Working With Shadow

Posted 4th of August 2022 by Bay Whitaker

You have never murdered anybody, and you never will.  But you have wanted to.  Maybe you’ve fantasised about it or joked about it.  Maybe you’ve dreamed about it. 

And this is OK.  As dramatic as it sounds, we all have feelings, or thoughts, or dreams, sometimes that would be beyond all decency if they were real.  Psychoanalyst Carl Jung came up with the term “Shadow” to describe those parts of ourselves that we hide, that we struggle to accept, that we may even completely deny.  When you read the opening of this article, did you think to yourself “No, that’s not true – I’ve never wanted to murder anybody!”?  If so, that is a perfect example an aspect of yourself that is deeply hidden in shadow.

And we also have aspects that we are aware of, although we may dislike, feel ashamed of, or even hate them.  It can be therapeutically helpful, sometimes, to think of these aspects as characters – as if they are different cast members in a story or a play.   Different therapies may have different names for this approach – working with “parts”, or “subpersonalities” or “archetypes”.   And while we have many archetypal aspects that are considered “good” (for example, “the lover”, “the mother”, “the helper”) those that live in the shadow are more likely to cause us psychological anguish, unless we can learn to live with them.

Consider the following list of common shadow archetypes, and notice if any of them particularly resonate for you:

  • The murderer
  • The victim
  • The envious one
  • The saboteur
  • The addict
  • The martyr
  • The judge

The list goes on, and as we undertake this therapeutic work, clients find their own shadow archetypes. 

When we introduce this idea, clients often begin by rejecting their shadow archetypes.  This is understandable: by definition, these are characters we dislike, and we wish we could somehow make them go away.  We wish that the thoughts or feelings associated with that character would somehow just vanish!

So it is an important lesson to realise that we simply cannot make our shadow thoughts and archetypes disappear.  The more we try to do that, often, the louder and more troublesome they become.   Instead, our therapeutic task is to befriend the shadow.  OK, it may be difficult to really love, or like, my inner murderer.  However, that archetype lives in my psyche – much like a bad-tempered neighbour lives on my street.  So I need to find a way to form an alliance with that character. 

One way to do this is to cultivate non-judgmental curiosity about them.  Just as we might wonder about a character in a story, we may wonder what the murderer wants?  What do they want in general, and what do they want right now?  What do they fear?  Are they trying to help or defend me?  If so, from what?  How can we help each other?

As well as thinking about these questions, we can call the character up in imagination, and dialogue with the archetype.  Clients who like to be creative can endow their shadow archetypes with different appearances and costumes, and I think this is a helpful way to separate out the different parts of the self.  (My own inner murderer is a scary-looking figure with a shaven head and covered with tattoos.) 

This work can be extremely effective and transformative, if we approach our shadow archetypes with respect, kindness and good humour.  To find out more about this subject I recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Inner Work: A Spiritual Growth Podcast on spotfy or any other podcast platform.

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