What is ‘The Shadow’? 5 Techniques for Shadow Work
What is the shadow? The enigmatic term stems from the work of Carl Jung and refers to that part of us we are unconsciously repressing.
The shadow most often lays dormant, yet when triggered by external stimuli it can thrust us into dysfunctional states such as anger, anxiety, rage, and panic.
Carl Jung’s work follows that of his mentor, Sigmund Freud, and utilizes his famous theory of the id, ego and superego to uncover the shadow in our souls.
For those of you who’ve forgotten your college psychology, here’s a reminder of the function of each in Freud’s theory:
- Id: The id is the chaotic, unorganized part of our being that stores our instinctual drivers and needs, such as libido, pleasure and domination
- Ego: The ego is that which regulates the id’s desires by remoulding them into the fabric of our lived daily lives. Hence, where the id wants resources, the ego rationalises ways of working for said resources instead of just taking them, thereby maintaining a facade of social harmony in behaviour
- Superego: The superego is the part of us which abides by idealised rules, especially those of a collective cultural or familial nature
What is The Shadow?
In the above definition, the id most closely relates to the shadow in that this is the unconscious part of ourselves that harbours our drivers and wants.
However, the shadow is more than just elements of the unconscious id, it becomes the shadow when we actively remain ignorant to – or reject – parts of ourselves that are at the root of our being.
We can do this with all manner of emotions, drivers and realities.
We may have traumatic experiences that we’re repressing, we may have anger towards the world we repress because we unconsciously learned anger is ‘bad’, or we may have fetishes or desires we have not, or do not, want to acknowledge.
Of course, none of this would be a problem if that nature of the shadow was to stay quiet, but that is not the nature of life – after all ‘what’s done in the dark will always come to the light.’
Henceforth, the shadow is that part of ourselves that we haven’t integrated into our conscious lived experience as we see it as undesirable, even though the contents of the shadow isn’t always bad and can, in fact, be good (more on that later).
The shadow is the root of why the ‘Nice Guy‘ explodes in unexplained rage, or why the stand-up pillar of the community has a secret fetish for prostitutes, or why the average guy has a sense of foreboding and low-level anxiety in his soul.
A Modern Example of The Shadow in Action
When musing on how to answer the question ‘What is the shadow?’, one of the most regular instances we see in modern times sprang to mind regarding modern men.
I have written before about the present confusion around masculinity, in one ear we hear more and more about ‘toxic masculinity’ from the mainstream media and feminists, making us feel anger must be bad, that we must be oppressing others when we express it.
Similarly, many of us have had distant, or fractious relationships with our fathers (both familial and cultural) in which we were either sheltered from the brute violence in safe modern society, or have witnessed violence in the home and have hence become traumatized by it.
This has lead to a very dysfunctional relationship around anger in our age, one where many modern men are too ‘nice’, too fearful of displaying anger and unable to assert themselves on life and get what they want.
There are many reasons we could explore as to why this has happened – lack of father figures, sheltered upbringings, the hyper-feminist anger towards ‘toxic’ male behaviour, and trauma all among them – yet when a man doesn’t learn how to assert himself on life, he struggles to negotiate, to stand his ground and to earn the respect (and desire) of women.
These are brutal and harsh realities.
What we now see is a generation of men falling to addictions, anxiety, depression, despair and even suicide (you can watch one of my videos below exploring this in more detail).
So how does all of this relate to the shadow?
Well, because many modern men have inculcated – consciously or unconsciously – that powerful assertive masculinity is bad, they overcompensate with niceness and, in turn, repress the inner desires that assertiveness will afford them.
Once this mechanism is in place, our modern men strive to be nice in the world, yet wonders why, despite being so affable and playing by the rules, he feels a sense of inferiority, anxiety or despair.
Yet, he represses this also, meaning the behaviour can only come out, via the shadow, in a series of unconscious behaviours.
In order to arrest these behaviours, he must start engaging in ‘shadow work’, and with that, be willing to let go of his egoic idea of self and be open to the notion of facing his deepest fears and being transformed.
5 Techniques for Shadow Work
No piece answering ‘what is shadow work?’ would be complete without some techniques to help you in understanding your shadow self and making progress with it.
Below are 5 techniques that you can begin to implement in your life as you strive to move forward to a stronger actualized version of yourself:
1: Start Reading Yourself
Isn’t it fascinating that in many ways we don’t really know who we are?
We have an idea that we present to the world, yet inner drivers come in and shock us, they can overtake our very behaviour.
