Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D., is a professor, scholar, organizer, and game designer in the field of role-play studies. She studies the transformational power of role-playing games from several perspectives, including Jungian depth psychology. Bowman’s articles on Jungian archetypal enactment, active imagination, and individuation in role-playing environments has been featured in the anthology Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Participatory Media and Triade , a Brazilian journal of Communication Studies. Bowman’s dissertation was published as a book by McFarland Press as The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. Read more about her work at SarahLynneBowman.com.
Sarah is a brilliant human being. She is both spiritual and extremely intelligent and was the person who introduced me to the work of Carl Jung many years ago. After my article on Misconceptions About Shadow Work, we had a conversation about it. I decided that doing an interview with her on the Shadow would be interesting and something I felt others might enjoy as well.
Can you try to summarize for us what the term “Shadow” means in reference to Jungian theory?
I can try, although any definition of unconscious processes remains elusive. In Jungian theory, we have the conscious elements of the psyche, which are aspects that are “in the light,” so to speak. We commonly call these elements “the ego,” which is how we view ourselves and present to the world. For example, if I consider myself a strong writer, an empathic friend, and a community leader — those are elements of my ego with which I self-identify. However, Jung believed that for every aspect of our psyche that is conscious, we have a compensation in the unconscious. If I work hard to project an image to myself and others of writing well, perhaps I am compensating for a deep fear or memory of times when my voice was not valued or honored. If I hold empathic communication as a strong value, perhaps I am compensating for a tendency toward selfishness or demanding behavior. If I strive to be a leader, perhaps I am compensating for a deep desire to allow someone else to become dominant or fear around lack of control. We view these elements as oppositional to our consciousness. They reside “in the darkness” of our unconscious, and therefore are called our “shadow.” They are not always “negative” personality traits, but they often hold shame and fear around them, hence our instinct to keep them suppressed.
People often think that the shadow refers to repugnant elements of human nature — and indeed, we may find some of these elements repulsive, otherwise we would not shove them down into the unconscious. However, Jung believed that in order for a person to become fully actualized, they must bring the unconscious into balance with the conscious mind. Therefore, we must own the aspects of our personal unconscious and the collective human unconscious that we find repugnant in order to avoid these repressed shadow elements spilling over into our lives in undesirable ways or limiting us from our true potential.
How does the Jungian Shadow differ from Freud’s initial concept of the id?
The Freudian psyche — id, ego, and superego — is connected to the Darwinian processes of natural and sexual selection. For Freud, we have these unconscious, inherent drives toward sexuality (libido) and aggression/death (thanatos) that were necessary for evolutionary survival. However, we also developed the drive toward social integration as part of our evolutionary success, which manifested as the superego. The superego contains all of the internalized social rules and ideologies needed to function in our groups. Freud refers to the superego as “the censor,” in that the superego exerts censorship over the wild drives of the id. These processes are largely unconscious to the conscious part, called the ego — that which we define as the “self.” Most people are completely unaware that beneath their ego identity rages this war between the id and the superego, between these instinctive drives.
Jung mentored under Freud and adhered to this psychoanalytic model, but he also believed that the psyche was far more complex than just sexual and violent drives kept under control by internalized social domination. He was interested in the ways in which we use symbols cross-culturally as a way to make meaning through art and religion, which he called archetypes following Platonic thought. In symbols, he found deep structures that move beyond the Freudian id. From this perspective, Jung’s shadow can include many elements beyond sex and violence that have profound impact upon us. For example, in Jung’s Liber Novus (The Red Book), he discusses religious fundamentalism. He discusses how consciously projecting righteousness leaves people disconnected from their own shadow aspects and, therefore, lost to the fullness of their humanity.
What are some common manifestations of the Shadow for an individual?
Manifestation is a tricky word here. Sometimes, aspects manifest in people’s lives in unexpected or even inexplicable ways. For example, someone stuck in the depths of addiction may be suffering from unresolved Shadow elements around worthlessness, fear of success, fear of failure, abandonment, etc. Those elements can be considered the core issues. They then manifest in compensatory behaviors intended to relieve the struggle around their repression, meaning outward behaviors, such as lying, cheating, isolation, substance abuse, angry outbursts, control moves, etc. Such behaviors are ways in which the shadow makes itself known because the person has not come into balance with it through careful and constructive investigation. In this way, we can see that many manifestations of the shadow through behavior are actually tied to deeper complexes within the mind that are unresolved or unaddressed. Almost always, they point to a fear of some sort, or multiple fears wedded together.
These fears are usually suppressed through shame. If we return to the concept of the superego, psychoanalysts believe that we are wired to internalize the social rules of our default reality. Shame is the mechanism through which society often imposes its will upon us and is embedded within the ideological structures that govern us. For example, many organized religions use shame as a primary motivator for “good” behavior and a way to curb “bad” behavior. Toxic gender and sexuality rules also use shame, which we bury deep in our unconscious. When we undergo shadow work, we often find shame wrapped tightly around these fears, which makes them difficult to address because of the intensity of our internalized self-disgust. I agree with Brené Brown in her assessment that addressing the “unspoken epidemic” of shame is likely the single best thing we can do for our own development and for our interactions with others. When we release shame around our shadow, it can emerge and become more conscious to us without invoking judgment. We can embrace our shadow elements and bring them into balance, but first we need to see them.
