Only the Shadow Knows

Milton Woolley, MS, MFT

Can you remember being a child and discovering your shadow for the first time? Remember how you tried to outrun it, jump away from it and no matter what you did, as long as you were in the sunlight, it would not go away? When you went indoors you thought you had escaped your shadow but as soon as you re-entered the sunlight it returned. 


Shadow in psychological terms is similar. Most often, people who have heard of Jung's "shadow elements" think of them as negative and dark parts of our denied self. Eugene Pascal, in his book Jung to Live By (pages 122,123) said, "Carl Jung taught that 'shadow' is the positive and negative repressed and suppressed split-off entity that was once conscious for a brief time but for one reason or another, was not deemed worthy of conscious acceptance and expression..." 


We take our spiritual/psychological shadow with us wherever we go. No matter how hard we may try we cannot outrun it or hide from it. As long as there is light from our consciousness, it is present. Actually, one's shadow is a vast resource of power, joy and energy hiding in the shadows of our lives, often in plain sight. We miss seeing this resource because it is masked by our self judgment, our critical attitudes toward self and others, and our self denial. 


Gloria Karpinski, in her book Barefoot on Holy Ground (page 49) said, "Jung also... (explained) that most of what was in our shadow was gold. He taught his students that it would be this gold, more than the skeletons that would be difficult to dig out of our depths... People are often afraid of their power and creativity and their potential for greatness, nobility, even mastership." 


Karpinski goes on to say (page 38,) "Soon after we discover the Light, we learn that not all parts of self are standing in it. Out of fear and denial we have relegated many aspects to the shadow lands of unconsciousness. The task... is to identify, embrace, and eventually integrate all parts of the divided self." 


The question becomes, how does one claim one's shadow? This process is not easy; however, the rewards are abundant. The first task is to identify the elements of shadow that are denied and accept that they belong to us not the people we attach them to via blame, rejection, envy, jealousy and hate. It takes a great deal of courage to realize and accept that when we sit in judgment of others we are actually projecting outward a judgment we hold of ourselves. When humility offers the alchemy of that moment of self discovery suddenly a burden is lifted and a moment of transformation occurs. Where we saw judgment and blame we can now experience a moment of self acceptance and forgiveness. 


Launching this adventure of self revelation requires tools that will aid in the inward search for the elements of our shadow that can be converted to useful and creative energy. Most of us need a guide in this journey. A trusted therapist can take on the responsibility of guiding the journey. 


In the chapter of her book called "Recognizing the Shadow" (pages 53-54,) Karpinski offers a list of observations one can use to help with the introspection necessary to take this journey seriously. 


So let's look at some indicators that we might be acting out of unexamined shadow material. There are certainly not absolutes, as the psyche is complex and there can be many explanations for feelings and behavior. Consider the following clues as warning signs that unexamined dynamics may be present:

You tend to place people on a pedestal (not just admire or respect them.) Pedestals dehumanize, and people fall off. Disappointment and disillusionment often follow.

  • You criticize another with generalized summaries: "He's no good," "Her only problem is..."

  • You find it hard to laugh at or accept your own mistakes.

  • You find it hard to accept your own power and talents.

  • You find it hard to accept compliments from others.

  • You feel envious or jealous of another's resources or talents.

  • You have strong physical reactions to people or circumstances: stomach tense, throat tight, palms sweaty.

  • You get a rush of glee from a put-down or gossip that undermines someone you don't like. If it's someone you do like, it may present you with a shadow within a shadow.

  • You feel passionately indignant. Cleaning up the world's abuses first requires ruthless examination of those same things in ourselves.

  • You feel victimized by the inability to find time and energy for yourself because you are so busy with others' needs.

  • Your tongue or your behavior "slips" -- "I don't know why I did or said that."

  • You have a well-defined list of pet peeves.

  • You are excessively for against something without careful examination of the opposite or options.

  • You need to ridicule anything.

  • You feel guilty about spending resources on your needs.

  • You are excessively attracted to a person or idea.

  • You are excessively repelled by a person or idea.

  • Inner dialogues sound like authority figures from your culture or family.

  • You are obsessed with anything; work, money, sex, status.

  • You are sick with unreleased anger or frustration.

Look to the shadow-at-work signals of depression, a run on accidents, and psychosomatic illness, knowing there can be many reasons for them. They can sometimes point to shadow material you need to explore.

We must have the courage to look inward and own what we judge and desire on the outside. We must come to accept what we find as a picture of what is denied, repressed or suppressed in our inner being. It is through the process of an exhaustive self inventory and observing of one's self that we discover the conscious and unconscious places that we have denied. The gold within is released when we accept that these elements of shadow are a part of who we are. Owning and revealing them begins the process of healing that lets us be the full characters we are. Balancing light and shadow happens when light is invited to shine on the shadow. Only you can do the inviting.



from Songs for Coming Home

by David Whyte 


That day I saw beneath dark clouds

the passing light over the water

and I heard the voice of the world speak out.

I knew then, as I had before

life is no passing memory of what has been

nor the remaining pages in a great book

waiting to be read. 


It is the opening of eyes long closed.

It is the vision of far off things

seen for the silence they hold.

It is the heart after years

of secret conversing

speaking out loud in the clear air. 


It is Moses in the desert

fallen to his knees before the lit bush.

It is the man throwing away his shoes as if to enter heaven

and finding himself astonished,

opened at last, fallen in love with solid ground.