A Depth Psychological Exploration of Ego and Shadow

This article is written by depth psychology based emotional health life coach Diana Deaver and is copyrighted. Please contact Diana if you wish to publish or use this article in your own writings. Diana offers online and in-person life coaching sessions to individuals desiring a deeper exploration of their psyche. See more of her articles here and youtube here.

Article Summary

This article explores the Jungian archetype of the shadow and the complex of the ego from a perspective of their function as aspects of the human psyche. Within are also observed the emotional and experiential manifestation of the ego and the shadow in everyday life and how their manifestation influences the process of self-development. Depending on how it is engaged with and related to the ego can be experienced as a grounding beacon of consciousness or a controlling dictator-like force. Similarly, the shadow can be encountered as a temporary respite from what is unbearable or the repressed evil force that demands to be acknowledged. Interactions with the ego and the shadow are a normal and emotionally vivid part of an individual’s psychic life. While observing their influence with complete detachment is not possible due to their very function in the psyche, the more their dynamics are understood, the more functional the entire psychic system can become.

The psyche, as described by Carl Jung, one of the founding fathers of depth psychology, is the human functioning system that encompasses the conscious mind with its thoughts and feelings and the unconscious mind with its instincts, archetypes, and dreams. The function of the human psyche as a whole is to bring into manifestation the totality of a person with their individuality and uniqueness. 

The term ego can sometimes have a bad connotation in the modern new-age language. Due to the important work of spiritual leaders such as Erckhart Tolle, the ego is often seen as the selfish, proud side of humanity that causes unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and discontent.

In depth psychology the ego is seen differently. The ego represents an individual’s ability to be anchored in a state of consciousness. As one of the organs of the psyche, some of the ego’s main functions is to give meaning to information “of a personal nature” (2014, loc. 993) that arises into awareness, to integrate this knowledge into consciousness and to offer direction and stability to daily life. The ego is responsible for creating a sense of safety or groundedness, for offering the necessary focus and drive and to make plans and execute them. All of the functions of the ego refer to the conscious aspect of the mind. Because the ego uses categories and labels to achieve its role, it can often become too rigid and too set in a particular way, neglecting and omitting other vital parts of the psychic system. The common phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” referring to someone who cannot be inspired to change reflects the way the ego can become inflexible and closed to newness. What is rejected by the ego goes into the realm of the shadow.

The shadow is an archetype of the psyche whose function is to temporarily obscure hard to process psychic content. An archetype is a repeating pattern that is tied in with a particular human instinct. It is common in all humans to tend to hide and repress what they think they don’t like. But every now and then it is helpful to have one’s old ways challenged in order to reevaluate and rediscover parts of oneself one deems as worthy of hiding. All archetypes have a positive side and a negative side, or better said a balanced aspect and an imbalanced aspect. The ego and the shadow contribute to keeping each other in balance. The shadow challenges the ego by bringing to the surface repressed unconscious material and the ego can learn to relate to the shadow in a new and healthier way. 

Even though both the ego and the shadow are parts of the psyche, there are some important differences between them. The ego is a complex and the shadow is an archetype. The ego focuses on what is conscious while the shadow contains what is mainly unconscious. The shadow can be both individual and collective, while the ego is only personal. Despite their differences, the ego and the shadow are strongly interconnected. The totality of the psyche known as The Self will use interactions between the two to achieve its goal of integration. The more is integrated of the personal shadow the better the entire psychic system will function.

The Ego

Jung defines the ego as “a complex of ideas which constitutes the centre of my field of consciousness and appears to possess a high degree of continuity and identity.” (Psychological Types, CW 6, para. 706). The ego is the receiver and sorter of psychic and somatic material (Jung, C.G. Aion p3). The ego collects past experience, draws conclusions about the present and makes decisions about the future. It is what allows knowledge to be integrated. Through the ego, consciousness is expanded. In this way, the ego can be vital for the ultimate goal of the psyche, which is to become aware of, acknowledge, accept and integrate all aspects of the psyche. 

