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#6 The Shadow
An essay on the Jungian concept of the shadow, psychedelics and the difference between being good and being whole.
Little update: After careful deliberation and overthinking, I’ve decided to get over the ickiness of asking for help and start a Patreon page. Keeping this newsletter free to read is very important to me, and I’d hate for anyone to feel like they had to pay for it. But if you appreciate my work and would like to support me financially while I continue retraining and producing well-researched posts, I’d be very grateful :)
A very interesting thing happened around the middle of the 19th century (other than Moldavia and Wallachia being united to form the brave country of Romania, of course). The Brothers Grimm, whose stories you’ve probably grown up with too, were republishing their famous collection of stories from 1812, with one significant shift: several of their mother characters had been turned into step-mothers.
There are many reasons that suggest why they would’ve made this change. One is the high mortality of childbearing women at the time, which explains the presence of the step-mother. But there’s a deeper, far more intellectually titillating reason, which has to do with the society’s need to preserve the pure, unconditionally-loving, saintly aspect of the mother (and also misogyny and patriarchy, but let’s not ruin a perfectly fine day by discussing that).
As Leslie Jamison highlights in her beautifully vulnerable essay Daughter of a Ghost, “the figure of the stepmother effectively became a vessel for the emotional aspects of motherhood that were too ugly to attribute to mothers directly (ambivalence, jealousy, resentment) and those parts of a child’s experience of her mother (as cruel, aggressive, withholding) that were too difficult to situate directly in the biological parent-child dynamic. […] The shadow figure of the fairy-tale stepmother is a predatory archetype reflecting something true of every mother: the complexity of her feelings toward her child, and her child’s feelings towards her.”
So wise and well put-together, so often we struggle with our own complexity. We have a hard time accepting our darkness, but also embracing our true, best qualities. We blame some for our own shortcomings, and idolise others for the beauty we can’t seem to find in ourselves. You could say we’re our worst enemies - but what if we didn’t need to be?
What is the shadow
“To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place - an inner center - not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one’s own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life.” - Robert A. Johnson
The shadow is a psychological term created by Carl Jung, meaning everything we can’t see in ourselves. Jung described it as autonomous, unconscious personality made up of those aspects we tend to deny because they embarrass and shame us. It’s not that the traits themselves are necessarily bad - some of our best qualities are hidden in the shadow - but have been repressed through a life-long process of conditioning, have regressed to primitive states, and influence our lives in ways we simply can’t recognise.
According to Jung, our mission is to fulfil the process of individuation, which aims to integrate all parts of the psyche and create wholeness. While in the previous newsletter we discussed what integrating the ego might look like, in this one we will illuminate the darker side of the coin, and seek to understand why integrating our shadow (with or without psychedelics) will help us live happier, more fulfilling lives.
How you got your shadow
“Wherever we start and whatever culture we spring from, we will arrive at adulthood with a clearly defined ego and shadow, a system of right and wrong, a teeter-totter with two sides.” - Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow
Like all babies, you and I were born whole: that is, a psychologically-whole human who expressed itself freely and without any judgement. We did as our instincts pleased, until our parents started revealing that some of our behaviours didn’t quite work for them. Maybe they didn’t like how loud we were, how messily we ate our food, how much we talked, or how we couldn’t sit still. Every time they criticised, punished, neglected, abandoned or didn’t love us unconditionally, we had no choice but to go into survival mode. Even though they hurt us, we couldn’t stop loving our parents as our survival depended on them. So, instead, we stopped loving ourselves - particularly, the parts they disliked.
With this, a slow process of conditioning started through feedback like punishment, shaming, and encouragement coming from our parents, our families, our teachers and our peers. This civilisation process was partly necessary: we couldn’t grow up punching anyone whose face we didn’t like, stealing chips from strangers’ plates in restaurants, or flaunt our unfiltered sexual quirks to random women on the street (okay, maybe this one needs more work).
But it was also damaging. Depending on where you grew up, your family dynamics, culture, religion and nation had their own ideas about what they considered “good” and “bad” in order to preserve the collective identity. Because we all have a deep, primal instinct for belonging, you unconsciously adapted to their ideas to fit in. And these vary significantly across the world: if you were raised in America, you may take great pride in your individualism and self-belief, while if you grew up in Tokyo you may be more concerned with the harmony of the group rather being in the spotlight.
Because society thinks in terms of black and white, it’s likely that many parts of you had to die, for other more acceptable ones to live.
