The ambiguous shadow

In everyday parlance, when we refer to a person’s “shadow”, we often simply mean some grim, dark streak of their personality, perhaps even a violent or evil element (which we perceive in them — these things are projected as often as they’re not, presumably). This use of the term has its roots in Jung’s psychology, of course. But what Jung meant by the “shadow” is a little more complex than what this habit of our everyday talk suggests.

For Jung, everybody goes through various stages in their personal development; a very significant stage is that of the “first half” of one’s life. In the first half, we usually pursue “life projects”: build a career, find a mate, raise children, work for a cause, and the like. In order to do so, we have to learn and adapt to the world around us, which includes the social and professional worlds in which we move. Such learning and adapting inevitably promotes some elements of our psychology (e.g. empathy) and suppresses others (e.g. irritability). The result is a well-rounded “persona”: a set of behaviors that fits our environment and the goals we have in it, but also, in some sense, a mask that hides some bits of who we “really are”. And what the persona hides will become, over time, even hidden from ourselves: it becomes unconscious. This is what comprises the “shadow”, basically a region of the unconscious where personal, but unwanted stuff has accumulated. (We all have such a shadow, in other words: there is a pattern of that dynamic which we all fit. That archetypal pattern is consequently called the “archetype of the shadow”. But there is a difference between each individual’s shadow and the archetype itself, i.e. the pattern, even though we use the same term to refer to both.)

Now this is all well-known, of course. And so far, this is compatible with the notion of the shadow in everyday parlance, from which we have started. But that notion overlooks something: when we go through the “first half” of live, we might need to suppress some elements of our psychology which are not dark and grim by any account. If growing your persona requires you to become an effective (ruthless) bureaucrat, what you need to suppress is empathy; if you want to make a career in business, you may have to hide an artistic streak that might have been among your personal endowments. These elements will end up in your (Jungian) shadow as well — you grow unconscious of them. (Frequently, they break out of their confinement in the shadows and come back to haunt us in midlife. But that’s another story.)

Thus everyday usage is somewhat curtailing the notion of a “shadow” as it originally came down from Jung’s work. This may not be a problem in many cases, but it blocks an interesting insight.

When we restore the notion of the shadow to its original Jungian richness, its contents are not unqualifiedly “bad” or unwanted. In fact, the shadow has a two-sidedness to it: it has both “good” and “bad”, i.e. desirable and harmful components. But from the point of view of the person whose shadow it is, they all appear unwanted. Why?

At first glance, the reason is simple: roughly, they appear unwanted because at some point they were in the way of adapting to the external world (pursuing a career etc.), and thus had to be pushed out of conscious life: they were rejected by the ego as “not me”. They were pushed away in the service of living one’s life (by the definition of “my life” the person had, in the first-half period).

But this explanation, though it may be true, is somewhat shallow. Basically, it is an explication of the pattern that is the shadow archetype (remember: archetypes are patterns of processes). But behind this dynamic, there is a driving force of some additional kind and configuration. The shadow dynamic is no mere mechanism; rather, it is a directed process with the purpose, roughly, to enable adaptation. The person’s self-perception, in the course of that process, becomes colored with the wanted/unwanted perspective. And this goes to great lengths, including the projection of unwanted personal attributes onto other people (so that they don’t have to be recognized as one’s own).

If that is true, then behind the shadow dynamic is a directing force which drives it and ensures that the shadow pattern is followed. Now, this seems to be common to humans, and thus is probably itself a pattern (a meta-pattern, if you like) that may be identified as an archetype. Which one?

Well, according to Jung, you will find out once you start “integrating the shadow”. What is meant by that phrase is a conscious process, typically beginning at midlife — i.e. whenever the “first half” is over. At that point, the goal of the first half is more or less achieved, and we are looking for renewed purpose in life. At this point, too, the neglected personality elements re-emerge and claim their place in one’s psychology. “Integrating the shadow” means basically to recognize these suppressed personality elements and begin to develop them, growing into a fuller version of oneself that embraces them (in addition to what was embraced previously already).

But this also means to realize that one had a bit of a skewed way of looking at these suppressed elements of oneself. Specifically, one used to view them negatively (as unwanted), but to integrate them, one has to change that perspective and view them as positive (or at least neutral), and wanted. And that realization immediately poses the question: “Why did I think these were unwanted? Who or what induced me to misunderstand these parts of myself?” In other words, you are beginning to become conscious of a previously unconscious (meta-)pattern. You knew you were in the process of integrating the shadow. Now you understand that you are pulling at least one further archetype out of the unconscious with that.  (Compare GW XII, §38.) Which one?

One thing we already know about it is that it is of a different order than the shadow. Remember that we distinguished between a person’s individual shadow (elements of the personal unconscious, accumulated during an individual life’s “first half”) and the archetypal pattern of the “shadow”, which abstractly reflects the process of accumulating a shadow? What we integrate, when we “integrate the shadow”, is the former, i.e. unconscious stuff generated from one’s personal life. But this archetype behind is more unpersonal: a meta-pattern governing patterns. (Thus it is likely to be an archetype of the collective unconscious, in Jung’s terminology.) Which one?

Jung identifies this archetype as the syzygie, i.e. anima or animus resp.:

On closer examination [the psychological shadow] turns out to be a darkness which itself covered other distinguishable factors, influential and autonomous, namely: animus and anima.


Bei näherer Untersuchung aber stellt [der psychologische Schatten] sich als eine Dunkelheit heraus, welche an sich unterscheidbare, einflußreiche und autonome Faktoren verhüllt, nämlich Animus und Anima.

GW IX/II, §422.

Now, many interesting aspects of this could be discussed, especially about the anima/animus thus understood. But the most interesting point for our purposes here is that this archetype is responsible for the negative perspective a person has about elements of their own psychology, those elements, that is, which made up the personal shadow. It is the anima/animus who makes them appear evil and unwanted.

Evil appears, at this stage of insight, rather as contortion, crippling, misinterpretation and mistreatment of facts that are in themselves natural. These distortions and caricatures now appear as the specific effects of Animus and Anima, and those as originators and culprits of evil.


Das Böse erscheint auf dieser Stufe der Erkenntnis vielmehr als Verdrehung, Verkrüppelung, Mißdeutung und mißbräuchliche Anwendung an sich natürlicher Tatsachen. Diese Verzerrungen und Karikaturen erscheinen nunmehr als die spezifischen Wirkungen von Animus und Anima, und diese als Urheber und Verursacher des Bösen.

GW IX/II, §423.

Once we begin to understand this, and become to understand the anima/animus as the source of distortions in our self-image, the game moves up one level. The task now changes from “integrating the shadow” to “withdrawing the projections” and “integrating the anima/animus”. But remember: this is not just another round of the same. We are now dealing with an archetype of the collective unconscious, not just with our own personal history anymore. (We’re still at all times dealing with that, too, of course.)

If this line of thought is correct, then this process is what Jung frequently refers to metaphorically, when he says that working to integrate one archetype pulls out some further archetype, or when he writes that the anima “appears behind” the shadow, as if emerging out of some kind of fog. And what applies to this level equally applies, I think, to further stages of the integration process. In particular, I think it applies to the archetype of spirit, which is said to appear out of the fog as well, namely: from “being hidden within the meaning-heavy chaos of the anima” (GW IX/I, §66).


Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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