This, in essence, is a beautiful spiritual realisation into the true nature of self, something you can further explore in the video below.
One way we can begin to learn the processes inside of us is to read our reactions.
This isn’t a difficult thing to do, but it is extremely powerful.
All you need to do is note when you get perturbed, overtaken by emotion and act in a way that isn’t in accordance with your felt sense of self.
Keep a record of what instances preceded these instances, what thoughts dominated your thinking and what emotions were present.
This can become very useful in spotting trends, as well as seeing which emotions, thought-patterns and instances ‘trigger’ your shadow side.
2: Explore Your Trauma
Perhaps the most famous of techniques is a direct exploration of traumatic events in one’s life that led them to repress certain elements of themselves from the world.
Do not think that you must have gone to war to be traumatized, experiences extreme and minor can have traumatizing effects that moderate later behaviour.
Obviously, the more extreme the experience, the more work is required, yet if you have been heavily traumatized, it does offer the opportunity for all the more light.
As the famous Persian poet Rumi said: “The wound is where the light gets in”.
This has certainly been this author’s experience, having been on a path of addiction, panic, and despair-induced destruction after traumatic childhood experiences turned into the fuel of growth for me in later life after a transformational experience (you can watch my story below):
Exploring trauma can be done with a professional therapist, a spiritual leader, at support groups, or even on one’s own, however, working with another is recommended as sharing the traumatic experience is exceptionally powerful.
This is a key part of the Recovering Man 9-Step Path of Initiation, which you can explore here.
Further, exploring your inner hidden self with another shines a light on the darkest part of your soul, bringing truth to the area and beginning the process of regeneration.
Further still, working with another can aid you in having another look at your thinking in the cold light of day, helping you see your dysfunction for what it is.
3: Men’s Work
I have written a lot about the lack of male guidance we receive in our modern life.
This may well be because of the contemporary trend of no father in the home for boys growing up, or it may be because of the confusion around what boys need to be taught to nourish their souls in order to grow.
Either way, the paths of ritualistic growth and collective meaning have eroded, leaving a generation of lost boys, which we are now seeing suffering from addictions and mental health issues, as well as killing themselves in record numbers.
Men’s work is a way to address this issue, and while the techniques employed can change from group to group, the fundamental aim is the same – to offer men a deep connection to one another and challenge themselves to deeply transcend inner pain.
The activities you engage in may see you exploring anger, fear, love, pain and trauma and the challenges tend to push you way beyond the comfort zone.
However, it is by going beyond our comfort zones that we transcend our limitations and see what we’re truly capable of.
Further, men’s work can be a great way to combat the aforementioned fear of being assertive and teach us how to work with our inner power, rather than repressing it.
4: Understanding the Male Archetypes
As we understand the nature of the shadow more, we begin to see formations of the archetypes we embody in our lived experience that Jung developed in his work.
These archetypes have been at the cornerstone of shadow work (and men’s work) for many years and are identified as:
Each of these archetypes is a key part of the lived masculine experience, yet each also comes with its shadow side, which follows in respective order as:
- The Tyrant / The Weakling
- The Sadist / The Masochist
- The Manipulator / The Innocent
- The Addict / The Impotent
As we learn to drop our egoic pretense that we are ‘too good’ for such dysfunctional behaviour, we learn to honestly address where we are exhibiting the above forms of archetypal embodiments.
By honestly facing and acknowledging the depth of the shadow side of our being, we can learn to explore where its roots lay as we become alchemists of our own self-development and explore how we can integrate greater truth into our very being.
5: Seeing Your Shadow as a Wealth of Potential
As I mentioned earlier in this article, the shadow doesn’t always harbour dysfunctional and negative emotions or states.
If we take the instance used throughout the piece – the modern man who struggles to be assertive – exploring his inner shadow can show him that power isn’t always destructive and that it doesn’t simply mean violence and rage.
In fact, learning to say a firm ‘No!’, as well as even engaging in structured use of physical force such as in martial arts, can offer a man a revelatory experience in that force, inner power and strong assertive behaviour can be used for good.
In fact, it is the balance of this assertive behaviour that’s willing to stand strong emotionally, spiritually and physically – the archetypal king and warrior – that combines beautifully with the openness of the inner lover and magician.
This is what creates a well-rounded, healthy man at one in his masculine presence.
This is why shadow work is so very powerful.
If you enjoyed this piece on ‘What is The Shadow?’ why not consider downloading the free Recovering Man e-book that offers six lessons in becoming an integrated man: