Sea Monster and Churches by Sev St. Martin
Sea Monster and Churches by Sev St. Martin on Flickr

The higher the sun rises, the less shadow it casts

–Lao Tzu

The Shadow Defined

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and former disciple of Freud who tried to bridge the gap between psychology and spirituality.

One of Jung’s most compelling ideas is the shadow. Jung describes the shadow as those inferior aspects of the psyche that we’re not too proud of. The shadow might be a desire frowned on by our conscience or peers. It could be a bizarre or unhealthy interest that the powers of civilization have apparently quelled.

Shadow contents involve known and unknown aspects of the self, making the ego, the unconscious and the environment all play a role in its expression or repression. When confronted by the ego, the largely unconscious shadow can be integrated into consciousness. But, for the most part, the shadow lies beyond the threshold of awareness.

Jung explains the shadow through his concept of the archetype:

When it [shadow] appears as an archetype…it is quite within the possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil.¹

The Shadow in Art and Popular Culture

Jung also stresses the importance of externalizing shadow material through socially acceptable channels to bring its inherent darkness to light.

Tentacle Monster Working by Dont Worry / Ian
Tentacle Monster Working by Don't Worry / Ian on Flickr

Through representation, the ego is able to integrate rather than represses unpleasant unconscious impulses. When merely repressed, the shadow finds a way through the cracks of the psyche and jumps out in disturbing ways.

This dynamic might account for a Catholic nun’s cruel treatment of children or the horrifying outbreak of pedophile priests and brothers. On the other hand, an instance of positive shadow integration is the inventive artist who deals with dramatic or foreboding themes, such as the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.

Jung says the shadow also has amusing aspects, as in Halloween costumes or comic book characters. The first few seasons of the TV show Smallville delights in the shadow, particularly in the character of Lionel Luther, an unscrupulous tycoon and megalomaniac. Here we find a twisted man who, nonetheless, is so campy and clever that we’re compelled to laugh. By satirizing the unseemly, Smallville removes evil from reality and delivers it to the level of farce.

Jung apparently had a good sense of humor and would probably have enjoyed TV shows like Smallville. He believed that the unexamined part of the shadow is potentially dangerous to self and society. By integrating our dark impulses, we gain some degree of mastery over them. At least, that’s Jung’s theory. His critics say that excessively sinister ideas in the arts and media desensitize and negatively influence both kids and adults.

picasso by teadrinker
picasso by teadrinker on Flickr

This kind of critique is often heard among religious fundamentalists and, in the extreme scenario, tyrants like Adolf Hitler.

Indeed, Hitler believed that art should be censored for the greater social good and drew up a hate list of so-called degenerate art (Entartete Kunst) created by artists whom he didn’t like.

Picasso’s work was on his list, along with that of Gaughin, Van Gogh, Chagall, Klee, Kandinsky and some 20,000 other artworks. Ironically, this was the very same Hitler who brutally tortured and murdered innocent civilians and who apparently was a coprophiliac—an infantile condition where one becomes sexually aroused when defecated and urinated on.

The Shadow and Projection

One could argue that Hitler despised innovative art because it pushed his own buttons. The distorted and fragmented subjects portrayed in modern art probably threatened his own deranged mind.

The shadow gripped Hitler’s personality but he wasn’t even dimly aware of its hold on him. His perverse impulses were all righteousness and truth for him. In his mind he was the grand chief of a supposed master race and everything “other” was to be eradicated.

God Hates Sin by Danny Hammontree
God Hates Sin by Danny Hammontree on Flickr

From a Jungian view, the alleged evils that Hitler saw in the Jewish people were none other than his own shadow impulses. Hitler mediated the power of the shadow with a disturbed charisma that swayed a great number of otherwise ordinary people into committing unspeakable atrocities.

Jung speaks at length on Hitler and the Nazis, arguing that this particular instance of the shadow is traceable to the presence of the Wotan archetype. Looking back, one has to wonder how the 20th century might have unfolded had Hitler not been rejected admission by the Vienna Academy of Art.

In any case, whenever self-righteousness, intolerance and hate combine, Jung says the shadow is being projected by the hater onto the hated.

The Shadow and Parapraxis

Another way the shadow expresses itself is through parapraxes. Parapraxes are commonly known as Freudian slips of the pen and tongue brought about by the intrusion of an unconscious desire, conflict or thought. Usually socially embarrassing, these slips can nevertheless point to aspects of the unconscious that require further exploration and expression. Alternately, they may remind us of necessary tasks and duties that we’ve been putting off.

