Throwing Light on the Shadow – Carl Jung’s Answer to Evil

Metropolis at night by MC

The incident of August 13 involving CNN anchor Cris Cuomo inspired me to revisit this piece, originally posted 10/25/2011.

What Is The Shadow?

If you saw the film A Dangerous Method, you will know Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) as the Swiss psychiatrist and former disciple of Freud who tried to bridge the gap between psychology and spirituality.

If you didn’t see the film, Jung might not be in your store of household names.

For me, however, Jung’s thinking was instrumental in shaping my outlook on life. I don’t agree with everything Jung says. But his theory was a launchpad for my own views.

The higher the sun rises, the less shadow it casts

–Lao Tzu

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

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 Pop 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 Dont Worry

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 innovative artist who deals with dramatic or foreboding themes, such as the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.

Jung says the shadow also produces 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 series like Smallville. He believed 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 contend that excessively sinister or sex-themed ideas in the arts and media desensitize and negatively influence both kids and adults. For example, some maintain that video games lead to violence, pornography leads to the objectification of women, and so on.

picasso by teadrinker
picasso by teadrinker

The idea that artistic representation should be controlled and curtailed is often heard among religious fundamentalists and, in the extreme scenario, cruel tyrants like Adolf Hitler.

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) by artists he didn’t like.

Picasso’s work was on his hate 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

Hitler may have 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 and actions 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

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 disturbing 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 refused admission by the Vienna Academy of Art.

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

The Shadow and Parapraxis

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

Colorful Shadows by Chrissy Wainwright
Colorful Shadows by Chrissy Wainwright

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 our civilized, adult self is a thin veneer covering the unflattering impulses of the unconscious.

However, Jung says the shadow also plays a positive, compensatory role. In some situations, a child’s candor can be a good icebreaker for adult get-togethers. And a goofy Freudian slip can lead to laughs, better conversations, and insight.

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 chained in a dungeon. If not sublimated, the shadow’s sheer power can break free of its restraints, 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 have 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, for that matter, 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

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 traditional religious persons seem to fall into. Jungians tend to say that sanctimonious individuals and their 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.

Many Jungians also 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 is 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 each 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 behavior.

The Shadow and The World

Monster Attack 1 by Alberto Cerriteño
Monster Attack 1 by Alberto Cerriteño

Because the shadow involves mankind’s collective unconscious, it is both a personal and global idea. Wherever we may live, the shadow has the potential for good or evil. What matters is how we deal with it. Even profoundly 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 greater scale, human history.

But it would be wrong to attribute more wisdom to the shadow than it deserves. And if left unchecked the shadow becomes more foe than friend. Again, the shadow must be secured and directed like an untamed beast. This redirection is probably best achieved through some combination of piety, prayer, creativity and conscious choice.

The Shadow in Politics

In politics, figures like US President Trump and the former Toronto mayor Rob Ford arguably push many people’s buttons and in the process receive the butt end of a collective shadow projection. Bold and challenging figures like Trump and Ford point to unwelcome elements – like tribalism and ethnically based organized crime groups – which the general public is not ready to accept. So Trump and Ford are seen as the devils, not the entire system.

One of the great strengths of liberal democracy is its willingness to reveal 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 authoritarian as the supposed ‘terrible others’ against whom they vigorously 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 © 2019 Michael Clark


49 thoughts on “Throwing Light on the Shadow – Carl Jung’s Answer to Evil

  1. This is a very very nice write up on Jung’s Shadow concept. I would like to suggest, for further reading, Robert Johnson’s “Owning Your Own Shadow.” Thank you for this! Great examples.


  2. Very nice (i.e., tepid)overview of Jung’s dynamic Shadow concept, with the following caveats: Jung felt we should “embrace” our Shadow before ostensibly “sublimating” it, bringing forth into consciousness those unconscious aspects that are unexamined. Further, the “negative” emotions, such as anger and hate are not necessarily bad unless unexamined. Righteous indignation,(anger examined)can be expressed directly in constructive ways, for example, and can serve to highlight and amend injustices that occur in the community-at-large. “Releasing the dragon” and venting steam has nothing to do with it; unawareness is all.


