Shadow-work at Work: Searching for Soul on the Job

A first job is a rite of passage that carries weighty meaning: a separation from the family, a step toward independence, a nascent hope for a creative, successful life. We carry our ideals, perhaps our naivete, into the workplace like a new suit of clothes. We imagine that our company will be like a family to us, our colleagues like friends, our boss like a benign parent, who holds our best interests at heart. We assume that our efforts will pay off; our loyalty will bring security; our ethics will be upheld; and our energies will be rewarded.

In effect, we long for meaningful work that is worthy of our efforts, that fills us with enthusiasm or enthousiasmos, which means in Greek to be inspired by the gods. Besides earning a living, many of us feel compelled by Ananke, goddess of necessity, to contribute to the lives of others and to create something larger than ourselves.

If we imagine our own creativity, we long for beauty, novelty, and originality. We dream of getting a day job that permits us enough leisure time to write or paint. Or we dream of leaving our day job to create an entrepreneurial venture that is wholly owned and operated by us, that will not require the compromises of working for others.

Unlike the tight fit of persona work, in which we identify with a one-dimensional role, soulful work feels spacious. Ideally, it permits us to express our authenticity, rather than bury our feelings in the shadow, so that we feel energized rather than depleted. Ideally, it connects us to bodily and environmental rhythms, deepening our internal harmony rather than mechanizing our lives. It allows us to make a unique contribution, which is needed and valued by others. And it connects us to something greater, a nobler purpose or participation in a larger community, which fuels our efforts.

A story about three masons illustrates how much this larger purpose affects the inner experience of  work: When a mason was asked what he was building, he answered gruffly, without raising his eyes from the work, “I’m laying bricks.” The second mason, when asked the question, replied dryly, “I’m putting up a wall.” But the third man, on hearing the question, stood up and said with pride, “I’m building a cathedral.”

In a soul-centered organization, employees can risk some authenticity without fear of losing their jobs. They also can experiment with their creativity to some degree because they feel safe to learn on the job, take risks, make mistakes, and move on. Sometimes called learning organizations, these kinds of companies make room for experimentation and the creative spirit. They attempt to open communication, rather than keep secrets. They attempt to honor diversity, rather than homogenize workers. And they make an appropriate place for Cronos time, such as in manageable deadlines, rather than permitting this god to rule like a despot. In a soulful collaboration, agreements are honored, roles are fluid, conflict is handled through shadow-work, and the Third Body can be felt to contain the project.

There are many ways to fashion soulful work. People who work inside organizations may want to experiment with greater authenticity by expressing shadowy feelings more directly with colleagues and in this way breaking family patterns. Still others may strive to imbue the workplace with their personal or social values, such as empowering employees to innovate, respect racial or gender diversity, create energy efficiency programs, or donate corporate goods and services. Others may attempt to turn a creative passion into an entreprenurial venture, like Mrs. Field’s Cookies, The Body Shop, or Apple Computers, thereby aligning activities that pay the bills and nurture the soul. And still others may decide to accept the limits of a day job and separate their employment from more soulful work by practicing a craft or working in the service arena after hours. Finally, we may detect the archetypal theme of our lives in our work patterns. Armed with this knowledge, we may discover why what we do is deeply matched with who we are, or why we suffer a mismatch.

One archetypal image of soulful work is Kwan-yin, the Buddhist goddess who hears the cries of the world, the sounds of human and animal suffering, and permits herself to be shaped by them. In one of her forms she has a thousand arms; each hand holds an instrument of work: a hammer, a trowel, a pen, a cooking pot. The goddess has developed the skills to become effective in response to the needs of the world.

This fantasy image of soulful work, like the archetypal image of the Beloved or of the special friend, compels us to seek it out, to yearn for it. For a fortunate few, it can become reality. Work can offer the pride of accomplishment and the self-respect of financially providing for oneself and others. A rewarding collaboration can bear the fruit of friendship, as well as an inventive product or service. A smooth-working team, like basketball players in the zone, can bring the exhilaration of group productivity. And a taste of creative intoxication can leave us hungering for more.

However, for many of us, the new suit of clothes, a symbol of our hopes and dreams, begins to wear thin before too long. If we are promoted, we may find that the weighty meaning attributed to a job quickly turns into weighty responsibility: we work long hours to solve problems under pressure. We are forced to cut back on loyal staff to meet budget requirements and to lower ethical standards to adjust to a commonplace business ethos: the bottom line. If we speak up against these efforts, we may step onto a roller coaster ride that leads nowhere.

If we are not promoted but passed over again and again, we may feel that our efforts go unrewarded. Heartsick with disappointment, we may disappear into the corporate grid and become depressed, resigned, or bitter. If we are fired, offered up as a sacrifice during downsizing or forced to retire early to bring in young blood, we discover that we are inessential and feel abandoned. And, because our loyalty was unrequited, we feel betrayed.

