For artists, there is no more transformative process than owning up to those parts of ourselves we deny. We grow when we admit to our darkness, go into it, and explore it. Paradoxically, we find our light by embracing our shadows.
What is the shadow?
According to Merriam Webster, it is:
1: the dark figure cast upon a surface by a body intercepting the rays from a source of light;
2: partial darkness or obscurity within a part of space from which rays from a source of light are cut off by an interposed opaque body;
3: an attenuated form or a vestigial remnant;
4: an inseparable companion or follower.
These are all good answers, of course, since each one describes at least one aspect of what we typically term a shadow.
However, as imagined by Carl Jung, our shadows are all of the above — and more.
Jung conceived of our shadows as the uninvestigated portions of our psyches that we perpetually carry within us.
Everything we fear, despise, or deny about ourselves — those aspects of our personality that feel are the heaviest, most shameful, and therefore that trouble us most — go into our shadows.
If it helps (and likely it will), think of yourself — and all human beings — as if we were icebergs.
What becomes visible on the surface (in what I call the exterior, or shared world) accounts for only a tiny portion of the structure’s overall mass.
The real bulk of ice bergs and human beings is always hidden beneath the surface.
And, as any sailor can tell you, it is the mass beneath that passing ships must fear.
For the mass beneath can cause the most damage. And often when you least expect it.
How Do Our Shadows Develop?
The poet Robert Bly explains it like this:
“When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy … but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: ‘Can’t you be still?’ or ‘It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.’ Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: ‘Good children don’t get angry over such little things.’ So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota, we were known as ‘the nice Bly boys.’ Our bags were already a mile long.”
I think of this bag Bly mentions as a dark sack fashioned with stitches of shame.
Into its suffocating depths we jam all the wild, creative parts of ourselves.
Everything we are told society cannot abide goes into our shadow. Spontaneity. Sexuality. Anger. Sometimes genius.
To better conform to gender roles, men stuff their inner feminine into the bag. Women do the same with their interior male.
The truth and clear-seeing go into the bag.
Very often, our unique vision of the world gets shoved into the darkness head first, along with countless powers, both developed and undeveloped, that source themselves from this vision.
Bereft of such powers, we end up abandoning possible futures for ourselves.
We become, in essence, like everyone else, content to follow the herd.
There’s nothing wrong with herds, of course. Herds in every species developed to provide the greatest degree of protection from predators and immunity from disease.
But, just as with everything else in life, something tends to get lost whenever we veer to far in a given direction.
The more we struggle to stay in the light, the more we forget that our shadow exists.
As we’ll see — and though it may seem contra-logical — we find our light by embracing our shadows.
The Relationship Between Shadow and Light
Quite often, our shadows bear an inverse relationship to the light that most people see in us.
In a general sense, the rule is this: the greater our apparent light, the deeper and darker our shadows.
Think back to the article I wrote on the masks we wear in society — and how these masks often cripple our creativity.
Our masks tend to display an inverse relationship to our shadows.
For instance, those who wear an intensely positive mask may be storing massive negativity in their shadows.
Whereas those who project great wisdom and depth are often naive and shallow.
A person who projects wanton sexuality may in fact feel enormously unattractive. Like Marilyn Monroe.
Meanwhile, those who relentlessly pursue and aggrandize wealth may feel very poor and unworthy inside regardless of how much money they have. Think Donald Trump.
Most people develop a lifelong habit of shoving our unwanted aspects into our shadow sacks without pausing to examine them.
We deny or repress these aspects hoping they’ll just go away. But of course they don’t.
So our shadows stretch long behind us — writhing, expanding, and gaining in power.
Oddly, the larger they grow, the more we ignore them. This is folly.
Fear, pain, and shame are living things. We can’t just shove them inside a sack and hope that, deprived of food, air, and light, they’ll curl into diffident balls and die.
What happens when you try to hold a beach ball under the water? The more you push down, the more the ball pops back up and breaks the surface.
In the same manner, the more we repress our shadows, the more power we grant them to obstruct our day-to-day lives.
Given enough repression and the right sort of triggering circumstance, it’s common for our shadows to burst forth in wild, uncomfortable intervals — to assert themselves in ways that strike us as self-destructive and baffling.
