Carl Jung and the shadow: Everything you need to know

We sometimes include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.

There’s more to all of us than meets the eye. There are parts we wish didn’t exist, and parts we keep locked away inside.

Carl Jung was one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century. He believed that everyone had a so-called shadow side that they repressed from childhood.

This shadow is often associated with our negative emotions. But it is only by embracing, rather than ignoring, our shadow side that we can ever truly know ourselves.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about Carl Jung and the shadow.

What is the shadow personality?

The first step towards understanding your shadow is getting to grips with what it actually is.

Jung believed that the human psyche was made up of three components:

  • The ego — is what we are consciously aware of when we think about ourselves.
  • The personal unconscious — all the information in someone’s mind that is not readily available to consciously recall.
  • The collective unconscious — another form of the unconscious, but one that is common to all of us.

From our collective unconscious, Jung believed 12 distinct typical human qualities and faults developed. He called these archetypes. The shadow self is one of these 12 archetypes.

For some, the shadow simply refers to parts of their personality that are unconscious. Others consider the shadow to be the part of us that we don’t like.

So, how do you define the shadow? Here are three common defining characteristics:

1) The shadow is the part of our personality that we have suppressed, often because it’s too painful to acknowledge.

2) The shadow is the hidden part of our personality that is unconscious.

3) The shadow is associated with the qualities we have that we worry are less appealing to people.

The shadow is our suppressed personality

The shadow is the part of your personality that you’ve been suppressing since birth. Because it’s so difficult to accept, the shadow often remains completely unconscious.

If you’re struggling to understand why you behave in certain ways, then it’s possible that you’ve suppressed parts of yourself that you feel uncomfortable with.

You might have felt ashamed of them, or worried that they would make you appear weak or vulnerable. Or perhaps you were afraid that if you acknowledged them, you would lose control over your life.

You’ve learned to reject parts of yourself as you grew so that you would fit into society.

But it’s important to realize that the more you suppress your shadow, the harder it will become to access.

The more you try to ignore it, the bigger it becomes. As Jung once wrote:

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it… But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”

The shadow is your unconscious mind

Some people ask ‘Is the shadow self the ego?’, but the ego is actually the conscious part of you that tries to subdue the shadow.

Therefore, the shadow is the hidden part of your psyche. When we say that something is “unconscious”, we mean that it exists outside of our awareness, but is still very much there.

As I mentioned, according to Jung’s theories we each have a personal unconscious, which is developed from our own unique experiences. But we also have a collective unconscious, which is biologically inherited and programmed into us from birth. This is based on universal themes of what it is to be human.

Both are within your unconscious mind.

It can be helpful to think of the unconscious as the vast storehouse of knowledge, belief systems, memories, and archetypes that exist deep within every human being.

This means that a shadow is also a form of knowledge that we carry around with us.

We can think of the shadow as being like a library of information that we never consciously accessed before. However, once we start accessing it, the shadow starts revealing its contents to us. Some of those contents are negative, while others are positive.

But no matter what the content, the shadow always contains information about ourselves that we haven’t previously recognized.

The shadow is opposite of the light

When we think about the word shadow, it’s obviously the opposite of light. And that’s why to a lot of people, the shadow also largely represents the darkness within us.

In other words, the shadow is the bad stuff that we don’t want to acknowledge and so our ego pushes it away. And yet, it’s also the source of greater understanding and self-awareness that fuels positive growth.

The shadow isn’t all bad. On the contrary, it’s incredibly useful to know about because the shadow is often the source of our creative ideas and insights.

For example, if you’re having problems at work, then it could be that you’re repressing feelings of anger or resentment towards someone else. If you’re experiencing anxiety, then it’s likely because you’re suppressing fears about something. And if you’re struggling to get along with people, then it could be due to your fear of rejection.

These are just a few examples of how the shadow can manifest in our lives. The point is that the shadow isn’t necessarily evil. It’s simply a part of who we are that we’ve chosen to deny.

It’s only when we choose to look for the ‘bad’ parts of ourselves that we can accept our full selves.

The eternal duality of man

This image of dual man, good and bad, light and dark has been around since the dawn of time. And we continue to experience both sides of humanity.

We see both the best and worst of ourselves despite how much we may try to reject the negative.

Just remember that these two halves aren’t mutually exclusive. They coexist together, they are one. They are one and the same thing.

This concept has been a firm fixture of spiritual and psychological teachings throughout the ages.

In Ancient Chinese philosophy, the idea of yin and yang highlights how two opposing and seemingly contrary forces are interconnected. It is only together that they create the whole. The two are interdependent and interrelated.

Although the concept of the shadow self was developed by Jung, he built upon ideas about the unconscious from philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

Themes of the shadow self also feature in famous literature and the arts, as man tries to get to grips with the seemingly darker side of himself.

