The Archetype of the Shadow

The shadow archetype is depicted as a shadowy figure, often the same sex as dreamer but inferior; a zombie or walking dead; a dark shape; an unseen ‘Thing’; someone or something we feel uneasy about or in some measure repelled by or frightened of; drug addict; pervert; what is behind one in a dream; anything dark or threatening; sometimes a younger brother or sister; a junior colleague; a foreigner; a servant; a gypsy; a prostitute; a burglar; a sinister figure in the dark, a person or thing that we can see but not put a face or defined form to. Usually there is an air of disrepute about the person, or of danger. In literature we find the negative aspect of the shadow depicted in such stories as Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Frankenstein’s monster or Lurch; Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and in many stories about werewolves or haunting. Ackroyd, in his Dictionary of Dream Symbols, even points to Cinderella as a shadow figure, as she is seen as inferior by her socially accepted sisters, and is kept shut in the house, thus repressed.

But as usual we all live a dual or many sided life. So there is what Carl Jung called our ‘Golden Shadow’; this is the creative, loving and powerful side of our nature that we also tend to keep hidden, repress or do not believe we are worthy of. Many, many people hold themselves back maybe because their sense of themselves arises out of your personal misery, out of depression or emotional pain. Is that how you see yourself? Is that the limit of what you know yourself to be? Is that the lie that you have taken to be the truth? If that is so it is a tragedy. It is from that painful, tiny and limited world that you are rescued by the action of the core. When you recognise that it enables you to transcend the prison bars of those limitations. See Opening to Life 

In occult literature the Shadow is called The Guardian of the Threshold. It is described as a great – subjective – figure we meet at a certain stage of growth. The Guardian holds in it all the negative and positive actions and deeds that have been repressed aspects of self committed or developed in the past, even in past lives, which must be met and transformed or allowed to grow more fully. See: guardian of the threshold.

The Shadow is any part of ourselves that we reject, and so do not allow sufficient expression in our life. We may so dislike aspects of our nature we fail to recognise them altogether and instead see them in other people and criticise them. Nations as well as individuals do this. The Nazis projected all problems onto the Jews. The Americans have not wished to see their own social sickness, and looked instead at the Russians. No doubt the Irish blame the English, and the English use the class system, with its projections between employee and employer. It is easier than looking at one’s own shadow. The foreigner is one of the favourite shadow projections. This may be because through living in our culture we develop certain likes and dislikes, certain value judgements and ways of doing things. In other cultures their normal and acceptable values and ways of living may be vastly different. In dealing with the foreigner we therefore meet our own unconscious potential for living in a different way. Many individuals who worked in the British Commonwealth in vastly different cultures to their own, started out loathing the native customs, and then changed their life to live within the new culture. In the English language it was called ‘going native’.

The shadow develops in us, according to Jolande Jacobi, because as we grow and absorb our culture, we naturally repress parts of our nature as they are not acceptable to ourselves and/or society. These grow and mature in just the way our conscious personality does, through experience and further information – except the shadow has a life under the surface – in the darkness – like any socially unacceptable organisation, criminal activity or individual. But often it is the functions or instincts in us that date from prehistory, when present day social and sexual restraints did not have survival value, that make up a large part of the shadow.

If you can think of the characteristics you loathe in others, that is a fair picture of what you repress in yourself. The great ‘ladies man’ may hide a shadow which feels inadequate sexually. The loving Christian mother might meet a shadow full of resentment and anger at how she has been taken for granted. The rigid heterosexual might hide homosexual tendencies. Meeting the shadow through our dreams is a meeting with our own reality, which in turn enables us to look at the world realistically. If the shadow can be met it leads to wholeness.

Example:  During his analysis of women patients, sexual advance or assault by the woman’s father was often revealed. Freud struggled with this, wondering whether the assault was memory of an actual event, or a psychic reproduction of it. He eventually came to the conclusion that hysterical and neurotic behaviour was often due to the trauma caused by an early sexual assault by the parent. Where there was not evidence of physical assault, then he saw the neurosis as due to sexual conflict or a trauma caused by some other event. This led to Freud being rejected by university colleagues, fellow doctors, and even by patients.

This an excellency example of the shadow working in individual and society. People refused and still do refuse to see the awful side of the repressed side of ourselves and others. Fraser Boa tells the story of a man who told his analyst he had dreamt of Red Rooster – a cartoon character used in American national parks. Red Rooster is bossy and tells people to keep their litter and cigarettes and not to make a mess. The analyst asked the man if he recognised Red Rooster in himself. After some thought he said no, he couldn’t see he was like that. The analyst suggested he go ask his wife if she could see Red Rooster in him. He did this and was astonished when she said she could. After a few minutes of his attempts to suggest she was mistaken, she suggested he ask each of his three children. He took each one aside and was amazed when each said that of course they could see Red Rooster in him. He was always bossing people around and being authoritative. Red Rooster was his shadow.

