The Dark Side of the Shadow-Chasers

Addressing the Bullshit in Shadow Work


"It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster's body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature."

[C G Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious; 1912]


What is the Shadow?

That, first and foremost, is the question. So best I start with a definition from the horse's mouth:

The Shadow is a term first used by psychotherapist and psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung to describe everything that we believe and say that we are not.

The Shadow represents those parts of us that lie outside our awareness.

The Shadow is what we disown in ourselves. Its presence is implied when we say:

  • "That's not me at all."
  • "I don't do that."
  • "Nope. I am not that."

All well and good.

Except that the term has been so widely and profoundly misunderstood that it has not only obfuscated the original definition of Shadow; the hoopla and spin are drawing those who are spending their time, their money, their energy (sometimes their psychological well-being) on what they believe to be depth work into encounters that are either superficial or misleading, or damaging.

Maybe if the term "Shadow" were defined correctly when used in the coaching and self-help fields, then people could approach a lot of what's out there equipped with more knowledge and discernment. Including various other practices that claim to be "Shadow work."

Because, clearly, many are not.

And this is where the problems start to creep in. Because if you follow the thread of the real definition of Shadow to its logical, experience-based conclusion, then the concepts of Shadow and Shadow work aren't quite as enticing as the slick marketing campaigns and self-improvement coaches and courses and workshops would have you think they are.

Not particularly sparkly. Definitely not seductive.

In fact, real Shadow work is a downright party pooper in those celebratory gatherings and workshops and retreats that tell you to shimmy your fullest self into the room. Your full, sexy, animal, growling, yowling, snarling, prowling self. Oh yes. There you are, you beast! Yes, you. Look at you! So uninhibited, you naughty daredevil. Look at everyone looking at you letting loose.



But it's not the Shadow.

And, no, you haven't been doing Shadow work. What you have been doing is this:

  • "I wouldn't dare call myself that."
  • "You want me to name some of my bad points? Well, I hate it when I do x, y, and z."
  • "I'd love to do x, y, or z, but what would my neighbours/friends/family think?"

All of these may be things you are reluctant to embrace -- but they are conscious because you know them enough to acknowledge them, or to lie about them.

None of these is Shadow. Because the Shadow is the unknown. So unknown that you have no idea at all that it exists. It is Other.

Shadow shows up as the prickly, constricting freeze of realisation of a presence that is alien.

It is the spoken slip that you stumble on as it tumbles out your mouth or on to the screen.

It is the moment when things turn weird, and just-not-right: the whoosh of what-the-FUCK?! that slaps you upside the head and puts you -- face burning, stripped, naked -- at the centre of attention.

The Shadow is the unexpected meeting and understanding that what you knew wasn't you -- is you after all.

It is what you hated about your father.

What you heard from your mother and told yourself you'd never say. Except you just said it.

The violence that comes to a pacifist. The abused becoming abuser.

The racism that slips from the mouth of the quietest man. The rage that spills into the fists of a woman who never knew how to say, "No."

The standing back at the work of art you just created -- words, pictures, sounds, an unconsciously scrawled YAWP! -- and saying to yourself, "Did I just do that? Where the fuck did that come from?"

The Shadow could feel ugly and abhorrent, it could feel beautiful and too good for you.

Either way, it holds a tremendous amount of psychic energy, and it's this energy that is the propellant for its emergence. When it surfaces, it may feel like an expansive revelation; it may be an eruption that is contained (by a therapeutic practice, for example, or skilled awareness); or it may be a pyroclastic blast into consciousness.

But plunging into territory or behaviours that have felt forbidden or off-limits for some reason is neither Shadow nor Shadow work.

At its best, it is an enriching experience that may hold a Shadow element.

At its worst, it is displacement, acting out, or a flight into health, which can result in re-traumatization in an environment that is not equipped either to recognise true Shadow when it emerges, or to deal with it.

Or it is both.

There's an article doing the rounds in social media about getting dirty with your Shadow -- meeting it up-close-and-personal. It has been widely shared; the idea has some serious traction. It's a pretty rock-star kind of an article, which turns the sparkly bad-ass factor up quite a few notches.

Now, take that idea a step further, and maybe there's a workshop that gets advertised along the same lines -- perhaps a one- or two-day experience designed to get you rubbing up with your dark side. It might be advertised as dangerous, sexy, naughty. "Shadow" may even be part of the by-line.

