What did he mean by 'the shadow'?
To understand what Carl Jung meant by the shadow, we’re going to have to back-track a few steps, and see where shadow projection fits into the Jungian framework. Like Sigmund Freud, Jung named the conscious part of our minds the ‘ego’. And, like Freud, Jung noted that “… the most decisive qualities in a person are often unconscious and can be perceived only by others, or have to be laboriously discovered by others with outside help”…(1) “Clearly, then, the personality as a total phenomenon does not coincide with the ego… but forms an entity that has to be distinguished from the ego.”(2) However, a significant difference between the two psychologists is that Jung further divided this subconscious, Id-like part of the psyche, noting “…a twofold division ensues: an ‘extra-conscious’ psyche where contents are personal and an ‘extra-conscious’ psyche whose contents are impersonal and collective.”(3) More specifically, “…the unconscious contains not only personal, but also impersonal collective components in the form of inherited categories or archetypes.”(4) With an archetype like the shadow, “We are dealing with a re-activated archetype, as I have elsewhere called these primordial images. These ancient images are restored to life by the primitive, analogical mode of thinking peculiar to dreams. It is not a question of inherited ideas, but inherited thought patterns.”(5) In other words, the shadow is a primitive, impersonal inherited archetypal thought pattern.
While, like the other archetypes, the shadow can be integrated into your conscious, doing so poses some difficult challenges, yet there are consequences for not doing so. One such consequence is that the subconscious mind (more specifically, the collective unconscious) ‘projects’ the archetype on to people in the outside world. Such shadow projections lead the projector (person projecting) to dehumanize the screen (person being projected on to), often with tragic consequences. Such projection can pose further problems for the integration needed to overcome this projection, as “The more projections are thrust between a subject and the environment, the harder it is for the ego to see through its illusions.”(6) Because these projections appear to be a quality of the screen, even admitting that this is an internal problem and not an external one can pose its own unique challenges, and proceeding with integration is made all the more difficult by the unwillingness many have to admitting to living in a collective-unconscious driven fantasy world. Such a case was given as an example by Jung, who noted “A forty-five-year-old patient who suffered from a compulsion neurosis since he was twenty and had become completely cut off from the world once said to me: ‘But I can never admit to myself that I’ve wasted the best twenty-five years of my life!’”(7)
Even when someone takes this big first step of acknowledging the existence of their shadow, and shadow projections, proceeding further can be a difficult challenge. Difficult in that the course of action can involve renegotiating her or his moral code, accepting the morality of things she or he sees as ‘immoral’, moving away from a stance of black and white morality and therefore rejecting a religious creed they have invested a lot of faith in, and perhaps the hardest step of all, admitting that they themselves ourselves aren’t perfect. Furthermore, the shadow projections may have been reactivated by something about ourselves that we have suppressed into our personal unconscious, and are unwilling to admit to ourselves.
To illustrate this point, I want to use a hypothetical example (who I will refer to as ‘John Doe’). John is homophobic, as a result of shadow projection on to people he perceives as being gay or lesbian. Even if John comes to recognize that his homophobic sentiment is driven by his own shadow projection, and not an inherent ‘flaw’ in his screens, the path to ending such projections and integrating his shadow can be rocky. In this hypothetical example, John’s homophobia was created by social pressure to conform to a hetero-masculine ideal. Conformity meant repression of parts of his self deemed ‘immoral’ for a ‘straight guy’ in a hetero-masculine society. This repression lead to an archetypal thought pattern – the Shadow – being projected on to a convenient screen; i.e. people John perceives as being lesbian or gay.
For John, overcoming his shadow projections may involve a renegotiation of his Self image, an admission that he doesn’t fit the hetero-masculine moral code, and thus a rejection of hetero-masculine “morality”, and then overcoming the social pressure to conform to this code. While the best option here for all involved (both John and his screens), each of these steps can be difficult to undertake; the ‘easy’ choice would be for John to not proceed further and continue on his hateful, projective ways. Looking at such a hypothetical example, it can become clear why Jung believed such a process was indeed a great moral challenge.
As an aside, note that while I have illustrated the moral difficulties in someone integrating their shadow with a hypothetical example, this is not due to the want of real examples of irrational hatred and fear in contemporary Australia. Indeed, racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, personal, and other forms of hatred and othering remain a part of the everyday lives of both those doing the projection, and those who act as screens for hatred. And, on a broader scale, recent history continues to show how it is easier to send thousands of ‘our’ troops to die at the hands of a ‘shadowy’ enemy, leaving a trail of death and destruction in our wake, than to introspectively ask hard questions of ourselves, and our society.
