Theory and Practice
Updated April 2021 – added a commentary on shadow encounter.
Updated January 2022 – added a comment on journaling with two pen.
Updated March 2022 – added a section on archetypal evil.
Updated October 2022 – corrected the conclusion (the shadow compensates the ego, not the persona).
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The later procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.
Carl Jung, The Philosophical Tree, CW 13, par 335
A fundamental distinction between most spiritual/religious practices and analytical psychology is the focus on the exploration of the dark side of one’s psyche. While Christians reflect and pray to the love of God and New Age people bliss out in mass meditation, individuation requires to go the other way.
Informed by alchemical sayings such as “in stercore invenitur” (it is found in filth) or “As Christ in the holy Scriptures is called the Stone rejected by the builders, so also doth the same befall the Stone of the Wise”, it is clear that the opus presents itself in an unexpected and contemptible form, disregarded by all. Not only that, the Rosarium Philosophorum tells us that “when you see your matter going black, rejoice, you are at the beginning of the work”. Self-knowledge therefore is necessarily linked with the exploration of one’s internal darkness.
This internal darkness, which is distressing to approach, is mediated by a psychic potential called the shadow.
No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.
Carl Jung, Aion – Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self, CW 9ii, par 78
Often mistaken with evil, the shadow, both complex and archetype, is the psychic (i.e., non-material) entity whose role is to bring to consciousness aspects of ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge.
The shadow is not evil because it holds aspects that can be described as bad (such as an unharnessed capacity for aggression or wrath) but also the ones that are positive (like an adventurous or creative attitude that was punished while growing up). Without mediation of the shadow, these aspects are in a limbo state in the unconscious and cannot reintegrate one’s character.
It’s important to stress that the shadow is not an abstract concept but an empirical reality. It can be studied and engaged with through dreams, journaling, creative endeavor, and active imagination. Let’s study the following dream:
I approached some strange door, apparently on an adventure of some kind, I was deep in the woods. I was facing a very run-down looking door. I attempted to open it and found it was locked, it read “Hero’s Journey, 4th Stage”.
I found myself separated from my friends; it was night-time, the sky was blood red, there were black clouds floating through it. I spotted a shadowy figure in the distance, running off into a forest. I chased after it, all the while it taunted.
Sensing that I couldn’t beat it alone, I drew some strange gun and used it to build a structure around the shadow, in order to trap it and buy time. The feeling of the scene shifted, and I found myself with a sense that it was me who was trapped rather than the shadow. The shadow laughed, congratulating me for hiding behind not one, but two walls.
This dream is almost out of a textbook. In the first paragraph, the dream presents the missing fourth (“Hero’s Journey, 4th Stage”), typically understood as the inferior function and the shadow. Thus, before the dream presents the shadow, we already have a sense that it is going to appear.
The second paragraph introduces another dark setting and isolation, a necessary separation for the coming encounter. Then, the shadow appears as a somewhat provocative character, as it usually does.
The third paragraph details the valuable lesson that one cannot win against the shadow. As the shadow is a fundamental part of the psyche, any attempt to defeat it creates only more separation and division within ourselves.
This dream points us towards the fact that the shadow can only be negotiated with. Shadow work therefore is about practicing relationships with oneself, most specifically dealing with inferior aspects that are difficult to face as equal. It is nothing less than a moral task.
While studying one’s dreams provides us with a good window into the unconscious, what happens to the shadow when it dawns into consciousness?
We can indeed become conscious of some of these hidden aspects of ourselves, but doing so requires great discernment. Unconscious aspects always appear reflected on others before we can realize that they actually come from ourselves.
This phenomenon is called projection, described as the perception of an aspect of one’s own unconscious in others (see a more complete definition here). In other words, projections are unconscious identifications with the object. This phenomenon can clearly be observed in the case of a polarizing public figure: some people see that person as the best thing that has ever happened, while the other side see him as the worst thing that has ever happened. Clearly, the political figure can’t be both at the same time, so we must be dealing with collective projections from the crowd and not with the nuanced reality of the individual itself.
Projections are beyond conscious control so we can never know when we are projecting or not, not anymore than we can will projections away either. Thus, we are left with the necessity to engage in a careful (but not neurotic!) process of self-reflection to, ideally, retrieve and understand our projections or at least to lessen our misjudgments.