The Shadow as an Instrument of Self-Sabotage
The ancient Greeks called this phenomenon of self-destruction akrasia, a state where we lack self-control and unconsciously act against our own best interests.
Many artists experience or have experienced a tendency to self-sabotage.
You know how this looks:
Blowing the audition for a role or position you’re perfect for.
Telling a company director you think her ideas are stupid.
Overworking a painting, drawing, or poem.
Disparaging the song you’ve just written. The website you’re building. Your business.
Often, in moments of clarity, we stop and wonder, Why did I do that?
You didn’t do it. That was your shadow holding sway.
Our shadows don’t like being ignored. Since we weren’t paying much attention to them, they decided to inject itself into our lives.
If we continue to ignore our shadows, the “bad luck” continues and builds on itself.
I call this cycle the akratic pile-on. It functions like this:
The first time we experience an akratic episode, it can be mild. Perhaps we feel our shadow’s presence as a mere tap on the shoulder.
“Hey,” our shadow is telling us. “Yes, you. Ahet-hem. Over here? Yes, hi. Listen. I’m a part of you, okay? And I have needs that aren’t being met so I’m warning you: that’s got to stop.”
We ignore such signals at our own peril. Because, instead of simply relenting, the shadow intensifies its campaign.
The second assertion our shadow makes won’t be a tap on the shoulder. More like a slap in the face.
“Yo!” our shadow is saying. “Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough before. I’m serious. We’ve got things to discuss.”
At this point, hopefully, we are wise enough to stop what we’re doing and investigate what our shadows are trying to say. If we don’t, their third intervention often hits us like a 2×4 to the back of the head.
The dynamic here is simple: the more we deny our baser urges, the more powerful they tend to become, the more apt we are to fall prey to them.
Robert Bly once wrote:
“Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.”
Jung himself once put it like this:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
This is why, as we’ll very soon see, we find our light by embracing our shadows.
The Power of Projection
When we disavow parts of our consciousness, we walk through life as half a person.
Worse, we often end up projecting the portions of ourselves we have’t investigated onto other people.
One of Jung’s foremost students, Erich Neumann, explained it like this:
“The shadow, which is in conflict with the acknowledged values, cannot be accepted as a negative part of one’s own psyche and is therefore projected — that is, it is transferred to the outside world and experienced as an outside object. It is combated, punished, and exterminated as ‘the alien out there’ instead of being dealt with as one’s own inner problem.”
From a practical standpoint, this means that whatever we don’t cop to regarding our own personality will materialize in our lives, often as an unsavory person or experience.
It works like this:
Have you ever been around someone whose gregariousness made you uncomfortable? That person isn’t the problem — it’s your feelings about gregariousness that are really causing the issue.
What about that Mr. or Ms. Know-it-All you despise — the bore whose every stentorian word you’ve literally come to dread? Likely your sensitivity toward intellectual arrogance points to a similar tendency in you.
Or suppose there’s someone you know who seems too outspoken. Too free. Too sexual maybe. Again, the problem isn’t this person.
If someone else’s attributes trigger strong feelings in you, it likely indicates that you’ve repressed these parts of yourself in your shadow.
With all this born in mind, we can see how our worst emotions and experiences are actually our best teachers.
You know that painter who always gets her pieces displayed in the local gallery? The one you tend to berate after downing a couple glasses of wine?
Rather than continuing to lambaste her, which only exhausts and embitters you, take a deep breath. Dig deep in yourself. Be honest.
What about this painter makes you uncomfortable with something in your own makeup?
Once you’ve figured that out, proceed to deal with her as you’d deal with yourself. Because, from a very valid perspective, she is you. She’s a projection of you.
The same, of course, goes for the actor who “stole” your part. Or the successful writer whose magazine articles always strike you as bland, slick, or haphazard.
It’s the same for your fellow entrepreneur whose “stupid business” took off for no good reason at all while yours is stuck in first gear.
Rather than casting aspersions, we can ask ourselves what hidden part of us is disturbed by the other’s behavior. And why. Then we can do the necessary inner work on ourselves and course-correct.
Remember the words that Plutarch left us:
“What we achieve inwardly will change our outer reality.”
We can learn about ourselves by looking at others because we are all each other’s mirrors.
We find our light by embracing our shadows.