The fictional tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a great example of this, which is often used to illustrate the idea of our shadow self.

Dr. Jekyll represents our persona — how we see ourselves —whilst Mr. Hyde is the ignored and repressed shadow self.

When Jekyll’s conscious efforts for morality slip, his instinctive inner self (Hyde) is able to surface:

“At that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.”

Why do we repress the shadow?

It’s not so difficult to understand why we work so hard to turn away from our shadow selves. Each of us has a socially acceptable mask that we are used to putting on.

This is the side of ourselves we want to show to others. We wear this mask so that we will be liked and embraced by society.

But we all have instincts, desires, emotions, and impulses which are seen as ugly or destructive.

These may include sexual urges and lust. A desire for power and control. Raw emotions such as anger, aggression, or rage. And unattractive feelings of envy, selfishness, prejudice, and greed.

Essentially, anything we deem as wrong, bad, evil, inferior, or unacceptable we deny within ourselves. But rather than magically disappear, these parts of us come to form our shadow self.

This shadow self is the opposite of what Jung calls our persona (another archetype), which is the conscious personality that we want the world to see.

Our shadow self exists because we want to fit in. We worry that acknowledging the unappealing parts of ourselves will lead to rejection and ostracization.

So we hide them. We ignore them. We pretend they don’t exist. Or worse still, we project them onto someone else.

But none of these approaches really work. They can’t deal with the core issue. Because the problem isn’t external. It’s internal. The problem lies within us.

Ways to spot your shadow self

So what is shadow behavior?

Simply put, it’s when we negatively respond to things in life — whether that’s people, events, or situations. Significantly, this behavior is largely automatic, unconscious, and unintended.

Jung believed that our shadow often appears in our dreams, where it takes various dark or demonic forms. That may be snakes, rats, monsters, demons, etc. Essentially anything that represents wildness or darkness.

But it also shows up in our day-to-day lives too, albeit differently for all of us. And so we’ll all have unique shadow behaviors.

Having said that, some are very common. Here are 7 ways to spot your shadow self.

1) Projection

The most common way that we deal with our shadow self is through the Freudian defense mechanism called projection.

Projecting negative qualities and problems onto other people can be a way of avoiding facing up to your own shortcomings.

Deep down we are worried we’re not good enough and we project these feelings onto the people around us in unconscious ways. We see those that surround us as lacking and the problem.

This doesn’t just happen on an individual level either. Societal groups like cults, political parties, religions, or even entire nations do it too.

It can lead to deep-rooted societal issues like racism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. Finding a scapegoat for problems allows the blame to fall on the “other” who can be demonized.

The purpose is always the same.

Rather than taking self-responsibility for negative emotions you may be feeling or negative qualities within yourself, you pass the buck.

You project unwanted things about yourself onto someone else. A classic example of this would be the cheating partner who keeps accusing their spouse of having an affair.

2) Criticism and Judgment of others

When we notice others’ flaws, it’s really because we recognize them in ourselves too. We’re quick to point out the faults of others, but rarely take responsibility for our own.

When we criticize others, we’re actually criticizing ourselves. That’s because what we don’t like about someone else exists in us and we have yet to integrate it.

You may have heard people say things like “they don’t get along as they’re so similar that they butt heads”.

The same principle is at play here when we are quick to judge others. You may not be quite as different as you think.

3) Victimhood

Victi­mhood is another way that our shadow selves show up.

If we feel victimized by something, we tend to believe that there was nothing we could have done to prevent it. So, instead of owning up to our part in creating the situation, we give up and blame someone else.

Sometimes we even go so far as to create elaborate fantasies where we imagine that we were the one who was wronged.

A self-pity is also a form of victimhood. Instead of blaming others, we blame ourselves. We feel sorry for ourselves and begin to see ourselves as victims.

Either way, we are usually looking for sympathy and validation from others.

4) Superiority

Thinking you are better than other people is another example of how our shadow selves show up in our lives.

It’s often rooted in childhood experiences when we weren’t given enough attention or love. As children, we crave acceptance and approval from those around us. If we didn’t receive these things, we may try to compensate by being superior to others.

In doing so, we become judgmental and arrogant. But it is only to mask our own feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and vulnerability. By adopting a position of power over someone else, it makes us feel less vulnerable.

Another example of this is the boss at work who is on a total power trip. His displays of “strength” hide his own inner insecurities of feeling weak.

5) Feeling Triggered

We all have times when someone says something that suddenly creates an impulsive negative reaction.

Their comment or words niggle or jab deep inside. It feels like they’ve hit a nerve.

This commonly happens with parents and family members. They say something that triggers old wounds and hurts.