Indeed, to Jung, such large scale cases of hatred were, in a sense, extensions of the personal level shadow projection I discussed earlier. Quoting Jung, “Just as the addition of however many zeros will never make a unit, so the value of community depends on the spiritual and moral stature of the individuals composing it.”(8) Whole reactionary social movements, and many political careers have been essentially built people’s unwillingness to turn their gaze inward. As shown in the John Doe example, the social pressure of either a movement, attitude or creed can be a large obstacle to overcome in shadow integration; especially where challenging such movements, attitudes or creeds may be an invitation to other people to project their shadows on to you.
So how plausible is Jung’s account of shadow projection as to why people bring harm to others? And how well does it compare to other philosophies in this area? After all, Jung is far from the first – or last – person to theorize around this question.
One of the notable competing accounts in this area is that of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbesian and post-Hobbesian philosophies are pessimistic about human nature. Such views see humans in a state of nature as living in “Continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”(9) Such an existence is due to the fact that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, is of every man, against every man.”(10) While Hobbes predates modern psychology by several centuries, in psychoanalytic terms we could almost describe him as suggesting ‘the Leviathan state as superego’. The Leviathan state superego is necessary because “in the nature of man, we find three principle causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory… The first maketh man invade for gain; the second, for safety; the third, for reputation.”(11)
Jung’s shadow account is more plausible than the Hobbesian account for several reasons. While the strong suit of the Hobbesian view is hatred on the international stage, or due to (for instance) a property dispute, the shadow projection account covers both of these cases as well. In contrast, while shadow projection does account for other cases of ‘othering’, like my earlier homophobia example (and for that matter, covers other cases like racist, sexist, elitist, and personal hate), justifying such cases as being driven by gain, safety, or reputation feels like putting a round peg in a square hole.
Another obvious point of comparison for any Jungian theory – especially in testing relative plausibility – is the work of Sigmund Freud.
Freud proposed that the human psyche contained”…sharp distinctions between the ‘ego-instincts’ and the sexual instincts, and… the former exercise pressure towards death and the latter towards a prolongation of life.”(12) This view was later modified, with Freud noting “…we were prepared at one stage to include so-called self-preservative instincts of the ego among the death instincts; but we subsequently corrected ourselves on this point and withdrew it.”(13) This resulting subset of the ego instincts – known as the death instincts – forms an obvious point of comparison to the Jungian shadow; especially given that Jung noted that “…there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behavior.” (14)
An essential difference between the two is that, while the Shadow instinct is fuelled by an unwillingness to deal with an aspect of the Self, the Death instinct could be described as conservative in nature, and seeking a teleos. Conservative, in that “…apart from the sexual instincts, there are no instincts that do not seek to restore an earlier state of things…”(15). Teleological in that “If we are to take it as a truth that… everything dies for internal reasons… then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’.”(16) On the surface, this piece of Schopenhauer appears the least plausible point of the two theories.
The question becomes whether the instinct behind destruction is essentially conservative and awakens as a reaction to a change from the status quo, and ultimately focused on an ‘ideal death’ (the death instinct), or a by-product of purging the ‘undesirable’ from the Ego? Is it more plausible to suggest that the choice is between neuroticism (through repression) or acting out a destructive instinct; or is it more plausible to say that the choice is between projection (through repression) or introspection and re-integration? Certainly one could make a case about “conservative” politics and destructive instincts somewhat plausibly. But if we are to accept the validity of the Jungian framework overall (and I will evaluate the plausibility of a modified shadow account for people who don’t later), the shadow account does appear to be more plausible.
So in contrast to the two examples stated above, Jungian shadow projection account does appear to be more plausible. Note that this is far from an exhaustive comparison between the Jungian Shadow and other competing philosophies. Some other particularly good competing theories include Marxist analysis (hatred under capitalism as a product of a division of labor), or Feminist analysis (patriarchal repression). However, given the limitation on this essay, I chose to include two examples of Jung’s relative plausibility.
A strong hypothetical argument against the plausibility of the shadow account, for a skeptic of Jung, would be that it is premised on the Jungian psychological framework. Note that for the purposes of this essay I will use the term ‘skeptic’ in reference to skepticism of Jung, rather than ‘skepticism’ in the epistemological or scientific sense. Whilst to someone who believes that the Jungian view of the psyche is plausible this may be no problem, to someone who disagrees with key aspects of the Jungian view (particularly if they disagree with the notion of archetypes and the collective unconscious), the notion of a shadow archetype would naturally seem somewhat implausible. Such a view may itself be premised on any one of a number of competing philosophies or views, which may be contradictory to the Jungian view of the human psyche. However, I believe that it would be a mistake for a skeptic, based on another philosophy, to dismiss shadow projection without further thought. This is while, the shadow is indeed largely premised on the Jungian view of the psyche (as shown earlier in this essay), the key premises of the shadow appear plausible regardless.
