What Is Shadow Psychology?

Updated June 02, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

The image of a shadow can carry powerful meanings in literature and art. It can foreshadow sinister events or alert the reader or viewer to hidden dangers or forces. Shadow is also the image Carl Jung chose to describe an aspect of the human psyche. Theories about shadow psychology had their beginnings in the work of Sigmund Freud and had continued to influence thinking on the unconscious ever since.

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What Was Freud's View On Consciousness?

Freud's topographic theory was the first attempt to map out the human psyche in modern times. This theory states that there are three levels of consciousness: the conscious, the unconscious, and the preconscious.

The conscious is the part of the mind that's within your awareness in this present moment. The preconscious mind contains all those memories that are within easy recall but not in present awareness. The unconscious is the part of the psyche that's hidden from awareness and difficult or impossible to recall.

To Freud, the unconscious was a store of urges, desires, and memories that the conscious mind kept buried to protect itself. Yet, he strove to uncover what was in the unconscious mind. He believed that once unconscious urges and motivations were brought to light, they could be dealt with directly and overcome. He assumed that healing would take place when the patient experienced catharsis by releasing what was in the unconscious.

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How Did Carl Jung See Consciousness?

Freud's conception of the unconscious probably formed a part of the basis of the shadow consciousness that Carl Jung, his student, and colleague, later studied and described. Jung developed his theory of light and shadow psychology throughout his life.

Jung's methods included: analyzing dreams, doing word association work, and working with the active imagination. He spoke about his theories in a lecture series in 1935, outlining and detailing his fascinating theories about the human mind. The idea of the shadow was a part of his work.

Jungian Psychology Shadow Definitions

In Jungian psychology, shadow can refer to two different concepts. In one sense, the shadow includes everything in the unconscious mind, good or bad. In another shadow psychology definition, the shadow might include only the part of the personality that you don't want to identify as self but still is an unconscious part of your mind. This dark side of your personality contains everything your conscious mind can't admit about itself.

The Shadow And Archetypes

Jung was very interested in archetypes and often referred to them in his writings about shadow psychology. What are the archetypes? The word is used in art and literature as meaning a symbol or motif that recurs, either in one work or across many.

For Jung, the archetype had a much broader and yet more complex meaning. He considered archetypes as ideas and possibilities that are common to all humans. He saw them as "systems of readiness." Archetypes, in the Jungian sense, show up as images and emotions but are something much deeper that can't be described.

Jungian archetypes are systems and ideas that come built into the structure of the brain, inherited by every human. One might say that Jung saw archetypes as a car seller sees the basic equipment of a car - common to every example and needed to fulfill its basic functions. He also believed that archetypes represent a goal or prize the whole of conscious human strives to attain. Archetypes come from the collective unconscious.

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The Shadow And The Collective Unconscious

The collective unconscious is another important concept to Jungian psychologists. Within an individual's unconscious is a special part that all humans share. This is the collective unconscious. It contains all the ancestral memories and experiences that are passed on to everyone. It's separate from the person's own individual unconsciousness memories and experiences.

What Is The Light of Consciousness?

The conscious part of your mind can be seen as the part that is bathed in light, easily seen and understood. When an urge or conflict is within the shadow, you can't deal with it directly. It has a profound impact on your thoughts and behaviors, but in a way that you can't be directly aware of at the moment.

However, when these forces are in the light of consciousness, you can use logic and reason as you seek to understand yourself better. Jung believed that each age had the task of understanding the archetypes of the collective unconscious. The archetypes can never be overcome or set aside without harming mental health, but they might be understood.

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Is The Shadow Positive Or Negative?

It might seem that the shadow is a negative space filled with only bad things. If you're using the definition that the shadow is the part of the human mind that contains the urges and motivations your conscious mind doesn't want to self-identify, then that is exactly what it is.

On the other hand, if you see the shadow as all of the unconscious minds, it may contain many positive things, such as long-ago memories. In this sense, positive archetypes may also be included in the shadow.

Layers Of The Shadow

Jung talked about layers of the shadow. The upper layers were the things in the mind that you could keep out of consciousness by shifting your attention, being forgetful, or repressing them. These upper layers are a part of the individual's direct experiences.

The deeper layers of the shadow are the archetypes shared by all humans. Jung doubted that these deeper layers could ever be brought into the direct personal experience. They are there within the human brain, independent of the conscious mind.

The Shadow And Projection

Jung's theories included the idea of the projection of the shadow. When there's a part of your mind that you can't accept as a part of yourself, you can't experience that part of your mind through directly experiencing it. Instead, you project that fault or unacceptable urge onto the morality of someone else.

Jung suggested that projection of the shadow happens when you see your shadow. Being confronted with some undesirable or embarrassing part of yourself, you immediately see that quality in someone else. It's only through disciplined self-education that you can understand what's in the shadow and deal with it.

How Does The Shadow Appear?

Like Freud, who spent a great deal of his professional career analyzing dreams, Jung saw value in understanding dreams. Jung stated that an individual could see their own shadow in dreams as well as visions.

Jung suggested that if someone saw their shadow in a dream, it would appear as a person of their same sex. Although Jung's idea of the appearance of the shadow came from the individual's experiences, later theorists suggested that it also contained the shadow of society.

The way you interact with the shadow within your dream of vision may hold important information about your state of mind. It may reveal hidden conflicts within your mind or ways you see yourself as different and often better than the shadow.

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The Shadow And Individuation

Jung wrote at length about individuation and how the shadow played into that. Jung said that individuation was a process of developing the individual personality that could result in mental and physical healing. The process was one that brought the shadow into the light, uniting the personal and collective unconscious and bringing them into the conscious mind.

When a person makes the journey from defining themselves as a conventional mask or persona to becoming fully individuated, there is a danger that the shadow will overwhelm them. However, the shadow can be integrated into consciousness as a first step of the psychoanalytic process. From there, the shadow must continue to be acknowledged throughout life.

The Shadow And Creativity

Because the shadow contains elements of the psyche that are hidden, it may be the root of creativity. The archetypes and all their motifs, metaphors, images, and emotions play a large part in the creative arts. Also, art recognizes the dark, undesirable parts of the self and puts them on display, even when the conscious mind can't acknowledge them, by presenting them as fictional characters or artistic images.

Doing Shadow Work

People who are suffering may go to therapy not knowing what is wrong. Therapists who recognize the concept of the shadow in psychology can help them do what's called "shadow work." So, what is shadow work?

Shadow work is any type of therapy or another endeavor that seeks to reveal what lies within the shadow. There are many benefits to shadow work:

  • Relief of mental and physical suffering
  • Greater personal authenticity
  • Increased creativity
  • Greater energy
  • Improved relationships
  • Greater maturity
  • Clarity of perceptions

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Many types of therapy can be used for shadow work. Art therapies are often extremely helpful in revealing and overcoming what is hidden in the shadow. One key to shadow work, as described by Zweig and Wolf in 1997, was that the shadow was "not a problem to be solved, it is a mystery to be faced."

Talk therapies can also be helpful for shadow work. The therapist provides a safe space where the person who is suffering can explore their shadow freely. Resistance can come up, causing the person to retreat from or lash out against therapy. However, resistance can be overcome, and therapy can move forward to gain all the benefits of revealing and understanding the shadow.

If you're suffering from mental or emotional problems, you can talk to a therapist about shadow work and other types of therapy. Licensed counselors are available at BetterHelp.com to help you find the right solutions and treatments. They can help you understand yourself better and ultimately, to live a better life.

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