The problem with polarisation
Due to our unconscious tendency to polarise and create duality, we’ve split and classified the world and ourselves into good vs bad, black vs white, light vs dark, beautiful vs ugly, Pepsi vs Coca Cola. We deal with the world in terms of “this or that”, believing that we’ve chosen the right side without realising we were holding a two-sided coin the whole time.
One of Jung’s greatest insights the ego and the shadow come from the same source. In the constant tension between ego and shadow, both sides of the same coin, we ended up even splitting ourselves into parts. The ones perceived as good by the ego get to stay, because they ensure our survival and belonging. The ones perceived as bad go into the shadow, swept under the rug, where they remain repressed for as long as the ego can resist them.
Through this we create a picture of an idealised self, aiming towards a delusional idea of sainthood. This is the persona, the Jungian term that describes the curated self we present to the world. The persona is the mask, our “psychological clothing”. It’s us on our best behaviour, at our most generous, a consciously constructed image that we believe makes us acceptable and lovable - but is ultimately not us.
On being “good”
“Sainthood has been caricatured as an image of the all-right person, the person who has transferred everything to the perfect side of his personality. Such a condition would be completely unstable and would flip immediately. The balance would be disrupted and life would be impossible.” - Robert A. Johnson
We see an extreme version of “goodness” often in some spiritual folks’ misunderstanding of enlightenment as a place where only light and “good” rule, and “bad” things like aggression, violence, greed, jealousy or hatred simply don’t exist. This is spiritual bypassing. Ironically, by meditating hard on ridding themselves of their darkest desires, they’re totally missing the point (sometimes flipping 180 degrees and becoming evil, abusive gurus that make addictive Netflix documentaries, a process that Jung described as enantiodromia). Even Ram Dass admitted with humour to his former tendency to latch on to the light, realising only later that he was only suppressing an essential and undeniable part the human experience - so he got with the curriculum.
Pursuing this ultimate sense of goodness that relies on a repression of anything that seems negative is, as I think you would agree, plain silly, and really damaging. Jordan Peterson illustrates this immature way of thinking in his book 12 Rules for Life:
“Naive, harmless people usually guide their perceptions and actions with a few simple axioms: people are basically good; no one really wants to hurt anyone else; the threat (and, certainly, the use) of force, physical or otherwise, is wrong.” It’s not that people aren’t good, but that we also contain a ton of darkness - it’s just part of our fabric. Not recognising that we contain both sides of the coin is dangerous for our own wellbeing and that of the world, as he continues: “When naive people discover the capacity for anger within themselves, they are shocked, sometimes severely. A profound example of that can be found in the susceptibility of new soldiers to post-traumatic stress disorder, which often occurs because of something they watch themselves doing, rather than because of something that has happened to them. They react like the monsters they can truly be in extreme battlefield conditions, and the revelation of that capacity undoes their world. And no wonder. Perhaps they assumed that all of history’s terrible perpetrators were people totally unlike themselves. Perhaps they were never able to see within themselves the capacity for oppression and bullying (and perhaps not their capacity for assertion and success, as well).”
It’s perhaps tough to accept that, in being human, we have to endure the entire spectrum of experience. In the Republic, Plato said “There is in every one of us, even those who seem to be the most moderate, a type of desire that is terrible, wild, and lawless.” But accepting that these traits reside in us, seeing their value and learning to embody them consciously, we become more resilient, compassionate, and powerful. Instead of being good, we become whole - and maybe that’s close enough to enlightenment.
The dangers of not recognising our shadow
“If people can be educated to see the shadow-side of their nature clearly, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbour; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustices and violence we inflict upon our own natures.” - Carl Jung
The idealised self who strives to be “good” is nothing but a form of protection to avoid looking at our shadow. But just because we’re not looking, it doesn’t mean that all those aspects we rejected aren’t there. When denied expression, these disowned parts of ourselves take on a life of their own that manifests as unconscious behaviour. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying things you wouldn’t normally say (even great, hilarious, incredibly kind things), deeply regretting your actions or caught in a fit of rage and out of control, well, that was your shadow.
The problem here is that, when repressed, those aspects of you regress to primitive states, forming what Jung calls feeling-toned complexes. Imagine these like little pieces of software containing feelings and actions that, when triggered, play out without the same way, taking over. You’re briefly being possessed by a different personality that you repressed.
If we keep excluding parts of us, they will wind ways to reaffirm themselves. We’re masters at projecting our shadow onto others. When we suppress our sense of inadequacy and shame, we end up attacking others for their behaviours (ever seen someone call a woman a “whore” for expressing her sexuality freely?) We become judgemental and angry about things that don’t really affect us, and, on a greater, collective shadow level, we start enormous, pointless and cruel wars against people and countries. In fact, Jung pointed out that only a very civilised country could fight wars as complicated as World War I and II. Primitive people, whose lives would’ve been far simpler, and therefore would’ve had far smaller shadows, would’ve grown tired in weeks and gone home. Our collective shadow is so large and unbearable we built bombs that could annihilate the entire human race.
