What Is Shadow Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Shadowing can carry powerful meanings in literature and art. It can foreshadow sinister events or alert the reader or viewer to hidden dangers or forces. Carl Jung used the shadow as an archetype to describe a dark aspect of the human psyche that an individual’s ego finds unacceptable. However, theories about the shadow trace their origins to the work of Sigmund Freud, and they have continued to influence thinking on the unconscious ever since.

Freud’s view of consciousness

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
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Freud’s topographical theory was the first attempt to map out the human psyche in modern times. Freud posited 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 the present moment. 
  • The preconscious mind contains all memories that are within easy recall but are 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 defend 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 believed that healing would take place when the patient experienced catharsis by releasing what was trapped in the unconscious.

How did Carl Jung see consciousness?

Freud’s conception of the unconscious may have formed a part of the basis of the shadow that Carl Jung, his student and colleague, later put forward. Jung developed his theory of light and shadow psychology throughout his career.

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

Jungian psychology shadow definitions

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

However, some of the concepts you might not want to identify with might not all be negative. According to the Society of Analytical Psychology, Jung believed the shadow also had good qualities: “If it has been believed hitherto that the human shadow was the source of evil, it can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses etc.”

Archetypes

Jung was interested in archetypes and often referred to them in his writings about shadow psychology. The word archetype is used in art and literature to mean a symbol or motif that recurs, either in one work or across many works.

For Jung, the archetype had a much broader, 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 thought to be something much deeper that can’t be described.

Jungian archetypes are systems and ideas that come built into the structure of the brain. They are thought to be inherited by every human. Jung also believed that archetypes represent a goal that the whole of a person’s consciousness strives to attain. Despite this function of the conscious mind, archetypes are thought to come from the collective unconscious.

Jung believed in archetypal figures, such as mother and father, and archetypal objects, such as the moon and the sun. He also believed in archetypal events, including birth and death. 

The collective unconscious

The collective unconscious is another important concept to Jungian psychologists. According to Jungian psychology, individuals tie into a larger unconscious network that all humans have. This is the collective unconscious. It contains all the ancestral memories and experiences that are passed on to everyone. It absorbs and assimilates the unconscious lives of its colleagues and, in turn, provides the foundation to help new young ones come online.

The light of consciousness

The conscious part of your mind can be considered the part that is bathed in light, easily seen and understood. When an urge or conflict is within the shadow, it is thought that you can’t deal with it directly. It can have 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 faced the task of understanding the archetypes of the collective unconscious. He thought the archetypes could never be overcome or set aside without harming mental health, but they might be understood.

Getty/AnnaStills

Layers of the shadow

Jung talked about layers of 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 possessed 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.

Projection

Jung also put forward the notion of the projection of the shadow. When there’s a part of your mind that you can’t accept as a part of yourself, it’s thought that you can’t experience that part of your mind directly. 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 and address what’s in the shadow. 

How does the shadow appear?

Both Jung and Freud spent much of their career focusing on the interpretation of dreams. Jung believed that an individual could see their own shadow in dreams as well as visions. 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 or 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.

Individuation

Jung wrote at length about individuation and how the shadow played into that. He 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, it is thought that 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.

Creativity

Because the shadow is believed to contain elements of the psyche that are hidden, it may be the root of creativity. The archetypes and all their motifs, metaphors, images, and emotions can play a large part in the creative arts. Also, art often recognizes the dark, undesirable parts of the self and puts them on display. When the conscious mind can’t acknowledge them, they may be presented as fictional characters or artistic images.

Doing shadow work

Getty/SarahWaiswa
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People who are experiencing significant symptoms of a mental health condition may go to therapy not knowing what is wrong. Therapists who recognize the concept of the shadow in psychology may be able to help them do what’s called “shadow work.”

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

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

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

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

Jung has had plenty of skeptics over the years. However, a meta-analysis published in Behavioral Sciences (Basel) found that Jungian psychotherapy can provide numerous benefits and concluded that it should be considered an empirically proven method. 

The accessibility of shadow work is growing rapidly through the increasing availability of online therapy services. Clinical researchers are growing increasingly satisfied with the quality and success rates of online therapy. Also, several studies have shown that patients prefer online therapy to in-person therapy.

If you’re experiencing mental or emotional health concerns, you can talk to an online therapist about shadow work and other types of therapy. With an online therapy service like BetterHelp, you can speak with a licensed therapist by phone, live chat, videoconferencing, or a combination of these methods. You can also write to your therapist at any time through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may be useful if you want to communicate any thoughts or insights in between sessions.

Read what others have to say about their experience with online therapy below.

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Takeaway

The shadow in psychology is a concept that grew out of psychoanalytic theory of Carl Jung, who believed it was an archetype of the darker parts of our psyche. Shadow work is a type of therapy developed by Carl Jung that focuses on the hidden parts of the psyche. It may help people learn to be honest about the parts of themselves they may not like and then eventually accept their whole selves. Shadow work may be useful for healing trauma, relieving distress, increasing creativity, and improving relationships. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

If you’re interested in learning more about Jungian psychology and shadow work, you might consider online therapy. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 therapists, so you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has training in Jungian psychology. Take the first step toward learning more about shadow psychology and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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