There’s an unconscious projection element to the Shadow as well, right? Can you give us an example?
Our repressed Shadow elements may spill over into other symptoms — behaviors that are undesirable, psychological experiences of anxiety/depression, even physiological symptoms such as pain throughout the body. Another common response to the suppressed shadow is to try to push it away from ourselves, i.e. to project it onto another person, concept, or group. On a personal level, this projection leads to labeling others, often as the very things within one’s own shadow that they most fear. On a collective level, this projection takes the form of Othering and scapegoating, when the entirety of the group’s social ills get projected onto a person or group. When the shadow goes unchecked, we witness phenomena such as the witch trials, where people imbued all of their fears around sexuality and alleged “amoral” spiritual practices into select individuals and then executed them for the whole community to witness. The idea here is that if one projects all of their shadow into someone else and defeats that person, then they have purged themselves and the community from the spectre of those elements. War, religious persecution, racism, homophobia… one need not look far to see the projection of the shadow onto others.
At play here is cognitive dissonance. The psyche has an innate, kneejerk response against accepting its own shadow due to shame and fear. Some of those fears are substantiated; if society will condemn you for having alternative spiritual experiences or taboo sexual fantasies, for example, it makes sense to try to point fingers to someone else to distract attention from yourself. We see this phenomenon all the time in politics. The unconscious element is this: the person has difficulty accepting into their self-concept that they are capable of certain feelings, beliefs, or practices, so they shove them deep into the shadow and wrap shame around them. When feeling threatened or scared of discovery, they will project their shadow onto others to try to experience relief from the shame and fear. They may experience temporary relief, as their self-concept is reaffirmed, but when the shadow inevitably returns, they either face crisis or have to continue to project. Therefore, projection often has a “doubling down” effect where people continue to escalate it in order to deny their own shadow further. Some people never break out of this cycle.
In my view, humans have been ill for millennia due to the suppression of the shadow. Their projections take the form of unspeakable acts of cruelty, brutality, and dehumanization, both on the large scale and in the personal sphere. People also suppress the shadow with self-abuse through excess, negative self-talk, overworking, and more extreme forms of self-harm. Because the shadow is kept unconscious and we are ashamed to acknowledge it, we perpetuate cycles of abuse and pain that echo through the ages. Most of us have experienced one or more significant traumas in our lives around unprocessed expressions of the shadow: either our own or someone else’s.
We should be especially careful when we feel the urge to “take down” or destroy someone else, even if we have good reason. Often, we are in a state of projection. And while certainly, people who behave badly should face consequences for that behavior, any efforts on our part to dehumanize them or make them into “monsters” is often a reflection of the shadow. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who work to keep people safer and have done that work myself. But, I worry about our tendency to scapegoat. We are so afraid of predators. I believe we need to look at the predator within to fully understand predation. Humans are the most successful species on the planet for a reason. Yes, we have a tremendous capacity for empathy and ability to collaborate. But we also have the id and the shadow elements. We must come into balance and know ourselves to avoid the constant cycle of abuse and cruelty tied to projection.
Surely there’s certain things we dislike about other people that aren’t projections. How can we discern the difference between the projection of our own Shadow upon another person and something legitimately wrong in behavior or action?
Excellent point. First of all, a person can be legitimately wrong in behavior and action and not be “evil,” “a monster,” “an animal,” or “a predator.” I do believe individuals exist who are so psychologically disturbed that they need to be removed from society for everyone’s safety. I believe these individuals are far fewer than our projections would have us believe. Also, we can sanction any individuals for their behavior with humanity and empathy, which avoids the cycle of projection. We can set loving boundaries with others and still keep our communities safer. I worry for people who spend so much time fixating on the bad behavior of others, as they are often engaging their own shadow without conscious attention and processing.
Second of all, I think we should all acknowledge the full range of human potential within ourselves. We often want to focus on how much power we could achieve, how much larger our hearts can become, or how many great works we can create. The other end of that human potential is all of those shadow aspects that we fear the most. Within us is the capacity for the entire range of human potential, including the aspects that horrify us. I am not saying everyone is equally likely to exhibit reprehensible behavior. I am saying that if we can step into a space of greater empathy for ourselves and others in our human condition, we can raise the collective vibration of the planet. When we get in the mud with other people’s shadow, we risk our own shadows coming to meet them. The famous Nietzsche quote applies here, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Shadow work takes that concept a step further; we explore the realm of the abyss and learn what it has to teach us about ourselves and others.
How can the Shadow be healthily integrated back into our personalities and healed? Can you give us an example?
Jung believed in a process called individuation, in which people engage with archetypes and shadow elements in their unconscious, then reformulate their self-concept based upon these interactions. These confrontations are often shocking and painful as the ego attempts to understand them. Again, we experience cognitive dissonance when confronted with the unconscious because we were previously unwilling to acknowledge those elements within ourselves. However, that interaction can be extremely productive. The idea here is not to become the shadow, but rather to give it voice.
