A recent consultation with a couple suggested to me that Psychology Today readers might be interested in learning about the “shadow” and how it can play a powerful role in relationships.
The nature of the shadow is such that it is not easy to see. It refers to the portion of your psyche that you want to know that you are not, but a part of you fears that you are.
The couple that I was working with continued to get in vicious cycles that pulled out the dark side of each other, and they benefitted from understanding this process in terms of “dancing with each other’s shadow.”
Part I of this two-part blog series describes Jung’s conception of the shadow, then hones in on how shadows form in individuals via my approach to human consciousness. Part II describes how I used the concept with the couple to help them understand their maladaptive relational cycles and how to turn them around.
A Brief Review of Jung’s Conception of the Shadow
The idea of deep dark forces operating beneath the surface of our awareness has long been a central feature of psychoanalytic ideas. Perhaps most famous is Freud’s conception of the id as a repository of animalistic urges, including drives for sex, aggression, and death.
Carl Jung was also a major figure who explored the dark side of human nature, and he introduced the term “shadow” to describe it. As this blog post notes, he thought about it in two senses, one personal and the other archetypal.
The personal shadow contains specific features of an individual’s psyche that they block, repress, or defend against because the material is both threatening and seen as antithetical to what they wish they were. This is the portion of the shadow that we will be focusing on in this blog series.
Jung’s archetypal shadow pertains to the dark side of human nature more generally. It is grounded in the collective unconscious, which is Jung’s term for the psychological architecture and deep-seated “memories” shared by the entire human race. For Jung, the archetypal shadow involves broad themes pertaining to evil, aggressiveness and selfishness, and he saw the frequent depiction of devils and demons across cultures as strong evidence of the shadow archetype.
From my vantage point, the collective unconscious is a complicated and potentially confusing concept that has partial truths but needs much work to get clear about. The personal shadow is much more straightforward. With a clear map of human consciousness and filtering processes, we can get a good sense of why the personal shadow takes the form that it does.
The Personal Shadow in the Updated Tripartite Model of Human Consciousness
As detailed here, I divide human consciousness up into three domains (see diagram below). The first domain is “experiential consciousness” which includes your perceptions (i.e., seeing, hearing things), drives (motives to approach and avoid) and emotions (sadness, anger, joy).
Experiential consciousness is shared with other animals like dogs and bats, and likely goes deep into the animal kingdom, including fish. We can think of experiential consciousness as operating like a metaphorical theater, whereby an individual’s subjective experience functions like the stage. When an individual wakes up, the lights of the theater come on. The focus of attention is like what is on stage and under the spotlight at the time. We can use this model of consciousness to define memory, nonconscious, and subconscious processes.
The second portion in the tripartite model is the private self-consciousness system. This is the linguistic narrating portion of human consciousness, which is the portion that translates the contents of the stage into language and generates a narrative of what is happening, why it is happening, and what should be happening. The third portion of human consciousness is the public self-consciousness system, which is what an individual shares with others. Jung called this portion of consciousness the persona.
To understand what the shadow might be, we need to also understand the filters that operate in these systems. There are three of them. The first filter is the attentional filter (not shown here), which refers to how attention is placed and the role attention plays in bringing material on or off stage of consciousness. The now-classic experiment showing how folks who are focused on counting balls can fail to see a gorilla is an excellent example of the power of the attentional filter.
The second filter is called the Freudian filter (or the experiential-to-private filter). This filter refers to how the narrator attempts to interpret, regulate, and direct the experiences on stage. For example, if you have ever told yourself to stop focusing on something or stop feeling something, or tried to talk yourself into imagining different outcomes, you have experience with your private self-consciousness system influencing your experiential system. The Malan Triangle of Conflict and the defense mechanisms characterized by psychodynamic theorists are good examples of analyses of the Freudian filter.
