were so nice and sweet!”
I could not have been more surprised to hear Chris describe me in those terms. From my perspective, I had been an awkward, shy child who had worked hard to manifest the skills necessary to social success. In third and fourth grade, I had experienced painful rejections from other children based on my fanciful, quirky, and imaginative personality; I did not consider them positive traits. Perhaps I made a move then toward “niceness,” and began to develop the persona of the Nice Smart Girl who would cause offense to no one; but, whatever the case, I certainly did not regard myself as “nice.” Or did I?
Evidently, what Chris said was true. I had been a Nice Girl, and had buried my fang-and-claw self deep under the guise of Nice Girl. Since Nice Girl is always acceptable in her guises as Nice Woman, Nice Mother, and Nice Wife (not to mention Nice Daughter, Nice Neighbor, and Nice Co-Worker), I had built up quite a Nice Persona by the time I was in my 30s.
And then, I fell into the pit of graduate school and began to really learn about psychology—other people’s psychology, of course. I began to see that I had left behind major portions of my real self and started looking for them, and timidly sending subtle, conscious signals into my inner realm, inviting them to manifest. And so it was that one day I went to the mall to buy running shoes at a store specializing in athletic shoes, where a salesman sold me a pair of running shoes that he said would be perfect. My feet disagreed the moment I put them on, but of course, being a Nice Woman, my brain could not disagree. I ignored the slight twinges of pain at the ball and toe of my right foot, and I took the brand-name shoes home.
Later I decided to wear the shoes in the house, on carpet, to “break them in,” a continuation of my Nice Woman denial, for I know perfectly well that any shoe that does not fit at the store is not going to fit later at home. But I denied that still, small voice of reason and balance and stubbornly wore the shoes around the house, demanding that my feet like them.
Well, my feet refused to cooperate. The shoes hurt. I put them back into the box, making sure that they were in pristine, returnable condition (they were). I went back to the store to make the return, but by that time, my salesman had already gone home. Instead, a salesgirl stood behind the counter, and as soon as I walked into the store I knew she wasn’t a Happy Person (which in translation means that I was already projecting my shadow contents onto her). I approached the counter, explained the situation, showed her the shoes and my receipt of earlier in the day, and smiled sweetly, inviting assistance and a cash refund in the way only a Nice Woman can.
But, true to form (because I had already thrown the cloak of my shadow onto her), Salesgirl from Hell denied me the refund. “We don’t do refunds on shoes that have been worn,” she said.
“But they haven’t been worn,” I replied.
“You said you wore them around your house,” she countered.
“On carpet! Look at them!” I insisted, “Smell them!” I stuck my own nose into each shoe and took a deep whiff. “They still smell brand new!”
Salesgirl from Hell folded her arms and obstinately replied, “Doesn’t matter. No refund. It says so right there.” She pointed to a small sign posted behind the counter. It did, in fact, say no refunds on worn shoes.
A surge of anger rushed up inside me from some unknown depth, like hot water from a geyser. I leaned across the counter to within a foot from her face, swept the shoes, box, bag, and receipt off the counter toward her, and burst out, “You can take these shoes and stick them up your ass!”
I stomped out of the store, straight to my car, and drove home in a rage.
About halfway home, I thought about how I was a children’s Sunday School teacher, and about how I had taught an adult marriage class recently. I thought about how I had received a community-wide award for my mothering the previous year, and how my family had been publicly recognized (in a parade, no less) for our wonderfulness.
I saw myself practically spitting at Salesgirl from Hell and telling her to shove those shoes up her ass, and I was utterly ashamed of myself. What would she think if she ever saw me at the mall with my children? What would she say if she knew that I was training as a therapist by that time? What would anyone think if they had witnessed that exchange and later read one of my advice columns, parenting articles, or heard me teach or preach about being a Better Nice Person?
About five days later, I had another run-in with a sales clerk, this time at Walgreens, where I had taken a photo for copying, and some film for development. This sales clerk, too, was in her early 20s and dark headed. She told me I couldn’t copy something that was copyrighted, even though the work I was copying was my own (I held the copyright on the photograph). She refused to hear me and I told her to go fuck herself. I later wrote the manager a letter and after several telephone calls nearly succeeded in having this clerk fired for her refusal to listen to me as I tried to explain that I was the photographer and copyright holder to the photograph she told me I could not copy.
That’s the week my shadow contents evolved from the uninspired invitation to stick-these-shoes-up-your-ass to the mandate, “go fuck yourself.” Both demands involve violent suggestions to go into dark, private places that nobody wants messed with except by mutual consent. Both clerks refused to listen to me or help me, just as I had obstinately refused to listen to or help my repressed shadow parts. My Bad Girl, Angry Girl, Pissed-Off-Woman, PMS-Avenger, and the other host of normal, grumpy, insufferable, difficult, contrary selves had all been buried alive so that I could present the Nice Woman face to the world.
A storm was a-brewin’, you bet.
I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!
Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Sharp, Daryl. Jungian Psychology Unplugged: My Life as an Elephant. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1998.
von Franz, Marie-Louise, and Hillman, James. Lectures on Jung’s Typology. Zürich: Spring Publications, 1971.