The Case for Our National Shadow (and How to Dispel It)
Our shadows tend to project themselves most powerfully in our intimate relationships. But they also pop up in communities big and small.
Here again, Robert Bly offers an example:
“I lived for years near a small Minnesota farm town. Everyone in the town was expected to have the same objects in [their shadow] bag; a small Greek town clearly would have different objects in the bag. It’s as if the town, by collective psychic decision, puts certain energies into the bag, and tries to prevent anyone from getting them out.”
Very often, people’s notion of a “national character” is really a tacit agreement regarding which aspects of ourselves should be lauded, and which should be banished into our shadows.
Modern technology has exacerbated this dynamic.
These days, social media and partisan news services hold immense power to amplify and distort our cultural projections — often to hideous proportions.
The current false dichotomy between the so-called “left” and the “right” is a perfect example.
There is no left and there is no right.
There is only a bunch of human beings walking around with different value systems in a nation that’s trying to square itself with itself.
If we feed into this ongoing confusion by spouting opinions we haven’t examined, we cause as much damage as those we accuse of doing the exact same thing.
But remember this: no individual, no country, no culture is spotless, blameless, beyond reproach.
Sooner or later, each country must come to grips with its dark legacies of racism, classism, misogyny, and internal violence. That’s all part of its national shadow.
Only by diving into this darkness can we return holding the treasure of understanding that will light our way through the next century and beyond.
Again: we find our light by embracing our shadows.
Or, as Joseph Campbell once said:
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.
Shadow Work for Artists
As artists, we cannot allow ourselves to see anything but the truth.
We must practice constant vigilance against any perspective that isn’t our own — and constantly work to reveal to ourselves our own unsavory truths.
This may sound like so much self-hatred and masochism. It isn’t.
Deciding to explore and embrace our shadow is some of the most important work any artist — any human being — will ever do.
The more we acknowledge our individual darkness, the more we get to enjoy our own light.
Most people like to think of themselves as brilliant, insightful, intelligent, scrupulous, wise beyond our years.
But how many of us are willing to concede that, at least on occasion, we can be lowbrow, vapid, dull, insensitive, positively thoughtless?
The artist who doesn’t own up to these things is doomed to play them out unconsciously. As Mark Twain once wrote:
“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”
Or, to quote author and Zen teacher, Natalie Goldberg:
“When you bring the darkness to the table, it doesn’t rule you or hurt other people, but when we keep it secret, it’s dangerous.”
Any art we make that does not include darkness isn’t really art at all.
And again: the way to explore our darkness — to become familiar and conversant with it — to free ourselves from its crushing grip — is to plunge into its depths headfirst.
This is where Shadow Work comes in.
Shadow Work is a series of exercises for artists that train us to plumb the depths of our truest, most visceral feelings.
Shadow Work can bequeath many gifts.
For one thing:
All the energy we once spent shoving our personal demons down deep in our bags gets returned to us. We are then free to apply that energy consciously to new and expansive endeavors.
Once our demons are freed, they often function like genies, granting us wishes for taking the chance and rubbing the lamp.
But Shadow Work can be difficult.
It’s a slow, painstaking, and lifelong process of exploration.
Frankly, given the massive commitment it entails, any “sane” person might ask, “Why bother?”
The answer is shockingly simple.
If we, as artists, don’t work on our shadows, our shadows will work on us. Meaning they’ll block our work rather than feed it.
Carl Jung also wrote:
“To become conscious of [one’s shadow], involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”
Self-knowledge is essential for honesty.
And honesty is essential for art.
The Choice is Up to You
Without question, plumbing our darkness, exploring our shadows can be difficult work.
It takes courage.
But then we are artists. And courage defines us.
Courage is why we create.
Remember: we find our light by embracing our shadows.
Here’s hoping that all your endeavors bear fruit.
We Find Our Light by Embracing Our Shadows
Ongoing Shadow Work Seminars
Each week, I run evening Shadow Work Seminars that are limited to groups of five artists in 90 minute sections.
I leverage Zoom so that artists from around the world can participate.
No experience with Shadow Work is required. Anyone who considers themselves an artists is encouraged to participate.
The cost for each session is nominal.
The returns on your commitment are immense.
If you’re interested in joining one of these sections, please email me at mail (at) damondimarco.com