Given the context of this article, I will limit myself to shadow projections. Shadow projections are what bothers us profoundly about others and arouse strong emotions. It is what we find unacceptable, sometimes even morally reprehensible, but also compels us to react with superiority, judgment, dismissal, frustration, rejection, ridicule, hatred, etc. And because projections are aspects of ourselves, there is a kind of fascination at play that prevents us from moving away from them. We are drawn again and again to the subject until we achieve closure or self-knowledge.
In my experience, just like the shadow is made of good and bad sides, there are two categories of shadow projections. The first kind of projection is an amplification of a trait of ours that is usually negative. Examples include “that person is lazy/arrogant/impatient/rude/intolerant/dumb/can’t get anything right/driven by an ideology or an agenda”, etc. Most of these judgments, if they happen to be shadow projections, are a way to ascribe our own faults to someone else instead of having to face ourselves. We might be the ones that are lazy/arrogant/driven by ideology but it is so distasteful to recognize this that we prefer to blame the other person than discover our own shortcomings.
The second category of shadow projection, which is much more difficult to self-reflect on, is when we blame a person for a quality that they have but that we lost or lack. This is best exemplified by the phenomenon of scapegoating. In that case, the projection falls onto someone who is innocent and that we end up blaming unjustly. It is very destabilizing to realize that our vindictiveness is coming from an emotional wound that belongs to us. In fact, that wound is being revealed by the presence of the scapegoat, that is a person who is not wounded like us. Examples include:
A contemplative short on the role of scapegoating in religion (see René Girard)
Because of their unconscious nature, it’s very easy to be blinded by (shadow) projections. Where we should interact with respect, honor, patience, and integrity, we carelessly throw the baby with the bathwater while feeling justified about it.
As projections cannot be prevented, we have to find strategies to limit their damaging effect.
The first strategy I use is steelmanning. When someone puts forward an opinion that I don’t understand or don’t agree with, I do my best to understand the argument, dismiss its weaker side and put forward its strongest point. This requires sometimes to put yourself on the edge of your own value system, which feels like standing over an abyss. Worse, sometimes it requires to cross over that abyss and end up with a new and alienating position. Thus, if done both intellectually and emotionally, steelmanning is very disorienting and destabilizing. But what is initially a lack of balance can become a newly found flexibility that is very rewarding.
The second strategy came to me when I was reading this quote from The Red Book: “No one rises above himself who has not turned his most dangerous weapon against himself.” This sentence made a lasting impression on me. Language being the sharpest weapon at my disposal, I decided to practice speaking only sentences that I’ve turned against myself. This means that when I say or write something, I mentally turn the sentence against myself to see if I am not projecting or blaming others for my own shortcomings.
Examples of this practice would be:
A less obvious example would be when I ask a difficult question (such as “what’s your relationship with your mother/father?” or “what future do you see for yourself?”, whatever is appropriate in a given context), I would answer that question first. The intended goal is to show that I am not here to engage in a power play with loaded questions, but rather that I understand the emotional weight of this type of question in the first place. I also find that answering hard questions genuinely has a beneficial therapeutic effect on me, which I see as a valuable opportunity.
Despite the two techniques above, it happens frequently that emotions overwhelm us when we are attempting to face what could be a shadow projection. In that case, intellectual arguments are of no use and we have to follow the emotions by shifting our attitude inwardly. This is where inner work starts.
The safest way that I’ve found is to journal. While one can always journal one’s feelings, the trick here is to use two pens: one for the inner voice of the ego, a second for the shadow voice. This two pen technique allows to exchange with the shadow in a safe environment, as long as one keep an open, compassionate and understanding attitude to the unfolding dialog.
A more structured approach to deal with emotions that overwhelm us comes from the therapeutic model called Internal Family Systems (IFS).
The meditation guides you to safely imagine facing someone who really bothers you. But instead of facing that person, you can create a mental separation between you and the behavior that triggers you by setting up an imagined window (I like to imagine a police interrogation room with a one-way mirror). It so happens that this separation puts our mental defenses at ease and they “detach” from an overactive role to a more passive role. Once this separation is achieved, caring and respectful inquiry allows us to engage with these parts of us, the so-called complex, so that we can understand them, express gratitude for their role and assist their healing process if necessary.
