“In Jungian psychology, we generally define the shadow as the personification of certain aspects of the unconscious personality, which could be added to the ego complex but which, for various reasons, are not. We might therefore say that the shadow is the dark, unlived, and repressed side of the ego complex, but this is only partly true. Jung, who hated it when his pupils were too literal-minded and clung to his concepts and made a system out of them and quoted him without knowing exactly what they were saying, once in a discussion threw all this over and said, “This is all nonsense! The shadow is simply the whole unconscious.”
- Marie Louise von Franz, “Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales”
During a recent Q&A on my Instagram, I was asked “What are the steps to integrating the shadow or a particular archetype?”
Admittedly, I was a bit reluctant to answer this question. Working with the unconscious is rarely formulaic. Further, as with many of Jung’s concepts, we’ve gotten into a habit of overly concretizing and simplifying the ideas for the sake of brevity and accessibility. This in part may be due to the lack of clear instruction from Jung himself. Rather than provide practical how-to guides, he offers us a framing by which we can begin to understand the nature of the psyche.
So we are able to read his ideas about the unconscious and the shadow. We see how he tracks these phenomena through the personal and collective spheres. How it is present in works of alchemy, mythology and dreams. We are given examples from his own clinical practice. We have a theoretical framework, but it begs the question —How can I actually integrate my shadow?
I shared the quote above from von Franz to highlight a few points:
The shadow is much more than the hidden or repressed parts of ourself that have yet to be integrated into consciousness. The entirety of the unconscious is itself shadow. The archetypes, our psychological instincts, are, at their core, inaccessible and unknowable. The images of our dreams are constructed in the underworld of psyche. Our emotions and beliefs are influenced by parts of ourself that we cannot seem to access.
This means that we must tread carefully. We may be unable to see the voracious energy of an archetype constellated in our life. We have a blindspot when it comes to accessing our dreams. We are likely to reject any assertion that we have projected something unowned in ourselves onto another. Our shadow is dancing behind us constantly, evading capture.
Thus, we must resist the desire to make a system out of this work. It is deeply nuanced and manifests uniquely for each person. What works for one individual may not for another. What is constellated in your life may never be constellated in another’s.
And yet, I find this question (that of how to integrate the shadow) an important and challenging one. To make this work real, we need some form of structure. So rather than offer, “10 steps to integrate your shadow!”, I offer this instead.
Four guiding principles by which to approach and work with the unconscious.
Confront the Shadow
“It is a therapeutic necessity, indeed, the first requisite of any thorough psychological method, for consciousness to confront its shadow.”
- C.G. Jung, “Rex and Regina” CW 14
After a long period of unconsciousness, the confrontation heralds the promise of change. It often comes in a simple form: awareness of the shadows presence. We begin to notice our repetitive patterns and the compulsions we can not seem to break. We have an inkling that something is not quite right, that our attention is being called to someplace that is hard to grasp. We may notice how our conscious will becomes hijacked by something more powerful.
Parts deep within the psyche begin to break through. And possibly, for the first time, we are able to catch a glimpse of the shadow. At this stage, we are often woefully unprepared to handle working with the unconscious material. Rather than springing into action, we can focus on naming and being present with the experience. Mere acknowledgement is the first small step in gaining a steady foothold.
To locate shadow in your life: Look to behavioral patterns, somatic dysregulation, restrictive narratives, compulsive actions, etc that seem to undermine and overwhelm you.
Ask those you trust: Where do I seem to struggle most? What is something that you have observed about me that I am struggling to overcome?
Build A Strong Container
“The ego is threatened by the shadow's autonomy on the one hand, and the largeness of its threat to one's self-image on the other.”
- James Hollis, “The Eden Project”
The shadow rings against our senses with dissonance as we become aware of it. We instinctually fear being swept away by its presence. The urge to run away or hide floods the nervous system. The task at hand may appear to be too great. This is a critical moment. If we can somehow, someway, stand the tension, a shift can take place.
This is where we begin to build a strong container for the work. What was once intolerable becomes less so, if even just for a moment. As we are being gripped by the shadow, we might say to ourselves “Ah, it is happening again.” We begin to take note of the various aspects that indicate its presence: emotional outbursts, a rising heartbeat, racing thoughts, shallow breathing, withdrawal, etc.
This is an expansion of consciousness. It allows our grip on habitual patterns and reactions to slowly ease. We feel held within a new sense of being. One that has the resources for such an undertaking.
What appears to stop the work in its tracks? Where is the impasse? Take note of what surrounds these moments (emotions, sensations, thoughts, behaviors).
What might you need to meet this challenge?
This work is rarely done alone. To be seen, accompanied and supported in a secure dyad helps us with containment.
Check out my posts on strengthening the ego and constructing the vessel for more.
Dialogue with the Shadow
“The unconscious contents want first of all to be seen clearly, which can only be done by giving them shape, and to be judged only when everything they have to say is tangibly present.”
- C.G. Jung, “The Transcendent Function” CW 8
As we hold the tension for longer and longer periods, a new landscape emerges. We are able to meet our shadow in ways we never could before. Behind the threatening force is a story to be told. A point of view that wants to be shared. Emotions long unacknowledged.
The dialectic established between conscious and unconscious produces a wealth of material to explore. This part is not without its challenges. Resistances continue to come up. However, when the container is strong enough to withstand this pressure, you can pierce more deeply into the core. Why does this part of me resist? What is it protecting me from? What are its needs?
Discovering the answer to these questions does not solve the issue immediately. But it creates an understanding. Rather than feelings of frustration, we can surround that part with compassion and gratefulness. For it has done its best to protect the delicate psyche as best it could.
An intellectual approach only takes us so far. Find methods that allow you to go further into the unconscious. Image, symbol and imaginal work is helpful here (dreamwork, active imagination, parts work dialogue, tarot, etc).
Learn to read the messages from the body. This is another form of communication. Honor when the body is telling you to slow down. Find rhythm in your breathing. Shifts in the nervous system reflect the emotional/mental states we are in.
Assimilate the Shadow
“A life truly lived constantly burns away veils of illusion, burns away what is no longer relevant, gradually reveals our essence, until, at last, we are strong enough to stand in our naked truth.”
- Marion Woodman, “Coming Home to Myself”
When the shadow has space to be present, it begins to take new shape. Ways of relating to it become possible as it edges further into the light of consciousness. It is no longer charged with the emotions that kept it locked away. Now we can place it within the story of our life.
Resolution is found through a rising change that flows from the unconscious. We may notice the evolution happening within our dreams (with the transformation of recurring images). Or a wellspring of energy that has opened up and fills life with vitality. An inner steadiness that has the strength to endure, come what may.
Maintaining the relationship between conscious and unconscious contents allows us to keep walking this path of individuation. It never truly ends. We meander along a spiraling road that unveils new challenges, or new iterations of old wounds. With each step we gain greater self-awareness, a feeling of wholeness, an inner peace.
Resources for deeper exploration
- ( and I and hosted various experts in the field to discuss the nature of the shadow. Guests include James Hollis, Lisa Marchiano, Michael Meade and more).
Introduction to the shadow - Golden Shadow podcast
To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This is great, I’m impressed, well written!
Thank you for the insight Alizza❤️