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What Is The Shadow?

Updated: Apr 8


Image artist: Sako Asko


“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” - Carl Jung

The idea to make this post came to me when I was in France in June last year. My friend and I were at a cute little cafe talking to some tourists who were passing through, and we got onto the subject of careers. I told them that I was a professional psychedelic guide, and in response one of them said “Oh, I would never do psychedelics. I’m way too afraid of being out of control”.


And fair enough. If you’re overly worried about losing control then you’re probably not ready for psychedelics (I say “overly”, because a bit of apprehension is completely understandable and healthy). However, there’s a funny irony in this. Because until we courageously explore the hidden contents of our shadow - which the intentional use of psychedelics can help with - we can never truly say we’re ever fully in control, for we will always be driven by invisible forces from the unconscious.


The shadow also seems to be a pretty misunderstood concept, despite it being covered a lot in certain circles. So let’s see if we can cast some light on it…


The shadow is a psychological term for everything that we don't identify with ourselves, originally coined by psychiatrist Carl Jung. It contains parts of us that we unconsciously conceal from ourselves and others, whether perceived as positive or negative. It may contain our hidden strength, creativity, assertiveness, innocence, softness, love, or compassion. And it might also contain painful or disagreeable thoughts, feelings, and impulses that we don’t usually allow space for to see or feel. This might be because they are too hurtful to acknowledge, or it may be because our parents or culture have framed them negatively. For example, when we observe babies and infants, we see that, because they don’t yet have a fully developed ego, they are in an instinctual state of pure being. They express themselves without a filter - if they are happy they laugh, if they are upset they cry, if they are angry they throw a tantrum. But over time such impulses are repressed. Our parents may tell us that we shouldn’t be angry or cry. Often because they are tired and stressed themselves and just want some peace and quiet! And because we all want to be good little boys and girls in the eyes of our parents - indeed, our very survival depends on it - we heed their advice. A similar mechanism happens with what we are told is culturally permissible. But such natural impulses continue to want and need to be expressed, beyond infancy. Therefore, it’s important to note that everyone has a shadow - each and every one of us has aggressive and uncivilised impulses, immoral motives, and painful or shameful experiences that we’ve been conditioned not to face. And this is on top of anything specifically relating to our personal histories.


In order to understand the mechanism behind which material from our past is banished into the shadows, we can use the Internal Family Systems therapeutic model. Central to IFS is the idea that we’re not a singular entity, but rather, we consist of multiple parts, a bit like an inner family of sub-personalities. These parts have their own roles, needs, and fears, and are grouped into 2 categories: Exiles and Protectors.


Exiles are often, although not always, young parts of us that carry the memories, sensations, and emotions from times when we’ve been shamed, hurt, abused, humiliated, scared, neglected, abandoned, or overwhelmed in any way. Because they are too painful to face, they are exiled from conscious awareness into the shadow. These parts are often young because when we’re young we’re more likely to be overwhelmed - we don’t yet have a fully developed nervous system or psyche, nor do we have many resources, and often we have nowhere to go. We just have to take whatever is dished to us.


And then we have the Protectors, ensuring we don’t access the Exiles because it was so overwhelming at the time. Their motto is “do and say whatever it takes”, and often work extraordinarily hard to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed or hurt again.


The shadow also acts as an unavoidable counterbalance to the ego. Jungian analysts Steve Price and David Haynes write, “As we develop our ego personality, we also do something else at the same time. What has happened to all those parts of our original potential that we didn’t develop? They won’t just cease to exist: they will still be there, as potential or as partly developed, then rejected, personality attributes, and they will live on in the unconscious as an alternative to the waking ego. So, by the very act of creating a specifically delineated ego personality, we have also created its opposite in the unconscious. This is the shadow. Everyone has one.”


Therefore, it’s important to recognise that the human experience contains both light and shadow. Indeed, they are related and imply one another - two sides of the same coin, Yin within Yang and Yang within Yin. Jung calls this idea Coincidentia Oppositorum (Unity of Opposites), a mythical pattern in which opposites are united. The Self, Jung's idea of the whole personality, is a result of the Coincidentia Oppositorum, for it conjoins the unconscious and the conscious. I mention this because the “good vibes only” crew can label perfectly normal and natural emotions and impulses - anger, shame, jealousy, etc. - as “low vibration” or “bad juju”. Meaning such material remains unexplored and festers.


