What Is the Shadow According to Carl Jung?

Carl Jung used the term ‘shadow’ to refer to hidden, repressed aspects of our inner psyche that were nonetheless integral to our identity.

Jun 8, 2024By Maysara Kamal, BA Philosophy & Film
shadow according to carl jung
“Light at the End of the Tunnel” illustration. Source: Pixabay


According to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the shadow consists of aspects of ourselves that we reject and repress into the unconscious. These aspects could either be rejected because they are socially unacceptable, unethical, or traumatic. The shadow could include negative and positive elements, but integrating both into consciousness is vital in the Jungian journey of individuation.


Overview of the Shadow

A drawing of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Steven Butler. Source: Deviant Art


The shadow is the dark side of human beings, carefully concealed from the light of our consciousness. Jung explained that the shadow is the “hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden” part of ourselves (Jung, 1951). If the persona is everything we think we are, the shadow is everything we think we are not. While we may like our self-image, our mind refuses to consciously confront the parts of ourselves that we reject, pretending that they do not exist. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a good example that illustrates the dichotomy of the persona and the shadow.


Illustration of the devil, one of the symbols of the shadow. Source: Pixabay


However, the aspects of the shadow are not necessarily morally reprehensible but can include any aspect of ourselves that we deny or repress, even if they are positive. For instance, one can repress their assertiveness because they consider it selfish, rude, or not a socially favorable trait. As a result, the quality of assertiveness became effectively part of their shadow and socially disempowered them, as they may suffer greatly from low self-confidence and from being pushed around by others. On the other hand, the shadow also contains the most evil and ferocious aspects of the psyche. As an archetype, the shadow has often been symbolized by the devil. This aspect of the shadow “describes the grotesque and sinister side of the unconscious; for we have never really come to grips with it and consequently it remained in its original savage stage” (Jung, 1968). 


The Personal and Collective Shadow

Illustration of the shadow. Source: Open Art


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The shadow is both personal and collective. The personal shadow consists of the idiosyncratic qualities, feelings, desires, and memories, typically traumatic memories, that we repress. Whereas the collective shadow is an aspect of the collective unconscious that consists of what societies, cultures, or communities consider unacceptable, immoral, or taboo. The personal and collective shadows are not separate but rather exist on a continuum. The individual is simultaneously influenced by what is collectively repressed and by their own personal self-rejections.


While the personal shadow can manifest into consciousness as undesirable, unethical, or disturbing personal behaviors and qualities, the collective shadow manifests on an aggregate level as reprehensible collective trends in societies and cultures, such as racism, xenophobia, or sexism. The manifestation of the collective shadow is what leads to wars, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and all the aspects that form the dark history of mankind. 


Projecting the Shadow

“Hall of Mirrors”, illustration by Charlotte Edey in Suite for Barbara Loden. Source: The Dot


jWhen we cannot internalize different parts of ourselves, we see them in others. Jung argued that without integrating the shadow one will be “fooled by the illusions that arise when he sees everything he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbor” (Jung, 1945). Projection is essentially a defense mechanism, for by projecting our shadow upon other people, we avoid facing it as an aspect of ourselves. A common example of projecting the shadow is when one’s repressed capacity for evil leads one to unjustifiably interpret other people’s behavior as hostile or threatening. Repressing positive qualities such as leadership, wisdom, power, or creativity may also result in idealizing others and taking them as authority figures. According to Jung, until we internalize our shadow and withdraw our projections, we can never see people as they are.


The original publication of Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, a typical example of how racist rhetoric is propagated to justify war and colonialism. Source: Wikimedia Commons


On the other hand, the collective shadow also undergoes projection mechanisms. Projections of the collective shadow typically manifest in social prejudices, attitudes, and shared beliefs against a group of people. Historically, there has always been a scapegoat for every global crisis. The stronger the shadow of a population, the more they are prone to dehumanize others and commit outrageous injustices against them. When a population inferiorizes another by projecting the collective shadow, they maintain a sense of superficial superiority with which they justify their atrocities. For instance, colonialism and cultural imperialism are justified by racial supremacy. The projections of a group of people unconsciously impact each of its members to the extent that they identify as members of that group. As Jung notes, the shadow consists of “qualities whose dangerousness exceeds our wildest dreams” 


Integrating the Shadow

“The Love That We Give”, by James R. Eads. Source: James R. Eads Art


According to Jung, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s consciousness, the blacker and denser it is” (Jung, 1938). There is no hope for humanity as long as the darkest aspects of ourselves are not dissolved in the light of consciousness. One cannot develop by fixating oneself on ideals while avoiding whatever contradicts them, but by embracing the contradictions within one’s psyche. As Jung explains, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious” (Jung, 1945). Along the journey of individuation, one has to confront both the personal and collective shadow. Although becoming conscious of them threatens the whole ego-personality, it “is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge” (Jung, 1951).

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By Maysara KamalBA Philosophy & Film Maysara is a graduate of Philosophy and Film from the American University in Cairo (AUC). She covered both the BA and MA curriculums in the Philosophy Department and published an academic article in AUC’s Undergraduate Research Journal. Her passion for philosophy fuels her independent research and permeates her poems, short stories, and film projects.