What is and isn't shadow work? And who the fuck is C. G. Jung? Understanding the concept of Shadow.

Most of you, Dear Readers, probably know me from my annual #ShadowWorkOctober challenge / experience. This year will be the third time we're in this together, and since October is fast approaching, I thought I'd take the time to touch on the subject of shadow work and perhaps explain the jungian concept of the Shadow a little bit. I'm warning you now - this post is going to be rather long, so get yourself a cup of tea or coffee, get comfy and let's go through this together! It's going to be worth it, I promise.

I'm pretty sure it's a safe bet that Carl Gustav Jung never anticipated that his analytical theory of the structure and dynamics of Self would become so unpopular in the scientific circles, but would take the modern witchy and spiritual communities by storm. Or did he?! Even though he's known for being the man who tried to marry science and spirituality by drawing inspiration from in-depth analyses of all sorts of spiritual traditions, world religions, philosophies and various metasystems, such as alchemy, astrology, comparative mythology, western occult tradition et cetera, it's important to remember that back in his days he was thought of and recognized as a psychologist, psychiatrist and a scientist. This means that his primary focus was to record, test and research his theories in a scientific manner, as much as it was possible at that time (the beginning of XX century) - at the dawn of psychology as a field of science separate from psychiatry, when tools and methodology in this field certainly weren't nowhere near as advanced and established as they are today, and when Freud's penis theories were still thought of as "the shit".

I could talk about Jung for hours (absolutely love the guy!), but sadly he's not the main focus of this article. Why am I mentioning Jung then? Because I think it's important to remember where the concept of Shadow and shadow work came from and where we should ultimately turn our heads for answers. The shadow side of shadow work (pun intended) being so popular in the circles it's popular in is - and I am willing to bet huge amounts of money that it is the case - that only the minority of those interested actually take the time to research the topic properly, from less of a woo-woo-witch perspective and more of a "let's put my smartass glasses on" perspective.

There's probably a few reasons for that, but I imagine the main problems to be: a) Jung's books are not as easy to read as fantasy novels - in fact, they can be overwhelming as fuck if you don't have a basic knowledge/understanding of classic psychology/philosophy terms and concepts, b) lack of willingness or perhaps even resistance stemming from the preexisting preconceptions and fallacies (false knowledge and beliefs) one might have surrounding this topic in particular or psychology in general - mainly, that it might "debunk" some of the things one believes in and thus contribute to the collapse of one's hierarchy of values or even the meaning of life itself.
For obvious reasons, let's skip factors like laziness or believing that we'll get all the answers by watching a YouTube video from a teen wiccan about how they're an expert at shadow work because they started doing it a week ago ;)

So, how do we go about understanding what shadow work is and what it certainly isn't? It would be helpful to start by understanding what the Shadow itself is, where in our Psyche it resides and what its function is. If you did shadow work at least once before, there's a huge chance that you understand the Shadow to be the part of your Self that is unconscious and consists of all the parts of Self that you repressed because you don't want to identify with them for one reason or another - such as fear, traumatic experiences, resentment, shame, judging something as evil or weak etc. While it's not incorrect to think of the Shadow in these categories, it is only a half-truth, an incomplete image taken out of its context. To understand the Shadow further, it's important to present it in its original context, which is the jungian theory of the Self and what it consists of.

  • The Self
The Self can be thought of as an axis around which the structure of human Psyche organizes itself. To make it easier to understand, you can think of this whole structure as a tree - The Self is the trunk, everything above it is the crown (consciousness) and everything below are the roots (unconscious).

  • Consciousness
The conscious part of who we are consists of the Ego and Persona. Ego is everything we consciously recognize as ourselves, while Persona is how we present ourselves in the outside world. The difference between the two is that Ego is usually much more complex than Persona - after all, we don't always expose all of who we are to others, we don't always speak our mind out loud, not everyone knows about everything we do and are interested in etc. Persona is adjusted to the social context we find ourselves in, while you can think of Ego as who you consciously are when you don't have to pretend anything or conform to social context. 

  • Unconscious
Everything that rests below the Self is partially or completely unconscious. Every part of Self that got rejected by the Ego lands in the Shadow. The contents of our Shadow are very contextual, in the sense that what gets repressed is heavily dependent on the way we were raised and treated in life by others, the kind of intense experiences we had (traumas and revelations alike), as well as the cultural context we grew up in.

