What is a Shadow?

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(Before reading this section please see Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Jung’s Archetypes, Four Major Jungian Archetypes, Some Major Archetypes, and Influence of the Collective Unconscious.)

The dark side of an archetype is also popularly known as a Shadow. It was Carl Jung who coined the term Shadow.
Every single archetype possesses a shadow side, as it does the light side.

Contrary to popular notion, however, the Shadow is not the bad or an evil side of an archetype. It is the unknown side. And we always fear the unknown.

It is that part of us that we do not accept, understand, or even attempt to understand. We’d rather not, for it can be unpleasant.

Our shadows are the fear-based parts of ourselves, which we suppress most of the time. They are the fractured parts of our consciousness. They remain hidden in the unconscious mind and never see the light of our consciousness, till the time, we choose to become aware of them and shine our light of consciousness/awareness and acknowledgement on them.

They reveal themselves to us when we blurt out phrases such as, “I don’t understand why I am so scared of——– but I am”, “ I am very scared of darkness and I don’t know why”, “ I don’t know why I am always anxious or angry, or——– but I am.”

These are the shadows of specific archetypes within us, rearing their heads from time to time. And we, without realizing it, act under their influence.

Shadows are also the aspects of ourselves that we worry others might see. They are aspects in us, which we do not like, and try to hide and suppress.

What’s interesting is whenever we avoid contact with our own shadow selves, we invariably encounter these parts of ourselves in someone else, in the external world. And usually, that does not end well.
We complain about, “how I cannot tolerate that person’s ———-” and the list is endless…
Ironically, the same qualities that we list when we complain about the ‘intolerable person,’ are very much there in us. And since we do not want to face them in ourselves we complain about “that person” and label him.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung

If I ask you, personally, are you capable of murdering someone? And, do you hate murderers?
If the answer is ‘no’ to the first question and ‘yes,’ to the second one let me ask, what if it is a hostage situation and your child or loved one’s life is in the line? Would you kill to save your loved one?
Well, there you have your answer. We all have the capacity to be violent. All the dark aspects are very much present in certain degrees within us.
Whatever disturbs us the most about any person, or situation, on the outside, is what we possess in a very high degree within ourselves.

The novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, perfectly brings out the light and dark sides inherent in every individual. It depicts the havoc a shadow self can cause by possessing a person, if the shadow feels judged, misunderstood, unloved and is disintegrated from the person.


The disintegratedness of the shadow selves happen when we suppress them from our conscious mind, and keep them trapped in our unconscious mind without acknowledging them. We build up defence mechanisms against them, that we may never have to encounter them.

These shadow selves or fragmented selves then, keep accumulating in the deep recesses of our unconscious mind. Over time, they accumulate to such a degree that in some individuals they burst out and possess him by taking the forms of depression, addictions (alcoholism, drug abuse, sex addiction etc.), violent rage, delusions and so on.

“It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster.“- Carl Jung

The shadow archetype, as already mentioned above, in itself is not good or bad. Everyone is capable of being loving, and also being violent. What is important here is to understand that the darkness, or the shadow needs to be accepted as much as light is accepted.

For, light cannot exist without darkness. This is the middle path – acceptance of both, equally.


Without villians there can be no heroes. Without night there is no day. Without winter there cannot be spring.
This is a world of duality, and so the opposites must exist. Because sadness exists, we are aware of what is happiness. Because pain exists, we understand what is pleasure.

They are the two sides of the same coin. And both the sides exist within us.

Shadow selves exist that we may learn self-acceptance, self-appreciation, and self-love.

Only when we take full ownership of our shadow selves, listen to what they have to say, understand them, and accept them, can we become responsible for them. When we acknowledge and accept our shadow selves they lose their power over us. They integrate with us and we become free to grow to our highest potential.

We then become aware that we are not our thoughts, or feelings, but simply the observer.

Further, embracing the shadow selves, or the inner darkness within us, balances us. And ultimately, everything in this world is about balance.

