Skip to content

The Shadow

There’s more and more evidence for Jung’s concept of the shadow

If you enjoy my blog, please take a moment to support me on Patreon – click here

Vaiana confronts the shadow of alienated and daemonic nature, in Disney’s film Moana. When she confronts it with courage, she transforms it back into a kindly nature daemon

In October, I’m heading to the Amazon jungle in Peru to take part in an ayahuasca ritual at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light. I heard about it when I interviewed a novelist called Emma for The Art of Losing Control, who went there to try and help herself become pregnant after a series of miscarriages. She described ayahuasca as an incredible technology, a ‘Scud missile that goes straight to the heart of your neuroses’. And she also made the Temple sound a very safe place in which to undergo this quite full-on experience.

Indeed, before I could sign up for the nine-day retreat, I had to fill in two questionnaires – one for physical health, one for mental health. I then had a Skype interview with one of the therapists who works at the retreat, who answered some of my concerns. This preparation is crucial, I think – a lot of Westerners head to Peru or Brazil and sign up with the first ‘shaman’ they meet, and that’s when problems can arise, like sexual abuse or simply putting your mind into the hands of people who don’t know what they’re doing.

Once I’d been accepted for the retreat, I was sent an email with an 18-page PDF called Preparation for a Workshop. The second section of this document is called Preparing to Face Your Shadow. It says:

Our shadow is everything inside us that we have disowned, avoided and kept in the dark. We all turn away from pain at some stage in our life, especially during our childhoods, yet whatever we have not processed gets relegated and hidden in our shadow. Our shadow is where our life force gets trapped and is no longer available to us. It is energy that is not integrated with the rest of our being, akin to pieces of us that have become compartmentalized, pushed aside and treated as an unwanted child. Shadow work is counter-habitual: we turn towards pain, not away from pain. We access that place of pain within us and slowly bring it into the open, become acquainted and then intimate with it, until the estranged pain is not a dreaded “it”, but a reclaimed “us”. Ayahuasca healing is a journey to the heart of what really matters – an opportunity to face and integrate our shadow, transmuting trapped energies and making them available for life-affirming purposes.

I was fascinated to encounter Jung in the Jungle. The shadow was, to my mind, one of the best ideas put forward by Carl Jung. He suggested that the shadow aspects of our psyche can appear in dreams and visions as a sort of angry daemonic figure – it might often appear as a tramp, a metaphor for all the parts of our psyche we’ve rejected and cast out as we try to construct a nice civilized persona. That’s how the shadow appeared in my own nightmares when I suffered from PTSD.

Jung thought that our shadow haunts us – in bad dreams, mood problems, restlessness, a feeling of emptiness or fatigue. And yet we run from our shadow, and project it onto others. The idea of projection is another of Jung’s great ideas. Look at president Trump, for example, who is a text book case of projection, as Oliver Burkeman has noted. So many of the insults he hurls at others in his Olympian tweets fit his own personality perfectly. Immigrants are rapist animals, says the man who boasts of sexual assaults. It’s much easier to project our shadow onto outsiders, and then use them as scapegoats. When we purge the body politic of the demonic outsiders we will finally become pure and whole and Great Again. Much harder to face the shadow in ourselves.

But Jung’s vision of the psyche is much more optimistic than Sigmund Freud’s – he believed we can confront the shadow, face it with compassion and courage, and then it can be reintegrated into a more whole, actualized and mature psyche. The angry daemon is transformed into an ally – a eudaimon (or ‘kindly daemon) and we can achieve eudaimonia, flourishing, a better flow of life.

The shadow is not an idea that gets much play in mainstream psychology. You’d be hard pressed to find it mentioned in a text-book of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example. Yet it’s been kept alive in transpersonal psychology – a somewhat fringe movement centred in California, which includes psychologists like Abraham Maslow, Stanslaf Grof and Ken Wilber. Transpersonal psychology distinguishes itself from other schools in its openness to the idea that the aim of existence is to transcend the ego, and perhaps to unite with some greater consciousness or spiritual dimension. Confronting the shadow is often considered an important stage in that journey.

One of the interesting things that’s happening in psychology at the moment is that the ideas of transpersonal psychology are becoming mainstream. That’s a big shift for western culture. Thanks to research in psychedelic science, in contemplative science, in dream science and in the science of out-of-the-ordinary experiences (like hearing voices), it’s becoming widely accepted that the psyche is bigger than just the conscious ego, that ego-transcendence is often good for us, that altered states of consciousness are often good for us. Jung’s idea of the shadow is also becoming more widely accepted and used by researchers.

