Understanding the different levels of shadow

The term "shadow" was first used by Carl G. Jung to describe the repressed or denied part of the Self.

"Shadow" can be a difficult concept to understand.

Shadow Work facilitators and coaches often describe Shadow as the parts of the self that have been disowned, denied or repressed. In other words, the parts of ourselves we are afraid to show to the world. By "parts of the self," I mean traits and feelings. So, for example, if as a child I was criticised for feeling good about myself, or punished for feeling angry, my self-esteem or my anger went into shadow. However, if Carl Jung — the man who first used the term "Shadow" to mean the unconscious part of the personality — were listening to me, he would likely point out that I'm leaving out several levels of the unconscious mind.

Jung would call my hidden anger or self-esteem my "personal unconscious" — that part of my shadow that's personal to me because it's the result of something that happened to me. He might then point out that there are two other levels to the unconscious as well: the social and the collective.
In Shadow Work, we regularly work with the social and collective unconscious. They're somewhat more difficult to explain, and that's one reason we often leave them out of our explanation.

By Alyce Barry - Author of Practically Shameless

the social unconscious

I like to describe the social unconscious as traits that are in shadow for a particular group of people, or for an entire culture. For example, many of us in Shadow Work believe that sexuality is in shadow to a significant degree in American culture. Nearly 30 years ago, a college professor of mine, who was from Switzerland, told the class that his teenage daughter could get on a subway train in Switzerland wearing her bathing suit and think nothing of it. If she did the same thing on an American subway, he noted, she would most likely get stares, inappropriate comments, or worse. Judging by the Super Bowl incident a few years ago, when there was huge outcry and unprecedented fines for the networks when singer Janet Jackson accidentally exposed one of her breasts on television, not much has changed in 30 years. I often contrast this with the lack of outcry when CNN broadcast the bombing of Baghdad in 2003, in which an unknown number of Iraqi civilians were killed.

culture on a smaller scale

A group of any size can have a shadow. If you've ever been part of an organisation or company that always seems to have trouble in a particular area, you've probably seen the a social shadow in action. In a corporate accounting scandal, for example, the company's executives appear to have honesty, integrity and responsibility in shadow. An individual in the group who doesn't share the group shadow sometimes becomes a "whistle-blower" and names the shadow to the outside world.

A family is one kind of group that often has shadows of its own. The shadows may consist of what family members are not allowed to name, or to be. For example, in some families no one is permitted to speak of some painful event in the past, and grieving goes into shadow. Another example is a family in which the children learn they mustn't become artists or musicians because such careers "aren't practical".

the collective unconscious

The collective unconscious, or collective shadow, is usually the most difficult to describe in words. It's the realm that the archetypes inhabit, which is to say that it's a realm of spiritual possibilities captured in symbols and images.

Perhaps for that reason, I find it easier to picture the collective in images than to describe it in words. One image I have is of a deep pool in a subterranean cavern far beneath the surface of the earth.

the collective unconscious

The collective unconscious consists of more than our collective shadow, however. It contains all the traits of which human beings aren't yet capable. If you enjoy science fiction, as I do, then imagine that one day hundreds or thousands of years from now, humans will be able to read each other's thoughts without speaking. If that is on our path, then right now that ability is in shadow for humans.


The collective unconscious manifests itself in Shadow Work in numerous ways.

For participants in a group seminar, active visualisations are part of the container-building exercises. A visualisation is, in essence, a chance to step into the energy of an archetype, to feel on a bodily level the untapped potential that's available to us in the collective unconscious. I have always found the visualisations quite thrilling and an indispensable part of the group weekend experience.


In Shadow Work coaching — our word for Shadow Work one-to-one — it often happens that the person getting coached wants to hear from a part of themselves that's been hidden for many years. For example, if I'm coaching a woman who as a little girl wanted to be an artist but was dissuaded from pursuing art courses in college, she might want to explore what her artist personality is like. She can step into the role of her inner artist, where I can interview her and hear it speak about what it can offer to her in her life today. My sense of what happens is that the archetypal artist that dwells in the collective unconscious, and is therefore available to all of us, opens to her and reanimates that part of her.


For me, the multiple levels of the unconscious supply the most satisfactory answer to the question, Can I become shadow-free? The answer I get is, "No, and I wouldn't want to." Because Shadow consists of far more than the hurt I've taken from life experiences. It contains the potential for all that I have not yet achieved, and even the potential for all that the human race has not yet achieved. I hope to have "shadow" coming through, for me to transform, for the rest of my life.

By Cliff Barry co-founder of Shadow Work Seminars

Links to further reading

There has been a lot written about working with the Shadow, and about Shadow Work in General

Regarding working with the Shadow

Here is a link to Robert A. Johnson's excellent book, Owning your own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Shadow.
We love Robert Bly's Little Book of the Human Shadow
Excellent article by Debbie Ford on the Shadow Beyond The Blue Snow: Finding the Gift of the Shadow
Befriending the Shadow, an article by David Richo
 An article called Me and My Shadow by Sally Kempton 





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