The Origin of The Shadow

by Jasbinder Garnermann

Chairwoman, C.G. Jung Centre, Ireland

Jung wrote that the shadow is first of all the whole of the unconscious. This certainly makes sense when we realize that the shadow is the great unknown. From our intra-uterine existence onwards, when our first experience of awareness is born out of our developing senses and the many chemical signals that constantly bathe us, a whole world of biological development leaves its mark on our being. Our deepest experience is naturally that of being formed from one cell into a complete human being, and that experience is embedded in the very fabric of our being. But as we knit together, the building blocks of our existence retreat further into the shadows, where they form the deepest layer of the unconscious, which Jung termed the psychoid. The psychoid is the meeting-point of mind and matter, and remains an area of mystery to science and psychology. 

Our experience of the shadow is therefore firstly a physical one - as sensations, dis-ease, hunger, thirst, sexuality, and an awareness of bodily functions. Obviously, at this level, the shadow is at its most gripping, since physical disruptions are felt as threats to our survival. This is why all spiritual practices begin with training in mastery over bodily needs. Pleasure and pain, like and dislikes, greed, sexuality, etc. have to be transcended so that we are no longer terrified of their power over us. 

The perception of threats to our physical organism plays a major role in the formation of our shadow. This is easy to see also in terms of our evolutionary history when our existence was under constant threat, and our survival was not guaranteed even on a day-to-day basis. Starvation, illness, attacks from predators animal and human, heat, cold, floods, earthquakes – we were at the mercy of the external world. We would have lived in a state of continuous fear, our adrenaline constantly primed for fight or flight. One can see how so much of the world would have taken on a shadow aspect for us. Any unknown factor brought fresh grief. 

Particular fears would then have become hardwired in our brains. The night would have been a time of particular danger, and so even now we associate darkness with all kinds of spooky goings-on. Even factually, shadow activities such as drug-dealing, theft, prostitution, muggings and murder all seek the dark. It’s particularly interesting to see the process of projection at work in the dark, when familiar everyday objects take on sinister shapes, or a sound becomes a threatening footfall. It’s a little taste of the constant state of terror we would have lived in in primitive times. So fear of the external world is the next layer in the formation of our shadow. 

Now something really interesting begins to happen. So far we have been talking about our experience of the shadow in the physical world. Somewhere during the course of the development of human culture, we began to sense that the enemy was in fact within us. Perhaps this happened as we began to develop morality, a sense of right and wrong that we tried to live up to. It certainly occurred because as people began living in social units they had to suppress aspects of their nature in the interests of the common good. It was no longer every man for himself, our survival now depended on how well we could control our more basic drives and co-operate with each other. This training would have to have begun in childhood. From potty-training to learning to share food and toys, children would have learnt the manners needed to fit in with the social group. Not fitting in would have earned the disapproval of parents and relatives. For both children and adults then, it became vital to learn how to adapt socially. Failure to do so would have carried very strict censure, or even ostracization.The aspects of our nature that pulled us down in the eyes of the group now became something that had to be hidden and suppressed. It could even cost us our lives. So inappropriate greed, sexuality, laziness, fear, and rage, all now became the enemy within.

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As culture developed further, what began as expediency evolved into morality, doing the right thing not because of external coercion, but because of an inner imperative. It became the goal of every religion to enforce this imperative as the voice of conscience. Now the dark side of our nature grew truly troublesome. We had given ourselves an ideal to live up to, and the parts of our nature that fell short of this ideal became a source of shame, guilt and inferiority. This is the most recently acquired layer of the shadow, and one that we can easily become aware of. 

The Divided Self

The shadow is a part of us. It has its origins in our physical formation, in our childhood development, and in our adult attempts to become civilized human beings. Being so much a part of who we are, we are yet terrified of the shadow. We feel that it will pull us down back into our savage past, and our hard-won battle for the light of consciousness will have been for nothing. We make desperate attempts to deny the shadow, employing a whole range of ego-defenses for this purpose. Projection, splitting, rationalization, acting out are some of the common mechanisms we use to keep the lid firmly on this pandora’s box. Our desperate attempts to deny the shadow however, create a deep split within us. How can we experience ourselves as whole when we spend our waking lives running away from ourselves?

This split within us has been expressed in myths, religions, literature and art. We project it as the battle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark, God and the Devil, on a cosmic scale. Or we try to understand it in terms of Original Sin, an inherent flaw in our nature. Literature has offered huge insights into this split, and into the power of the shadow. Robert Louise Stevenson immortalized these opposing tendencies in his classic novel ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. Dr. Jekyll, the kind caring doctor, becomes Mr. Hyde during the full moon as he goes on a rampage, mutilating and killing people.  

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All through literature we find this theme – beneath the everyday persona of civilized people there are all kinds of unconscious motivations that determine their fate. In spite of their best efforts, the characters in literature get tripped up – by their greed, their hunger for power, their jealousy, their murderous impulses, their insecurity. Look at Othello, a brilliant general who enjoyed the glory that was his due. But his unconscious inferiority complex made him an easy target for Iago, a lowly ensign who was consumed with envy of Othello’s accomplishments. Iago convinced Othello that his wife Desdemona was having an affair with his lieutenant, Cassio, and Othello, because of his feelings of inferiority, succumbed to the manipulation and in a fit of jealous rage murdered his “gentle Desdemona”. 

We are all familiar with the story of Macbeth, and of how Lady Macbeth’s obsessive ambition drove her husband to murder King Duncan while he was a guest in their castle. The portrayal of Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessness and its power to awaken Macbeth’s own shadow is the greatest psychological portrayal in all literature of the disastrous consequences of blind ambition. But there is an even deeper exploration of the shadow in Shakespeare’s play. Lady Macbeth would never have succeeded in corrupting her husband if he had not already had the propensity for evil in his own nature. Hidden even from his own awareness, the seed of overvaulting ambition was waiting to ambush Macbeth, as vividly manifested by the three witches in the opening scene. The witches’ prophecies are ambiguous, but Macbeth takes the meaning that suits his unconscious desires. He believes that the witches are prophesying his ascension to the throne, whereas in fact they are prophesying his ruin.

This is exactly how the shadow gets us. We see our darkness reflected in external circumstances and believe what it dictates. Our shadow side casts a spell over our perception of reality, weaving illusions that mirror our most hidden desires, and we “see through a glass, darkly”.  And so, like Macbeth, we sow the seeds of our own ruin.

Again and again, we find this theme in Shakespeare. The hero’s obliviousness to his inner nature becomes his fatal flaw. If Othello had been more conscious of his feelings of inferiority, he would not have played into Iago’s hands and murdered his beloved Desdemona. If King Lear had not been desperate for flattery he would have recognized Cordelia’s great love for him and not ended his life in lamentation and madness. 

The shadow defeats kings, princes and generals, men who have fought great wars and shown superhuman courage. These are all heroes who have vanquished the external enemy. But, to a man, they have been brought down by the enemy within. And for this battle, humankind is still in training.

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