The “shadow” is a psychological term for the unconscious part of our personality that is often revealed in our actions but not recognized by us. Jung and Freud first exposed the idea of shadow in psychoanalysis, theorizing that the shadow represents a darkness: our repressed feelings, aggression, evil, and selfishness. Other theories hold that the shadow represents everything in the unconscious mind that we don’t want to identify as self, or part of us. Our shadow aspects—and defenses around them—can often be the source of actions and behavior that cause pain in relationships. Exploring our shadow sides takes learning, openness, and courage, and can yield a sense of wholeness and completeness.

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An Introduction to the Shadow

By Connie Zweig, PhD

What is the shadow?

Personal shadow is a term coined by renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to refer to the personal unconscious, that part of our minds that is behind or beneath our conscious awareness. We can’t gaze at it directly. It’s like a blind spot in our field of vision. Because it is hidden, we need to learn how to seek it. To do so, we need to be able to see in the dark.

With shadow work, we learn how to listen to the inner voices of the shadow that lead us to do the same things we have always done without the results we want. Instead, we can detect these voices as shadow characters in the dark and work with them in a specific way.

What is the history of the shadow?

The shadow has been personified in myth, fairy tales, and movies forever. It’s the dragon or monster within us, or the Darth Vader who turns to the dark side. Or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a classic story that describes the split between ego and shadow.

In psychology, Sigmund Freud first explored and named the unconscious through free association; he saw it as entirely negative. Jung added many new dimensions, such as dreamwork, active imagination, and the reality of the collective unconscious. He also suggested that many positive, creative traits are banished into the shadow—repressed feelings, talents, and aspirations. That’s why he said that the essence of the shadow is “pure gold.”

How does the shadow develop?

The shadow develops in each of us as children as we inevitably identify with socially acceptable traits (politeness, generosity, caretaking, and so on) to form a conscious ego and banish their opposites (rudeness, stinginess, self-centeredness, and so on) into the unconscious shadow. These unacceptable feelings, images, and desires lie dormant in the shadow but may erupt abruptly in hurtful or self-destructive behavior, addiction, and projections of all kinds.

Each is reinforced by the messages, even the glances, of parents, teachers, clergy, siblings, and friends when we try to gain love and approval. If our sadness is shamed, it is exiled into the shadow. If our anger is punished, it is pushed into the shadow. Our ego develops to accommodate the loss of those authentic feelings.

For example, in the context of age, most of us learn that being independent, quick, productive, and strong are highly valued traits and having them results in rewards of approval and status. On the other hand, we learn that their opposite traits—dependent, slow, unproductive, and weak—are devalued and result in disapproval and shame. Naturally, we dread the loss of these socially acceptable traits as we age, slow down, do less, and need others more.

If our images of and associations with aging remain outside of our awareness, dormant in the darkroom, then we are blind to them. Like my eighty-nine-year-old friend who told me that he didn’t want to be with “old people” because he wasn’t like them, we deny our reality and reject a part of ourselves. Our physical, cognitive, and emotional changes carry a heavy burden of shame. But without that awareness, our opportunities are lost.

What is an experience of meeting the shadow?

We meet the shadow in many ways: feeling an unacceptable or shameful part of ourselves; unconsciously attributing that shadow to another person in projection, which results in immediate judgment, dislike, or exaggerated feelings about him/her; in addictions or compulsions, when we act out uncontrollably; in impulsive speech, when we say something inappropriate or hurtful.

When we find that we are possessed by strong feelings and our behavior is off the mark in some way, this is the shadow erupting unexpectedly from the dark. It recedes again, so that our self-image returns. As a result, we typically shift back into denial.

Then it may erupt again, creating a cycle of destructive or self-destructive behavior.

How is shadow work different from other models or ways of thinking?

Most psychotherapies focus on the ego or conscious personality, especially in cognitive behavioral or brief therapy. They do not include work with the unconscious, beneath awareness. I often say that shadow work is spiritual work in that it is best engaged after using belly breathing or other meditation practices to calm and center the body-mind.

How does shadow work serve or help someone?

When we learn how to establish a conscious relationship with those parts of ourselves that are outside of awareness, we can attune to our many inner voices and detect which ones can be guides for us now, such as higher intuition, and which can sabotage us, such as shadow characters. We can learn to slow down, turn within with curiosity, and be open to what’s calling us without dismissing it—and without being taken over by it. That’s what I call “romancing” the shadow.

The result: a deeper self-knowledge, authenticity, and freedom of choice. We can defuse negative emotions, recognize our projections and heal relationships, and expand our self-acceptance. As we heal our trauma, shame, and guilt, we can reclaim disowned parts of ourselves and eventually become more fully who we really are—spiritual beings, not the noise in our minds, not our bodies, not our stories.

What are potential risks or negative elements of working with our shadow?

People who are emotionally unstable or fragmented should not work with unconscious material.

About the Author

Connie Zweig, PhD, is a retired therapist and writer. Known as the Shadow Expert, she is coauthor of Meeting the Shadow, Romancing the Shadow, and the novel A Moth to the Flame: The Life of Sufi Poet Rumi. Her new bestselling book, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, extends her work on the Shadow into midlife and beyond and explores aging as a spiritual practice. It won both the 2021 American Book Fest Award and the 2021 Best Indie Book Award for best inspirational non-fiction. Connie has been doing contemplative practices for more than fifty years. 

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