depth psychotherapist
125 Windsor Drive, Suite 113
Oakbrook, IL 60523
(630) 926-6849

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC). Specializing in somatic psychotherapy. Preferred provider for the BCBS network.

Shadow Work

From: Romancing the Shadow, by Connie Zweig, and Steve Wolf, 1997.

"Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us." Rainer Maria Rilke

In Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the central character, Dorian, a beautiful, vain young man in nineteenth century England, sees a painting of himself that is startlingly handsome and without a blemish. Suddenly, he desires to remain youthful and perfect forever, with no sign of aging or imperfection. To this end, he makes a pact with the devil: All signs of aging and degeneration, even evidence of his greed and cruelty, would from then on appear on the painting rather than on his own face. And the painting gets hidden away, never to be seen by anyone. But from time to time the young man's curiosity gnaws at him. He cautiously pulls the picture out of the darkness and takes a quick glance, only to see the youthful face growing more and more hideous.

Each of us is like Dorian gray. We seek to present a beautiful, innocent face to the world; a kind, courteous demeanor; a youthful, intelligent image. And so, unknowingly but inevitably, we push away those qualities that do not fit our image of ourselves, that do not enhance our self-esteem and make us stand proud but, instead, bring us shame and make us feel small. We shove into the dark cavern of the unconscious those feelings that make us uneasy, and those behaviors that are deemed wrong by our culture, thereby creating what could be called shadow content. Like Dorian's painting, those qualities ultimately take on a life of their own, forming an invisible twin that lives just behind our life, or just beside it, but as distinct from the one we know as a stranger.

This stranger, known in psychology as the shadow, is us, yet is not us. Hidden from our awareness, the shadow is not part of our conscious self-image. So it seems to appear abruptly, out of nowhere, in a range of behaviors from off-color jokes, to devastating abuses. When it emerges, it feels like an unwanted visitor, leaving us ashamed, even mortified.

In such instances, the individual's persona, the mask shown to the world, is split off from the shadow, the face hidden from the world. The more unconscious the shadow, the more we experience it as a stranger, an Other, an alien invader. Therefore we cannot face it in ourselves, nor tolerate it in others. Meeting the shadow in ourselves is disquieting because it tears holes in our masks. It causes us to act irrationally and feel ashamed, embarrassed, unacceptable, regretful--and to quickly deny responsibility for what we said or did.

Denial is entrenched because the shadow does not want to come out of its hiding place. Its nature is to hide, to remain outside of awareness. So the shadow acts out indirectly, concealed in a sour mood or sarcastic remark. Or it sneaks out compulsively, camouflaged in an addictive behavior. Therefore, we need to sharpen our senses to be awake enough when it erupts. Then we can learn to romance it, to coax it out, to seduce it into awareness. Like a coy lover, it will recede again and again behind the veil of awareness.

Romancing the shadow is subversive: The culture teaches s to be extroverted, quick, ambitious, productive. Workaholism is lauded; contemplation is shunned. But shadow work is slow, cautious; it moves like an animal in the night. It moves us against the collective mandate to think positively, be productive, focus outwardly, and protect our image.

The shadow is a demanding taskmaster: It requires us to turn away from the peaks toward the valleys, away from the heights and the rarefied air, toward the depths and the dark and the dense. It is to turn toward the unpleasant thoughts, forbidden fantasies, marginal feelings that are so taboo. It requires us to relinquish the clarity of blue-sky thinking for the uncertain murkiness of a foggy morning.

The rewards are profound: Shadow-work enables us to alter our self-sabotaging behavior so that we can achieve a more self-directed life. It expands our awareness to include a wider range of who we are so that we can attain more complete self-knowledge and eventually feel more self-acceptance. It permits us to defuse the negative emotions that taint our loving relationships so that we can create a more authentic intimacy. And it opens the storehouse of creativity in which our talents remain hidden and out of reach. In each of these ways, shadow-work permits us to find gold in the dark side.

Of course, some people find this distasteful, even abhorrent. An examination of our unedited thoughts can make us feel infantile and self-indulgent. The physical awareness of our needs can trigger shame, underline hopelessly insatiable wants, or threaten our inner stability with perverse desires that betray what we most fear about ourselves. Why not simply behave properly, they ask, shape our attitudes, cut and trim our feelings so that they fit moral, ethical, god-given outlines? Then white is white and black is black, and the struggle with grays can end.

People who polarize, jumping between extremes of black and white, often feel that we need more protection from the lures of the shadow—stricter morals, higher fences. They wish to bring back old fundamentalism to shield us against forbidden feelings, ambiguous choices. They seek to widen the split between good and evil, between Jesus and Satan, between the followers of Allah and the heathens, between the members of their religious cults and the rest of fallen humanity. Longing to remain on god’s side, they refuse to engage the darkness of their own souls.

In truth, we can no longer afford these extreme attitudes toward good and evil. We cannot afford to look away from the shadow in denial, pretending that a naïve, trusting stance will protect us from it “out there.” We need to cultivate an attitude of respect toward the shadow, to see it honestly without dismissing it or becoming overwhelmed by it. In this way, an encounter with the shadow might become an initiation, a call to remember the multifaceted complexity of human nature and the fertile depths of the human soul.

Carl Jung, who coined the term “Shadow” suggested that greater shadow awareness can lead to greater morality (that is, for those without serious psychological problems.) The great religious psychologist William James wrote: “There is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it positively refuses to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only opener of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”

More recently, Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it beautifully: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”