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:
- is generally of the same gender as the dreamer (though the shadow can contaminate the anima/animus),
- is inhibited by the persona: the more the ego identifies with the persona, the more the shadow is unconscious. In the special case where one tries to suppress the shadow by holding to an identification with the persona (“I am like X and definitely not like Y”), the shadow will be powered-up by the rejection, making it more difficult to relate to.
- possesses a character complementary to the conscious ego (meaning that all the traits that are missing from the ego will be found in the shadow),
- mediates the first layer of the unconscious, called the personal unconscious. The second layer, the collective unconscious or objective psyche, is mediated by the anima/animus.
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.