“Behind us we have an invisible bag [...] We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed.”
- Robert Bly, The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us
Carl Jung coined the term shadow to metaphorically refer to that which we hide, repress and deny about ourselves. The part of us responsible for this task, Jung called the ego (Latin for “I”), which he expanded upon from Freud. Jung’s psychological framework is vast, so here I will focus primarily on these two terms – ego and shadow. Our ego is responsible for finding and maintaining acceptance in our relationships. We begin learning early in life that certain parts of our personality lead to rejection and disruption in our relationships. In turn, our ego unconsciously downplays and hides these parts from ourselves and others.
Of course, this is not entirely bad. At birth, we are a single unit of emotion, desire and need. Our development requires we learn when and how to communicate our experiences and instincts. Such development cultivates healthy relationships later with ourselves and others. However, when our emotions are met negatively with frustration, neglect or rage, our ego casts them into our shadow where we lose access to their vitality.
Like a quality assurance manager, our ego sorts desirable parts from undesirable parts; desirable parts stay present and accessible to us, and undesirable parts are cast into our shadow. Whether it is our sexuality, embodiment, anger, fear, need for community and love, if it was shamed or disregarded early in life, chances are it will fall into our shadow. Of course, what goes into the shadow does not disappear, it comes out in the form of projections onto others. Instead of healthy internal conflict, projections send us spiraling into unending, unresolvable external conflict. What we refuse to acknowledge in ourselves, we will cast onto our neighbor and war with it in them.
How do we retrieve these shadowed parts of our personality? How do we take back our shadow we’ve projected onto others? What can we do when so much of our humanity is sealed in the invisible bag?
This is seemingly an impasse. However, when we hit this point of opposition, we are ready for a confrontation between our ego and shadow. What is known readies for impact with what is unknown. The ego-shadow confrontation is terrifying, and if heavily resisted, can be violent. Our ego-self does not want to release control to the shadow it’s worked so hard to contain. However, this confrontation offers an unmistakable opportunity for the renewal and rebirth Jesus invites us into.
Ego-shadow confrontation requires a few components
Openness to exploring what lies in your shadow
Exploring our shadow requires a high degree of humility. Humility comes from the same root as hummus, meaning earth or ground, which is where we get the word human. In Genesis 2, Yahweh conceives humanity from the ground. Exploring our shadow requires movement toward the dirt, the ground of our humanity, so we may become human again. Many Christians have been taught defense tactics when confronted with the shadow. Assuming our shadow is the enemy, we may try praying it away, rebuking it in the name of Jesus or resisting it in hope it flees. These tactics may help for a moment and keep us from feeling overwhelmed, but true shadow work sits in the tension, and allows us to be open without being overwhelmed. It invites our shadowed “little children” to Jesus who is more concerned with healing and integration than purity.
Owning our shadow
Essentially, owning our shadow requires that we take back what we’ve projected onto other people or groups. Fortunately, projections offer a “mirror” to see what is in our shadow. This kind of inner work requires at least three simultaneous components, 1) a safe yet challenging container (space), 2) a guide and 3) community. Spiritual direction and therapy are common containers for shadow work because they offer at least the first two components. In these spaces the ego-shadow conflict can get hot enough to effect transformation. Like a pressure cooker, good spiritual direction and therapy provide the elements for something new to emerge. However, what individuals often cannot find is transformational community. Community offers us a panoramic reflection of ourselves—in community we are seen from multiple angles, which allows us to do our shadow-work and learn to love and accept ourselves and others more deeply.
Commitment to ongoing shadow-work
Shadow-work is intimate friendship, and requires commitment for the long-haul. Relationships are cyclical and can only sustain life through rhythmic seasons of gravity and levity, depth and elevation. Our shadow is terrifying to our ego, which prefers structure and orderliness. Our shadow contents may call us to live more integrated, which can disrupt our lives if they are ordered around a false ego. Shadow-work is a commitment to Christ insofar as we imagine Christ as the one who invites and welcomes our shadow.
Finally, shadow-work, like discipleship and spiritual formation, is a metaphor for the processes of healing, growth and transformation. Ultimately shadow-work is about learning to love and accept in ourselves what has been despised and rejected, so we can more deeply give and receive love from others.
Continue your shadow work by joining Michael for his 2 hour course this month Companioning Our Shadow: Emotions and Relationships. Space is limited, grab your spot today!
Michael is a spiritual director, shadow work facilitator, and writer. He is ordained in the Free Methodist Church, and holds a Doctor of Leadership from Portland Seminary. If you’d like to connect with Michael for spiritual direction or shadow work, visit Innerworkcommunity.org, or email him at [email protected]. You can also check out his Patheos.com column, Transgressive Spirituality: Life Through the Lens of Jungian Psychology. Be sure to check out his latest work and upcoming courses here.