What is Psychological Shadow?

Fittingly, the psychological phenomenon called shadow is so – well, shadowy – that even the best definitions of it are often by default: we define what shadow is not in order to get a sense of what it may be because, being shadow, it is difficult to look at directly. So here goes a try. “Shadow”, meaning our psychological or personal shadow, is comprised of those qualities, impulses, and emotions that we cannot bear for others to see and thus cast into the hidden domain of ourselves.

Shadow wears many faces: greedy, angry, selfish, fearful, resentful, manipulative, weak, judgmental, controlling, hostile – on and on. This dark side of ourselves acts as a storage place for all the things that we find unacceptable in ourselves: things which we get embarrassed by and pretend that we are not, aspects which we do not wish to allow the world to see, and which we often do not allow ourselves to see. It lies concealed, just below the surface of ourselves, masked by our more “proper” selves, remaining untamed, unexplored territory for most of us (Ford, 1998; Zweig & Abrams, 1991).

How shadow comes to be

The shadow develops naturally in all of us as young children. The first time that we have developed enough of a sense of self to register the danger in our mother’s disapproval is probably the first time that we make a deposit to the “shadow storehouse” in our psyche. “Share the cookies with your brother, dear” she says. But the cookies are little and few; we want them all. We wait until Mum turns her back, and then we greedily gobble up little brother’s cookies as well as our own: a deed which we then must hide because we know instinctively, even if we can’t voice it well, that we have done something unacceptable or “wrong”, and that the act – and the part of ourselves which was impelled to carry out the act – must be hidden away, so as not to endanger our continuing existence in our tribe: our family.

At the same time, we identify with ideal personality characteristics, such as politeness, cleverness, or skill at sports, which get the tick of approval from our environment. W. Brugh Joy calls these qualities the New Year’s Resolution Self (in Zweig & Abrams, 1991); they come to be part of the persona that we would like to be, and how we wish to be seen by the world. Our persona is our psychological clothing, mediating between our “true” (deeper) selves and our environment, just as physical clothing presents an image to those we meet. These parts of ourselves which we are and know about consciously we call the “ego”; the shadow is that part of us we fail to see or know (Johnson, 1993).

What, you may ask, determines which parts of ourselves get to be ego (enjoying the light of day), and which are relegated to the hazy realms of shadow? That is a good question, and one which you as therapist may be involved in helping your shadow-confronting clients to ascertain. Many forces play a role in forming our shadow selves, and it is these which ultimately determine what we give expression to in our lives, and what we do not. Parents, teachers, siblings, friends, societal institutions, and others create a complex environment in which we learn what comprises moral, “good”, appropriate behaviour, and what is mean-spirited, shameful, or downright sinful.

The shadow has been called our “psychic immune system” (Zweig & Abrams, 1991), because it defines what is “self” and what is “not-self” (p xvii). But here is the really interesting aspect: that immune system is determined on all levels: intrapersonal, familial, community, national, and international. What is allowed in one family or culture is frowned upon in another, if not forbidden completely. Consider the following examples:

  • Anger is appropriate to own in some cultures, but not in others (and it is differentially allowed between the sexes);
  • Sexuality is “liberal” and permissively expressed in some countries, but formal and very restricted in its expression in others;
  • Chicanery and clever trickery are admired in some regions, whereas in other areas strict moral codes are aspired to.

Yet in determining what is ego and what is shadow, we must still acknowledge that both are present within. In owning shadow, we acknowledge both the angry and calm one, the prude and the sexual libertine, the trickster and the righteous one inside ourselves. The person who wishes to live “without self-deception or self-delusion”, said Jung, must “know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion. Both are elements within his nature, and both are bound to come to light in him” (Jung, 1946).

Russian writer Solzhenitsyn put it well:

“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?” (Solzhenitsyn, in Zweig & Wolf, 1997, p 8).

So we must not make the mistake of thinking that shadow is only about our “sinful” side: the neurotic symptoms, emotional attachments, and stunted infantile parts that we reject. Shadow is whatever we decide that we cannot accept into our consciousness.

Sadly and almost unbelievably, we also are very active in storing away some of our most valuable gifts and assets. Our shadow storehouses are full of our deepest creative potentials, our special and most meaningful skills not called upon by the world, and the most sublime qualities that we somehow cannot allow ourselves to claim. The shadow is our unlived life: the juicy, vital, universally human but also divine aspects that retain contact with the lost depths of our soul. It is shadow in this fullest sense that we look to explore here. The first thing to understand is how we come to create it: the mechanism by which we disown aspects so essentially a part of ourselves. We must look at projection.

The process of projection

It is said that what we do not own, owns us, an undoubted reference to shadow and its concomitant process of projection. Those pain-causing aspects of ourselves – possibly our cowardly, lustful, greedy, malicious selves, but also our generous, creative, and otherwise sublime side – get put outside our awareness, because we believe them to be in the “too hard” basket to accept. But, crucially, they are still hanging around our morphic field – albeit neglected – trying to gain our attention. Some part of our psyche knows that we need to have a look at them, but we can’t bear seeing them as part of ourselves. We thus feel compelled to put them into some other body (meaning: somebody); hence we project them onto another person.