Many leading Western psychedelic researchers draw on Jung’s concept as a central reference for what happens on trips and why they can be profoundly healing. At Johns Hopkins Medical School, for example, which has an influential psychedelics lab, Dr Bill Richards has said:

We often say that if, during a psychedelic session, some monster appears, you should say ‘Hello, monster, why are you here? What can I learn from you?’ If you go towards it, there is integration and healing. If you run away from it, it’s like running away from your own shadow. You can develop panic and paranoia.

I emailed Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College, and asked him if he thought psychedelic research has provided support for Jung’s idea of the shadow, and whether psychedelic research might lead to a return of the idea of the shadow into mainstream psychotherapy. He replied: ‘Without any doubt, I would answer your question in the affirmative – both aspects.’ A leading psychedelic therapist, Friederike Meckel Fischer, also draws extensively on the Jungian idea of the confrontation with the shadow – as you can see in this video presentation by her (see 4.45 particularly)

The idea of the shadow also crops up in contemplative science. For example, Dr Willoughby Briton is lead researcher at Brown University’s contemplative science centre, and runs a project exploring some of the difficult experiences people sometimes encounter in meditation. One of the most common difficult experiences people have is the return of suppressed negative memories and emotions – the shadow comes back, and meditators have the opportunity to bring these difficult experiences into consciousness and accept them with compassion.

I notice the idea of the shadow also appearing in the latest research on unusual experiences like hearing voices. Eleanor Longden started hearing a voice when she was an undergraduate, and it became more and more aggressive, intrusive and disturbing. She was hospitalized for psychosis, but this only made her voice more aggressive. Finally, through therapy, she gradually learned to change her relationship to this demonic voice. She writes:

I began to realize that, yes, he is a demon but he was a personal demon…his demonic aspects were the unaccepted aspects of my self-image, my shadow…The contempt and loathign that he expresses is actually to do with me in that it reflects how I feel about myself….Having realized that maybe I could trust him and be more trusting of him, in turn, he became more compassionate towards me.

She subsequently took a degree in psychology, wrote a successful book about voice-hearing, and gave one of the most watched TED talks. She’s a leading figure in the Hearing Voices movement, which is changing our cultural attitude to voice-hearers, and changing the attitude of voice-hearers to their own daemons.

Finally, I notice that Jung’s concept of the shadow plays quite a prominent role in some of the research on dreaming and lucid dreaming. This is not yet quite as established a scientific field as the other fields I’ve mentioned, but it’s worth noting the early findings. I read the work of Charlie Morley, for example, who is a leading practitioner of lucid dreaming in the UK. Morley, like me, gave himself mild PTSD through a bad trip on LSD when he was a teenager. Like me, the PTSD manifested in nightmares where he was pursued by a daemonic vagabond figure. Later, when he learned lucid dreaming techniques, Morley was able to confront this daemon, recognize him as an aspect of his own psyche, and accept him with compassion. The monster was transformed in his dream into an ally. Just one anecdote, but interesting.

The concept of the shadow, then, is re-emerging thanks to new research in psychedelic science, contemplative science, the science of dreaming, and the science of anomalous experiences like hearing voices. What I wonder is this: is the concept of the shadow cross-cultural, or western-bound? I can see it in some Miyazaki films, for sure – like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke. Often, in such myths, the shadow is represented by an angry and daemonic nature who must be reconciled and made peace with – this is what happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries, where angry Demeter is confronted and the land is healed.

If the psychological mechanism is universal, then do other cultures have the idea of confronting and transforming your shadow? And what do the Shipibo indian healers who work at the Temple of the Way of Light make of it – how does Jung’s idea of confronting the shadow fit in with their understanding of how ayahuasca heals? I will tell you in three months.

Confronting the shadow

When I was 20, I had a series of nightmares. In the first nightmare, I was in a car with some friends heading to a music festival. We heard on the radio that a lunatic had escaped from a local asylum. The traffic started to slow on the motorway, and we realised this was because people were leaving their cars and running away in terror. The whole motorway was deadlocked with abandoned cars.

My friends also ran away but for some reason I kept going forward. The motorway turned into a foggy country lane at night. Lots of dry ice. Very spooky. A figure stumbled out of the fog. It was a tramp figure in an overcoat, clutching his side as if he was wounded. I realised with horror that this was the escaped lunatic, and that in his hand he was holding a gun.

I turned to try and run away, just as the escaped lunatic raised the gun and aimed it at me. BANG! I woke up.

In a second nightmare from that period, I was walking through a zoo, when I realised that the fences of the animal cages had fallen down, and the animals were loose in the zoo and coming to get me. As a horde of snakes, tigers and crocodiles came for me, I flew out of their jaws and into the air. I could fly! I joyfully floated through the air for a bit, safely out of reach of the wild animals, but then it felt like my ‘rocket fuel’ started to run out, and I sank back to the ground, into the awaiting jaws of a crocodile.

