Embodying Your Shadow: What It Means and How To Do It

Everyone has a dark side. And if you're not living a life you're truly enjoying, chances are you're still in denial of yours. In 'embodying your shadow'...

We carry our past with us, to wit, the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions, and it is only with an enormous effort that we can detach ourselves from this burden… if such a person wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which his conscious personality and his shadow can live together.” ~ Carl Jung, ‘Answer to Job’ (1952).

The Invisible Art of Projection

Most of us like to think we have a fairly clear idea of which attributes we carry and which we don’t — we’re pretty sure we know ourselves, inside and out. And we’re also pretty sure we know just who the bad guys are — those contemporary political figures we despise; those tyrants from history; that neighbor who treats his wife and kids terribly.

And we know, too, that we are justified in the lives we live, the thoughts we have, the actions we’ve performed, or failed to perform. And though we rarely, if ever express it, we also know what’s right for everyone else in our family as well — including our extended family. Of course we don’t actually think we’re better than them (that would be so egotistical!) we can just, well, see things more clearly…

Yet so too can they — regarding you and everyone else. In fact, doesn’t it seem like everyone always knows what’s best for everyone else? Think about your last little bout of gossip. It’s there, isn’t it?

Welcome to the world of psychological projection.

Even when aspects of ourselves we don’t like to admit exist come out — bitterness, rage, manipulation, blaming — we feel justified in justifying how we reacted. The ‘other’ is still wrong. Very rarely, if ever, is it us.

To understand projection, however, it’s first necessary to gain a rudimentary understanding of the ego and the shadow.

A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.” ~ Jung, ‘The Philosophical Tree’ (1945)

What is Your Ego?

While there are many different theories regarding ego, in this case we’re going use the more contemporary and easy to understand concept of your ‘sense of self’.

Each of us develops our sense of self based off of a combination of factors: biology, environment, personality traits, preferences, and every experience we’ve ever had. All of the information we’ve gathered through our lives interprets and influences how we view the world — including how we view ourselves.

To get an idea of this, all you have to do is ask yourself one question: Who am I? 

Whatever you think in response to that is your conscious ego self, known in Jungian circles as the persona (from Latin, ‘Mask’), and it expresses itself as ‘self-esteem’ — the thoughts regarding your importance and role in or around your respective culture.

Think about filling out a bio or an application — you’ll most likely strive to put your best foot forward, maybe even exaggerate at times to amp yourself up and look more desirable. This is generally what all of us do with our personas in everyday life. 

Yet it’s tricky, as it can go both ways. Even thoughts such as ‘I’m a misfit’ or ‘society is screwed and I’m not going to conform’ are still a form of ‘self-esteem’, and still an act of self-definition and personification. 

All of this is ‘ego’ — what is acceptable to us in our ideas of ourselves.

“Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ Jung, ‘The Philosophical Tree’ (1945)

What is Your Shadow?

To put it (very) simply, Carl Jung, who originated the concept of the shadow, defined it as “a part of your self that your ego doesn’t identify with.”

These are aspects of our psyche that, in repressing them, makes it easier for us to be accepted by, and function in, our respective culture (or counter culture) — and for us to accept ourselves. These are the parts of us that don’t make it into the persona, that have been refused their part as an ingredient in the molding of our respective mask. So where do they go?

They go within. Into the dark.

Like it or not, these less desirable or negative attributes are a part of us regardless of our awareness, or level of acceptance of them, or how often we think they’re just part of our ‘reaction’ — indeed, it is our reactions that reveal that they are in fact always there. Where else could they come from?

If this is news to you, welcome to the dark side. You’ve just noticed your shadow, conceptually, for the first time. This is a huge step, as the main game the shadow plays in order to keep itself separate is going unseen.

Why Don’t We See Our Shadows and What Happens as a Result? 

The human mind has found a way to compartmentalize everything it experiences into categories for easier comprehension. Hundreds of complex categories are born as a result, often under the perception that the different groups are mutually exclusive.

The main division between them all is the basic concept of ‘good vs evil’ and ‘light vs dark’. Clearly opposite and opposing energies — or at least to our minds they are. Out of these two categories, one side must emerge as a winner. Hence, ‘good over evil’ and ‘light over dark’.

As a culture we have become heavily dependent upon this system of separation. We’ve gotten so caught up in this way of thinking that we’ve learned to see our nations, institutions, systems of government, one another and ourselves under the same scrutiny. Something or someone (including us) is either essentially ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Most of us, it could be argued, see ourselves as good (whatever that means to us) — or at least justified. This is a completely normal phenomenon.