The result? Anger, frustration, or defensiveness quickly surfaces.

The truth is that they have touched upon something we have repressed as part of our shadow self.

6) Taking pleasure from pain

As bizarre as it sounds, the pleasure in destroying others and in self-destruction exists in mild forms in everyday life.

You might secretly be pleased when a friend seemingly fails at something. At least that way you don’t worry as much that they are better than you.

You might choose to run yourself into the ground as a workaholic, just to prove yourself. You may enjoy inflicting or feeling mild pain in the bedroom through forms of BDSM.

7) Unhealthy relationships

So many of us play out old unconscious patterns through dysfunctional, unhealthy, or even toxic relationships.

Most people aren’t aware that they’ve been replaying the same unconscious roles from childhood. These familiar paths become comfortable to us, and so they create the framework by which we interact with others.

But when these unconscious patterns are destructive, it creates relationship drama.

For example, if your mother had a bad habit of criticizing you, then you might unconsciously repeat the same behavior toward your partner, or seek out a partner who also treats you in this way.

When you’re angry, you lash out. When you’re hurt, you withdraw. And when you’re rejected, you start to doubt yourself.

Old patterns that were established many years ago dominate your relationships.

Why do you need to accept your shadow side?

Simply put, denying the shadow does not work.

As long as our shadow continues to silently pull our strings behind the scenes it only serves to strengthen the illusion between the ego and the real world around us.

This delusion can lead to a false idealized self that believes falsehoods like:

I am better than them“, “I deserve to be validated”, “People who don’t behave like me are wrong”.

When we insist on denying our shadow side, that doesn’t mean it goes away, in fact, it often grows stronger.

As Carl Jung pointed out: “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself”.

Instead, we try to inhabit a world where we strive to only be the most perfect version of ourselves.

But this is impossible. Like the yang to the yin, the shadow exists as a defining feature. Without shadow, there is no light and vice versa.

So the shadow that is ignored begins to fester. It seeps out in unhealthy ways as we have discussed.

We fall into harmful patterns of:

  • Lying and cheating
  • Self-loathing
  • Self-sabotage
  • Addiction
  • Hypocrisy
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Emotional instability

But it’s much worse because we are not even conscious of them. It’s not a choice. We can’t help it. And this is where the problem lies. If we refuse to acknowledge our shadow, we will never find freedom.

As Connie Zweig puts it in her book, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature:

“In order to protect its own control and sovereignty the ego instinctively puts up a great resistance to the confrontation with the shadow; when it catches a glimpse of the shadow the ego most often reacts with an attempt to eliminate it. Our will is mobilized and we decide. “I just won’t be that way anymore!” Then comes the final shattering shock, when we discover that, in part at least, this is impossible no matter how we try. The shadow represents energetically charged autonomous patterns of feeling and behavior. Their energy cannot simply be stopped by an act of will. What is needed is rechanneling or transformation.”

It is failing to recognize and embrace the shadow that really keeps us stuck. It’s only by allowing our shadow to take its legitimate place as a part of our whole selves that we can control it, rather than having it randomly unconsciously lash out.

This is why shadow work is incredibly important. It allows you to see your shadow for what it truly is. It has to be the conscious part of our mind which absorbs the shadow side. Otherwise, we become a slave to our unconscious urges and drives.

But more than that. Without embracing our shadow self, we can never really know ourselves fully, and hence never truly grow. Here’s Connie Zweig again:

“The shadow, when it is realized, is the source of renewal; the new and productive impulse cannot come from established values of the ego. When there is an impasse, and sterile time in our lives—despite adequate ego development—we must look to the dark, the hitherto unacceptable side which has been at our conscious disposal….

This brings us to the fundamental fact that the shadow is the door to our individuality. In so far as the shadow renders us our first view of the unconscious part of our personality, it represents the first stage toward meeting the Self. There is, in fact, no access to the unconscious and to our own reality but through the shadow…

Hence no progress or growth is possible until the shadow is adequately confronted and confronting means more than merely knowing about it. It is not until we have truly been shocked into seeing ourselves as we really are, instead of as we wish or hopefully assume we are, that we can take the first step toward individual reality.”

It’s incredibly powerful when you come face to face with all those things you’ve tried to deny about yourself.

You begin to understand how your shadow has influenced your life. And once you do, you have the power to change it.

Integrating the hidden power of your dark side

“Man becomes whole, integrated, calm, fertile, and happy when (and only when) the process of individuation is complete when the conscious and the unconscious have learned to live at peace and to complement one another.” — Carl Jung, Man And His Symbols

To Jung, the process of so-called individuation was how we deal with the shadow self. In essence, it is a merging.

