A Study in Shadows: Four Principles


A study of shadows1.  A basic principle of Jungian psychology is that we all have a conscious ego self and an unconscious “other” self. The unknown other contains the personal and collective qualities of our psyche of which our ego self is unaware or which it disowns.  Jungians call the personal parts of the other—the parts unique to us as individuals—our “shadow.”  Some shadow qualities are helpful, some, harmful.
Our shadow’s healthy and spiritually desirable features are our “light” shadow.  Like a sunken treasure chest, it contains valuable potential we have not yet accessed. The potentially harmful features comprise our “dark” shadow.  Everyone, from the most enlightened spirit person to the most disgusting criminal, has some of both.  Even you and I.
2.  A corollary principle is that ignoring and/or denying our shadow, light or dark, causes inner conflict and is a primary obstacle to individuation. Many people are not aware of inner discomfort or else are not troubled enough by it to seek relief. Perhaps they inherited excellent coping skills, or good parenting made them feel confident and worthy, or they made lucky choices that brought fulfilling work and supportive relationships. Others are aware of their shadows but ignore them out of habit, embarrassment or pride, or because they don’t want to upset the status quo and risk societal disapproval. Some find comfort in group membership and service to others. Some escape through addictions.
But some people cannot escape their shadows, not because they’re worse than anyone else’s, but because their egos are highly sensitive to inner wounds that separate them from themselves, each other, and the world. We all have inner wounds. They can be caused by early neglect or trauma; social, economic, or educational disadvantages;  unfulfilling work; dysfunctional relationships; physical challenges; or inherited psychological traits. Whatever the cause, the luckiest among this type find relief by turning inward to face their shadows.
Regardless of how we handle our shadows, we’re all influenced by them and occasionally overwhelmed by them. When this happens we automatically know that the other person or outer circumstance has driven us to justifiable frustration. Caused us to act defensive, touchy, petulant or moody.  Made us feel put-upon, embarrassed, hurt, misunderstood, angry, rebellious, anxious, vengeful, superior, disdainful, hopeless, and so on. Anyone in our situation would respond as I did, we think.
If we think about it at all.  Mostly we don’t reflect on our emotions or behavior. We’re so busy gathering our defenses that we don’t hear the scathing tone of our voice or notice the pleasure it gives us to vent powerful emotions. We can’t see that our true motive is not to tell the truth with kindness and love, but to do whatever it takes to reinforce our position, win the argument, and ease our anxiety. In such moments of offended self-righteousness we believe we are the innocent, injured party, but we are, in fact, the embodiment of our dark shadow.
3.  The third principle is better news:  Accepting the reality of our shadow and developing a relationship with it initiates us into the inner journey to wholeness. Unfortunately, the gate to this path can only be opened by a rare and elusive key.  This key is growing consciousness.
4.  The fourth principle explains it: We discover our shadow by cultivating awareness of our habitual dysfunctional attitudes and problematic emotions as they occur, then choosing to change them. The repeating messages (old tapes) that amass our ego’s defenses are the trumpet blare announcing the arrival of our shadow. In the instant when our ego is conscious of our shadow we are lifted by grace from the dark realm of blind reaction into the enlightened realm of original choice.
Let the journey begin.
My newest book, Healing the Sacred Divide, can be found at this Amazon link or at Larson Publications, Inc.
The beautiful image on the cover of Faint Illuminations: A Study of Shadows and Light, is used with the permission of the photographer, Rudy Castillo.

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0 Responses

  1. Excellent post. Very timely. I’m slowly waking to my shadow, as you’ve seen, but it is hard to know how to work WITH it.

    1. Hi Viv. Thanks. It is hard to know, but it’s the magnum opus of our lives and worth every effort we make because it opens us to forgiveness and compassion and shows us our true selves.

  2. Thank you Jean…so much truth and simplicity here, yet it is THE issue that causes us so much turmoil when ignored. I am slowly learning that. I love how succinctly you have put it here. I would love to re-blog with your permission.

    1. You’re very welcome. I agree that it is the issue upon which so much, if not all our dysfunction hinges. I appreciate your kind words. I would be honored to have this post re-blogged at your site! Thank you.

    1. You’re very welcome, Tallulah. Give your dream groups a “thumbs up” from me and tell them I said you and they are doing the kind of work that really matters. That heals and changes and makes a difference. New Year’s blessings to you too.

  3. It’s interesting that you chose a photograph of a woman (carrying a bag?) descending a stairway (partly lighted, partly in darkness) to accompany this post. When I was in therapy, I had many dreams involving stairways. Usually, I was climbing stairs. Sometimes, a person would be descending towards a landing as I ascended towards the landing.

    1. This picture just spoke to me. I had to call the artist’s cell phone in California to get his permission to use it! I thought it was a tall dog! Maybe a poodle with fluffy ears, although a bag would be fine too. I like the idea of a dog descending into the unconscious with the woman. For Jung, going down stairways signified going down into the unconscious and dogs were often psychopomps, or spiritual guides through the underworld! Going up stairs (or mountains) would signal spiritual aspirations. I had a dream this past year of going up stairs and being followed, then preceded, by two large dogs who got in my way near the top! Wonderful stuff. Thanks for writing.

    1. Thank you so much. It’s true. I’ve just written my next post about how I wouldn’t have grasped the idea of “original choice” until I had my dark night experience. Our pitiful little egos think we know so much until life teaches us otherwise!! Thank goodness for life experiences that challenge the complacency of our egos!! Appreciate the re-blog.

  4. It’s mind-blowing how our children, and those who resent or dislike us, tune in to our darker sides. And way more easily than we are willing to do
    I find two things invaluable. First to examine the criticism aimed toward me by ‘less worthy and far less virtuous’ souls. This can produce major breakthroughs. The second is to study the characteristics I particularly loath in others, then do some detective work on my own unowned characteristics. Bingo. Invariably ‘they’ are giving life to that which I have buried. And how dare they do this when I can not!
    I sense that I’m on the right track here, but would appreciate it if you’d comment on these points. Thank you Jeanie

    1. You’re totally on track. I know. Isn’t it just wrong that others can see our shadows and we can’t?
      Criticism from “less worthy and virtuous souls” reveals their shadows! They’re criticizing things in you they either envy or else don’t like about themselves. Perhaps these things are not as problematic in you as they are in them, but there’s some part of you that gives them a little “hook” to hang their projections on. So if you’re their target it can help to remind you that while there’s probably a grain of truth in their criticism, it’s just as true of them too, if not moreso. In other words, criticism is more about the criticizer than the criticized! Nonetheless, we can learn a lot about our shadows if we listen well, take what they say seriously, reflect on our own thoughts, words and behavior, and admit to the truths we see. Critics can also be teachers. Thanks for your thoughtful and utterly pertinent comments!

  5. What a wonderful post. As one who continueously urges others as well as myself to try and see things from every perspective and not just their own, it was great to read this. This is a great way to put into words that which leads to our lack of willingness to forgive others and unwillingness to admit we’re wrong.
    When we all recognize that we do indeed have this darker side, our shadow self, we can better understand how we can find the means to forgive others for their mistakes as well as be able to admit that we’re not perfect. Again, what a wonderful post.
    And I’m glad you found my photograph intriguing.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Rudy. And thanks so much for letting me use your haunting photo! It was perfect for this post. By the way, is that a dog or a bag by the woman’s side? 🙂

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