So you sign up, turn up, whip up the darkness into a frenzy, and play.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

It may well be tremendous fun -- and that can be valuable.

But it's not Shadow work, and that isn't Shadow.

It is a simulacrum -- a straw man -- that looks like the real thing, talks like the real thing, but is simply a fake plastic replica of Shadow.

And that is what the Ego does. It does it beautifully, and slickly (far slicker than any marketing campaign), and for a very good reason:

It throws up diversions that look so convincing that you think that they're "it". And it does it so that you don't have to contend with the reality of what Shadow work really is. And maybe you shouldn't, and maybe you're not ready. (And that isn't a throwing down of a gauntlet; readiness comes when it comes.)

Because Shadow work is hard, awkward, and confusing, and the rewards don't come in the form of recognition or accolades. The rewards are entirely personal, and of little direct relevance to anyone else.

There is no promise of being more popular, more attractive, more sexy.

There is only the promise of being more you.

And until you can appreciate the value of being more you -- which can sometimes make you less popular, less attractive, less sexy to a whole lot more people -- then the Shadow will remain something that needs to be jazzed up, jizzed up, and marketed with glitter and allure.

This acting out masquerading as Shadow work consequently interferes with and delays the process of the true integration of the Shadow. It also frequently traumatises in the process -- and that trauma can be subtle or gross, and can remain hidden for as long as the Ego's bypassing tactics remain effective. (And again, for good reason: to protect against reliving an already-relived wounding.)

Then there are those events where "Shadow" is never mentioned. Those courses and experiences that have nothing obviously to do with Shadow but which work at the threshold of comfort or safety and which are intended to take participants into areas they are not familiar with.

Fair enough.

But are the facilitators aware of, and able to work with and manage, Shadow when it emerges?

Is Shadow as an active concept factored in?

Do they even know what to look for?

And are participants held and supported not only in experiences designed to destabilise the status quo -- fertile ground for the emergence of Shadow -- but offered support beyond it?

Rarely, in my experience, is Shadow either acknowledged or allowed for and integrated into such encounters by trainers and facilitators. Rarer still is it addressed directly. Instead, it is acted out.

Participants leave feeling the elation that is common to those who have come together for a focussed and intense experience. It's an elation that can last for quite some time -- days, months, even.

It is only when that elation wears off and the acting out no longer holds weight (because the elation itself may be the very means by which Shadow is avoided) that the impact of their experience makes itself known, and they wonder why life feels volatile and without centre, why things are falling apart, and why there seems to be no reliable, safe haven in sight.

An unexplained and un-contained experience -- an experience that is not made sense of through objective, skilled support -- can create internal chaos. And it is usually the individual, by now separated from the originating experience, who has to make sense of it themselves.

These participants rarely give feedback, either because they don't connect their current state with what happened back then, or they feel that what they're experiencing is somehow wrong, or the cognitive dissonance between how they're feeling and how they think they're supposed to be feeling is too great.

So the courses and sessions remain unchanged, and avoid accountability and responsibility for the consequences that they set in motion.

Having written all of this, I must emphasise one thing -- particularly in an article with such an inflammatory sub-title:

Not all Shadow work is bullshit.

I have been fortunate enough to know and work with facilitators, coaches, therapists, and organisations where Shadow was both integral to the experience and allowed for and supported -- including after each encounter had ended.

And what they all had in common was this:

  1. A clearly stated understanding that Shadow work is challenging, complex, humbling, confusing, painful, and long-term. Because Shadow work never ends: it is a lifetime process, and even then it will remain incomplete.
  1. A considered, patient, thorough, and rigorous approach to the work, which is not so much designed to lever Shadow out from hiding, as to recognise it when it is present and to give it a place.

Shadow is always present.

Shadow doesn't need cajoling or seducing. It doesn't care if you're naughty or nice.

We can work with it through commitment, a certain kind of stubbornness to re-commit again and again no matter what, and a surrender to the stripping away of what no longer matters -- and that kind of stripping can be as far from sexy as you can imagine. And that doesn't matter either.

By all means, find those places where the darkness is commoditised and sold as some kind of black diamond. By all means believe that you're doing real Shadow work.

But one day, when Shadow really calls, perhaps you'll turn to find that stranger there, looking at you.

And hopefully you'll have the right support present to accompany you in the experience.

And maybe this time you won't look away.

