By Scott London
In psychology, the dark side of human nature is often described as the alter ego, the id, or the lower self. The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called it the “shadow.” By shadow, he meant the negative side of the personality, the sum total of all those unpleasant qualities that we would prefer to hide.
While Carl Jung coined the term “the shadow,” the idea of a dark side of human nature dates back to antiquity and has figured in some of our most famous stories and myths, from the dark brother in the Bible to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
For psychotherapist Connie Zweig, the shadow represents one of the most important yet least understood aspects of human nature. We all have a shadow, she says. The challenge is to meet it face-to-face. Unless we come to terms with our own dark side, she says, we’re condemned to be its victim.
Connie Zweig is the author of Romancing the Shadow. She has also edited a bestselling anthology on the subject called Meeting the Shadow. Zweig is the founder of the Institute for Shadow-Work and Spiritual Psychotherapy in Los Angeles.
Scott London: Of all the metaphors that have been used to illustrate the shadow in recent years, my favorite is Robert Bly’s image of the big bag we drag behind us.
Connie Zweig: Yes, he said that we spend the first half of our lives putting everything into the bag and the second half pulling it out.
London: What did Carl Jung have in mind when he formulated this idea?
Zweig: He believed that everything that is in our conscious awareness is in the light. But everything of substance which stands in the light — whether it’s a tree or an idea — also casts a shadow. And that which stands in the darkness is outside of our awareness.
As Jung saw it, the shadow operated at several levels. First, there is the part of the mind that is outside of our awareness. He called this the personal unconscious or personal shadow. That is the conditioned part of us that we acquire from our experiences in our childhood when that which is unacceptable, as determined by the adults around us, is cast into shadow. It may be sadness or sexual curiosity. Or it may be our creative dreams and desires. That’s personal shadow. But there is another level as well. Jung also talked about the “collective unconscious” or the “archetypal shadow.”
London: What are some of the most common manifestations of the personal shadow?
Zweig: The personal shadow is that part of us that erupts spontaneously and unexpectedly when we do something self-destructive, or something that is hurtful to someone else. Afterwards, we know it’s been around because we feel humiliated, ashamed, and guilty.
For example, one of my patients — a young woman in her 20s — has had a series of brief relationships in which she very quickly has unprotected sex with men she does not know. She feels so devastated afterwards, filled with shock and self-hatred. She says, “How could I? I thought I saw this the last time. I thought I’d never do it again. I thought I really understood why I was doing it, and that it would never happen again. And here I am. I can’t believe it.” This is her shadow — her sexual shadow is acting out in ways that are bringing her terrible pain and grief.
I would say the personal shadow is that part of us that feels like it can’t be tamed, can’t be controlled. For instance, many parents who struggle with their children with impulses of rage that rise up, and they yell, or maybe even hit the child. Then, afterwards, they say to themselves, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I did that. Who am I?” That’s the shadow.
London: There have been a spate of books and conferences about the shadow in recent years. Why do you think this subject has become so popular now?
Zweig: In some ways our collective denial has broken down. I think that has been happening gradually since the 1960s. We’ve lost faith in politicians. We watch them enact their own shadows in the headlines everyday. And we have lost faith, to some extent, in celebrity heroes because we read about their failings and double-lives everyday in the news. I also think that a lot of people in the New Age or counter-culture — people who have been really involved in spirituality and Eastern philosophy — have had experiences in which either their teachers or their communities broke their hearts in some way.
And on a larger scale, there are so many topics that were in the cultural shadow which are now out in the light. For example, domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, alcoholism in epidemic proportions. These are topics that would not have been commonly spoken about 20 years ago and are now understood by everyone.
London: Do these things all fall under the rubric of the shadow?
Zweig: These issues were in the collective shadow, they were taboo, forbidden topics, areas we didn’t want to look at. In terms of individuals, anything that is unacceptable to us, anything that’s hidden or denied — what we want to hide from, what we don’t want to know about ourselves — that’s the shadow. So I’m making the analogy to the culture.
London: I would imagine that many of us are unaware of our shadows and only encounter them through other people, in the form of projections.
Zweig: That’s right. By definition, the nature of the shadow is to hide. It hides outside the boundaries of awareness. Then it erupts spontaneously. It may erupt in an addiction, for example. But if it erupts in a projection, as you mentioned, you may have the experience of walking into a party, seeing a perfect stranger, and saying to yourself, “I can’t stand that woman! How could she behave that way?” That is your shadow speaking. There is a message there from a hidden part of yourself. There is information about your own psyche in that moment which, if you don’t begin to explore it, is like a letter that has been left unopened — you lose the message there. But if you begin to do shadow work and ask yourself, “What is it about that person I can’t stand, that is so unacceptable to me?” you will get the message.
London: Do you see the shadow at work in public events like the Whitewater Scandal or the allegations against President Clinton for sexual misconduct?
