If you have ever taken a psychology class or stumbled across the work of C.G. Jung, you have most likely heard the term “shadow” or “shadow-self”. The connotation of “shadow” often leads people into misunderstanding its psychological significance.
In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem).
As you can tell from the technical definition, the function of the shadow is transcendent of the concept of good vs. bad; it really only serves to house the parts of ourselves that we cannot consciously accept. It just so happens that, often, these are things that we reject about ourselves or that society does not accept but are truly qualities within us, and within each person for that matter. The ability to do both good and evil rests in us all. In my own case, when I was waist deep in the behavioral patterns of BPD and using drugs, my shadow contained the positive parts of myself that I could not express. At the time, I was not aware that I could be strong, reliable, responsible, patient, giving, loyal, faithful etc, because my conscious mind was too immersed in my vices and wounds to perceive such things.
Now that my frame of consciousness has shifted, I have been able to bring to the surface the positive facets of my personality. As all things must be balanced, that means my darker parts have shifted inward, into my shadow. I am fortunate to have been able to remain mindful during this shift, as many people choose to ignore the contents of the shadow and, if we ignore any part of ourselves, it will make itself heard in one way or another. When that happens, you have situations where you might feel shock and awe after seeing someone you looked up to or admired exhibiting uncharacteristically bad behavior.
The real challenge is to integrate the higher self with the shadow and, in fact, all the parts of our psyche to stop the seesaw effect their often conflicting dynamics have on our lives. It’s not as simple as refusing to let the shadow affect you. Of course it affects you, it is a part of you. The key is to open a dialogue so that all parties feel heard and somewhat satisfied. How do we do this?
First, be sure to understand that the shadow isn’t necessarily bad or negative. It’s just different than the conscious part of you and, thus, has different needs. Using my own experience as an example, these days my shadow is often trying to get me to do things my conscious self views as “bad” or “wrong” such as having casual sex or smoking and having a drink after work. It would be easy for me to fall into the trap of siding with my conscious self, utterly rejecting such desires only to be totally stunned and ashamed when I finally broke down and did something I might regret. Instead, I try to listen to what my shadow is saying from the context of my higher consciousness.
From the things I mentioned, I understand that my shadow is reminding me that intimacy and physical touch as well as making time for relaxation and recreation are important to me in some way. It is my job to then take what I have learned from the shadow and find ways to satisfy its needs while still staying in line with my higher goals and values. If I manage to do that, everyone wins and I feel balanced with nothing to regret. Any person who is overly influenced by their shadow is simply heavily repressing or ignoring its attempts to communicate its needs in the only way it knows how: by sneaking in the back door because it gets booted swiftly out the front without getting a word in. The shadow is one of the several important constituents of our psyche. Without it, we cannot be whole.