A child in a red shirt sits at a desk with a black and white cat. Sunlight and shadows create an intricate pattern through the window.

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Three ways to get in touch with your Shadow self

Photo by Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

by Ruth Williams + BIO





Jung believed we all have a Shadow self. Facing up to it could help you live more fully and be more forgiving of others

‘Shadow’ is the term used by Carl Gustav Jung to refer to those aspects of yourself that you do not like or want to be associated with. You might even refuse to acknowledge them as being a part of you. They can range from the fact you’re a bit controlling, all the way to having a drive towards world domination.

For a contemporary fictional depiction of the Shadow, take the Netflix series Ripley (2024). This is the latest adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant novel The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). The protagonist – Tom Ripley – is shown at various points taking on the character of Dickie whose identity he steals and whom he murders. The look on Ripley’s face as he adopts the character is utterly chilling. He becomes someone else.

In the guise of Dickie, Ripley is able to become all sorts of things that his regular persona does not allow. He is acting on his envy of Dickie’s glamour and wealthy, upper-class life. This could be described as an extreme portrayal of the Shadow in film.

Envy is often the fuel behind Shadow-driven actions – thankfully, not usually so extreme as murder – such as betrayal, connivance and one-upmanship. Envy is such an unpleasant and repulsive feeling that it can easily become denied at a conscious level, but then it breaks through in unexpected ways. Sigmund Freud called this the ‘return of the repressed’. Does that ring any bells? I expect we have all had such experiences, whether as the one envying or on the receiving end.

If these ugly behaviours are a manifestation of your Shadow self, why would you even want to know about it? Well, you might find it helps you live a more authentic life; a life in which you more fully incorporate your potential and feel more whole. This could include becoming more accepting of those aspects of yourself that feel distasteful. It is often easy to point fingers at those who repel us and to think how awful they are. But sometimes you might find that they are acting as a kind of mirror, reflecting back qualities you find abhorrent, but that you actually possess yourself, as uncomfortable and unwelcome as that idea might be.

For Jung, the Shadow was not merely an intellectual idea, but a deep journey into his own soul

Coming to terms with these unwanted aspects of ourselves is arguably a necessary struggle in life. It enables us to take responsibility for our faults, our failings or shortcomings, and to blame others less. This can create deeper and more meaningful relationships. (There is also such a thing as the collective Shadow, mirroring Jung’s model of the psyche, which has both a personal and a collective unconscious, but exploring the collective Shadow is beyond the scope of this article.)

Jung was a pioneer in his field who established analytical psychology as a discipline. As a young man, he was seen as Freud’s intellectual heir, but their differences in approach soon became apparent and they went their separate ways. For Jung, his theory of the Shadow was not merely an intellectual idea, but a fully embodied, deep journey into his own soul, to mine what he instinctively felt led to profound truths. He explored his own soul so deeply that some thought he had lost the plot and called him ‘schizophrenic’ (which he was not) or thought he’d had a psychotic breakdown (which he had not).

Jung’s own experiences show that delving into and excavating the depths of your Shadow is not a task to be taken lightly. The journey is downwards and inner. It can be seen as a descent into ‘hell’ and it can indeed be quite hellish. Facing the Shadow can involve facing shame, perhaps fears of annihilation, vulnerability, alienation, envy, guilt or blame. All the stuff that is so hard to acknowledge and experience.

I don’t mean to scare you off. Many of us do this work and derive great benefit from it. There are aspects of ourselves buried in the Shadows that need to be discovered, uncovered and incorporated in order for us to become more whole human beings. To live only in the lighter, more socially valued and acceptable aspects of life can make for a shallow existence. That can leave us less able to create deep and fulfilling relationships in life and instead leave us feeling empty or hollow.

You will find books that talk about ‘making friends’ with your Shadow and such like. That is a bit like trying to stroke a tiger. Or a tarantula! The method par excellence to work with the Shadow is to find a Jungian analyst. But this is not available to everyone because it is expensive and time consuming. So I am setting out some useful ways in which you might begin to acknowledge and/or work with the Shadow by yourself. If at any stage you feel overwhelmed by the process, please consider seeking out the support of a professional therapist.

If a person you can’t stand appears in your dream, you might reflect on what it is about them you cannot stomach

Record and reflect on your dreams

Because the Shadow is an aspect of the unconscious, one of the best ways of exploring it is via your dreams. To quickly record your dreams as you wake, I encourage you to keep a notebook by your bedside, or use the voice note app on your phone. Transcribe the voice notes when you have time. This will give you the opportunity to explore the dream more deeply and to include associations that come to mind as you write, and any thoughts and images that crop up when you remember the dream. Draw any images that arise. This can take time, but it can help you process your dream and might elicit further thoughts and feelings, which could be relevant to the dream’s overall meaning.

An important part of my own journey into this realm began with a dream of a witch. I based my master’s dissertation on this dream, which became a whole series of dreams that were frankly terrifying. As I began to write the dissertation, the witch and, often, her scraggy old cat commenced their nightly visitations, tormenting me in my sleep. In fact, I could barely sleep during this period as I would always be anxious about what the next dream would bring.

This can be the nature of exploring the Shadow. It is not easy. The ‘witch’ would take different forms, but I would always recognise her as this terrifying character who was horrible, bitter and frightening. You might recognise a version of this ‘character’ (or archetype) in your own dreams. Dreams are tailored in a personal way by your own unconscious, to drive home the message or image in a way that is unique to you.

