This article offers a critical view of Carl Jung’s description of the concept of the shadow as described in his essay on “The Shadow” found in Aion, CW9, II. References to the shadow found in selections of his other work will be used to compare and complete the descriptions found in Aion. Jung’s definition of the concept of the shadow will be examined both through a linguistic perspective as well as in a modern cultural context. The article will argue that Jung’s metaphor of the shadow is both brilliant in the way it suggests its principles and incomplete inadequate in the way it tends to focus on what is considered negative by the ego consciousness. The shadow is, in general, a difficult concept to define and explain, specifically to individuals who are becoming familiar with the concept for the first time. Jung’s use of the visual metaphor of the shadow is ingenious because of the similarities between the phenomena of shadow and the features of the part of the psyche he describes. At the same time, the term shadow has connotations that make the conscious attitude more reluctant to orient towards the part of the psyche it denotes.
Carl Jung was the first psychotherapist to coin the term “shadow” and to write extensively about it. The shadow concept was mentioned frequently throughout his body of work. This article will examine in detail his descriptions of the shadow in “Aion” as well as shadow related excerpts from “Modern Man Search of Soul”. The aim of this article is to investigate critically the linguistic and modern nuances of the metaphor of the Jungian shadow. Jung used this metaphor to identify and describe unconscious psychic phenomena. His choice of language is both brilliant and incomplete as will be shown below. This argument will be substantiated by comparing different meanings of the word shadow as it is understood today with the nuances of the concept of the shadow as explained by Jung in his work.
Jung shares his first encounter with personal shadow in a personal dream he shares in “Memories, dreams, and reflections”.
I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment. Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me. But at the same moment I was conscious, in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going through night and wind, regardless of all dangers. When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was a “specter of the Brocken,” my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying. I knew, too, that this little light was my consciousness, the only light I have. My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light. This dream was a great illumination for me. Now I knew that No. 1 was the bearer of the light, and that No. 2 followed him like a shadow. (p 111)
From reading Jung’s discovery of the unconscious it becomes evident that he associated light with consciousness and shadow with the unconscious. His memoirs briefly allude to the shadow several times more after this dream is shared, but no additional definitions or principles are mentioned in detail. He fleshes out the concept more Aion, under the section titled “The Shadow” as well as in several others of his works. The main argument Jung seems to be making is that the shadow is lack of awareness. The shadow happens in the absence of light, which he equates to consciousness. Therefore the shadow is the unknown (or unconscious) and all that it includes.
While there are many advantages to using a visual metaphor to illustrate a psychic component, as will be shown below, using this image also offers challenges to the clarity and accessibility of the Jungian shadow. The term shadow itself can suggest something scary, intimidating, dark and suspicious. A modern dictionary definition of the shadow includes “a source of gloom or unhappiness” (Webster Merriam). The use of this term may imply negative traits only. For the first time reader, it can be very easy to conclude that the psychic shadow is exclusively composed of what is unwanted, shameful, rejected. By choosing this term Jung gave this concept a primarily spooky side and humans are afraid of shadowy things. Using the word shadow may impact the reader’s willingness to be open to this concept.
There is also the challenge that comes with using a mainly visual and image-oriented metaphor. This method of description may be easily accessible to those with vivid imaginations and simultaneously very difficult to grasp for people who are not visually or imaginally inclined. For the mathematically or musically inclined person, suggesting they incorporate their inner shadow may be as unintelligible as asking a poet how they would go about resolving an advanced mathematical equation.
There are other challenges still in the way Jung describes the nature of the psychic shadow. In the first paragraph of “The Shadow” in Aion (para 13-19), Jung identifies the shadow and archetype and as being one of more “accessible” psychic components of the collective unconscious. However, in the last paragraph, he claims that the shadow “represents first and foremost the personal unconscious”. A very attentive and patient reader will eventually deduct from this writing that the shadow can have both a personal and collective or archetypal nature. The shadow also includes the emotions that arise organically. When the shadow is not made conscious, these emotions are experienced without “moral judgment” in a more “primitive” manner. Jung argues that there are parts of the shadow that are easier to bring into consciousness than others. The parts of the shadow that are most difficult to integrate are usually unconsciously “projected” or assigned to others. The result of these unconscious projections is a non-realistic relationship with the outer world. According to Jung “the more projections are thrust in between the subject and the environment, the harder it is for the ego to see through its illusions.” (Essential Jung, p 92). On one hand, Jung describes the shadow as something very difficult to incorporate without “considerable moral effort” only to say, just a few paragraphs later that “with a little self criticism, one can see through the shadow” (Aion, p 91). He also says “the acceptance of the shadow-side of human nature verges on the impossible” (Modern Man in Search of Soul, p 44), being “the hardest of tasks, and one which is almost impossible to fulfill” (Essential Jung, p 195), which “requires much painstaking work extending over a long period” but which “with insight and good will” (Essential Jung, p 91) can be accepted and integrated into consciousness. This fluctuation from suggesting that the shadow can be brought into the light to warning about it being almost impossible to do adds to the confusion of the reader.
In “Modern Man in Search of Soul” Jung repeatedly stresses the difficulty in making the shadow conscious and the natural resistance that emerges in owning it. Despite the expected challenge of incorporating the shadow, Jung believes that this process is of vital importance to the process of becoming a whole and complete individual: “what is inferior or even worthless belongs to me as my shadow and gives me substance and mass. How can I be substantial if I fail to cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole; and inasmuch as I become conscious of my shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other.” (p 35) As we can see in this quote and in other works, Jung repeatedly alludes to the “inferiorities” of the shadow. However, it is not always clear why he believes the shadow to have inferior aspects. At times Jung suggests that everything that is not lit up by the light of consciousness, that is unknown, is the shadow. At other times, he claims that the shadow is particularly that which is feared, intimidating or undesired by the conscious ego. Without repeated reading, this idea can become unclear. Is the shadow the entirety of the unconscious, or is it just what is negative and repressed, or is it both the positive and negative and the repressed? What about what is unknown and neutral? Is there a difference between the shadow and the unconscious? Not everything unknown is repressed or evaded. It is simply unknown and not yet emerged into consciousness.