Maybe this time you will be able to look back at it without needing to scream, run, writhe, consume, shimmy, or fuck your way out of its presence.

And you'll know this: It wasn't remotely what you were expecting.

The Dark Side of the Shadow Chasers: Addressing the Bullshit in Shadow Work


  1. Lee on 29 September 2016 at 9:18 pm

    LOVE LOVE LOVE. Wonderfully written, especially for a layperson like me not familiar with Jung, et al. Can’t wait to read more!

    • Integrated Tarot on 30 September 2016 at 10:30 am

      Thank you so much, Lee – More is definitely on the cards! 🙂

  2. Jim on 29 September 2016 at 11:36 pm

    Sarah, I have been consciously doing what i consider shadow work which is that i am consciously confronting my programmed emotional states by reaching into deep memories of inner child’s dramas which seem to me to really be unresolved trauma. I find myself at the moment in some early stage of consciousness realizing my complete alone-ness my complete helplessness and maybe a sense of loss so deep i cant fathom it. It hurts so badly there I find myself avoiding it subconsciously. When i force myself into focusing into its deeply disturbing emotions I find myself with only the emotion but no words or thoughts – just loss. I give understanding to this emotion and consciously chose to accept it. I feel like i am loving something inside myself back to life and it feels good to me when I can do this. This seems to me to be a beneficial path as I have released some serious baggage along the way however you raise some serious questions for me. Like i have no idea how to release something as severe as the darkness of the human soul that has manifest throughout history nor do i want to play around with it. If that is the beast i must somehow confront i have no idea what to think.

    I have this one vivid memory of a drunken experience where i was just this uncaring anger. I did not have any sense of higher-self and my mind was just robotic. I was just so angry and i had no concern as to why. Whatever i felt was all there was and I had no concern for myself or others. I had desire to destroy. Anything was possible because my only concern was shock and awe; i wanted to cause harm because i felt so much pain. My vivid memory of this episode is why I no-longer drink.

    What i have understood about this is that it was my reptilian brain – and whatever it was – there was no humanity in it. I acknowledge that it is part of my mental make-up but i have no idea how anything i do with it could benefit my higher mind. What is there to do with something so self centered and self hating?

    • Integrated Tarot on 30 September 2016 at 10:28 am

      Really good question, Jim. Perhaps there is nothing to ‘do’ with it so much as to be able to acknowledge that it exists and that it is both powerful and active – and this is a step by step, and long-term process that has little to do with the conscious mind as much as it is to do with, as you say, being with those unbearable feelings.

      This is why therapy can be so effective: at its best, it allows us to be in an environment where part of us feels safe enough, and accepted enough, that those unbearable feelings and their underlying impulses come out. This is why Shadow work is both important and can also be traumatising when it isn’t contained or handled with a considerable amount of skill and compassion.

      Sometimes, it is not those reptilian, murderous, hateful, selfish impulses that are in themselves transformed; but in accepting them, there can be a phenomenal release of libidinal energy, which was being devoted to holding them in check and protecting the conscious mind from their presence. This libidinal energy can then be put to more productive use elsewhere, and you can see this in many great works of art, which includes a life lived with more self-forgiveness, inclusiveness, and purpose.

  3. Jay on 4 October 2016 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you for publishing this piece and the transparancy one a couple of weeks ago, this is valuable work you’re sharing. The “shadow” is very relevant to me as I’ve experienced an explosion recently and some shock at the words coming out of my mouth, I consider them valuable tho as for me, they provide some clues, which I will explore in my next session.
    Above all I write this as an expedition of appreciation for what you’re sharing. Many thanks

    • Integrated Tarot on 4 October 2016 at 1:30 pm

      I am touched by your words, Jay, and very glad that you found something in them that was helpful in perhaps contextualising what can be a very disorientating and confounding process at times.

      I’ll be posting more articles on this and similar subjects, and if there’s anything in particular you’d like to read, then please feel free to contact me and let me know – and if I feel I can write about it, I will.

      ~ Sarah

  4. Kay on 6 October 2016 at 5:40 pm

    OMG, amazing post! Thank you so much for “shedding light” on this sometimes confusing topic. Thank you Jim for posting your comment. That’s exactly what I felt. It’s like, now that I know this is a part of me, what do I do with it?! The response was extremely helpful. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

    • Integrated Tarot on 7 October 2016 at 12:56 pm

      You’re welcome, Kay – and thank you for taking the time to comment.