A whole and a balanced person is one whose conscious mind is in touch with the unconscious mind and they work together in harmony. As long as we reject our shadow selves and keep them locked away in our unconscious there can be no balance.

In order to reach the light we must first enter the depths of darkness.


Interestingly, in the major religions of the world too, we have what is called the right-hand path to God and the left-hand path to God.

Mysticism, occult, or as it is called in India, Tantrism, for example, is the path to God through darkness. It is the left-hand path to God.

It is neither a wrong/bad path or a right/good path. It is one of the paths.
Generally, people steer clear of the dark paths due to fear and various misconceptions about them. The unknown seems scary.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a well-known saint of West Bengal practiced the right-hand path or the Path of Light to reach God, but made sure He also learnt Tantrism, or the left-handed path, from an adept Tantric Guru, called Bhairavi Brahmani, because He was aware that He would have to look into His darkness in the face as well, to reach His highest self.

The Shadow self or inner darkness is what Siddhartha had to face before becoming the Buddha.
He faced Mara, the lord of darkness.

Mara would appear in front of Buddha in many different disguises, sometimes as craving, sometimes as pride, or boredom, lust, anger and so on.

Interestingly, Mara kept appearing in front of Buddha even after He became the Buddha, or the Enlightened one. And each time, Buddha, being the Aware One, always mindful of the present moment, would tell him, “I see you Mara,” and Mara would melt away.

Mara is the shadow side to the light side called the Buddha. For Buddha to exist, Mara has to exist.

Everytime Buddha shone His light of consciousness or awareness on Mara, Mara would fade away into Him, i.e. integrate into Him and become a part of His light .

This same dance of light and darkness was played out in the desert when Jesus faced Satan and Satan tempted him in different ways.
For the Christ Consciousness to exist the opposing force of Satan has to exist.

Carl Jung aptly puts it when he says, “Taking the devil seriously does not mean going over to his side, or else one becomes the devil. Rather it means coming to an understanding. Thereby you accept your other standpoint. With that the devil fundamentally loses ground, and so do you. And that may be well and good.”


Carl Jung believed that the shadow, or the inner darkness is also a seat of creativity. Thus, greater the creative genius, greater is his shadow.

Infact, in creative geniuses, the line between creativity and craziness is very thin. Crazy, here, being the shadow side.

Some examples are Michelangelo, who was believed to be autistic, who rarely bathed and hated interacting with others; Nikola Tesla who was exactly the opposite of Michelangelo where hygiene was considered and had an OCD for cleanliness; Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who shone bright early in life and who later, suffered from a complete mental breakdown at the age of 44; Vincent Van Gogh who was known for his eccentricities; Ernest Hemmingway who was addicted to alcohol and later was possessed by his shadow self, gave in to its despair and frustrations, and committed suicide; Edgar Allan Poe, another great literary figure, who was consumed by alcoholism.

Creation apart from bringing joy, fulfillment and happiness, always brings out the shadows of pain, frustration, fear, and anger. It is akin to the joy and pain of giving birth to a child. The child when conceived, first rests in the darkness of the mother’s womb, and then passes through the tunnel, to be born – to step into the light, into this world.

Being mindful or aware of the present moment is an antidote to being possessed and consumed by the shadows.

As symbols Shadows, can take a variety of forms such as Lucifer, Satan, Devil, a dragon, a monster, a snake or some other wild dark exotic figure.

In dreams a shadow can appear as a pursuer, a stalker, a bully, snakes, murderer. The tell-tale signs of a shadow are the feelings it leaves you behind with – anger, tremendous fear, or frustration.

So long as you do not know them, they are demons. The moment you step forward to know and understand them, you will receive insights about yourself which will shock you. Without them you will never know what you are truly capable of.

(Please see these related topics Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Jung’s Archetypes, Four Major Jungian Archetypes, Some Major Archetypes, and Influence of the Collective Unconscious.)


To confront a person with his shadow, is to show him his own light. – Diaoctopus from Deviantart

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