This introductory meditation works really well with shadow projections and is a perfect introduction to the multiplicity of the psyche.
A guided meditation to work with shadow projections.
For people who want to know more about IFS, my recommendation would be to try a more advanced mediation, read Self-Therapy or purchase IFS demonstrations.
For all the healing that one can achieve alone, I also recommend finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with so he/she can assist you.
Edit: I have written an overview of the IFS model in the article Working With Complexes.
Once comfortable with the guidance of a model like IFS, we can attempt active imagination. In this next part, I will describe how I go about doing it.
First Part – Set-Up
I lay in bed, usually late at night. I take a few deep breaths, progressively slowing down my breathing rhythm. I put my attention to my solar plexus. It moves up for every inhale and down for every exhale. I do this a few times until I feel grounded, earthed.
I do a check of my mind and my emotional state: am I calm? compassionate? curious? connected? Is my mind clear? If not, I repeat the breathing process until I feel ready to move forward.
Important note: never attempt active imagination if your mind is busy or your emotional state unclear. It will disrupt the process and, though strange things might continue to happen, nothing useful will happen. Once again, I recommend following the IFS guidelines: 1) move away from the ego into a state of Self (“Self” in IFS is different than the “self” in Jung, the Self in IFS is a state of being described by the 8 C’s: Calm, Connection, Compassion, Creativity, Clarity, Curiosity, Confidence and Courage), and 2) unblend from target or concerned parts if necessary. See Self-Therapy for more details.
Second Part – Induction
When these prerequisites are met (clear mind and emotional stability), I usually see myself next to a vortex (a sinister version of it can be found in Dark Souls II’s Opening Cinematic). Depending on my mood, I either jump through the vortex, slide down or take the stairs. Taking the stairs is the safest option. I open a door nearby and go down at least ten stairs. For each breath, I imagine myself moving one stair at a time. When I reach ten steps, I redo the mind/emotion check. If I feel ready, I imagine going through the next door, located at the bottom of the staircase. If I do not feel grounded enough, I go down some more stairs or completely stop what I am doing.
Once through the door, I end up in a place where I feel safe, a kind of inner sanctuary. Mine looks like a valley, a place where you could raise some sheep.
Third Part – Invitation
In this inner sanctuary past the vortex, I wait for something spontaneous to catch my attention. If nothing does, I either focus on a feeling I want to explore, maybe even a dream symbol, or I set an invitation for something to happen. I do the latter by spreading a picnic blanket with food and drinks. When I do that, I do not have a specific intention of what should happen but I make the invitation as convivial and respectful as possible, similar to a Japanese tea ceremony. As I imagine eating or drinking, I wait and see if something happens.
I have since recorded a video describing a similar process.
A somewhat threatening visual of the vortex I see when I go in the unconscious.
Once again, I need to emphasize the importance of doing the mind/emotion check. If something happens that makes an impression on me, I check how I feel and if it’s appropriate to continue. It’s not about repressing emotions, rather it is about becoming familiar with what I feel when I am faced with unpredictable events.
I will now detail my first encounter with the shadow and the anima.
One night, I decided to try active imagination. I followed a similar visualization like the one detailed above and ended up in my inner sanctuary. The wind was blowing gently and I sat on a bench nearby enjoying the landscape. Suddenly, I noticed that someone was sitting next to me. She was a woman that looked exactly like the fictional character I was in love with (as I wrote about here). As we sat together, I started to talk to her and she responded mostly with nods, not really with full sentences. Nevertheless, I felt deeply understood and enjoyed being around her. This would last a few days. I would go to bed at night, start doing active imagination, meet her and spend some time until I drifted to sleep.
One night, I ended up meeting her again but she took my hand and led me somewhere. I followed her until we arrived in front of a door. That door had a dark aura around it. She left me there and I knew I had to talk to the door, or rather whoever was behind the door. I asked the door who it was and it responded with a torrent of insults, which kept pouring for the next minutes. It was boiling from hatred and was ready to kill me at once, despite never crossing the door. I felt unusually safe and weathered the storm until I decided that it was enough. I told the door that I would visit again tomorrow.
The next day, I went back to the door. It started screaming at me once again. I stood a few minutes, listening to the stream of insults, and told the door that I would come back again.