One of the ways of thinking about dreams from a Jungian perspective is to think of each character and each facet of a dream as being representative of some aspect of you, the dreamer – possibly including parts of your Shadow. If you stop to think about it, you might see that each character in a dream carries not just different facets of you, but perhaps portrays them in ways you might not have recognised without this ‘hint’. For instance, if a person you can’t stand appears in your dream, you might reflect on what it is about them you cannot stomach. Do they possess qualities you would never wish to be associated with? Might they in fact represent an unwanted facet of you, as distasteful as that thought might be?

Another important dream element to look out for is any recurring animals. Animals often play a vital role in dreams, acting as a kind of graphic symbolic messenger – a shorthand. An animal or insect has different connotations for each of us. Spend some time thinking about the different character traits you perceive in animals, and see how they might represent aspects of your own nature.

Another useful technique in Jungian analysis is to dream the dream onwards, which means imagining where the dream might have continued if you had not woken, or if the dream had carried on. This can be helpful if a dream is short or seems to end before you’ve quite got the gist of what is being expressed. Your imagination can amplify the picture and provide further insights. I do not mean as a kind of pretence but, rather, creatively opening up your consciousness to images, thoughts and feelings that can help you.

Thinking about the Shadow – allowing unwanted thoughts and feelings to emerge – takes deliberate attention

If you have trusted friends or family who are on a similar path, you could consider sharing this process of dream analysis with them, to help you elucidate the images and meanings in your dreams. Further insights often arise when you talk about a dream, although of course it is vital you share such intimate and private material only with people with whom you feel comfortable. These are the depths of your soul you are sharing.

Keep a journal

Journaling, in the form of recording your thoughts in written or spoken word, is another method for exploring your mind in exactly the same way as I have described for dreams (recording dreams might even form part of your journaling). Taking the time to sit quietly and explore your thoughts and feelings on paper can be a great way to process what is troubling you, or indeed pleasing you. Allow yourself free reign, let the words flow. It is time out, privately, to reflect and maybe put puzzle pieces together. A way of making links that might not usually occur to you. Thinking about the Shadow – especially allowing unwanted thoughts and feelings to emerge – takes conscious, deliberate attention.

In her book The Artist’s Way (1992), Julia Cameron encourages us to write what she calls ‘morning pages’. This involves hand-writing three pages of text each day on waking. There is no right way. Simply write whatever comes to mind with no editing or interference from your conscious mind, which might want to make it more interesting or erudite.

Don’t pore over your text immediately with a critical eye. Instead, let it marinate and you might find that some interesting insights emerge. These pages are not to be read by anyone else. So you can – hopefully – allow yourself freedom to express whatever comes to mind, which will likely include aspects of the Shadow.

It is almost certain that unpalatable thoughts and images will arise. Don’t we all experience the most unwanted images at times, which seem quite incongruous in relation to the way you would usually see yourself? Comedians often express those very violent, aggressive or obnoxious thoughts, which we do not express ourselves. That’s why we find them so hilarious. We recognise them! You might be surprised at what pours out of your pen.

You might be surprised by what emerges if you allow your mind to open in a more spontaneous way

Practise active imagination

Jung created a practice he called ‘active imagination’. What he did is precisely what I have been describing here – writing and drawing to process emotions and thoughts. But he did it on a whole other level. He created a personal myth in the form of a long story that he illustrated with the most beautiful ornate paintings. You can do something similar on a much more modest scale. He sets us an example of how to excavate our minds. The point is to develop in your own unique ways, not to recreate what Jung did.

Jung laid out his method – which he described as dreaming with eyes open – as follows:

[You] choose a dream, or some other fantasy-image, and concentrate on it by simply catching hold of it and looking at it … Usually it will alter, as the mere fact of contemplating it animates it … A chain of fantasy ideas develops and gradually takes on a dramatic character: the passive process becomes an action. At first it consists of projected figures, and these images are observed like scenes in the theatre. In other words, you dream with open eyes … If the observer understands that his own drama is being performed on this inner stage, he cannot remain indifferent to the plot and its dénouement. He will notice, as the actors appear one by one and the plot thickens, that they all have some purposeful relationship to his conscious situation …

As with journaling, it requires time and space to let your mind to roam freely and to get some space from the intrusions of a busy world. It is important to be in a private space when you have time, to free your mind to allow images to arise. Often, you will probably want to control the images. But you might be surprised by what emerges if you can allow your mind to open in a more spontaneous and unrestrained way.

Perhaps begin by sitting quietly – you can leave your eyes open as Jung suggested or close them if you find it easier. Just notice what pops into your mind’s eye. This may take the form of images, sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings. This takes practice and patience. You might then begin a dialogue between different characters who may pop up. There is no ‘right’ story or image. This is your own mind that has the potential to create a unique, personal narrative – this is another way to access the Shadow.

If you encounter experiences that are frightening or uncomfortable, take a breath. You could stop. Or you could then let the exploration continue and go through the discomfort barrier. Nothing should be, or needs to be, forced. Time, compassion (for yourself) and patience are required. Does this feel like a help or a hindrance, you might ask yourself? Unless there is some useful, enlightening gain to yourself and your relationships, it may well feel too much. If it becomes self-flagellating, then stop. The intention is not to punish yourself, but to be expansive and growthful.

Whether you choose to record your dreams, journal, use morning pages or experiment with the practice of active imagination, I wish you well in your explorations. Go gently, and try not to have expectations.

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3 July 2024