What Is Shadow Psychology?

Updated December 15, 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. Carl Jung used shadows to describe an aspect of the human psyche. But theories about shadow psychology trace their origins to the work of Sigmund Freud. They have 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. 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 this present moment. The preconscious mind contains all 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 trapped 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 put forward. Jung developed his theory of light and shadow psychology throughout his life.

Jung's methods included: analyzing dreams, doing word association exercises, 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 a part of your unconscious 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 to mean a symbol or motif that recurs, either in one work or across many.

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 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 inherited by every human. One might say that Jung saw archetypes as a car salesman sees the basic equipment of a car—common to every unit and needed to fulfill its basic functions. He also believed that archetypes represent a goal that the whole of a person’s consciousness strives to attain. Despite this function by the conscious mind, 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. Individuals also tie into a larger unconscious network that all humans share. 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 members and, in turn, provides the foundation to help new young members come online.

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 faced 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 states 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 the unconscious mind (and, by implication, the collective unconscious), it may contain many positive things, such as long-ago memories. In this sense, positive archetypes are 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 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, 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 what's in the shadow and deal with it.

How Does The Shadow Appear?

Both Jung and Freud spent a good deal of their career focusing on the interpretation of 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 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.

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The Shadow And 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, 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. When the conscious mind can't acknowledge them, they are presented as fictional characters or artistic images.

Doing Shadow Work

People who are experiencing significant mental illness symptoms 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, 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 provides a safe space where you 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.

Jung has had plenty of skeptics over the years. However, meta-analyses indicate that Jungian psychotherapy—including shadow work—reliably brings about numerous benefits for recipients. The accessibility of shadow work, furthermore, is growing rapidly through the increasing prevalence of online counseling platforms like BetterHelp. Like Jungian psychotherapy, clinical researchers are growing increasingly satisfied with the quality and success rates of online counseling. In fact, some highly rigorous studies have shown that patients prefer online mental health resources to in-person alternatives.

If you're experiencing mental or emotional problems, you can talk to a therapist about shadow work and other types of therapy. Licensed counselors at BetterHelp are available to get you the right resources or treatments, if necessary. They can help you understand yourself better and, ultimately, live a better life. Read what others have to say about their experience with mental health below.

“Mary Kay has such an intuitive sense about things. She understands trauma, family and relationship dynamics, communication styles and unconscious motivations/behaviors (among other things,) so thoroughly and has helped me deepen my own understanding of these as they pertain to me. She breaks down even the smallest details that matter to me to help reveal the bigger picture. I feel I have developed not only healthier and more accurate perspectives but more confidence overall as a result of new awareness, boundaries, coping strategies and other tools that have helped me navigate some of my most difficult challenges.”

“Sarah is magnificent. She has helped me get through one of the darkest times in my life. I was broken and at a very bad spot in my life and she was able to help me see how important self care was and to help me move forward from some bad decisions to a better way of coping and dealing. to say that she saved me is an understatement.”


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