  3. Jung’s ideas of soul, psyche, evil and good are archaic holdovers from a pre-scientific Judeo-Christian worldview that is in and of itself a deranged world view. Good and evil have no place when we have come to understand that humans operates according to the laws of brain chemistry and brain chemistry is determined by genetics, past environmental impact and present circumstances.

    Past traumatic events literally leave their marks on genes. Look up epigenetics. A gene’s production of neurochemicals is modulated by the 3 determinants I mentioned. Your behavior is then determined by your brain chemistry and circumstances. You may never kill someone for their money, but you will kill someone to save your own life or someone you love if it is the only way to survive the scenario.

    A schizophrenic is not possessed or nor are they evil if the commit some horrific deed nor are they suppressing their “shadow”. Schizophrenics are born and certain environmental factors will trigger a schizophrenic episode. The neurochemical profile of schizophrenic is very different from say that of a well adjusted person with no extreme or maladapted behaviors. What we need is an understanding of behavior as described by neuroscience. Jungian thought is for the most part wholly inadequate to describe the how and why of human behavior. You and your readers can google the key words and phrases I used to find all of the evidence needed to substantiate what I have just shared.

    All schools of psychology must integrate the latest findings from neuroscience for a coherent and complete understanding of human behavior.


    1. I’d say that everyone has a unique makeup. From my perspective, there are so many ignored factors (and possible factors) in your approach that, with all due respect, I find it hard to take seriously.

      Perhaps you could look up some of these ideas:

      – sociology of science
      – philosophy of science
      – corruption
      – grace
      – discernment of spirits
      – theodicy
      – soteriology
      – hell
      – purgatory
      – heaven


      1. Reply to Ronan:
        No. it is science that is archaic. Jung is speaking the truth. The truth is that science is fare behind. We think that we know everything. That every psycological models works, from all kinds of social behavioral psykologecal theories to ….. …well in psycology all roads lead to Rome. And then to top it off, we think that it is in the genes, and things like skitzofrenia can be totally predetermined.
        Why are we so ignorant ? Hitler came to the power not so long ago. We have wars and violens everywere. And that is just the Surface. History will repeat itself until we learn.
        Projection is the way of the human mind.


  4. My comment was not about the uniqueness of beings. Our difference are minute compared to the similarities. Human are by far more similar than different. The purpose of good science is to simply but not oversimplify.
    You simply threw out a mixture of more outdated Judeo-Christian delusions with a couple of branches of science. Hardly a counter argument to my very specific comments.

    I am not spouting theories or speculations but statements supported by reams of the latest empirical evidence from those whose craft is to weed out our delusions and biases about how the world and organisms works. It’s called the scientific method. If you have been trained as a Jungian then you are biased because you would have to justify the outrageous amount of money your education cost you.

    I don’t compete in the field of psychology so I don’t have any bias or turf to protect. I’m interested in evidence and most schools of psychology are not based in empirical evidence but theory. Why do you think psychology has come under so much fire as of lately? Because it does not produce very good results relative to the time and money invested in treatment. The inability of psychology to deliver effective results is due to the misunderstood origins of human behavior.

    The determinant of circumstance would encompass what could be derived from the two worthy branches of science that you mentioned in your list. You still have to account for inherent genetics and gene environment interaction (epigentics). Circumstance encompasses encultured behavior (sociology) as well as present environmental factors. Too much stress at work depletes your serotonin levels and you are not a happy camper when you get home as a result.


    1. i think you missed the point entirely. the two schools need to come together (science and jung). we have to start somewhere. saying what you do can be seen as an attempt to project your own darkness on jung.

      the two schools coming together is something i am attempting. i’ve learned quite a bit, but more research is needed before i come to any conclusions.


  5. It’s just that every few words you write, some objection comes to mind. And I just don’t have time to debate over such a weak argument as the one you present.

    We always have to make important choices as to how to best invest our time. That’s partially why I listed off some areas of study that I thought you (and perhaps others) might benefit from.