You learn to identify and accept your shadow self, and then you integrate it into your conscious psyche. That way you give the shadow a proper expression.

This is what many people call shadow work. But other words for it might also be self-reflection, self-examination, self-knowledge, or even, self-love.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s very important because, without it, you’ll never really get to the bottom of who you are and where you’re going.

Shadow work is extremely beneficial because it helps you gain insight into your inner world through self-questioning and self-exploration.

It’s all about examining your thoughts, feelings, and assumptions as objectively as you can. And this will help you discover more about yourself.

You’ll learn more honestly about your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, your hopes and dreams, and your fears and anxieties.

Benefits of shadow work include:

  • You become aware of your emotional patterns and tendencies rather than being a slave to them.
  • You learn to recognize your own needs and desires.
  • You can more easily tap into the intuitive, inner voice and compass.
  • You grow spiritually by recognizing your connection with others, God/the Universe.
  • You increase your ability to make clearer decisions.
  • You improve your overall health and well-being.
  • You build confidence and self-esteem.
  • You deepen your relationships.
  • You enhance your creativity.
  • You become wiser, more stable, and more mature.

3 ways to practice shadow work

So, let’s get practical here. How do you actually go about integrating your shadow?

Well, I think it comes down to two main things. First, you need to feel safe enough to explore your shadow. If you’re feeling unsafe, you won’t be able to see it clearly.

That’s why it’s important when doing this kind of work to:

  • Show yourself compassion. You’ll potentially have to deal with lots of confronting emotions that will make you squirm. Recognize how challenging that is and be kind to yourself about whatever you find.
  • Get support if you need it to help guide you through —such as a therapist, online course, mentor, etc. As I say, it’s a confronting process and it can be a good idea to enlist help.

Second, you need to find ways to confront your shadow.

This could mean talking to someone else about it, journaling, writing letters to yourself, or any number of other activities.

The goal is to bring awareness to your shadow and eventually allow it to transform into something positive.

Here are 3 tips on how to start practicing shadow work:

1) Watch out for your triggers

Our triggers are signposts towards our hidden shadows. They are often subtle clues about what we have been avoiding facing up to within ourselves.

For example, if you notice that whenever you talk to a particular person, you tend to get upset, angry, or irritated, there is more to be explored.

Ask yourself things like:

  • What is it about them that I don’t like? What makes it so difficult to be around them?
  • Do I ever display any of the same traits sometimes? If so, how do I feel about those parts of myself?

Triggers are like little alarms that go off inside us when we encounter certain situations. They tell us that there’s something going on inside us that we’d prefer not to acknowledge.

When you notice a trigger, ask yourself what might be happening underneath that trigger.

2) Look close to home

The spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, once said: “If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family.”

They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And the reality is that our family environment is the one that shapes us from a very early age.

The family unit is a hotbed of triggers, often because it reflects much of our own personal shadow right back at us.

Take an objective look at your immediate family and examine their good and bad traits. Once you’ve done this, try to step back and ask whether any of those qualities also exist in you.

3) Break free of your social conditioning

If Carl Jung and the shadow teaches us anything it’s that so much of what we believe to be reality is just a construct.

The shadow is created because society teaches us that parts of ourselves are wrong.

The truth is:

Once we remove the social conditioning and unrealistic expectations our family, education system, even religion has put onto us, the limits to what we can achieve are endless.

We can actually reshape that construction to create fulfilling lives that are in line with what matters most to us.

I learned this (and much more) from the world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandé. In this excellent free video, Rudá explains how you can lift the mental chains and get back to the core of your being.

A word of warning, Rudá isn’t your typical shaman. He’s not going to reveal pretty words of wisdom that offer false comfort.

Instead, he’s going to force you to look at yourself in a way you have never before. It’s a powerful approach, but one that works.

So if you’re ready to take this first step and align your dreams with your reality, there’s no better place to start than with Rudá’s unique method.

Here’s a link to the free video again.

To conclude:

Contrary to popular self-help belief, the answer to self-development isn’t to fixate on positivity.

In fact, this is the biggest enemy of the shadow. “Good vibes only” denies the complex depth of what we truly are.

Without acknowledging and accepting our true self, warts and all, we can never improve, grow or heal our life.

Like it or not, the shadow exists within you. It’s time to stop denying it and face it head-on with love and compassion.


Louise Jackson

My passion in life is communication in all its many forms. I enjoy nothing more than deep chats about life, love and the Universe. With a masters degree in Journalism, I’m a former BBC news reporter and newsreader. But around 8 years ago I swapped the studio for a life on the open road. Lisbon, Portugal is currently where I call home. My personal development articles have featured in Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, Thrive Global and more.

27 rules confident people follow to elevate their life

19 reasons to trust your gut feeling you’re meant to be with someone