In a third nightmare, I was at a party, and I looked in the mirror. I looked terrible – like a ghost, pale, haggard, destroyed. I then realised that my body was covered with tattoos, and that the tattoos prophesied that I was, literally, a marked man, that there was a price on my head. I was a scapegoat, a Jonah. I must die. Just at that moment, a gang of armed men burst into the party, looking to gun me down. I managed to escape by hiding, and ran out into the streets. The gang pursued me, down some dark alleys. I ducked into a building, and jumped down some stairs – the distance between each step got bigger and bigger. Finally I fell down into a hallway several metres below. I landed, and something fell and smashed next to me. It was a mannequin.

In the final nightmare in the series, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a lorry, hurtling down the motorway. I looked to my left, and there was a tramp, filthy and laughing away as he drove the lorry. He seemed drunk. We careered off the motorway and half-way off a cliff. Just before the lorry fell off the cliff, I managed to pull myself and the tramp free of the wreckage.

Big dreams

What sense could I make of these dreams? At the time, I didn’t know, although they stuck in my mind and have stayed there ever since – they were unusually vivid, numinous and unsettling, unlike most of my dreams. Carl Jung referred to such dreams as ‘big dreams’ – a survey I did last month found that people reported having such unusually memorable and vivid dreams only rarely in their life, usually at times of transition or crisis, and that they found such dreams helpful and useful in adapting to that change. I also think these dreams were giving me useful information about a psychological crisis I was in, although I didn’t entirely recognize their message.

The nightmares occurred when I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by a couple of bad trips on LSD I’d had when I was 17-18.  Those experiences made me feel my psyche was seriously wounded, but I was too frightened and ashamed to talk to anyone about it. So I buried the experiences. The bad times seemed to pass for a few months, until my first year at university, when my emotional life went hay-wire. I suffered panic attacks, mood swings, feelings of dissociation or unreality, paranoia, and long periods of depression. I didn’t recognise myself anymore, that I had turned into someone else – a weak, insecure, wounded person. I hated that person, and did everything I could to escape him. I couldn’t accept or deal with the wounded parts of me. This was the situation I was in when the nightmares came, and it seems to me now that they accurately described to me my psychic situation and how to deal with it.

Confronting the shadow

I eventually came to understand the nightmares with the help of a concept of Carl Jung’s – the shadow. Jung thought that adults in a civilized society have to learn to play a role. He wrote: ‘We have a certain idea of how a civilized or educated or moral person should live’. Playing the role of a civilized person requires us to wear a mask, or what Jung called a persona, behind which we hide those aspects of our psyche which other people might judge as ugly, shameful, primitive, weak, sinful, or ridiculous. Constructing and maintaining this mask takes a huge amount of psychic energy. Jung wrote: ‘The construction of a collectively suitable persona means a formidable concession to the external world, a genuine self-sacrifice.’ We do it because, as Adam Smith noted, the most powerful human drive is the desire for public approval, and the fear of public shaming or ridicule.

Being an adult in polite society means playing a role, putting on a mask, and trying to hide those aspects of the psyche which you fear society might shame or ridicule.

Unfortunately, the rest of our psyche does not appreciate this construction of a persona or false self. Jung writes: ‘Under no circumstance with the unconscious tolerate the shifting of the centre of gravity…A man cannot get rid of himself in favour of an artificial personality without punishment’. The repressed parts of us – the shadow –  resents the ego’s repression of it, and it tries to return, in the form of ‘bad moods, affects, phobias, compulsive ideas, back-slidings, vices’. The shadow is a ‘kind of hostile brother’, an ‘adversary’, a ‘stranger’, bitterly opposed to our persona with all its fake posturing and social ambitions. It behaves like a devil, ‘and seems to delight in playing impish tricks’. If the gap between the persona and the shadow grows too big, if a person is playing a role which is simply too fake, then the energy to maintain this division becomes exhausting, and the person may have a breakdown. The shadow becomes daemonic – filled with resentful and vengeful energy, hating the ego’s false life and plotting to destroy it, even if it means destroying the individual’s social life…or ending the person’s life entirely.

The individual needs to find a truce between her ego and her shadow, she needs to find a way of reintegrating the shadow back into the psyche, rather than having it as a menacing adversary lurking at the window. Because the shadow is not entirely evil – it may be less civilized, more primitive, more emotional, but it’s also a source of power, healing and vitality.  Jung wrote that the shadow is not just ‘slime from the depths…this ‘slime’ contains not merely incompatible and rejected remnants of everyday life, or inconvenient and objectionable animal tendencies, but also germs of new life, and vital possibilities for the future’. The persona, by contrast, is a fake construction, without soul, without life.