    1. Your so-called logic is dehumanizing. While chemical makeup is important, and it may lead us to see how we act through persistent examination, it does not tell us why we react as we do to a given stimulus. You can talk about fire scientifically as merely being oxidation, but that in no way actually explains what fire is. There may be room for all points of view, but blatant denial of vast swaths of clinical studies is overly pedantic and robotic.

      As Jung wrote, “When (materialistic thinking) regards psychology as chemical changes in the ganglia or as the extrusion and retraction of cell-pseudopodia or as an internal secretion, this is just as much a superstition as theosophy.”


    2. I have been of two minds on the topic of gentics vs. soul myself. I believe that a person’s behaviour is chemically driven. You can change your chemistry, so to speak, by simply thinking or speaking words to yourself. When you give yourself an attaboy or when you badger yourself about your own mistakes.

      When people attend school, concerts, parties, funerals, dont you think some people just mimic the approprtiate behaviour while others actually feel it and they do or do not “feel it” to different levels of degree. Music and movies can make us smile, laugh or cry or get angry. Just speaking or hearing certain words can send your attitude up or down, higher or lower. Isnt Yoga designed to change your attitude using meditation to calm your nevers? And wont angry words enrage you if you believe in the cause? Doesnt a promise of life or love eternal make you all warm inside? Doesnt the feeling that you know the answer and when you are proven right, doesnt it make you feel rightous? Well , we can all take a pill and change our whole outlook on life. Iill be 50 years old soon and almost everything I learned about history and other things, including the universe, has either been disproven by now or was a lie to begin with. We really need to stop the Santa Clause thing. The rest of our pagen rituals are pretty see through and child like, but the Santa bomb can hurt a kid.

      As to God, well, that is an unknown. Do you believe in the chaos theory or is there a master planner? Must “God” be the master planner? I have been of two minds about it. The human mind loves a puzzle. Our brains are computers in a way. I want my computer and my future android house unit to be as smart as a human without all the messy emotions. And a good cook.

      Good luck to us all on our individual quests. I’m still searching for the truth.


  6. while havin tried everything this world has to offer to try to better myself all of which have failed, religion , therepy and so on . the shadow theory makes more sense to me personally than any other concept i have tried. my background is at best described as typical so cal kid who found acceptance in drugs and am now a 34 year old divorced father who still battles with himself over the thoughts that sneak up in my head. the shadow theory has started to help me to take control of my thoughts and my anger towards those i once despised yet had so much in common with. i no longer judge a person or a situation based on looks or actions, not sayin i always succed but am able to catch myself doing just that. thank you for your time. peace…


  7. As an authentic silhouette artist, who does not use a shadow to capture a person’s psyche, personality, and profile, freehand, I ponder the theory of capturing the shadow, black and white, grey. My work brings light (cut-outs view of positive energy into the receiver’s life. I capture their shadow by vision of my upper conscious mind, and give them psychic silhouettes. Black is the non-existence of color in opaqueness, yet all color combined in light. We have the choice, to be Peter Pan, not grow-up in search of our own shadow, or to open mind to upper conscious oneness.


  8. Really appreciate the above. Have been studying Senor/Dr.Jung a lot this past summer. You covered a lot of ground and helped to clarify stuff for me. Jung can get really complex. One must be aware of his vocabulary and sometimes it seems he writes/wrote direct from his own subconscious. Thanks Twitter @Peta_de_Aztlan


  9. You definitely need to check out the essay titled ‘Good v ‘Evil by Jeremy Griffith at the World Transformation Movement. I think it would be right up your alley. It states: “The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung was forever saying that ‘wholeness for humans depends on the ability to own their own shadow’ because he recognised that only finding understanding of our dark side could end the underlying insecurity in us humans about our fundamental goodness and worth, and, in so doing, make us ‘whole’.”