This process lasted a whole week. While it might be daunting to read, I was actually happy to go through this. I had a sense that whatever was behind the door had been a prisoner for a long, long time. If one month of insults could pay decades of imprisonment, I was decided to pay the price for it. In my estimation, this was a good deal.
Around the seventh try, I came again and asked it, “So you’re finished with the insults?” and for the first time, it did not escalate. The voice was either tired or depleted. I finally was able to engage with the voice behind the door. I felt safe enough to go through it and met something that looked like a shadow being but also felt quite like my father.
The rest of the story was about acknowledging each other. I pledged that I would always be open to listen to what it had to say.
Decription: “While napping, this figure tapped me on the shoulder, waking
me, and said, “I am your shadow.” (Edward Edinger, The Living Psyche, pp. 34-35)
A few years later, I found the following quote:
The shadow is the first personification to be met in an analysis of the unconscious. It is the antithesis of the conscious personality, embodying those characteristics, potentialities and attitudes that have been rejected or depreciated by the ego. Furthermore, since there is no differentiation between contents in the unconscious, everything merging with everything else, the shadow on initial meeting carries the impact of the unconscious as a whole. Only after its encounter with the conscious ego does it begin to separate from other aspects of the unconscious and lose the feature of totality.
Edward Edinger, Melville’s Moby Dick: An American Nekyia, p 32
This definitely contextualizes what happened to me in this first encounter. The intensity that I’ve experienced then has not happened again since, though I would not say that shadow work has become any easier.
Further, Edinger makes a few additional points on the positive role of the shadow striving for consciousness. For context, the figure of Queequeg is established as Ishmael ‘s shadow in Moby Dick:
The shadow’s striving for admission to consciousness is a common theme in psychotherapy. It is often represented in dreams by primitive or uncouth figures who are attempting to break into a house. Such dreams, like Queequeg’s urge to visit civilization, indicate the shadow’s urge to participate and realize itself in consciousness. The shadow carries aspects of the personality rejected by the ego because they do not fit its ideal self-image. The shadow is thus branded as inferior and unacceptable. At a certain point in development, psychological growth cannot proceed until this attitude is changed and the shadow is welcomed into consciousness. Queequeg must leave his unconscious paradise isle and be accepted at the conscious level if the capacities he represents are to be realized in actual life.
It is by no means easy to accept the shadow. It usually involves facing one’s most serious weaknesses and fears. It is commonly thought that the acceptance of a weakness gives it a reality it will not have otherwise. The ego operates on the false assumption that it can decide which aspects of the psyche may be permitted existence. Acceptance of a weakness is equated with the condoning of it; that is, the ego acts as a judge which approves or condemns various aspects of the personality. This is the repressive attitude which split the original wholeness of the psyche and created the shadow in the first place. However, for the adult, the psyche in all its aspects is a given fact. Since it exists and has its effects, whether consciously accepted or not, it is greatly to the individual’s advantage to be conscious rather than unconscious of his or her own reality.
After Ishmael gets over his initial horror at the prospect of sleeping with a savage, he sees Queequeg chiefly in positive terms. This is commonly the effect of facing the shadow; it turns positive, at least in part. In addition, Ishmael represents an ego which is acutely aware of its own inadequacies. In such a case, much of the potential strength of the personality sinks into the unconscious, where it is carried by the shadow, making this figure more positive. We then speak of a positive shadow. Queequeg is such a positive shadow, carrying major strength and assets as yet unrealized by consciousness. His positive character is particularly evident in the prominent masculine attributes he embodies. In contrast to Ishmael, who is moody, depressive and subject to regressive tendencies, Queequeg is full of strength, dignity and purposefulness, a harpooner who has his harpoon with him, constantly. “That barbed iron was in lieu of a sceptre now.” (p. 62, chap. 12)
Edward Edinger, Melville’s Moby Dick: An American Nekyia, pp. 35-36
As I’ve outlined in other articles, the first steps of the therapeutic process are supportive ego-development, discovery of the persona, and discovery of the multiplicity of the psyche. I would also add that a rigorous practice of dream analysis should take place in parallel to this. If one cannot handle the unsavory and disorienting nature of their own dreams, moving into active imagination or shadow work is foolish for it is “made of the same stuff” but the intensity of the experience is magnified tenfold.
