About the Shadow

The term “shadow” was first used by Carl G. Jung to describe the parts of ourselves we hide, repress or deny…

Maybe we are affirmed for being stoic and not crying or encouraged to get angry instead; perhaps we are shamed for crying or punished for being angry; ridiculed for wanting attention or for being proud of ourselves. So, we learn to hide, repress or deny those ways of expressing ourselves; the ones that got us hurt or appeared not to be useful. According to Bly, it is as if we throw these unacceptable qualities over our shoulder into a bag – which we’ve been dragging around behind us ever since.

The term “shadow” was first used by Carl G. Jung to describe the hidden, repressed or denied parts of ourselves. Robert Bly popularized this idea in ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’. Bly says that we were each born into a “360-degree personality.” As infants, we expressed the full breadth of our human nature, without editing or censoring but as we grow older we naturally learn that it is not always possible to live like that in relationship to each other and the world.

As we grow up, we begin to believe that certain slices of our 360-degree pie are unacceptable to the people around us.

In Shadow Work, we define “shadows” as all the parts of ourselves we have stuffed into the bag. These may be “positive” parts or “negative” parts. Our shadows are all those parts we have split off and can no longer see in ourselves; the parts of ourselves we are afraid to show or admit to ourselves or to others.

We believe it is proper and useful to have a shadow bag, and to keep some shadows in the bag. But when the weight of the bag slows us down and prevents us from being who we really want to be, it is time to open it up. It is time to find a safe place to look into the bag, examine its contents, and see what needs to come back out into the light.

How to Recognise Your Shadows

Three ways to recognise our own shadows…

There are three ways to recognise what we might have in shadow:

1) What we deny about ourselves

When we deny a trait in ourselves, we tend to be very aware of that trait in other people. In the twelve-step tradition, they say, “If you spot it, you got it.” This means that we are most aware of those traits in others which reflect our own shadows, or in other words our projections onto others. We may react irrationally to one of these traits in someone else, becoming unduly annoyed or blowing things out of all proportion. This is a sign that this is in shadow for us.

2) What we admire in others

We can also notice the traits which we admire the most in others. Who do we look up to? Who are our idols? We often project our golden shadows onto others, and get stars in our eyes, because these people represent the qualities we have disavowed in ourselves out of a false sense of modesty. We could say that we paint other people with our shadows: for better and for worse.

3) What we do by accident

Another way to spot our shadows is to look for things we find ourselves doing by accident. No matter how hard we try, our shadows may leak out in a way that seems beyond our control: we may not believe we are capable of getting angry yet keep finding ourselves in charged situations! We may promise ourselves that we are going to spend more time with our family or friends, when we actually spend more time at work. We may find ourselves jumping into a questionable relationship, that we know isn’t right for us. We may ignore our own rules about eating, smoking or drinking. When we repeat a pattern of behaviour involuntarily, it is a sign that our shadow is running the show.

Further reading on the subject