As mentioned earlier, as we grow through childhood, adolescence and then into maturity, continually building our personas, we sift through the ideas of our character traits, unconsciously identifying with the ‘good ones’ while relinquishing the rest (those that don’t live up to the “acceptable” conception we’re selectively building for ourselves) to the well of the shadow.

Really, this is unavoidable. Just as the sun shining on any object naturally projects a shadow, so it is with us. Yet, while no one in their right mind would ever admit to not seeing their shadow on a sunny day, most of us deny the existence of our psychological shadow altogether. 

Yet the fatal flaw here, the ‘Achilles heel’ of the human race, it would seem, is that in failing to recognize our own faults and weaknesses, these self concepts set off dangerous cycles of denial which then ultimately bring us full-circle back to the different levels and forms of projection mentioned in the first section.

Gossip, reactivity, demonizing, blame, manipulation, rage… the list goes on. From petty arguments to worldwide conflicts, the shadow rages.

Ultimately, it is a symptom of just how primitive in our consciousness we still are. Yes, negative emotions and ‘true’ feelings do need to be expressed, but our overall ownership of them as a continual part of us is something that is very rarely done.

And until we are able to do this, we’ll continue the endless cycles of projection and reaction, gaining, at the least, very little emotional maturity over the course of our lives, and at the worst, total self-destruction. 

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” ~ Jung, ‘Psychology and Religion’ (1938)

Making The Journey To the Dark Side 

Our egos and shadows are both very complex on their own. Jung points out multiple layers that make up the shadow self. His theory interprets the outermost layers as containing “meaningful flow and manifestations of direct experiences.” These layers unconsciously embed themselves in our memory and are either repressed or forgotten over time.

Underneath these first layers — our personal layers — lie what what Jung came to call the ‘archetypes’ of human experience. These deeper, wider levels make up the collective unconscious that psychically unite all of our potential personas, holding within them the base instincts and driving forces of primal man and woman, attained over our long course of evolution. 

While the shadow itself is an archetype, it is also the unique combination of different overlapping elements of the collective consciousness, bubbling up to join with the ‘top-level’ personal layers to create in each of us a completely individual dark side. 

Yet unlike the shadow that the sun casts on the ground, our dark sides are more akin to the dark side of the moon — never visible, to ourselves or others. Of course they’re not. Being everything that we refuse to recognize in ourselves, if we saw them, they would no longer be dark.

Yet the moon is a sphere, and were we to traverse its entire circumference, we would know the wholeness of it, experientially.

Many traditions state that such a journey is in fact inevitable. The only question is whether or not we make it willingly. While doing so can be terrifying, the alternative — being magnetically, irresistibly dragged on a sojourn to the dark side as it manifests itself at its will, will be both terrifying and painful. 

This is why we must work up the courage to descend into the darkness ourselves, and become whole in the process, by choice.

“Modern science has subtilized its projections to an almost unrecognizable degree, but our ordinary life still swarms with them. You can find them spread out in the newspapers, in books, rumours, and ordinary social gossip. All gaps in our actual knowledge are still filled out with projections. We are still so sure we know what other people think or what their true character is.” ~ Jung, ‘Psychology and Religion’ (1938)

Consciously Integrating The Shadow to become Whole

As long as your shadow remains in darkness, it will remain in control of you. In order to gain control we have to consciously integrate our shadow side into something we accept as a part of us.

Those who cannot admit or even see their own faults are stuck with an incredibly rigid, static self-concept that they, however consciously or unconsciously, equate with perfection. Have you ever noticed how these types seem to have the hardest time in life? Always getting offended, always going off on something or other…

Without the humility the knowledge of our shadow side grants us, the character traits left in our dark sides will likely show up sooner or later, and opposed to the creative power that knowing our shadow side grants us, the form these traits take will be of a negative, sabotaging and (either insidiously or overtly) destructive nature.

This is what happens when we are without the wisdom to see and accept our full, vulnerable, irrational, ‘light-and-dark-as-one’ state of true humanness — a reality which understands that perfection is actually imperfection itself, or rather, on-going, ever-lasting states of ‘imperfection’ — which could otherwise be named ‘contrast’ or ‘relativity’ — that allow us, in our acknowledgement of them, the ability to decide what to leave behind, and where we want to go.

To put it another way:

When we are unconscious of our own shadow, we fight AGAINST (both ourselves and others).

When we are conscious of our shadow, we ALLOW (both ourselves and others) to be as they currently are, and in that, let new pathways for ourselves become illuminated.

In seeing what we don’t want, what we do want becomes much more clear — but we no longer fight against (resist) what we don’t want, we acknowledge its existence, thank it for the insight it has given us and then turn away from it, moving forward on the path that it allowed us to see. 