Colorful Shadows by Chrissy Wainwright
Colorful Shadows by Chrissy Wainwright on Flickr

Children’s shadows are often far more transparent than adults’. At social gatherings kids often blurt out the unmasked truth about parents’ attitudes and behavior. The ensuing embarrassment suggests that our civilized, adult self may be but a thin veneer covering the unflattering impulses of the unconscious.

But Jung says the shadow also plays a positive, compensatory role. Provided that parents are quick-witted and funny, a child’s candor can be a good icebreaker. And a goofy Freudian slip can lead to laughter, better discussions, increased insight and group understanding.

Again, the shadow isn’t necessarily negative if it leads to some kind of big picture gain.

The Shadow and Spirituality

Jung says the shadow must be confronted. When repressed the shadow lurks like an angry dragon locked up in a dungeon. If not sublimated, the shadow’s sheer power can break free of its chains, causing severe psychological and possibly physical injury.

Medical psychology has recognized today that it is a therapeutic necessity… for consciousness to confront the shadow. In the end this must lead to some kind of union, even though the union consists at first in an open conflict.²

Jung isn’t talking about forever playing the devil’s advocate. We’ve all met irritating people who routinely point out other people’s shortcomings and generally harp on the negative. In confronting the shadow Jung isn’t promoting being a jerk or negative attention seeking. Instead, he encourages awareness and mastery over the powers of darkness.

The Shadow and Theology

Pages by crumpart  / Leonie
Pages by crumpart / Leonie on Flickr

The concept of the shadow has been both championed and critiqued among opposing perspectives.

Most theologians say we cannot solely rely on ourselves and the limited power of the ego to deal with the shadow. Instead, we must call on the power of God to overcome evil.

“You can’t do it alone… lean on the Lord!” the religious person exclaims.

Meanwhile Jungians warn of a ‘projection trap’ that some traditional religious persons seem to fall into. Jungians tend to say that sanctimonious individuals and related religious organizations project their own dark impulses onto others instead of facing the evil within themselves. This ugly dynamic may result in scapegoating. Luckily, we have laws in the civilized world to protect people from this kind of primitive, bullying mentality.

Jung’s followers also tend to imply that the spirituality of organized religion only goes as deep as the persona,³ where individuals play a superficial role of holiness for the sake of appearances and to feel good about themselves. To this charge, however, some traditional religious persons reply that it’s the Jungian who is superficially locked up in Jung’s theories, arrogantly judging from outward appearances with little or no appreciation for the inner life of the religious person.

Rather than getting lost in an endless game of finger-pointing as to who’s projecting onto whom, it seems more helpful to say that both Jungian and traditional theological outlooks could learn from one another. Funnily enough, there’s not only difference but a great deal of overlap among the two camps. Jung, for instance, often speaks of God and mentions the idea of grace, whereas some pastors and religious try to integrate Jungian ideas within their organizational beliefs and practices.

The Shadow and Global Society

Monster Attack 1 by Alberto Cerriteño
Monster Attack 1 by Alberto Cerriteño on Flickr

Because the shadow involves mankind’s collective unconscious, it’s both a personal and global idea. Wherever we happen to live, the shadow has potential for good or evil, and what matters is how we deal with it. Even highly upsetting or embarrassing events may bring about a positive change, providing we respond appropriately.

Along these lines, most theologians believe that evil is permitted for a good reason—i.e. there’s an ultimate Good in the good and bad of daily life and, on a larger scale, human history.

But it would be wrong to attribute more wisdom to the shadow than it rightly deserves. And if left unchecked the shadow becomes more fiend than friend. Again, the shadow must be harnessed and redirected like an untamed beast.

On the personal level, this redirection is probably best achieved through some combination of piety, prayer, creativity and conscious choice.

In politics, US President Obama seems to hope that the shadow can be effectively redirected by openly discussing the issues as they arise. One of the great strengths of liberal democracies is their willingness to examine rather than cover up social warts and blemishes. And if that well-intentioned openness is ever lost, democracies around the world might become just as dictatorial as the ‘terrible other’ against whom they routinely define and defend themselves.


1. C. G. Jung, Aion in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, ed. William McGuire et al., trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954-79) Vol. 9/2, p. 10.

2. C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, ed. William McGuire et al., trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954-79) Vol. 14, p. 365.

3. Daryl Sharp outlines Jung’s concepts in the Jung Lexicon.

Copyright © Michael Clark. All rights reserved