In addition, the chances are great that we will have witnessed the power shadow emerge between collaborators, as one steals credit for the other’s work; the sexual shadow erupt between employer and employee, as a demeaning innuendo goes unconfronted; or the money shadow evoke faint grumblings among employees, then cries of mutiny. Inevitably work, which once glowed brightly with promise, becomes tarnished. And it begins to feel Sisyphean.

The loss of soulful work: the myth of Sisyphus

In a well-known Greek myth Sisyphus, the clever king of Corinth, fought in his arrogance with the gods. Twice he achieved the unspeakable: he outwitted death. The gods, to punish his hubris, devised a tortuous task for him in the underworld: to push a stone uphill, watch it roll down upon him, and push it up again. Sisyphus was sentenced to this task for eternity.

Many people experience their work as a Sisyphean task: a monotonous, repetitive chore, a thankless exertion that leads nowhere, a useless effort that is doomed to fail. Whether they are factory workers on an assembly line, inserting the same parts into the same devices day after day; or corporate executives sitting in endless meetings in golden handcuffs; or homemakers washing limitless piles of dishes and laundry; or students doing interminable homework that has no relevance to their lives, they feel as if they are living the Sisyphus myth, as if they embody dutiful but fruitless striving.

There is in this quality of life a sense of fate without mercy, effort without Eros. Like the devastating recurring problems of humanity on a global scale, like the painful recurring downward spirals in every intimate relationship, the work is never done. The tasks probably will not be completed; the worker will most likely go unrecognized; and the stone will inexorably roll downhill again. The stone, like the shadow, carries us down from the heights, forcing us to face limits, loss, and ordinariness. It will not permit us to outwit death. But it will teach us secrets if we can learn to listen.

Perhaps it is our thinking about work that needs to change; perhaps it is our fantasy of work that sets us up for the frustration, even damnation of a Sisyphus. Perhaps it is this, after all, that leads to a deeply felt enmity between life and work. The purpose of this chapter is to question archaic assumptions about work and to bring psychological insights into this arena. We hope to renew a sense of work’s purpose, deepening its connection to soul life. We aim to lift work out of a workaholic culture and set it in the context of a larger life — and to help individuals make of their lives a work.

Archetypal psychologist James Hillman has pointed out that to understand individual psychology in the West we need to understand the ideas and images of business because they provide the inescapable warp and woof on which our behavior patterns are woven. He writes:

To set aside the profit motive, the desire to possess, the ideals of fair wage and economic justice, the bitterness over taxation, the fantasies of inflation and depression, the appeal of saving, to ignore the psychopathologies of dealing, collecting, consuming, selling, and working, and yet to pretend to grasp the interior life of persons in our society would be like analyzing the peasants, craftsmen, ladies, and nobles of medieval society all the while ignoring Christian theology. [i]

Hillman’s analogy is fitting: like Christianity, business is the framework in which we live. Moreover, work itself has become a religion; it is pursued with religious fervor and filled with the idols of a faith. But tragically for many of us work, like much of institutionalized religion, has lost its soul.

What do you passionately desire from work? When do you feel most alive and inspired? What is the stone that you push uphill, that is, the burden that opposes and resists you at work?

The promises of shadow-work: nurturing soul on the job

While shadow-making begins at home and continues at school, it is highly refined at work, where the persona is required to fit tightly if we wish to achieve success. In fact, many workplaces institutionalize individual shadow-making by implicitly demanding adaptive, accommodating behaviors and discouraging authentic emotional exchange. They often outlaw the discussion of certain topics and may try to discourage dissent. They tend to encourage projection to scapegoat troublemakers, uphold denial through workaholism and alcoholism, and typically hoard power in a few hands. The result: a climate that increases shadow and decreases soul.

This is a commonplace context in which we work. And because it is so pervasive and so familiar, like the sea in which we swim, we typically remain unconscious of it. We simply assume that we cannot be ourselves at work. We believe, instead, that we should disappear and become who they want us to be. So, many of us follow orders, even when we don’t believe they will yield the desired result. We protect our superiors, even when we don’t believe they command respect. And we look away from ethical violations, colluding with others in a conspiracy of silence.

This widespread workplace ethos remains unconscious for another reason: we grow up in schools in which we learn to sit still, regardless of our bodily needs. We learn to submit to others without question, obeying outer authority and disobeying the inner voice of the Self. We learn to compete with peers as enemies, rather than as worthy opponents who inspire us toward excellence. And we learn to structure our days around Cronos time: one hour per topic. Rushed to achieve academically, at an early age we are encouraged to leave behind childish ways, including imaginary play and reverie, the deep sources of creativity. At a later age, we are encouraged to leave behind the arts and humanities, all too often banishing our unique talents into shadow.

