by Alyce Barry –
“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 criticized 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.
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.
One of the difficulties in discussing the social unconscious is that it can sound like over-generalizing or even stereotyping. Not all Americans have their sexuality in shadow, but many do, in my judgment, and any social shadow can have a big impact on the culture.
I’m fourth-generation Irish, and at this time every year I become aware of the Irish cultural shadow sometimes called “melancholy,” which is so evident in Irish music. For many people it provides a traditional excuse to drink a lot on St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve wondered if the melancholy stems, at least in part, from the great potato famine of the 1800s that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The melancholy might be expressing an unmet need to mourn for those who died, by those who had to carry on in order to survive, passed down through the generations.
CULTURE ON A SMALLER SCALE
A group of any size can have a shadow. If you’ve ever been part of an organization 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.”
HOW THE CULTURAL SHADOW APPEARS
The social unconscious sometimes shows up as a part of the self in Shadow Work. For example, I grew up in a church with an all-male clergy. As an adult, when I wanted to explore spiritual leadership, I found I had an inner tape that said, “You can’t be a spiritual leader because you’re female.” To the best of my knowledge, I’d never heard that spoken openly by anyone I knew, but I “heard” it nonetheless, from the church, most likely through its teachings and general attitudes.
I would even go so far as to say that doing emotional work is in shadow for our culture as a whole. Members of my parents’ generation believed that emotional work was indicated only for those with serious mental health problems, and many people still believe that. The mainstream view seems to support taking prescription drugs to alter behavior, rather than addressing the source of that behavior within the mind.
Many of us who do Shadow Work see our emotional work as a life path that makes us happier people who are more connected with ourselves and our loved ones, in more control of our lives and more at peace, and more able to achieve our personal goals.
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.
Just as the social unconscious consists of traits that are in shadow for a group or culture, the collective unconscious consists of the traits that are in shadow for all human beings.
What does that mean? Most of us in Shadow Work would say that most of us have most shadows, at different degrees of intensity. We’ve noticed that when one person is working their issue in a group, most the people witnessing it say afterward that they recognized that same issue in themselves.
Thus, one way to describe the collective shadow for all humans is as the shadows that we all share. For me to believe that we don’t all share them would suggest that a person exists who has no shadow. This person never suffered a loss of self-esteem, carries no grief for a lost loved one, is in complete control at all times, and has accomplished every personal goal. If there is someone like that, I’d love to meet him or her! But my own personal belief is that no one like that exists because having shadow, and healing it, is part of our purpose in life.
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.
To say that that trait, or any other trait, is in the collective unconscious means that all humans have equal access to it. It won’t matter, in other words, how you’re educated or where you’re born. You’ll have the ability, or at least the ability to learn, to read another person’s thoughts.
That’s because the collective is really a source for everything humans can be. It ensures that every human being has access to Sovereign energy for acceptance and motivation, to Magician for learning and intuition, to Lover energy for connection and feeling, and to Warrior energy for accomplishment and boundaries.
Any one of us can send our roots down far enough to tap into the nourishment of that underground pool. When we do, we get something new we never had before. In fact, we get something new that no one ever had before. Because even if I experience the same archetypal energies you do, I’m having a unique experience of them because I’m a unique individual, with unique life experience, body, genetics, and so on.
HOW THE COLLECTIVE SHOWS UP IN SHADOW WORK GROUPS…
The collective unconscious manifests itself in Shadow Work in numerous ways.
For participants in a group seminar, active visualizations are part of the container-building exercises. A visualization is, in essence, a chance to step into the energy of an archetype, to feel on a body level the untapped potential that’s available to us in the collective unconscious. I have always found the visualizations quite thrilling and an indispensable part of the group weekend experience.
In many of the processes a participant can do in the center of the group, an archetypal energy shows up. In a Tombstone process, for example, let’s say a man is grieving a father who was never able to tell him “I love you.” When the man switches places with his father and plays the role of the father, he might tap into the archetypal father in all of us and be able to send a genuinely loving message that his real father never could.
Similarly, if a woman wants to be more in touch with her spirituality, we might find that she’s been under the sway of a “false god” who is judging her rather than loving her unconditionally. Once she finds out whose voice the false god is speaking with — usually the voice of a loved one, such as a mother or father — she can choose to hear from the real god, who can bestow unconditional love on her instead of judgment. In doing so, she’s opening a doorway to the archetypal Sovereign in all of us, the part of us that hears from the Divine.
No matter what kind of work a participant is doing in the center of the group, the archetypal energy they’re working to reclaim nearly always shows up in the group members witnessing from the sidelines. During a Lover process, for example, it’s common for other group members to become aware of their own deep love for the people in their lives. During a Sovereign process, those witnessing often become very aware of the compassion their own Sovereigns are feeling toward others. When someone’s doing Warrior work, group members may quite naturally get into the spirit and feel the strength of their own Warriors as they cheer the person on. And when a person does predator work, we encourage other group members to show us when they’re feeling that energy in themselves by slapping their legs. That feeling of sharing energy in the room is one of my favorite experiences in a Shadow Work group.
…AND IN THE COACHING CONTAINER
In Shadow Work coaching — our word for Shadow Work one-on-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 re-animates that part of her.
I can say from my own experience of stepping into parts of myself that it feels like a lid has been taken off a box that’s been closed for many years. It’s very energizing and has a remarkable impact on my life almost immediately.
For myself as a facilitator and coach, the collective unconscious also serves as a kind of backup when I’m not sure how to respond in a certain situation. I picture myself opening a doorway in my mind, through which I send a request for guidance to the collective unconscious, which is my connection to the Divine, through the archetypes that are faces of the Divine.
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.
Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, available in paperback and on audio CD and as an e-book.
This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in March 2006.