  • Shadow
It's important to note that not everything we cast into the Shadow must be an objectively negative thing by default. On the contrary! For example, if you think of yourself as a civilized person that despises violence, you might have repressed your natural capacity for freely experiencing and openly expressing emotions such as anger. By doing so, you might find yourself unable to act in an assertive manner or defend yourself when needed, basically creating unnecessary tension and feelings of resentment and hopelessness, leading to self-sabotaging behaviors and victimhood mentality, which in itself leads to repression of even more parts of Self as a result. Another common example could be the repression of our inner artist - compulsively procrastinating or feeling huge amounts of tension each time we want to express ourselves creatively. While there might be multiple reasons for that, some of the most common are tied to feelings of shame, embarrassment and lack of approval or being judged as not good enough by a parent when we wanted to express ourselves creatively as kids. An example of  a culturally conditioned shadow could be shame of being a sexual creature or aversion to materialism.

Enough examples! As you see, the Shadow is not exactly all scary, evil and weak. We sometimes discard parts of ourselves that could actually be constructive and useful to us and imperative to our growth, which is one of the reasons why it's so important to get to know our Shadow.

  • Archetypes (Animus & Anima)
As you can see in the image above, Shadow is not the entirety of the unconscious part of Self. There are deeper and even more unconscious parts of Self, like the Animus and Anima, that reside below the Shadow. These are the Archetypes that could be compared to powerful background programs that, in a way, have lives of their own and administer the parts of our Self that are more primordial, instinctual, built into the very core of humanity as a result of millions of years of evolution of life. They show up in our dreams and as projections on the outside world. I won't be focusing on those in this article as they would require a very lenghty and complex explanation. What is important to note is the difference between them and the Shadow in relation to Self. In short, Shadow is much easier to access. In fact, without accessing and working through our Shadow first, we can't possibly hope to dive any deeper. 

  • Collective Unconscious
Another important aspect of the Shadow is its collective form. As we already established above, Shadow is located in the unconscious part of Self. The unconscious part of our Self is connected with the Collective Unconscious. Now, it's important to understand that the Collective Unconscious might not necessarily be understood as this imaginary cloud where all of the collective human experience resides and we can access it through some woo-woo techniques, like the "akashic records" or whatever the fuck (excuse me if you believe those things and you just felt offended). The Collective Unconscious is in fact within us, all of us. It's the Archetypal structures that each of us experiences in our lives - The Great Mother (Eros), The Great Father (Logos), Hero, Trickster, Wise Old Man/Woman, Child, The Great Dragon, and many more. You can think of it as the same kind of "database" that every animal is born with - containing information about the species, how it operates, what are the key phases of its life, how the hierarchy in its herd works, how it interprets the world on a very primordial level etc. It consists of all the collective information gathered throughout thousands of years of the species' evolution. Might seem very primitive, but trust me, it is everything but! It's actually quite fucking sophisticated - it's had millions of years to develop, after all.

  • Collective Shadow
The Collective Shadow is the Shadow of nations, ethnic groups, religious groups - basically any kind of big group that shares a significant amount of history, land and cultural tradition throughout centuries. For example, Native Americans have their separate Collective Shadow from the rest of the Americans but they also partake in the Collective Shadow of America as a whole. The Collective Shadow consists of all of the things a group or nation learned and experienced as a collective but that got repressed due to changing conditions, political / ideological evolution of the group or nation but also traumas that they endured historically - for example the mass-murder of Jews in concentration camps, slavery of black people in America, communism in Poland or nazism in Germany.

You can think of a huge chunk of the Collective Shadow as the worst possible version of a member of a certain group known to history, but also the typical black sheep and rebel, sometimes in a good sense. These shadows can lie dormant for decades or even centuries but they're destined to emerge at one point in history or another, usually in the form of a nation projecting guilt onto another nation or opposing idealogical groups emerging within a country in order to release the tension between these groups' Shadows. Somewhat of a unique example of a national Shadow would be modern Germany, where people to this day seem to share feelings of extreme guilt surrounding their national identity, kind of as a compensation for their grandfathers' and great grandfathers' sins during WW2.