Zweig: With the media glare on politicians and celebrities, we see the fall of our individual heroes and politicians as they are taken down by their own shadow material. The accusations about Clinton’s sexual shadow, or the men in the Kennedy family and their sexual shadow, or we see politicians who lie, cheat and embezzle. Without the media, those shadow behaviors could have been hidden for years. Now they are much more difficult to hide. So, with all this exposure of shadow in the political arena and in Hollywood with celebrities, their drug addictions and marital problems, we face the loss of our fantasy heroes — the folks who seemed like they are riding the white horses and wearing the white hats. I think it’s a developmental step in our culture.
London: Perhaps we need celebrities to enact our shadows for us?
Zweig: I think celebrity has a purpose, but it’s changing. As we see begin to see people more realistically, as people are humanized through the exposure of the shadow, we can learn to take back our projections. In the case of Princess Diana, for instance, she really wore her vulnerability quite openly. She spoke about her eating disorders, and her struggles with the royal family. At the same time, she carried this archetypal princess quality for millions of people. So she was not a cartoon princess, she was a more rounded, humanized projection. I think that’s a very different stage for the hero archetype.
London: Do children have shadows?
Zweig: It’s natural and inevitable to form a shadow as a child. It develops in tandem with the more conscious side of the personality. The conscious and the unconscious, the light side and the dark side, develop together as we develop in our families and schools and churches, as we learn what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.
London: In your experience, do some people cast bigger shadows that others?
Zweig: It’s certainly evident that some people have more destructive shadow material and are more prone to acting it out. Obviously, a serial murderer is not the same as someone who yells at her child. Certain people have much deeper and more intractable psychological disorders than others.
London: What do we make of people like Hitler and Jack the Ripper — these great, historical shadow-figures?
Zweig: There are certainly statistics which show that most people who become sociopaths, who become homicidal, who become child- abusers, have had a history of incredible suffering. This is what we call the transmission of family sin, in which these unconscious patterns get carried on for generations in a legacy of pain. When they are not brought to awareness and worked through, each generation just automatically enacts them.
London: Have you seen examples of this?
Zweig: Yes, I recently saw a woman in a grocery store slapping around her child. I could see in her face and in her manner that there was nothing shameful to her about this. In her reality, this was a natural response to disciplining her child, to teach him how to behave. I would assume that she was treated in the same way. I would not assume that the behavior started there and she was inventing it at the moment. Because she was treated that way, she just passed on the legacy of abuse.
London: It sounds like a very common pattern since so many of our behaviors are automatic. We play out these legacies in our relationships with parents and children and friends and co-workers.
Zweig: Yes, the shadow is transmitted in a million subtle gestures and intonations. As you begin to become aware of them in yourself, you can look back over your shoulder at your ancestors and see where these patterns came from.
The family shadow is the sole answer, but it’s a place where we can do some work. It’s a realm that is within our means to influence. When we can stop passing the shadow on to the next generation, we can spare them and break the chain. Then they won’t pass it on either.
London: And what about these characters in history who embody what we think of as evil — people like Stalin and Charles Manson? They are obviously enacting more than just their own shadows. They must also be embodying something in the collective psyche.
Zweig: Yes. It is as if the ego and the shadow changed places in these people. Most of us live out a more conscious personality — the ego or the persona — that is polite, generous, kind and compassionate. The shadow is hidden and it only erupts occasionally. But these characters seem to live out the shadow side. It’s as if their egos — their good side — is hidden.
London: There is an arresting phrase in your book Meeting the Shadow. You write: “As repugnant as the idea may seem, we need enemies.”
Zweig: I remember when the Cold War ended, how quickly the United States was swept by a nationalistic fervor and turned against Saddam Hussein. As soon as we lost our age-old enemy, the Soviet Union, we instantly created a new one.
There is an enemy-maker in each of us. We make enemies of the people we love the most and the people we know the least. We talked earlier about projection. There is a part of us that attributes to groups an us-and-them quality. They are unacceptable because they are not wealthy or they are not educated or they are not the right color or whatever it is. This is an aspect of the shadow erupts and turns people into the other, into the enemy.
You may have experienced that in your own relationships: when you look at the person you feel the closest to, the most intimate with, and suddenly he or she is a stranger. He or she may even be repulsive. Someone said to me recently, “He is so attracted to his wife, but every once in a while he looks at her and she looks ugly to him.” In those moments, we create a stranger. Our shadow turns the beloved into the enemy.
London: Does the shadow have any redeeming qualities?
Zweig: Yes. One of Carl Jung’s real contributions, I think, was to point out that the shadow contains all sorts of creative, positive content. If you were a musically gifted child, for instance, and you dreamed about playing guitar or composing a symphony but your parents felt that they wanted you to perform academically and go to law school and join the family law firm, your musical ability went into the shadow. Perhaps at midlife, you have a drastic emergence of a fantasy of playing music. Some people who are taken over by that creative shadow at midlife may leave their marriages. They may leave their careers.
A man I met recently cried as I told this story in a workshop. He is an architect, 45, and all he wants to do is paint. He is remembering now, in very strong imagery and feelings, that when he was young he wanted to paint and draw, but nobody allowed him to. So he wants to leave his profession and stay home and paint.