The ego’s focus often centers on questions such as “who am I?” and “how do I fit into this world?”.  The answers to such questions may change frequently over a lifetime as life experiences happen and are processed. To create such answers the ego takes the information it receives through the body and mind and creates definitions, fundamental beliefs, and values. Then it takes these mental concepts and uses them to reveal and represent itself to the world as a unique personal identity.

In an attempt to categorize and structure everything it perceives, the ego will identify with anything that is personally known or experienced: failures, successes, experiences, feelings, etc. It is common when reading someone’s biography to come across a list of labels: “I’m a mother, a wife, a seeker, etc”. This reflects the ego’s way of identifying with past events no matter what aspect of life they come from and whether they are labeled as positive or negative. People will claim they are “an alcoholic” or “a cancer survivor”. The ego is what usually dictates what follows after “I am” and also after “what I do”. Its role in the psyche is also to aid in making choices and facing the consequences of those choices. The problem with most of the ego created identifications is that they only take into account what has been seen and understood or what is currently is under the light of awareness, and what is under control through action.

The ego is blind to what exists outside its awareness and its consciousness. Because of that, it can forget about the inner realm, about what is unknown or hidden. Life direction, even when seen as successful by external standards, if it is not aligned with inner sources it will be only serving one part of the whole. Such satisfaction will be short-lived. Partial functioning is not sustainable long term and usually gives rise to concerning psychological symptoms such as chronic dissatisfaction, loss of enthusiasm, depression or anxiety.

Jung reminds us of the dangers of only tending to the external life: “although a disciplined consciousness is necessary for the performance of civilized activities (we know what happens if a railway signalman lapses into daydreaming), it has the serious disadvantage that it is apt to block the reception of impulses and messages coming from the center.” (Jung, Man and his symbols loc 3218) Without taking into consideration the unconscious, the one-sided ego-driven activity will, in time, become either exaggerated and dictatorial or empty of vitality and meaning. Jung further explains: “it is in the nature of the conscious mind to concentrate on relatively few contents and to raise them to the highest pitch of clarity. A necessary result and precondition is the exclusion of other potential contents of consciousness. The exclusion is bound to bring about a certain one-sidedness of the conscious contents.” (2014, loc. 3077)

The ego that has become one-sided creates illusions of grandeur and control. It makes one imagine that they know most everything they need to know and that they can control and achieve mostly everything they set their mind to. It can make one so bold as to believe that they know themselves fully. Furthermore, the ego will put in place mental constructs and behaviors that will defend and fortify this belief. Then it will defend it and react aggressively anytime someone may appear as threatening to their own concept of themselves. In someone set in their ways with little openness to the mystery of the self and of life, sudden change of circumstances can cause shock, turmoil, and strong inner conflict. A personal crisis can emerge anytime the ego will perceive that something under its reign has been lost or removed without its previous permission. Indeed, one of the ego’s functions is to defend and restore control anytime it is threatened or lost but at times people become so identified with the ego and the external structures it builds they cannot imagine a life outside of it. In extreme cases, individuals have chosen to end their life as a result of a sudden change that is related to their self made identity. There are many recorded cases of famous chefs who were fired, or businessmen who lost everything. 

Another one of the manifestations of the ego’s structuring function is to make sense of what happens in life. The ego is the psychic structure behind needing to understand the why of life. Of course, knowing why a course of action is being pursued in life can be vital to the success of that endeavor but there are also aspects of life that cannot be fully understood from a human point of view. It’s not always possible to make sense of all of life’s events, especially not right away. The ego does not tolerate this very well. The ego needs to have a power and influence over what is and it will go to great lengths to achieve this, even if sometimes it has to manufacture the illusion of control. For example, many times when people suffer a major loss, they will have a psychological impulse to find someone or something to blame for that loss. And when that is not available they will make up a story that gives what happened some sort of sense. People need to know why this happened to them. “This happened because such and such.” And if the new story doesn’t make sense then they will imagine that they themselves have caused the unbearable event. Unconsciously taking the blame for a terrible loss, even if untrue, is for them more acceptable than to admit they cannot make sense of the tragedy. This is one of the great delusions of the ego- out of a need to feel in control it will imagine that it has more power than it actually has while the usual and real weakness and helplessness of the human condition is repressed, overlooked and forgotten. Their powerlessness is well hidden in the realm of the shadow. But not for long. The psyche has a built-in balancing mechanism that will activate in such situations and will force the ego to meet with what it has struggled so hard to discard, hide and obscure: the shadow. 