A main feature of many archetypal figures, and particularly of the shadow, is their autonomous activity in us. This is called an autonomous complex, or in some schools ‘sub personality’. We experience this as an influence to act in particular ways that have a lot of feeling and motivation in them, but may be very different to our image of ourselves. For instance we may deeply criticise a man for leaving his wife for another woman, only to find later that we have the same urge, and have been denying it. Therefore, when we detest something in another person, our dislike for them is very strong and often unreasonable in its degree. So much so that we cannot stop mentioning them or criticising them. See: autonomous complex; sub-personality.  

P. W. Martin says the shadow is ‘something which comes between a person and their fulfillment: his laziness, his fecklessness, his tendency to let things slide or to over-do things, his cowardice, his rashness, his self-indulgence, his carping and envious nature, his murkiness.’ It is all the negatives which we prefer not to see about ourselves.

Example: Before I started my serious yoga practice I had dreamt my wife and I had been talking about whether there were any ghosts in the house. On going to bed I sat in bed and challenged any ghosts to show themselves, certain I could handle them. There was no response, and feeling rather smug I lay down to go to sleep. Just then the door creaked open, and in walked two black men who looked as if they had climbed out of an old grave. Their flesh was falling off them and they were blank eyed. I was terrified and made the sign of the cross and said a few holy words to ward them off. It worked and they went, but not for long. This time all my signs and prayers didn’t get rid of them and they put their dead hands around my throat strangling me. I woke screaming and frightened. Some years later I dreamt of these two black men again, this time on an underground train. They were no longer zombies and were well dressed. One of them still went for my throat though. I caught his hands and wrestled with him, pulling his hands down, overpowering him. As I did so I realised this was what yoga had done – given me the strength to meet this attack. After another long period of time another dream came in which I was sitting with this black man in a circle with other people meditating. We were all opening ourselves to the spiritual power. Suddenly the power took hold of my whole body and moved me around the room, along with the chair I was sitting in. Then I experienced it moving my mouth and vocal organs, speaking through me. The word flowed through me talking to the group about the spiritual life. Afterward the black man came to me and asked if I had really been moved, or was I acting. I said as far as I knew it had been spontaneous, not acted. He said he would like to surrender to that same influence with me. What I gathered from these dreams was that originally I had repressed parts of my own natural sexual feelings, shown as the black men. They were dead because I had killed this part of myself as a teenager. But I was deeply frightened of these sexual urges because of what had happened in adolescence. Therefore, in my meditation, in trying to enter more fully into myself, I always turned back through fear, because in meeting more of myself, I met these black men – my own sexual urges. My practice of yoga had gradually helped me find strength in meeting this part of myself, show in the second dream. There was also a change going on in my unconscious – the underground train – as the men were healthy and well dressed.

However, because the shadow is the ‘out of sight’ area of our psyche, it also holds in it great treasure through its connection with our unconscious potential. In fact a great deal of our energy is involved in our ‘negatives’. When we meet our shadow or our fears, we are enormously more energised. Meeting the shadow and unfolding the possibilities held unexpressed is our life’s work. Without it we may never become the mature and full person we are capable of. As Prospero says of Caliban, we need to say ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’. Through this we gain not only our own greatness, whatever that might be, but also the acceptance of our common connection with humanity. Jung says that if we could fully meet our shadow, we would be immune to any moral or verbal insinuations. We would already have seen this for ourselves. Finding this sort of transformation to a state beyond guilt is a task for the hero/ine who has the strength to descend into the underworld and wrestle dark creatures; to open Pandora’s Jar and deal with what is revealed. See: black person; black under colour; shadow.

Useful Questions and Hints:

What do I hate in others – and what can I gather from that about what I repress in myself?

Where is my shadow appearing in my dreams – and what happens if I explore its qualities?

For help doing this see Talking As and Processing Dreams. If I observe what I think and feel, can I catch myself editing/deleting certain thoughts or feelings?


-boobies 2014-04-06 21:20:08

boobies are the best

    -Tony Crisp 2014-04-07 8:14:06

    They seem to be in short supply where I live. Hope you have more luck.

-XxdeathbedxX 2013-01-18 18:58:20

it describes me personaly n many of my friends too. i am a high schoolar doing a reaserch project on this and some other helpful example of this archetype is Enemy Within
•Enemy Without
•Evil Counterpart
•Evil Twin
•Contrasting Sequel Main Character
•The Cowl to The Cape
•The Dark Magical Girl to the Magical Girl heroine
•Some Psycho Rangers to the Five-Man Band
•Some, but not all Superpowered Evil Sides

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