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