The Shadow

Because the ultimate goal of the psyche is to integrate all of its parts, the unchallenged illusion of power and control of the ego is usually temporary. The shadow will come to visit sooner or later. But what is the shadow and what is its function? The shadow is an archetype or pattern of the human psyche, which means that it is common to all people. The shadow encompasses everything that is unknown, unfamiliar or unwanted but also, at times, it includes qualities usually labeled as desirable or helpful. Some call this the bright shadow. There is no one without a shadow. There are no perfect humans or humans who know themselves fully. As an individual develops they encounter things that are overwhelming, intimidating or challenging. The main role of the shadow is to allow for temporary elimination or obscurity. The ego’s function is to tend to vital psychological and emotional needs by creating stability and forward movement. Anything outside of the purpose of the ego is cast into the shadow of unconsciousness. Left unchecked the ego will continue to deny important parts of the whole self indefinitely. Embracing certain aspects of the self while denying others causes inner splitting and self-deception. While the psyche may allow this temporarily, it will eventually force the ego to face its shadow. The psyche needs to integrate the shadow in order to achieve wholeness. Everything a person is must be owned and lived. Jung explains: “the shadow is a living part of the personality and therefore wants to live with it in some form. It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness.” (2014, loc. 558) Jung further explains: “the shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality.” (Jung & Storr, 2013, p. 91)

While everybody has a shadow, not everyone is willing to acknowledge its existence. Repression causes regression, projection and compulsion. When someone rejects their shadow they are in fact rejecting themselves, even if only in part. Often times this self-rejection is not conscious but manifests as an active rejection of others. Indeed, for many, the first encounters with the shadow archetype happen by projecting it onto another. It may appear as simple as accusing one’s spouse of being the cause of their spilled coffee when they weren’t even in the same room. Or it can show as an emotionally charged and uncomfortable meeting with the mysterious figure of a neighbor that appears threatening, maybe even evil. Or it may be our best friend, who appears to us to be kinder and more loving than anybody else. Either way, a strong reaction arises from within. Sometimes to defend oneself seems unavoidable. Other times we wish we were more like that cool person we admire. In either type of situation, physical symptoms can show in the body. Robert Bly beautifully illustrates the times less than desirable qualities are projected: “our psyche in daily life tries to give us a hint of where our shadow lies by picking out people to hate in an irrational way.” (2009, p. 47) For many, a painful conflict ensues in such a situation. A war is waged against our unknown self and carried out outwardly in relationship with another. A lot of more suffering comes from the resistance to the shadow than from the discomfort of embracing it. When pain is resisted, it is only enhanced. 

It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to face what is unknown and intimidating and willingly open to it. Jung reminds “the shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. But one must learn to know oneself in order to know who one is.” (2014, loc. 570) To do so, one must be willing to do consistent and intentional inner work, to allow themselves to change their mind about life long values that were perhaps inherited. For example, someone who may have grown up in poor circumstances may have heard the message that money is dirty and that people who have money are filthy and manipulative. The ego will store that as a belief that unless challenged it will continue to survive for a long time. When someone believes that to be rich is bad, they will unconsciously hide from themselves (or put into shadow) their own financial intelligence and skill. Their ego belief does not allow them to be financially capable. They are not allowed to do well with money so they are not bad. In order to embrace this financially capable side of them, such a person would have to divorce their parents’ beliefs and create new beliefs that better reflect their own individuality.  The shadow does not contain only what is considered undesirable but any qualities, positive or not, that may be threatening to the current status quo. 