The first of these key premises is that “…dark characteristics – that is, inferiorities constituting the shadow – reveals the have an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality.”(17) Hate and anger are, by definition, emotions; and it is indeed plausible to suggest that someone could be obsessed or possessed by hatred or anger in the way that they act. Someone who is acting out of an emotion like anger or hatred towards someone else could indeed be described as acting in a particular thought pattern. And, indeed, such a thought pattern is not just held by one person, or the product of one culture; many people of many different cultures feel hate or anger towards others.
Popular discourse is littered with examples of ‘scapegoating’ and ‘taking our anger out on others’. And such common sense thinking could be viewed as being behind the premise that “These resistances are usually bound up with projections, which are not recognized as such, and their recognition is a moral achievement beyond the ordinary.”(18) Again, it does seem plausible to suggest that when we take our anger out on others, it can be difficult to admit the fact that we have, and difficult to admit that how we see ‘them’ is shaped more by us than ‘them’. And “No matter how obvious it may be to the neutral observer… [that this is such a case], there is little hope the subject will perceive this themselves.”(19)
So whilst the skeptic is correct in asserting that the shadow projection account is tied to Jung’s overall framework, the shadow account does make many independently plausible points along the way. And the underlying spirit of the shadow framework (no pun intended) does appear plausible enough to stand on its own merits. It may even be possible – depending on the philosophical starting point of the skeptic, to create a modified shadow account that does take into consideration the spirit, and many of the key premises addressed by Jung. Alternatively, the skeptic may choose to, while remaining skeptical about most of the Jungian framework, to consider a part of it (i.e. the shadow), which appears plausible on its own merits. Therefore, considering the shadow account may be an insightful or illuminating experience for the skeptics own philosophies, or personal life.
And if shadow projection may hold value to those dismissing Jung’s overall framework, it becomes easy to see the value it can hold for those who do not.
While I can’t speak for other people, I have personally found Jung’s work on shadow projection insightful and interesting; indeed, Jung’s account of shadow projection is one of the key reasons behind my interest in Carl Jung’s work. As I’ve previously explained, hatred – be it racist, sexist, religious, personal, homophobic, nationalistic, elitist, or some other kind – remains a pressing issue on a personal, social, and global stage. Such hatred continues to destroy many lives (both figuratively and literally) and remains a critical issue in both the world of today, and tomorrow.
In conclusion, we have seen that the shadow is a primitive, impersonal, inherited archetypal thought pattern which resides in the Collective Unconscious part of the mind. When activated, if not dealt with, the Shadow projects itself on to other people in a process we are not consciously aware of, and dealing with this is indeed a great moral challenge. A moral challenge that is particularly difficult because it may force us to renegotiate our moral code, and admit things about ourselves that we are not comfortable with. The shadow does have strong points and is relatively plausible, as well as being built on plausible principles, which may even be somewhat illuminating to critics of Jung.
1. Jung, Carl, “Aion”, in Campbell, Joseph (ed..), “The Portable Jung”, Penguin Books, New York, NY, and Camberwell, Vic., 1971, p. 142.
3. ibid., p. 144.
4. Jung, Carl, “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology”, in Campbell, Joseph (ed.), “The Portable Jung”, Penguin Books, New York, NY, and Camberwell, Vic., 1971, p. 83.
6. Jung, Carl, “Aion”, p. 147.
8. Jung, Carl, “The Undiscovered Self”, in Storr, Anthony (ed.), “The Essential Jung: Selected Writings”, 1983, London, Fontana Paperbacks, p. 363.
9. Hobbes, Thomas, “Leviathan”, p. 82.
11. ibid., p. 81.
12. Freud, Sigmund, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, in Strachey, James, and Freud, Anna, “The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud”, Vol. XVIII, London, Hogarth Press, 1964, p. 44.
13. ibid., p. 53.
14. Jung, Carl, “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”, in Campbell, Joseph (ed..), “The Portable Jung”, Penguin Books, New York, NY, and Camberwell, Vic., 1971, p. 61.
15. Freud, Sigmund, op. cit., p. 41.
16. ibid., p. 38.
17. Jung, Carl, “Aion”, op. cit., p. 145.
18. ibid., p. 146.
19. ibid., p. 146.