Despite the difficult aspects of the shadow metaphor, there are also beautiful advantages to using this image. Jung was trying to bring into awareness something that was mostly unseen or unconscious, something for which, in his time, a concise descriptive term or vocabulary had not yet been developed. The more one learns about the way Jung defined the psychic shadow the more adequate his metaphorical term for it appears to be. Examined through a linguistic context, for example, the term shadow and the concept of the shadow are incredibly alike. The Webster Merriam dictionary defines the term shadow as “partial darkness or obscurity”. The same is true for the psychic shadow: it is elusory in itself, potentially dark and unfamiliar but its darkness is only partial and can be seen through. Jung suggests that becoming aware of the psychic shadow “involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.” (Essential Jung, p 91). Alternatively, the shadow of an object moves as the light or the object which is casting it moves. So it is with the psychic shadow which changes its nature when brought into the light of awareness. Since the shadow is itself part of the psyche, both the light (conscious) and the shadow (unconscious) are impacted and transformed by their interaction. The dictionary definition of the shadow also mentions the “reflected” nature of the shadow as it is generally understood, the shadow being “an imperfect and faint representation, an imitation of something”. This perfectly alludes to the projections Jung defines as one of the ways the unconscious psychic shadow shows up in daily life.
Jung set about the very difficult task of exposing the human aspect that most humans naturally repress, ignore, neglect or resist. An additional critical observation that can be made about how Jung presented the shadow is that he seemed to present it in the context of opposites. There is an ever-present duality of light and shadow and of the conscious and unconscious in his work. Perhaps the Jungian shadow presented in a more neutral manner than evil is likely to make it more appealing, more encouraging to sit with. Jung already softens the concept of the shadow for us, much more so than Freud did. One is likely more willing to accept one has a shadow side than to admit they have evil inside. But is there even more room for that? So much of Jung’s work is based on holding the tension of opposites. But must there be opposites? Would the idea of complements, such as inn and yang, be more appealing to the conscious mind? A more modern approach to the nature of life invites considerations for a spectrum as opposed to duality. In modernity, gender awareness is explored more as a spectrum than a binary concept and good and bad become much more relative when seen through a deeper understanding of ethical issues.
Robert Bly brilliantly reflects the difficulty Jung himself encountered in fully explaining the contents of the shadow to his contemporaries in “A little book on the human shadow”. He also mentions the need for a more neutral and offers von Fronz’s more encompassing definition:
“Shadow” is one of Carl Jung’s most useful terms for a part of the human psyche. Its advantage is that it conveys a visual image—we might call the shadow “the dark, unlit, and repressed side of the ego complex,” the Jungian analyst Marie Louise von Franz says in Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. “But this is only partly true,” she adds, lest we get caught in the negative connotation of the image. She tells of an occasion when Jung, impatient as always with Jungians, dismissed a nit-picking discussion of the concept by protesting, “This is all nonsense! The shadow is simply the whole unconscious.” The definition Von Franz settles on is neutral and lucid: “… in the first stage of approach to the unconscious, the shadow is simply a ‘mythological’ name for all that within me of which I cannot directly know.”
Jung’s writing offered the world the first in-depth introduction into the concept of the psychic shadow. The Jungian shadow is hard to define because it has in itself an ever-changing, fluid nature. An encounter with the shadow is fundamentally transformational both to the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche. Jung himself seemed to struggle at times to adequately depict all the layers and complexities of the shadow. Multiple readings and comprehensive research are needed to form a somewhat clear understanding of how he saw it. And indeed, the shadow is difficult to see, to understand and to describe to another, specifically because of its attributes. Jung warns about the many ways in which shadow work is evaded and insists on consciously and intentionally turning our face towards it. Jung’s use of a visual metaphor to describe the concept is both brilliant and at times unclear. As Susan Rowland puts it “to write about the psyche as a mystery entails both a failure of language and, for Jung, an artistic departure into the subtle realm of metaphors.” (p. 6) Jung’s writings on the shadow, though not always easy to understand, left worthy questions for his followers to uncover and decipher. Is the shadow good and bad? Or is it mainly bad? If it can change and transform itself as it interacts with consciousness then is its nature more likely neutral than dualistic? If at times the shadow can take over the conscious ego, then how can the two be successfully discerned between? Can we interact with the shadow without fearing it? These questions require further active exploration from today’s scholars and psychotherapists, specifically when taking into consideration their modern applications. In today’s world, the concept of the shadow is as relevant as ever, if not more. The shadow itself is a context that must be personally experienced to be fully understood. Ultimately, no amount of Jungian studies can replace the inner shadow work.
Bly, R. (2009). A Little Book on the Human Shadow. HarperOne.
Jung, C. G., Jaffé Aniela, Winston, R., & Winston, C. (1983). Memories, dreams and reflections. Flamingo.
Jung, C. G., & Storr, A. (2013). The essential Jung. Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (2017). Modern man in search of a soul. Martino Fine Books/Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
Rowland, S. (2010). C.G. Jung in the humanities: taking the souls path. New Orleans, La: Spring Journal Books.
(n.d.). Shadow. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shadow