The same applies to the positive traits we repress into the shadow. Our hero-worshipping is the clearest illustration of us projecting our own bravery, kindness, compassion onto others. Another potent example is falling in love: our beloved crushes are often the unconscious projections of our most wonderful traits that we’re too frightened to accept within ourselves.
Next time you feel smitten with someone, use this opportunity to figure out what aspects you’re denying expression in yourself but adoring in this person. It could help you embrace a creative, funny, sweet, tender, free, adventurous part of yourself - and save you the heartbreak of realising you were projecting this whole time, and they’re not as great as you thought.
“When there is an impasse, and sterile time in our lives—despite an adequate ego development—we must look to the dark, hitherto unacceptable side which has been at our conscious disposal.” - Edward Whitmont
Unless we actively work on our shadow, we will continue to project it. We will unconsciously see the things we deny ourselves in others, without being able to take responsibility for it. Nations will continue to choose other nations to hate, families will continue to design a member as the black sheep who will have to carry all their collective shadow, and I will continue to worship other writers without giving myself the chance to become one (oops, too personal?)
“To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents.” - Robert A. Johnson
Cultures less civilised than ours have understood the danger of projection and have instituted rituals to deal with the shadow. The Ancient Greeks worshipped gods and goddesses that indulged in both “good” and “bad” behaviour, and often behaved even worse than the humans below. Each year, the Aztecs chose a maiden or youth to carry the shadow and then ritually sacrificed them. In cultures like India, Brahma, the god of creation, is counterbalanced by Shiva, the god of destruction, while Vishnu sits in the middle holding the two opposites together. Some communities used to choose a man to be killed at the end of the year and take the evil deeds of the community with him - this is the origin of “bogey” man. And because people were so grateful for his sacrifice towards the collective good, the “bogey” man would be allowed to have anything he wanted and not do any work until his death.
While sacrificing maidens is a little bit passé (ok boomer), Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson talks about the balancing imperative of doing our shadow work. “Whenever we pluck the fruit of creativity from the golden tree our other hand plucks the fruit of destruction. Our resistance to this insight is very high! We would love to have creativity without destruction, but that is not possible.” But here’s the trick: our psyche doesn’t know the difference between a symbolic flip side of the coin or the actual one. So, better get on it by creating our own rituals that honour the shadow. A great example comes from Dr. Marie Louise von Franz, one of Jung’s best students, who used to ask whoever had good fortune in the household to take out the garbage for the week. Another comes from Robert A. Johnson, who for every good piece he wrote, he’d allow himself to write a terrible one to restore balance.
There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life. - Jordan B. Peterson
Resistance to shadow work
It seems like we really don’t have a choice - if we want to live freer, happier, more fulfilling lives we need to make a habit of facing and owning our shadow. But often we feel a lot of fear and resistance towards doing shadow work - like wondering what if we open Pandora’s Box? What if terrible, horrible things about you emerge, and take over your life? What if???
Well, there are two ways to look at this. The first comes from Brené Brown, who answered this exact question on a podcast by reminding us that there’s no need to fear opening the box, as we’re already in it (we unconsciously act from our shadow all the time). The second comes from the original story: among death and destruction, the last item at the bottom of the box was actually hope.
“The descent into the depths always seems to precede the ascent.” - Carl Jung
Jung believed that “the course of individuation exhibits a certain formal regularity” - we all experience it in the same way: the breakdown of the persona, followed by shame (“a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared”), and ultimately the emergence of a stronger, broader consciousness. So while it may be difficult and painful for a while, maybe you can find some comfort in the fact that we’re all served the same dish. And that, after a period of integration, we’ll get up, dust ourselves off, and potentially go on to have the best lives ever!
While shadow work is serious, heartbreaking and should really be done with the support of a therapist, there are many ways to safely engage with your shadow that don’t have to be dark. For example, we can engage with our aggression through martial arts, where we get to express it in a healthy, controlled way. We can create art, like the Balinese people who decorate their temples with scary monsters, but remain a very peaceful people. And we can tell more jokes - humour is the easiest way to work with shadow material.
Therapies like Internal Family Systems work on integrating the split parts of yourself by engaging in a dialogue between our Selves and these unconscious parts - it’s the incredibly successful therapy behind the MAPS’ MDMA for PTSD trials in the US. Another practice is active imagination, a process used by Jung himself during his years-long descent into the shadow, which is more meditative and can include artistic expression like drawing, writing, painting, sculpting for one to give a voice to the shadow.