What does the Collective Shadow mean for you as an individual? It's definitely worth thinking through and figuring out what groups and nations you're connected with and what their Collective Shadow can be. Once you've established that, it's important to be honest about whether you've been contributing to the Shadow in any way, by allowing it to dictate your identity or behaviors, by engaging in the perpetuation of conflict, or cultivating outdated hate and baseless prejudice within.

  • Shadow Work
Now that we have the basics of the concept of Self out of the way, we'll focus on some basics of shadow work and how it works. Engaging in shadow work means integrating the Shadow into consciousness. Jung himself mentioned on numerous occasions that (I'm paraphrasing here) integrating the shadow cannot be accomplished on our own - we need a mirror, usually a person, to see some of the contents of our Shadow more clearly. The reason for that is quite obvious - we get to know ourselves through interactions with other people and the world, we have to decide constantly about what we think about things, what our opinions are, how things we experience make us feel, how we want to react to people and events etc - we get to know ourselves in relation to the outside (and inside) world, through the process of differenciation. We can observe our Shadow through these interactions - when something always annoys us, when we feel resistance, resentment, fear, when we try to avoid something, when something makes us procrastinate, when we feel unable to react to something in an assertive manner - those are some of the common examples of when we've encountered our Shadow Self. There are also parts of Shadow that are not exactly so obvious and easy to spot - these are usually related to traumatic experiences or ways of functioning that we strongly identify with so strongly that it's not our first instinct to think of them as our Shadow.

How do we go about shadow work? As we already established, we need some kind of a "mirror" to aid us in the process. A huge dose of honesty and readiness is essential as well. So what can serve as our "mirror"? It would certainly be the easiest to find a qualified jungian psychotherapist, or at least a perceptive friend to help us with all this. But we can do it successfully on our own as well - and that's where we can use a variety of tools to serve as the "mirror". One of the most effective ones has to be a journal and its equivalents - video or audio recordings - this way you can write or record something when it just popped into your mind and is still fresh which will be open for interpretation later. Tarot and any other mediums carrying heavy symbolic and archetypal messages (such as visual art, poetry, stories, songs, even weather) also serves an as excellent "mirror" for shadow work. The reason for that is that these symbols always carry a meaning that is specific to us - they trigger emotions, memories, states of mind, they often make us reminisce. That's the kind of mental and emotional content you want to pick up on and record it. It's essential to have our thoughts extracted to an outside form in order for us to be able to analyze the gathered material. Just sitting and thinking about it is never enough - our mind is really good at confusing itself and getting lost in thoughts, which is a really unproductive thing to do. And even if we manage to draw accurate conclusions this way, we'll forget about them within a day and they won't have any impact on us as a result.

Once we gathered the material, we should move on to interpretation and drawing conclusions. More often than not, the meanings will come to you intuitively. Other times you'll be prone to dismissing it as something unimportant or, on the contrary, extremely profound - those are the situations when it could be especially helpful to talk to somebody who is supportive and trustworthy, and can lend us their help with an honest interpretation of our behaviors in relation to Shadow. If we don't have a person like that in our life, it's alright to just let those pieces of Shadow be for now and come back to them in a few months, maybe even years, when we're in a different situation and we feel ready.

That's it in a nutshell, guys! I tried to make this post as packed full of important information as possible. If you managed to get to the end, you're awesome! Should you finish reading this article with any questions, don't hesitate to ask - I'll be happy to provide you with answers. If you're hungry for more, check out a short list of helpful resources below.



#ShadowWorkOctober resources:

Disclaimer: Even though I am a practicing psychologist, please do not treat this article as a substitute for psychological help of any kind. This article's sole purpose is to merely provide information backed with experience and knowledge. I am not responsible for misuse of information provided above. If you're in need of help, please make sure to alert your family or friends and seek professional support in your area.


  1. I am so excited about this! For me this is the next step in my personal spiritual quest and I'm ready to move forward. I would also love to go further, the Animus. Thank you for this.

    1. Glad you found it helpful. Good luck on your journey into the shadow, Marion! :)

  2. This couldn't have come in a better time! Thank you for sharing.
    *Rolls up sleeves*

    1. Good luck with your work, Zofia!


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