If that were all conducted consciously, with agreements from the person onto whom the material is being projected, it would constitute no problem for our development, or our integrity for that matter. We would say to our friend, for example: “I can’t accept that I am a highly creative, innovative person; it’s just too challenging to live up to that. So I’d like to transfer my creativity to you for a while. This means that I will admire you greatly for your creativity and wish that I could be the same way; you will be my hero. In fact, you do have some creativity and innovativeness; that is why I choose you to carry my ‘inner gold’. Are you ok with this?” And our friend would feel free to say “yay” or “nay”. No drama.

On the dark side, we might say, for instance, to our mother-in-law: “Dear mother-in-law, I have these aspects in myself: a controlling, manipulative, judgmental, and critical side. I feel nauseated by them and cannot bear thinking of myself as being this way. May I put these onto you, as I have noticed that you have a bit of those traits, too? That way, I can just get sick to my stomach when I am around you, and still feel ok about myself”. Our mother-in-law could accept or reject the offer. In either case, we – having consciously deposited the psychological material with the other – could then examine it for a while, as it is more easily seen when external to ourselves. When we had studied it long enough, discovered the gifts in it and found the way to integrate it to our whole selves, we could merely go to retrieve it, saying “thank you” of course, to the other person for being a “carrier” of our stuff.

Unfortunately, the grand majority of us do not live anywhere near that consciously. Projection occurs as an involuntary transfer of our own unconscious behaviour to others: the operative word being “unconscious”, which makes the transfer necessarily involuntary. Done at that level, we are free to deny that any such transfer ever took place (“I saw nothing!”), and thus by the fascinating sleight of hand that is psychology, these traits appear to us as qualities which exist in other people.

Note that we imagined saying to the other person, “I notice that you have a bit of this, too”: whether it is creativity, manipulativeness, or ice-skating skill, there is usually what Debbie Ford called a “hook” (1998) and Psychosynthesis psychotherapist and teacher Peter Hubbard calls “an anchor” (Hubbard, 1997) in the recipient (the person upon whom something is projected).

Ford has an illuminating analogy about how projection can happen. She gets the reader to imagine having a hundred different electrical outlets on the chest. Each outlet represents a different quality. The qualities we acknowledge and embrace have cover plates over them. This means that they are safe; no electricity can run through them. But the qualities that we do not accept and own do have a charge. So when others come along who act out one of these qualities, they plug right into us. Those of us who deny or suppress our anger, for example, may well attract angry people into our lives. We will suppress our own feelings and judge the other person as angry. Because we are lying to ourselves about our own internal feelings, the only way we can find them is by seeing them in others. When others mirror back our hidden emotions, impulses, and desires, it enables us to recognise and reclaim them, if only as part of other, rather than part of ourselves (Ford, 1998).

Ford and other writers make a distinction between what we merely notice and what has a charge for us. Let’s say I go to the shop to purchase some art supplies. I am a beginning artist, so I ask the retail assistant some questions that he obviously considers very basic. He rolls his eyes heavenward, and through very clear body language communicates that I am insufferably ignorant about art (which I might be). But he is acting in a supremely arrogant manner with me. If I just notice his arrogance, and calmly take home my paints, easel, and canvas without being too bothered by the behaviour, then I am not harbouring too much shadow of arrogance. But if I get unreasonably disturbed by his treatment of me (“How dare he treat me that way! What an arrogant sod!”), then he has plugged into the “arrogance” outlet on my chest. I have had a “charge” from this interaction, and need to look seriously into my own shadow of arrogance.

As Hubbard explains, whenever a projection is involved, it “gets” us; it “gets under our skin”. Our reaction is affect – determined, and we are therefore unable to react adequately to the person or situation. This is one of the few basic laws of the psyche which is, without exception, 100 percent foolproof. He suggests that, when such an uncomfortable situation occurs and we want to know in what way we are responsible, there is a simple two-step process we can follow:

  1. We simply need to verbalise what “gets” us in the other person. For instance, we might say, “She is a narcissistic old bag, and I can’t tolerate that!”
  2. Then we take out the “She is” and put in “I am” or “My complex is like”, and we have a description of the process at work (Hubbard, 1997).

Ken Wilber makes a similar distinction. If a person or thing in the environment informs us, we probably aren’t projecting, but if it affects us, chances are that we are a victim of our own projections (Wilber, 1991). Thus, I may see that Joy is acting in way that seems unmotivated and centred on meeting her own needs, but if I emotionally denounce her as “lazy and selfish”, then I am probably projecting, and need to look at my own shadow of laziness and selfishness.