A similar therapy emerged from the ancient Tibetan practice of Chöd, described by a former Buddhist nun in the book Feeding Your Demons - a practice of listening to what your demons try to achieve with their behaviour, and what they actually need, and then feeding them the love, understanding or compassion they needed until they transform into allies.
But what unites all these practices and constitutes the essence of shadow work is radical honesty: the willingness to look past he persona and see the shadow underneath. By doing this, we’ll see the half-truths that shield ourselves from who we truly are, and learn to accept the unpleasant behaviours and attributes we’d normally rather not acknowledge.
And, of course, there’s psychedelics
The benefit of using psychedelics for shadow work is that, on a reliable dose and with appropriate support, you’ll cut straight to the issues you need to face. Psychedelics are great at dissolving your boundaries and showing you exactly what you need to see. They’re reliable accelerators of the therapeutic process - but it comes at a cost. Facing your shadow on psychedelics can be deeply terrifying, especially when it’s accompanied by ego death.
When we take psychedelics in a group at a retreat, the collective archetypal shadow may manifest in other participants or facilitators. We may project qualities onto the them they don’t have, and it’s important to realise (and we often do, in integration) that those were psychospiritual manifestations of something that needed to be processed. In other words, the shadow needed to be externalised for us to catch ourselves when we unconsciously react. An example I saw myself was when a participant felt deeply frustrated with another participant who was crying too loud, interrupting her journey. Later, she realised that the shadow aspect that was manifesting was her own tendency to take on other people’s pain, which manifested in real life as exhaustion and illness. She was, in some ways, too good for her own good.
Former psychedelic researcher and therapist Ann Shulgin believed that the degree of insight achieved in any psychedelic session depends primarily on one’s willingness to face and acknowledge long-denied aspects of one’s nature: “the prospect of seeing what he unconsciously believed to be the core - the essence - of himself as a series of horrendous, malignant, totally unacceptable entities, can bring about a state of fear that has no parallel in ordinary life”.
This can be particularly difficult for people who have suffered a great deal of trauma that they repressed. Jungian psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched warns about a curious effect produced by our psyche: when a patient consciously approaches repressed trauma “an intra-psychic [dream]-figure or force… violently intervenes and dissociates the psyche.” So, instead of allowing you to process the original trauma and release it, your psyche creates bigger, scarier images to distract you from it. This is the primitive way the psyche tries to protect the patient from something it perceives as too dangerous, but in fact can even traumatise the patient further.
However, once you manage to bring the shadow into the light, “it transforms; it changes”, says Shulgin. “It’s still there, but no longer as a monster. When you allow yourself to acknowledge, without fear and without hatred… you can allow yourself to have those darker thoughts and feelings, along with the more lovable and admirable ones. You become free.” Ralph Metzner (part of the former Leary-Alpert-Metzner psychedelic Harvard trio) referred to facing one’s shadow on psychedelics as “reconciling with the inner enemy” to create something called coincidentia oppositorum - the coming together of opposites, your shadow and your ego making peace.
If you understand that your image of yourself needs to briefly die in order to integrate the shadow and create wholeness, then this process will feel like one of the bravest things you’ve ever done, a true Hero’s Journey.
So what is the point of all this? India comes to the rescue again, with the Sanskrit concept sat-chit-ananda. Sat means the absolute truth of existence. Chit represents consciousness and understanding. Ananda is the bliss, the state of pure happiness, joy and sensual pleasure. The union of these three levels of consciousness, sat-chit-ananda, translated as truth-consciousness-bliss, could be the expanded consciousness, true freedom of being.
But if that feels too out there, we can look at what shadow work practitioners and psychotherapists have to say. Integrating our shadow will help us mature psychologically, through developing a healthy sense of self-worth, learning to take responsibility for our actions, practicing personal honesty and becoming more compassionate. Since we won’t project our shadow anymore, we will see the world more clearly and we’ll be able to communicate better and have more authentic relationships. With less time energy dedicated to repressing our rage, we might even rid ourselves of chronic back pain, headaches and fatigue.
But, most of all, by reclaiming our disowned parts we’ll do ourselves the greatest favour we possibly could: we’ll cease to be our worst enemies, and we’ll come back home to the sense of self we once, a long time ago, knew.
“Then you may be able to accept the terrible burden of the world, and find joy.“
- Jordan B. Peterson
Dept. of further investigation
Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow is a great read
Robert A. Johnson’s book Owning Your Own Shadow is also fantastic