  10. I think this type of theory can help explain better the psychotic break from reality that resulted in my son’s death…(see…I can recall wanting to suppress all that I felt was evil prior to my son’s death…the world was no longer gray, but black and white, no in between. I even wrote some poetry about the shadow self prior to ever hearing about it from a psychology class…then when I was in the institution, I wrote another poem about the shadow and it describes perfectly what Jung is saying…a person needs to accept their shadow like a friend instead of hating it…that’s when healing begins…


    1. Hey, thanks a lot for your comments. I probably first came across the idea in a self-help book called Mirror, Mask and Shadow. It was also in the Hermann Hesse novel Steppenwolf and, I think, Demian. This is all going pretty far back. I thought about it / expressed it before or around the same time as discovering the concept through books. It usually works that way with me.

      I took a look at your site. I applaud your openness and desire to help others. All the best to you on your calling. Yes, spirituality definitely helps in healing. I couldn’t agree with you more. 🙂


      1. Thanks so much for the response! I downloaded a page or two from your website to read more about it…I don’t particularly like reading info from a computer screen…I just can’t seem to focus and understand the material as well as when I have something printed in front of me…”old school” I guess….lol. 🙂


  11. Yeah, it took me a long time to adjust. I use an old LCD monitor that was given to me. It’s very creamy in its coloration, almost like an old book page. I couldn’t stand CRTs. Thank God they’re pretty well gone. Although I still use one to watch some 4×3 (whatever the ratio is) TV shows on DVD. I’m glad you’re getting something out of my blog. Sometimes I wonder how long I can keep doing this for free! Money always creeps in sooner or later… 🙂


  12. Great write up, through personal insight, I’ve found that both shadow and anima speak to us in our dreams. The language is purely symbolic though which makes the deciphering a bit of a challenge but definitely worthwhile.


  13. Just my two cents here.

    I am a doctor of medicine who has never seen a case of psychiatric illness being solved by means of drugs alone. This is coming from someone who knows what the psychotropic drugs are and who personally advocates the scientific way of thought. The neurotic or psychotic symptoms were only reduced and patient could try to live the best way he could. The same old personality and susceptibility to a certain way of thought remained present (although muted) in patients if they were not involved in some kind of detailed and tailored psychotherapy. So, to think that drugs could finely tune and “fix” something as complex as a psyche and personality is childishly and delusional to me.

    On the other hand, in my twenties I was experiencing a severe case of neurosis which lasted for seven years straight. Seven years of hell, constant anxiety, mood swings, psychological depression, psychic and physical exhaustion to the point of acquiring an autoimmune disease, severely impaired performance in profession and everyday personal life, feeling of emptiness, numbness, distorted view of life and reality, lack of stabilized healthy and realistic image about myself (“mind’s I”), lack of internal guiding “moral compass”, lots of missed opportunities, huge amount of personal misunderstading, embarassement, turned backs… and suicidal thoughts occuring few times. Then I started reading Jung’s works and various papers of his pupils clarifying his ideas. It wasn’t a instant bliss but a slow and painful battle with my personal demons. It unfolded slowly but constantly. The result – I reanalyzed myself and my way of thoughts, grasped what got me where I got and experienced a profound yet stable change of personality – phenomenon usually called “metanoia” – something I couldn’t believe to exist until it happened to me. All of this happened without any drugs, childish “wanna-be-rebirth”, superstitious beliefs or religion involved. Draw your own conclusions.

    P.S. I have to warn everyone here – Jung is very often misunderstood (because of complexity) and misused by many pseudoscientists and pseudopsychologists (certain Jung’s messages are unfortunately regularly twisted to support certain New-Age pseudoscientific material). Beware of various “interpretators” and read the materials of the people who actually surrounded Jung (Jaffe, von Franz, Kast, etc.).

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks very much for this. It sounds like you have a good handle on things.

    I think Jung’s work helps a lot of people who have gone through difficult times—especially if they have an eye for mysticism. I was attracted to Jung because he tries to integrate psychology and spirituality.

    In some ways I feel that my own theorizing has surpassed Jung’s. But without his (and Freud’s) pioneering work, I probably would have been worse off along the way.

    So for me, the two most important Jungian ideas are numinosity and synchronicity. Numinosity, of course, is not really Jung’s idea. He mentions Otto in Psychology and Religion. But Jung develops the concept and, as I say, tries to observe how we all have numinosity – actually numinosities – within the psyche.


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