Indeed, ignoring the shadow doesn’t make it go away. In Psychology and Religion, Jung writes, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”. Therefore, resisting or ignoring the hidden parts of ourselves only makes them stronger. In order to become a fully integrated and whole person, we must acknowledge all parts of ourselves - the good, bad, and ugly. And whole isn’t the same as perfect. In fact, Jung believed that the strive for perfection greatly hinders our development - that the more we strive for perfection, the further we fuel our dark side and lose control over how it manifests itself in our actions.


Therefore, if we’re not curious about our shadow, it will continue to influence us. “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”, Jung cautioned. As long as the contents of our unconscious remain unexamined, our thoughts, beliefs, behaviours, and emotions become distorted without us realising it. We may sleepwalk through life, plagued by inexplicable symptoms, bumping into unforeseen roadblocks, blindly repeating self-sabotaging behaviours and life scripts.


The shadow can expose itself in many ways, such as symbolically in our dreams or imagination, or through ‘projection’. Projection happens when a perceived personal inferiority is seen as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. In other words, we see our shadow parts in another person, and demonise them for it rather than acknowledging it in ourselves. There’s an Americanism I like that sums up projection: “if you spot it, you got it”. Snappy aphorisms aside, projections are harmful to us - they can act as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between the ego and the real world. For this reason, Jung advocates shadow work - that is, exploring, accepting, and integrating the hidden parts of our personalities so that we can become a fully-integrated whole person.


As well as dreams, imagination, and projection, psychedelics can also reveal shadow material. Because the ego represses all that it deems uninteresting, unimportant, overwhelming, or undesirable into the unconscious, once the ego is temporarily dissolved by psychedelics such as psilocybin, thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, and phenomena that are normally hidden from awareness can surface. Because of this, psychiatrist Stanislav Grof said psychedelics function as “nonspecific amplifiers of the psyche”. This is reflected in the name given to this group of compounds by the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond - the Greek word ‘psychedelic’ translates as ‘mind/soul manifesting’. Grof believes the content and nature of the experiences are not artificial products of their pharmacological interaction with the brain, but expressions of the psyche revealing itself in ways that are usually hidden. Which means that a person doesn’t have a predictable ‘psychedelic experience’, but takes a unique journey deep into the hidden realms of their psyche’s unconscious.


And what we can find is that the deeper we go into the psyche, the broader we go. In other words, as we dive deeper into ourselves, not only may we witness hidden parts of ourselves from our personal biographies, but we may enter the realm of the transpersonal, where the limitations of space, time, form, and the range of our physical senses are transcended. Therefore, what is hidden from us can include both the personal and spiritual realms. Indeed, Grof said that spirituality was not superstitious, unscientific, or primitive, but rather a legitimate dimension of the human psyche and of the universal order.


Ultimately, there’s no need to fear opening Pandora’s box, as you’re probably already in it! Like most people, your shadow is likely already directing your behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. That's normal. As there is no running away from your shadow - being an essential and unavoidable aspect of you and all - you may as well get to know each other, so your shadow is no longer an estranged it but a reclaimed us.


As you integrate your shadow and come to terms with it, you’ll stop projecting your unintegrated parts onto others. You’ll be able to see people and situations with greater clarity, compassion, and understanding. As your self-awareness grows, you won’t judge others or self-doubt as much. Relationships of all kinds can improve as people and situations won’t trigger you as easily. And energy that you were unconsciously investing in protecting your self-image can become liberated, allowing you to be more authentically you. And so, although facing our shadow takes courage and dedication, the rewards are most certainly worth it.


Shadow material doesn’t always surface in a psychedelic journey. But if it does, it’s wise to be prepared for it, hence why I coach my clients to cultivate a sense of open, compassionate curiosity to whatever may arise - before, during, or after the psychedelic experience.


“To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place - an inner centre - not attainable in any other way. [...] It seems that it is the purpose of evolution now to replace an image of perfection with the concept of completeness or wholeness. Perfection suggests something all pure, with no blemishes, dark spots, or questionable areas. Wholeness includes the darkness but combines it with the light elements into a totality more real and whole than any ideal.” - Robert A. Johnson

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