In this way, by seeing it, and learning to accept and ‘work with it’ over time, the shadow begins to lose its power — that is, it begins to lose its ability to affect our actions at its behest alone.

By doing so, you begin the process of dissolving the most imbalanced parts of your whole self — whatever core issues, blocks or fears that are uniquely your own — and start on the road to creating a balanced persona that will enable healthy self-expression and the ability to move out of ‘rigidness’ and into patterns of engagement and growth that, while still challenging, will work for you in the larger context of your life.

Though there are infinite ways of doing this (because each of us is unique), and the process is ultimately most beneficial when guided by a qualified therapist, here are 5 pointers to get you started:

1) Look for it — Use Mindfulness.

Most of us run on autopilot, and this is good thing. With the overwhelming amount of menial things to be done everyday, we’d barely be able to get any decent thinking done if it were otherwise.

But it’s important to understand that just as our bodies maintain homeostasis on their own, and just as we shower, drive, clean the house, etc. without actively causing every movement and decision through conscious thought, so too does the thinking that happens while we are doing daily life happen on its own. It is such a common state, we don’t even realize it — thinking just happens, and it happens constantly.

Becoming aware of these thoughts as they’re happening — without disturbing them, but just noticing them — is known as mindfulness. It has been said that while mindfulness itself is easy, remembering to be mindful is incredibly hard. Yet the more we learn to do this — to create a larger space around ourselves and our thoughts as they’re happening — the more familiar the state will become.

This is perfectly outlined in The Parable of Two Wolves. By learning to monitor our thoughts and feed the helpful, more-likely-to-be-effective, ‘good feeling streams’ over time, we slowly begin to see what is helpful to us personally (given where we we want to go in life) and what is detrimental.

This will develop our muscles of self-control and strengthen our reserves of nobility and braveness, lessening need-based, compulsive habits of thought, word and action. We know the shadow is still there (jealousy, anger, obsessive-feeling thoughts) but simply learn to recognize it and turn away from it more and more.

2) Find meaning in the realizations.

As you start to become more conscious of your shadow over time, you can begin to look for meaning in its manifestations.

Underneath so many afflictions lie deeper values that have been violated and are being projected negatively as a result. Often these stretch right back to our childhood, and they’re almost always relationship/culture related.

Why does jealousy or fear suddenly flare up with a specific thought or interaction? In what ways were you wounded, shamed, or taught to feel like ‘less’ in the past? What is it about those painful, aberrant lessons that are still active in you now?

You don’t need to dive right in with analytic thought here — again, just noticing is enough, and the answer is often there, on an emotional level, before the wheels of the intellectual mind even begin to turn. This deep ‘ah-ha‘ moment is often enough.

You then may even find a little humor at the absurdity of it all. How ridiculous! That was then. This is now. It’s a completely different moment, and, without all of your shadowy-clutter being projected all over it, a much cleaner one that you can experience far more clearly, and thus wisely.

Which leads to the next point:

3) Practice non-attachment.

Learning not to fully identify with theses things as they come up (which usually have so much ‘gravity’ it’s often been impossible to keep from getting sucked in in the past) and view them with a bit of distance and humor is called non-attachment.

Recognizing, and practicing this, helps you maintain distance, as well as keeping you from falling into a secondary trap — that of low self esteem and shame when you’ve seen something dark inside you.

Get over it! 

In learning to recognize, allow and ultimately integrate these less desirable qualities, your more desirable ones aren’t diminished!

When you encounter your shadow next, remember what its purpose is. Find its lessons and use the light to fuel the evolution of you.

Non-attachment also helps you avoid arrogance when you’ve encountered desirability within as well. Every aspect of you should be accounted for and honored, but not to the point of an identification so strong that you become a slave to the resultant emotions.

4) If you fall, get back up.

Guess what? Life is about mistakes! Even ‘major’ ones. Owning your shadow is a lifelong process, and you will fall. Probably many times.

So what?

While you shouldn’t pre-emptively use this knowledge to make wanton mistakes (that would definitely be your shadow in control again), have some self-compassion, even if you do. Make amends with yourself (and others if you can) and resolve to do better next time. Then, just get on with it.

5) Be humbled & honored. You are the Universe.  

Conscious awareness of your shadow and ego will balance out your character into a persona that fully accepts themselves — the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. Just as every aspect of the physical universe is a never-ending play of light and dark, so too are you.

The more aware you become of this, the stronger this new, wholesome relationship will become, the less you will care what others think of you and the more inspired to authenticity and to truly live your life you will grow.

In the end, as with everything, it’s a choice. The humility that the darkness provides is what allows your light to consciously shine.

“If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.” ~ Jung, ‘Psychology and Religion’ (1938)