Jung thought the shadow often appears in dreams as a ‘primitive’, a ‘savage’, a wild man, ape or other wild beast, or a monster. In my dreams, it appeared as a tramp, a lunatic escaped from an asylum, a bunch of wild animals escaped from a zoo. These figures in my nightmares represented the traumatized, dissociated parts of my psyche which I had tried to lock up and hide away from view, to protect my persona as a strong, healthy, powerful and attractive person. The shadow was the opposite of that – weak, broken, mentally ill, unattractive, ostracized. When the shadow burst out into my dream-life, I perceived it as a mortal threat, because my ego had become so identified with the false self of my persona. Yet gradually, my dreams tried to tell me that this shadow was a part of me, that I needed to try and take pity on it, to stand by it, even if it meant the sacrifice of my social persona. In that final dream, the lorry goes through a barrier and crashes over a cliff, and I manage to pull the tramp to safety. My dreams were wiser than my conscious ego – they were telling me how to reconnect the dissociated parts of my psyche. Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the warning, and about a year later, the final dream came true – I crashed through a barrier on the side of a mountain, and almost killed myself. Luckily, I survived, and had a near-death experience, which felt like an ecstatic reconciliation of the warring parts of my psyche.

I had to let go of my social persona, let go of control, and learn to accept and have compassion for all the parts of me, even the ugly and wounded parts. I could have learned that from my dreams, if I’d paid more attention.

The persona and the shadow (in this case, the scary hobo from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive - a figure who intrudes from a nightmare into waking reality)
The persona and the shadow (in this case, the scary hobo from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – a figure who intrudes from a nightmare into waking reality)

Dream Practices

How, practically, do we pay attention to our dreams? How can we heed their messages? You can go to see a therapist, though most cognitive behavioural therapists do not incorporate dream analysis into their therapy, and Freudian and Jungian therapists sometimes have rather rigid interpretative frameworks. Alternatively, you can do-it-yourself. Roughly 30% of the respondents to my dream survey said they kept a dream-journal by the side of the bed, so they could write down their dreams upon waking. This practice makes it more likely you’ll recall your dreams in the future, which in turn makes it more likely you’ll heed any useful messages they send.

Over 80% of respondents also said they’d had lucid dreams – ie dreams in which you realize you’re dreaming but stay in the dream-world. Scientists thought lucid dreams were a New Age fantasy, until two scientists (working separately) proved that they were real in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were Keith Hearne, a British parapsychologist, and Stephen LaBerge, a scientist at Stanford University. Both of them managed to get participants to communicate when they were lucid dreaming, using eye movements rehearsed beforehand. Since then, thousands of people have learned how to lucid dream, often using ‘dream yoga’ techniques developed a millennium ago by Tibetan Buddhists.

One leading British practitioner of Buddhist lucid dreaming is Charlie Morley, a former break-dancer. Like me, Charlie managed to give himself post-traumatic stress through a bad LSD trip when he was 17. For several months, he was plagued by nightmares, in which he was pursued by a malevolent bald dwarf. However, unlike me, Charlie managed to use dream-yoga techniques to recognize the dwarf as his shadow, and to welcome it with compassion. He writes: ‘Suddenly the dwarf’s face changed and then the entire dreamscape changed int a 17-year-old’s vision of paradise – in this case a beach full of bikini-clad girls and people skateboarding and drinking cocktails in the sun. That was the last time I ever had that nightmare. Four months of post-traumatic stress cured by one lucid dream.’ Lucid dreaming is now recognized as an effective remedy for curing chronic nightmares. People also use it to heal emotional and even physical disorders (Charlie thinks he managed to heal an ear infection through lucid dreaming), and to practice or rehearse ideas, attitudes or actions.

It’s worth saying, at this point, that you can also confront and integrate the shadow using conscious, rational techniques. After all, both the persona and the shadow are constituted by deeply-held cognitive beliefs. The persona is constituted by beliefs such as ‘I must appear strong, popular and attractive to other people’, while the shadow is constituted by beliefs like ‘I mustn’t appear weak, broken, wild, mad or out-of-control to other people, otherwise they will reject me.’ You can work to uncover and challenge those automatic beliefs using your rationality, as people do using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. But you can also work to transform these beliefs using other forms of consciousness – dreams, trance-states, imagination, body-consciousness. The are rational and non-rational approaches to healing and flourishing, and we can work with all of them. Why would one only work with one level of the psyche?

As well as dream practice, we can also confront and integrate our shadows through cultic or religious practices like contemplation, psychedelic experiences, or ecstatic dancing – Aristotle thought the Dionysiac and Corybantic dance cults give people catharsis, helping them ‘purge’ their neurosis and shake off the tension that arises from the gap between our masks and our shadows. He also thought that theatre can help us achieve catharsis. In really good theatre (or literature, or cinema) we are confronted by our shadows, as in a sort of lucid dream, and helped to accept them and integrate them. We’ll look at some examples of this in next week’s post.