With this preparation, we enter the workplace and find that, like individuals and families, each company has a persona or public face and a shadow, which may not shine so brightly: HMO’s that purport to be client-centered restrict doctors’ prescriptions to medications bought in bulk discounts; an alternative healthcare group fires women employees who become pregnant; a snack food company that promotes to the gay market secretly funds anti-gay groups; and a highly creative industry takes for granted 70-hour work weeks, disregarding employees’ health, emotional well-being, and family life.

At the individual level, each of us also lives this lie, a split between persona and shadow, a Faustian bargain in the arena of work: We give up individuality to fit into the collective mold. We trade off soul for money. We sacrifice creativity for security. We surrender emotional relatedness for a mantle of power. Turning a boss into a parent, we become childlike and mute to achieve safety and approval. Then we pick up our shields and come to believe that we are what we do, that our function is who we are. We become so identified with the character who sits at the head of the table in the workplace that we create persona work. As one client put it, “I can’t allow my wife to visit me at work because she wouldn’t recognize who I am there.” In this way, we sacrifice our souls and create the very thing that we dread the most: soulless work.

In medieval society, despite primitive living conditions, work was imagined more soulfully: people joined guilds to apprentice with a master of a particular craft — painters, potters, weavers, masons. The guilds brought social order and offered individuals a valued sense of place in the scheme of things. Each craft had a patron saint, who linked the activity of the craft to the divine realm. The doing of the craft became both a source of identity and a way of life that was inherently worthy. In addition, viewed as the transformation of raw material into beauty, of the invisible into the visible, craft was thought to be work of the gods.[ii]

Today, with the swift pace of change, early retirement, and an epidemic lack of mentoring, the lineage of work is lost. In addition, when we think of a craft we imagine a hobby or a pasttime activity that ends in the production of a handmade object, in contrast to a machine-made object that we produce at work. But for some guild members of earlier times, a craft was an initiatory process, a sacred means of self-discovery, a full-time activity that awakens the subject, as well as produces the object.

In a similar way, with shadow-work many activities in the workplace can become sacred or soulful. Despite widespread institutional impediments, they can become opportunities to deepen self-awareness, nurture the soul, and serve others. Certainly, the job needs to get done; at times, the job may seem tedious or fruitless. However, if we can learn to observe ourselves, discover the shadow characters that interfere with our self-esteem and effectiveness on the job, and obey the voice of the Self, eventually we can return the King to the head of the table and regain our equilibrium at work. For example, we may meet a shadow character that is pushy and self-promoting, or greedy and ambitious, which sabotages team spirit with others. Or we may uncover a character that is secretly lazy and indolent, which unconsciously opposes a more conscious desire to get ahead. As we romance this shadow character by tying ourselves to the mast and witnessing it at play, we can discover its deeper need — the gold in the dark side. As a result, it recedes and we become more self-directive.

As we are challenged to learn new tasks and face frightening feelings of incompetence on the job, we also meet the shadow: we may secretly feel like a fraud, as if we are faking it. Or we may secretly feel blamed, as if we are the company scapegoat. With shadow-work, the characters of the fraud and the scapegoat can slowly become more conscious. As we romance them, they have less hold over us; then we have more choices to respond differently.

In addition, when we learn to identify our emotional reactions on the job as projections from the past — “I can’t stand that ambitious co-worker, that power-hungry boss, or that demure, helpless assistant” — we can defuse negative feelings, reduce blame, slow down roller coaster rides, and thereby decrease overall tensions in the workplace. In this way, each of us can become a more empathic, healing presence at work.

As shadow-work continues, inner freedom can grow. As a result of reconnecting with that part of us that has the capacity for soulful work, our dependency on employers and organizations may lessen. Eventually, soulful work can become, like the breath, a mast to which we are tied. As jobs come and go and relationships ebb and flow, our work can be a familiar place for productivity, contemplation, pleasure.

With shadow-work, then, we can use the job to enhance our self-knowledge, instead of permitting it to use us and eventually deplete us. Like the Roman god Janus, whose two-faced image adorned ancient homes, we can look in two directions at once: inside at the process of working and outside at the product of work. In this way, we can make of ourselves a work.

What shadow character sabotages your efforts on the job? What is being sacrificed by your Faustian bargain at work? How can you nurture your soul to make up for this sacrifice?

[i] Hillman, James. Kinds of Power. New York: Doubleday, 1995, p. 5.

[ii] See A Way of Working, D.M. Dooling (Ed.), New York: Parabola Books, 1979.

About Dr. Connie Zweig

Connie Zweig, Ph. D., a retired therapist, is co-author of Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow and author of Meeting the Shadow of Spirituality. She is a Certified Sage-ing Leader and is now writing THE INNER WORK OF AGE. She is blogging excerpts at You can connect on Facebook Or get book updates by request from
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