In any case, the discovery of the shadow opens a new step in individuation. Shadow work, which I would describe as a conscious, respectful, and ethical confrontation with the shadow, is not an easy practice. It is likely to make you sick to your stomach and open you to visit corners of your psyche that are very hard to look at. And I am not just talking about the darkness of the psyche, for it is my experience that it’s even harder to face positive qualities that were repressed or stultified.
Self-knowledge is an adventure that carries us unexpectedly far and deep. Even a moderately comprehensive knowledge of the shadow can cause a good deal of confusion and mental darkness, since it gives rise to personality problems which one had never remotely imagined before. For this reason alone we can understand why the alchemists called their nigredo melancholia, “a black blacker than black[.]”
Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par 741
On a more technical note, it’s important to know that the shadow:
Jung suggests that shadow work is the “apprentice-piece”, whereas anima work is the “master-piece” (Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par 61). Further, he describes that “the ego-personality’s coming to terms with its own background, the shadow, corresponds to the union of spirit and soul in the unio mentalis, which is the first stage of the coniunctio.” (Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par 707)
Even if individuation is not a linear process by any means, the point of these two quotes is that shadow work always comes before dealing with the next challenges of individuation (i.e., anima/animus, the self, the second or third stages of the coniunctio). Inner work is a long and slow process where skipping steps is putting oneself in troublesome waters. Be respectful of the unconscious, get familiar with your dreams, seek help when needed, learn to tamper inflation, etc.
Individuation is a natural process where the unconscious provides the ego enough material every day in the form of dreams, spontaneous fantasies, overbearing emotions, projections, etc. This abysmal material is more than enough to work on day after day, week after week, year after year.
In conclusion, the exploration of the shadow and establishing a positive relationship with it is a dreadful endeavor but it’s not optional.
All in all, the shadow is a responsibility of the ego because it represents one’s inferiority, the ugliest man within, the least of thy brethren. This inferiority contains—among other things—a modicum of a capacity to enact evil, usually covering unhealed wounds and deep traumas.
While this can be said of the personal understanding of the shadow, this must not be extended to the presence of evil as such. Archetypal evil is a factor of reality that surpasses individual existence. It cannot be integrated into the personality, nor should one feel responsible for it. Marie-Louise von Franz writes.
The servants of the work are protected from the “cold” when the adept heeds the ways of Wisdom: the devil, the destructive principle of evil87 that threatens the individuation process, would get into the work if the servant is not protected by Wisdom, and she can protect him only if the adept (the human ego) pays heed to her ways (the guiding, symbolic products of the unconscious) and comports himself as a servant. Then he and his unconscious psyche are protected against the disintegrative effect of evil.
87 This probably refers not to the “inferior” shadow, the “Ethiopian,” who represents the evil in man that can be integrated, but to that ultimate evil which no man can integrate.
von Franz, Aurora Consurgens, p. 235
When one starts working on the shadow, a demoralization is likely to happen because the traits we recognize in ourselves are found everywhere. And if we intend to work on the integration of these aspects, we have to drop our judgments and start to experience a patient, intimate, compassionate understanding for the worst of human nature. It is not infrequent that this is followed by an existential guilt and shame because of that burden. Technically speaking, this is a negative inflation and it should be only a temporary phase until one can recognize the boundary between the personal shadow and its transpersonal dimension.
For more on this topic, I recommend Robert L. Moore — The Enemy Within: Narcissism and Human Evil (from 43:00 to 50:00).
Four screenshots from the videogame Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights.
A few interesting videos are available online: Shadow Projection, Carl Jung, the Shadow, and the Dangers of Psychological Projection, How to Integrate Your Shadow – The Dark Side is Unrealized Potential, Satan, Lucifer, and the Jungian Shadow with James P. Driscoll.
For more reading on the shadow, I recommend Robert A. Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. Seminars can be found online, for instance here.
For active imagination, I’ve already laid out a few resources for IFS in the article. Otherwise, Robert A. Johnson’s Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth or Marie-Louise von Franz has two good essays on active imagination in her book Psychotherapy.
Last but certainly not least, Stefan Molyneux has a two-part podcast (part1 and part2) where he shows his own process of shadow work. This podcast teaches the right attitude to have when dealing with this most disagreeable and sometimes outrightly abusive part of ourselves.
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