So despite the popular conception of the shadow as dark or negative, there are incredible potentials, gifts and talents lying dormant there as well.
London: Midlife seems to be a crucial turning point for many people. In the opening line of your book Meeting the Shadow, you said that you met your devils at midlife.
Zweig: For me midlife was a turning to face those parts of myself that I hadn’t been willing to look at before. And I hadn’t been willing in part because they were outside of awareness. But also, I hadn’t been willing because I wasn’t ready. I think I didn’t have the will, the desire, until then. Then, when I turned 40, something changed. It’s different for every individual at midlife. For some of us, the devils can be a history of abuses or addictions that we were unwilling to face. For other people, the devils can be patterns of destructive behavior — let’s say, workaholism, or destructive relationships.
London: Carl Jung said that he never let anyone into analysis before midlife.
Zweig: Yes. In many of the ancient, mystical traditions that involve initiatory processes, a person was not allowed to enter until midlife. He or she didn’t have a stable outer family life established to be grounded in, or a stable internal ego structure to tolerate what comes up when you face shadow material. All of those ancient spiritual traditions knew that at some point you meet the demons on the path. It was understood that meeting the shadow was an integral part of religious and spiritual teaching. But contemporary New Age teachings split it off and basically say that everything is goodness and light, and we can transcend all that dark stuff.
London: I remember a conversation I had with the writer Phil Cousineau. He distinguished between spirit and soul. Spirit is in the heights, he said, while soul is in the depths. While we tend reach for the heights, it’s usually in the depths that we find that sense of aliveness. As he put it, “You don’t tell Aretha Franklin to `Get up,’ you tell her to `get down.'” [Laughs]
Zweig: Yes. I think that what has happened in our eagerness to be more spiritual, more conscious, more aware, is that we’ve only gone up. And some of us have been left floating up there in the skies, just over the mountain tops, like helium-balloons. We’ve lost the contact with the lower worlds, with the passions, the instincts, sex, desire. We’ve made desire wrong and have wanted to be free of our attachments and our cravings, as the Buddha teaches.
London: This may have something to do with our Judeo-Christian heritage which teaches us that our lower half represents original sin, unworthiness, and all our evil impulses?
Zweig: Yes. The traditional purpose of religion is to teach us the difference between the dark side and the light side, what is moral and what is immoral behavior. In the Judao-Christian tradition, those sides are very cut off from one another. So we have God and the Devil and never the twain shall meet. But in many other cultures, that is not the case.
I spent time in Bali a number of years ago, which is a Hindu culture. Over every doorway there are masks of demons to greet you, as if to say: “The shadow lives here, it’s part of our life, it’s part of our home.” That is very different from a Judeo-Christian orientation, which says: “Banish the demons. Keep them as far away as possible. Don’t let them in the doorway.”
London: You say that we must learn to “romance” the shadow.
Zweig: Yes, what my co-author Steve Wolf and I mean by romancing the shadow is this: if you can begin to coax it out of hiding, almost seduce it like a shy lover, then you can begin to make a more conscious relationship to your own shadow. The more the shadow hides, the more it’s outside awareness, the tighter its hold over us.
London: We’ve heard a number of variations of this phrase in recent years — “embracing the shadow,” “befriending the shadow” and so on.
Zweig: Well, It doesn’t feel like a friend. It feels like a damn opposition. [Laughs] In the 70s and 80s, people used terms like “integrating” the shadow, and “embracing” the shadow. My sense of it was that it was as if the shadow material could be taken on by the ego, could be synthesized somehow, eaten. We used to say “eating the shadow.”
London: A friend of mine who has been wrestling with his shadow for some time quipped that the title of your book, Romancing the Shadow, misses the point. “Forget about romancing it,” he said, “I want to annihilate it!” [Laughs]
Zweig: I really don’t think the point is to get rid of the shadow. The point is not to eliminate the unconscious. The point is to become increasingly aware of what we call the shadow-characters — those aspects of the unconscious that are erupting and leading us to destructive or self-destructive behaviors. So the goal is not to get rid of it, but as Robert Bly would say, to begin to take the material out of the bag.
Carl Jung used to talk about “holding the tension of the opposites” as a basis for working with the shadow. But if you’ve ever tried that in your own life, you know how hard it is. If you can hold the tension of opposite points of view in your intimate relationships with people, instead of making somebody right and somebody wrong, you are really taking an evolutionary step.
London: Jung said that we don’t conquer our problems, we outgrow them. Can we outgrow our shadow?
Zweig: If you begin to do shadow-work and uncover the character that is hiding there, and see what it’s needing, what it’s saying to you, what you feel the moment it comes up, you have a way to relate to it. It loses its compelling quality and doesn’t drive you so much. As it recedes, you can again hear the voice of the self, the voice of your own intuitive wisdom, the part of you that knows what is right action. Carl Jung used to say that if we can shed a little light on our own darkness, it will remove some of the larger darkness from the world.
This interview was adapted from the public radio series “Insight & Outlook.” It appeared in the August 1998 issue of the British magazine “Kindred Spirit.”
Complete interview taken from Scott London’s website.