As one advances in their relationship with the shadow they may begin to relate differently with it. As confronting material from the unconscious is made conscious it brings with it helpful insights. These insights can prove valuable in time. The immediate emotional volatility and rejection is reduced. Trust in oneself begins to build, and the ego feels more willing and able to meet this shadowy material and use it for personal growth as opposed to personal conflict. The presence of a subtle curiosity may also appear, a curiosity about the material that comes up each time the shadow is encountered. While the steps towards embracing that material may be wobbly or shaky, they happen nonetheless. In the process, one discovers that approaching the shadow in a more open manner can vastly improve the overall function of the Self. Jung beautifully illustrates this: “The investigator may see in the mud-puddle a world full of wonders, but to the ordinary man it is something upon which he prefers to turn his back.” (2017, p. 45). The wonders Jung refers to are perhaps the breakthroughs, a-ha moments and new perspectives that are common side effects of embracing one’s shadow. The charge around conflict, both inner and outer, is reduced. More energy is made available. Other parts of the psyche function better too. There is a deeper sense of alignment between the inner and the outer. 

The Realization of the Shadow

The main goal of the psyche is the manifested totality of the individual. Not functioning as a whole makes each part less functional. Totality means nothing is neglected, excluded or discarded. This is achieved by balancing the conscious attitude with the unconscious influence. Jung believed that “all opposites seek to achieve a state of balance” (1983, p. 404). Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche supports this perspective: “there is a natural impulse in us toward balance just as there is a natural pull toward increased awareness and spiritual growth. Both can be perverted or denied, but the wisdom that can lead us toward balance is inherent in our being.” (2003, p. 24) When it comes to the parts of the psyche, Jung believed that everything is at first unconscious: “the energy underlying conscious psychic life is pre-existent to it and therefore at first unconscious.” (1983, p.404) A healthy relationship with the shadow begins when it is no longer engaged with as something that needs to be contained, rejected, or hidden. 

Jung defines an archetype in general as “essentially an unconscious content that is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived. ”(2014, loc. 248) This is especially true for the shadow. Both the shadow and consciousness are impacted when what is repressed comes to the surface. Jung believed that the one-sidedness of the ego can be removed by “the realization of the shadow, the growing awareness of the inferior part of the personality.” (1960, p. 118) 

When what is denied is faced it sometimes exposes dysfunctional ways in which reality is being engaged with. To suddenly become aware of how one is the source of their own dysfunction doesn’t feel good. That is why many people resist the shadow. Facing the tendency to withdraw from what is unpleasant or unwanted is the first step in acknowledging the shadow. The next step is to learn to humbly accept the reality of the limitation, imperfection, and uncertainty inherent in the human condition in general but also that which is specific to the individual. While this is often uncomfortable, this new information can be crucial when used for transformation. Jung believed that “the encounter with the shadow is the “apprentice-piece” in the individual’s development” (2014, loc. 729) meaning that it is the entryway into further personal development. 

When the ego has integrated the shadow it will allow old categories to fall and new ones to be created, it will become flexible in attitude and spirit, new life will spring into the whole psyche. In time defensiveness and resistance are lessened while new vision and direction are born. There is a surge of aliveness and a sense of ease. Rejected parts of the psyche are restored to the whole. This more integrated way of being can be practiced daily by neglecting nothing, whether it is good or bad, weak or strong, ugly or ideal. Wholeness implies completeness and not perfection. Dr. Hoffman beautifully illustrates the therapeutic value of wholeness: “psychological wellness is the result of honoring all the disparate elements of the soul as they disclose themselves, however multifarious and divergent they wish to be.” (2014, p. 59)


In astrology, the ego is represented by the sun and the shadow is represented by the moon. Seeing them in this metaphoric way powerfully illustrates their individual importance. Would the day have the same brilliance without the darkness of the night? Would the night feel as peaceful without the contrast of the day? While the ego focuses on everything that is within one’s control, the shadow represents what is outside of this control. Together they form a crucial part of the psychic matrix and when related to with intention and awareness, they tend to balance each other out. As more and more elements of the psyche are made conscious and integrated, the entire system changes and becomes more functional. 

Understanding the way the ego and the shadow influence psychic life is complicated and at best only partial. The personal psyche cannot be seen from the outside by the person to whom it belongs, but only from within. Just like someone can never see their whole body at once because they are within the body they are trying to see, someone can only understand their psyche partially at any given moment. Nevertheless, exploring each part contributes tremendously to understanding the whole, even if conceptually. 



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