A common method is dialoguing. Let’s say a person has a shadow aspect of “neediness” that they are suppressing by overgiving to others. The conscious compensation is to prove how unselfish the person is by giving care or resources to others seemingly without expectation. However, in the unconscious, this personality aspect has manifested in order to hide a deep, unfulfilled need. Giving voice to that “neediness,” treating it with respect, allowing it to express the lack it feels, figuring out how to release the shame around having needs, finding ways to verbalize needs without demanding through self-advocating, discovering methods for getting needs met that do not harm others — these are all examples of shadow work. Often, that shadow aspect emerged as a way to get our survival needs met. So what feels “needy” is actually perfectly natural if we can bring it into balance with our consciousness and our social obligations to others. Sometimes, simply giving our shadow aspects voice without having to take any sort of action is enough to release our shame and fear around them.
Bring your shadow out of the closet. It has important lessons to teach you about yourself if you are willing to work with it.
Are there any beneficial qualities of the Shadow?
The elements that we feel shame around or suppress are often elements of primordial human consciousness that serve certain purposes. Seductiveness, manipulation, obsession with power, vanity, the impulse for domination, envy, etc. — these aspects may seem repugnant to us and we may wish to push them away from ourselves. But they have developed as means of getting our needs met. We can learn from them by releasing shame around them, seeking the core lesson within them, accepting them, and figuring out how to manifest them in ways that are actually helpful to ourselves and others. So, for example, let’s say someone has a shadow obsession with vanity. They may overly fixate on their physical form or criticize others unconsciously. But, if they could learn to see the core of that shadow element — that there is beauty within us waiting to be unlocked and expressed — then they could see that their fear is actually wrapped around something quite exquisite. And then, perhaps, they could use the gift of that lesson not to neurotically exert control over their own physical form or police others, but to beautify themselves and the world with love.
The hardest part is the inward journey. Often, when we dig into the core of these shadow elements, we find smoke and mirrors around them that are far scarier than the lessons they have to teach us. We make prisons in our own minds without even realizing it, hiding ourselves from our inner truths.
Is the Shadow purely a concept for the individual or does it also exist within families, groups, organizations, nations, cultures, or humanity in general? Can you give us an example?
The shadow has a collective aspect as well. Whenever a trait is highly expressed in culture, its shadow necessarily also exists. For millennia, societies worldwide have emphasized the dominance of the masculine over the feminine. While “masculinity” and “femininity” are arguably social constructs — those constructs have a tremendous amount of meaning in culture and a stunning impact on individual lives, as well as collective rights. We often forget that women have only had the right to vote in this country for a hundred years. Not long ago, women were bought by their prospective husbands and their bodies treated as properties of both the family and the state. In many places in the world, these practices still take place. More importantly, perhaps, the belief structures around them permeate the cultures within which they exist.
In the last several decades, many societies have increasingly problematized these assumptions about the role of women in society. If women are property of men, then their bodies necessarily are also subject to whatever treatment men see fit. We are only recently beginning to discuss the complexities of consent. We are starting to reveal the ways in which this imposition of power on the female body psychologically affects people. The same is true, of course, for men who have been violated, for people of all genders. But the systemic oppression of non-male people is pervasive. We are shining a giant light on the collective shadow around coercion and consent right now. It is a painful time to be alive, but also a remarkable one, as people are learning to tell their stories and receive support. In effect, the feminism movement is working to normalize shadow work around sexual shame and subjugation. But, as with any engagement with the shadow, the danger is in labeling others or projecting the shadow onto them. We need to shine the light on all of ourselves and move through that discomfort to best address this cultural phase from a shadow perspective.
If someone is looking for books on the subject of the Shadow, which books would you recommend them for further reading?
I generally suggest reading the original Jung if people have the patience. Unfortunately, Jung wrote massive volumes of reflections, so a lot of the information is scattered. An easy entrance point is The Portable Jung, which Joseph Campbell helpfully compiled for us. I would also suggest reading Liber Novus (The Red Book) if people are willing to go on Jung’s inward journey into his own unconscious with him. You can see the development of the concept of shadow and examples of his own shadow work there. Also, the footnotes by Sonu Shamdasani, as well as his introduction, are absolutely priceless with regard to understanding Jungian theory. One can always read other Jungian scholars’ reflections on the shadow, but in my view, no amount of intellectual engagement replaces the mindful, painful rewards of the inward journey.
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Sarah Lynne Bowman shares her ritual to help seekers get in touch with their Shadow Self aspects, by coming into alignment, establishing dialogue, transmuting, and integrating them. The goal of this ritual is to help individuals remove shame from their shadow aspects, identify them as allies, uncover the core needs within them, as well as figure out how best to integrate and balance the shadow into their daily lives. Thus, this practice views the integration of the shadow as an important way to promote psychological and spiritual well-being. This is available for Patreon supporters with the tier “In The Know Jackalope” and higher.