The third filter is called the Rogerian Filter (or private-to-public). This refers to what the narrator decides to share publicly. When you try to “save face,” when you lie or minimize some aspect of self, when you present your best foot forward on a first date or during an interview are all examples of private-to-public filtering. The filter is called the Rogerian filter because Rogers was concerned with the importance of being authentic and emphasized that judgments from others resulted in a split between one’s inner self and the false public self.
This description of the three filters should start to paint a picture as to why there might be a shadow. It becomes clearer when we consider the function of the self-consciousness system is to develop a justification narrative that legitimizes the self in social space. That is, the narrator seeks “a justifiable state of being." This means that pieces of evidence that undermine one’s system of self-justification are dissonant and distressing.
Cognitive dissonance refers to experimental research into how people defend against information that threatens their justification system. A great book on this topic by leaders in this field came out a couple of years ago called, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Anderson. It provides easy-to-understand examples of how people justify their actions to preserve their self-concept. In that light, your personal shadow refers to the forces that might threaten your self-concept and reveal you to be “unjustified.”
Let me use myself as an example. It is often easier to see how the shadow might work in someone else. As everyone who knows me well knows, there is a complicated relationship between myself, others, and the “unified theory.” My personal experience is that approximately 20 years ago I discovered something truly remarkable and revolutionary. Namely, I figured out a way to solve the problem of psychology and unite the ideas of Freud, Skinner, Rogers, Beck, and other giants into a coherent, “grand unified theory” of the field.
This “discovery” creates a complicated social dynamic that gave rise to a shadow dynamic in me. I think it is very understandable when you look at it, but I will say it took me a long time to understand and come to terms with.
Here is the basic dynamic: From a social perspective, if my discovery is true, then it follows that I deserve to be hailed as a genius for this discovery and set of insights. Yet, in noting this, this fact gives rise to the possibility that maybe I make the claim about the specialness of my theory in order to legitimize this social reward. In other words, we now have the possibility that maybe I have deluded myself into thinking my ideas are so great just so that I can tell myself that I am justified in receiving praise and approbation.
Remember what I said about the shadow. It is the portion of your psyche that represents what you want to know that you are not, but a part of you fears that you are. It is crucial to me (and I genuinely believe) that the theory is true and that I advocate for it because it is true, as opposed to the secondary social gain. Thus, I used to get quite defensive about the implication that I advocated for my ideas because I had grandiose needs.
For example, I remember very clearly a powerful exchange I had when I was in therapy. I went into therapy in 1998 for two reasons. First, I had not had a deep therapy experience as the client. And I was starting to have seriously weird identity issues emerging as a function of the budding unified theory. It was all I could think about and it was transforming my experience of being in the world. And I was super excited that I had done it and I was wondering how it was going to be received.
I distinctly remember my therapist making a comment that I experienced as brutally invalidating. He commented that he could relate to me because when he was in high school, he thought he was super into poetry and thought he could be the next Robert Frost. Although I did not say anything to him, I privately got super pissed and I canceled the therapy after the next session.
Why? We can see this clearly through the lens of my shadow. To my ears, he was basically relating to me in exactly the way I feared. That is, my great fear--and what I "knew" to not be the case--was that my experience of developing a totally, great new idea was not like some high school kid who needs to believe he is special. But rather, the whole point was that this was, in fact, the real deal. This makes it a completely different entity. And I was very upset that he could not see that. My defensiveness stemmed from the fact that his “empathy” pulled out my shadow, and I needed to put it back in its place, which I did by rejecting him and leaving therapy.
To find your shadow, you need to have some capacity for psychological mindedness. That is, you need to be able to look inside yourself and wonder about the key aspects of yourself that justify your version of reality and self-concept. And then think some about what makes you defensive. Are you willing to look at what your shadow might be?
Understanding one’s shadow can be helpful because a lot of defensive behavior can be understood as trying to keep the shadow at bay. In Part II, I narrate how I helped a couple understand themselves and their relationship by recognizing that their fighting could be understood as them dancing with each other’s shadow.