Imagine this: a huge iceberg floats in a vast ocean. The tip of the iceberg gleams bluish-white and is clearly visible, presenting the same view to all onlookers. But the iceberg grows deeper -- and darker -- under the surface, a surface that will allow a glimpse of the berg as it widens and thickens and extends downward through the watery depths only if the sunlight strikes at just the right angle and if no floating debris obscures its underwater descent. We are much like this iceberg, with the largest part of ourselves actually laying far below the surface in a world that psychologists have long referred to as the unconscious.
After Sigmund Freud discovered this part of the psyche, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung continued the work and began to refer to the contents of this mysterious inner landscape as the shadow. However you choose to refer to it, the exploration and uncovering of this part of the self is a requisite part of the journey toward living a life that is both conscious and insightful.
One of the things people often tend to forget on the initial stage of this journey is that the nature of the shadow is that it IS in the dark -- the "shadow" is the part or parts of ourselves that we can't see, that we are unaquainted with. Of course, there are levels of opaqueness to the shadow and some of our previously hidden parts may well have surfaced by now. Or perhaps these hidden aspects of ourselves have broken through to our conscious awareness often enough for us to be a little bit familiar with them.
Another thing that is often assumed is that the shadow part of ourself is bad or negative. This is not at all true. The “darkness” of the unconscious only means that the light of awareness has not been shone in these corners yet. What lies in theses corners can be anything. We may have a shadow part that is a talented singer but the conditions of our life never allowed her to be recognized and cultivated and nurtured and matured. As we live our daily life, we find ourselves drawn to music and singing in a variety of ways but the shadow singer never fully emerges.
In the example above you see that I have personified the hidden talent and referred to it a “her.” This is not only a very fun way to look at the contents of the shadow but one that is actually quite psychologically correct and intuitively known by most people. How often have you heard someone say, “Well, there is a part of me that really wants to...." or....."there's a part of me that is totally scared to......!” We all know that in our conscious, daily life we have different “parts” of ourselves that can almost seem like different people. Well, the unconscious or shadow is the same, but even more so! Therapists will often work with these parts of the hidden psyche as if they are different characters in a play -- the play of “You”!
One of the best ways to see what lies within your own shadow is by looking at the characters in your night time dreams and daytime fantasies. Think about it. These images come from your inner world -- how could that be if there were absolutely no connection between you and them? It is important to remember that this connection is not necessarily direct or causal. If you dream about murdering your wife, it doesn’t mean you did, or will, do, it. But it may mean that you are angry at her and haven’t let yourself fully acknowledge this.
Or, if you dream about an ugly, old witch chasing you, it doesn’t mean that you are a witch, but it could be showing you that there is a nasty, “witchy” internal voice that is criticizing and hounding you about something.
The journey of exploring the hidden parts of yourself is an exciting, worthwhile, and even fun part of therapy!