By whatever process we do it, shadow-making in our psyche is a journey to unconsciousness. Robert Bly describes the shadow as an invisible bag that each of us carries around on our backs. As we’re growing up, we put in the bag all the aspects of ourselves that are not acceptable to family, friends, and ourselves. Bly believes that we spend our first few decades of life filling up the bag. Then we spend the rest of our lives – some say from around mid-life (Johnson, 1993) – trying to get the contents of the bag back out again in order to lighten our burden (Bly, in Ford, 1998).

If a client arrives in your therapy rooms with the clear need or desire to do shadow work, they are asking, however indirectly, to become more conscious, more whole. Your job will be to create a safe environment, and to sit alongside them while they begin the long-term process of unpacking. Something that may help you both is to have an exquisite awareness of the impact of shadow in our lives, and what can happen when we begin to create relationship with our disowned parts.

Owning the shadow: Why bother?

Clients come to you for a variety of reasons: failed or failing relationships, problems at work, difficulty dealing with addictions, feelings of inadequacy, and more. If we have to name one factor which destroys relationships, kills a person’s spirit, and thwarts the fulfilment of dreams, it is surely the presence of shadow in our lives. For it is in the dark place inside ourselves where we stuff the many messages – often unconscious by the time the client arrives at your door – that tell us we are not ok; we are not lovable; we are not deserving or worthy.

The problem is that we believe the messages and cannot challenge that which we do not know consciously. Yet we feel fear at the thought of setting off on the road to greater consciousness. We fear what we might discover if we really look into ourselves. We suspect that we will not be able to cope, or at least we will not like what we will find. Thus, our “bag” hangs around our neck ever heavier, ever more burdensome, until we decide that we must do something. Then – in the best-case scenario – we enter therapy.

The right response

Personal growth writers are unanimous in their advocacy of the right response. We must, they say, overcome the fear of shadow. We do this by stopping the suppression of parts of ourselves and simultaneously owning and embracing those aspects of which we are most afraid. “Owning” in this context means acknowledging – helping our clients to acknowledge – that a given quality belongs to us (Ford, 1998; Johnson, 1993; Zweig & Abrams, 1991).

Our shadow holds the essence of who we are; it contains our most treasured gifts. But we can only experience those gifts – in fact, experience the freedom to choose what we be and what we do – by facing the shadow aspects of ourselves. It is through the process of developing that relationship that we become free to experience the sublime totality of who we are. As long as we are hiding, masquerading (say, as the “nice” boy, the “wild child”, or the never-angry-lover), and projecting outside what is inside us, there is no freedom to choose, and no freedom to be (Ford, 1998).

The service of shadow-work

As little as we may like it, our shadow is a resource for us to expose and explore. What has been cut off from our consciousness and suppressed is desperate to be integrated into the fullness of ourselves. Until that happens, it will continue to pop up in “guerrilla” attacks on our life – in our clients’ lives – in the most humiliating, inopportune, handicapping way possible, and in the areas of life where we would least have it be.

Conversely, a right relationship with shadow offers us an invaluable gift: leading us back to our buried potentials. Through continuing effort to develop a creative, ongoing relationship with shadow, we can achieve for ourselves or help our clients to:

  • Attain a deeper self-acceptance, based on a richer understanding of who that self is
  • Defuse and even transform the “negative” emotions which suddenly erupt in daily life
  • Gain freedom from the guilt and toxic shame associated with denser feelings and emotions
  • Identify the projections being put onto others, colouring the opinion of them
  • Heal and elevate relationships through the willingness to honestly self-evaluate and to communicate openly about the process
  • Better utilise the creative impetus flowing through via dreams, drawing, writing, and even rituals to re-own the disowned self.

Perhaps the paradox of shadow has not escaped you. We (and our clients) put unacceptable traits into shadow in order to find acceptability in life, whereupon the repressed elements start “oozing” out of their hiding places in our psyche, to our great dismay. But working harder to hide them only creates more problems. So we reluctantly begin the slow, tedious work of redeeming shadow by bringing it to light. As we do, we see that the “terrible” shadow has transformed our life. Thus that which needed to be redeemed – the shadow – becomes the redeemer.


  • Ford, D. (1998). The dark side of the light chasers: Reclaiming your power, creativity, brilliance, and dreams. New York: Riverhead Books.
  • Hubbard, P. (1997). Lecture on shadow, transference, and projective identification, New Zealand Institute of Psychosynthesis. Hubbard is a teacher and founding director of the Institute.
  • Johnson, R. A. (1993). Owning your own shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco.
  • Zweig, C. & Abrams, J. (1991). The shadow side of everyday life. In Zweig & Abrams, Eds., Meeting the shadow: The hidden power of the dark side of human nature. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.

This article is an extract of the “Sitting with ShadowMental Health Academy CPD course. This course is about helping you to recognise when clients are meeting the shadow, so that you can be maximally capable of helping them to “mine” the inner gold that may be surfacing, albeit in a sneaky, “sideways” manner. Click here to learn more and access this course.