(An) Unknown Woman: #A-Z Challenge

” I realize now that no one will ever again be able to tell me something about myself that I don’t already know. Not that I’ve brought back to full memory everything I’ve ever done or every thought I’ve ever had, but that I’ve looked at all the things about myself that used to make me say, ‘No, I’m not like that.’ But I was like that. And still am. The mere fact of my trying to hide it was enough to make me look under the denial to discover what it concealed. Now I know all of it….I’ve torn down the fortifications. The thing inside doesn’t require defending anymore. I don’t even have to think in terms of defense against attacks. I refuse to be attacked, because I agree at the outset that I am not what I’ve tried to appear to be.” 

An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller

Koller is talking about her shadow, Carl Jung’s term for all of the things that are hidden in one’s unconscious.

What’s in Your Shadow?

‘Shadow’ can be such a scary word, summoning up images of all of our darkest fantasies and emotions. And it’s true that your shadow (and mine) does contain jealousy, selfishness, and anything we don’t want to admit to ourselves.

But your shadow might also contain joy, compassion, or creativity if your upbringing or community rejected these qualities.

So rather than imagining your shadow as the shameful aspects of your personality, think of it simply as the part of you that you don’t know very well.

The liberation of our shadow, our…most unconscious energies, is part of a quest, not for perfection, but for completion.”

Kathleen Brehony

Owning Your Shadow

Jung’s theory is that your shadow develops in adolescence. That is when you first make conscious and unconscious decisions about what face (persona) you wish to present to the world.

In midlife and beyond, tension builds between your conscious mind (your ego) and your unconscious mind (your shadow).

To become your fully alive and authentic self, you need to bring your shadow to conscious awareness. This requires accepting everything about yourself–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Three Ways to Recognize Your Shadow

  1. If a female appears in your dreams, she likely represents some aspect of your shadow. For a simple, but highly effective Jungian process of dream interpretation, see my post.
  2. Jung said, “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” In other words, if your personality is skewed heavily in one direction, look for the contrasting shadow qualities. An example is a desire to help others even when doing so is detrimental to you. The contrasting shadow quality might be selfishness.
  3. One of the easiest ways to see your shadow is by considering what you project on to others. I’ll give a personal example. When I was teaching and we’d have a class party, if a child  clamoured for the biggest piece of cake, I would feel a rush of anger that I recognized as being completely unreasonable. The intensity of my reaction was a sign that greed was and is part of my shadow, a part that I didn’t want to acknowledge.

Sometimes it’s easier to see the negative aspects of your shadow, but remember that there are often hidden and unrecognized positive aspects as well.

Are you acquainted with your shadow? 


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  1. Well that is an interesting thought – I’d never known about the whole ‘shadow’ thing and now I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. I definitely think Midlife is a time of self-discovery and maybe it’s when we determine which parts of our shadow we want to lose or keep.

    Leanne | http://www.crestingthehill.com.au
    U for Understand Yourself

    1. Hi Leanne,
      The more of Jung I read, the more of value I find. I’ll be writing more about his theories in the coming months so we’ll see if I can convince you of their merits. 🙂

        1. Hi Deb,
          Boundaries of the Soul: the practice of Jung’s psychology by June Singer is, according to mythologist Joseph Campbell and many others, “the very best introduction to Jung around.” It was first published in 1972, revised and reprinted in 1994, and has sold 100,000 copies. I’ve just started reading it; it’s quite comprehensive.
          I also really like the books by Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson. He has a smaller series of books, each on a specific aspect of Jung’s work. So, for example, ‘Inner Work’ is particularly fascinating for dream work and there’s another one specifically on shadows called “Owning Your Own Shadow”

      1. I’m still mulling this post over Karen – so much to think about when it’s not a cut and dried idea.

        Thanks for linking up with us at #MLSTL and I’ve shared this on my SM xx

        1. Thanks, Leanne. The conception of the shadow is widely accepted in psychological circles, probably because we know that we have an unconscious and the very nature of the unconscious is that it contains stuff we are unaware of. When you have a minute, would you let me know here or in a private email what doesn’t sit well with you about this concept? That would help me to write my next piece about this topic so that it addresses those questions or concerns. If you’re feeling them, so are many others.

  2. So very true, Karen. There’s an old saying: “There’s something about that person that I don’t like about myself.” When I have an outsized reaction to something that doesn’t really merit it, I know now to turn inward and take a good look at myself – the answer as to why I am so bothered is usually staring me right in the face. Thanks for giving me a name for it: my shadow self!


  3. I like the idea that our shadow is not always hiding the negative aspects of our personality, Karen. I have glimpses of my shadow and love the idea of embracing it and accepting the good, bad, and the ugly. I’m working on uncovering the positive by following the Artist’s Way. That reminds me, I’m behind writing my memoir segment. I’ve been resisting it because I saw it as looking at the negative side of my shadow. The surprise was finding good things I had overlooked and finding compassion for myself.

    1. That’s so interesting, Molly. I’ve been doing some writing to heal exercises lately and found myself resisting for the same reason. But when we push forward and write our way through it, the positive shadow characteristics do emerge and that’s so rewarding.
      I’m glad to hear that you’re getting to the point of self-compassion. You show so compassion for others. It’s more than appropriate that you extend at least a little bit of that goodness to yourself.

    1. I’m glad it was helpful, Donna. Sometimes when we’re really tired, as I know you are right now, it is easier to be soft enough and open enough to receive some of these ideas that might otherwise seem a bit woo-woo.

  4. I suspect I know what my shadow self is hiding – it is a lot of negative qualities that lurk there in the shadows. I try to give the world my best and like your example people wanting the biggest piece of cake or the most expensive item in the store really tick me off. I am not sure it is greed hiding in the shadows but maybe it is a sense of injustice or inadequacy inside me? Either way, I know there are qualities like jealousy, and anger in there. I did a lot of therapy years ago and uncovered a lot then. Besides, I think we all have good and bad qualities and as you said it is what persona you choose to present to the world that determines what remains in shadow and what is shown in the light. Great thought provoking post once again Karen, thank you! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Susan. You may be right – the shadow quality we’re both describing may be something other than greed. That was an easy one for me to think of, but injustice or inadequacy or resentment may be better descriptors. Eventually/some day it would be interesting to figure it all out.

  5. Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of a shadow in those terms though I used them in my teaching. In a Photoshop class, I had my middle schoolers create a shadow of themselves that was their inner self (so the student’s picture cast a completely different shadow). It was pretty interesting to see what they came up with.

  6. This is fascinating, and I’d love to learn more about it. I will have to pay attention to my dreams to see if I notice any shadowy females lurking there 🙂 Thanks, Karen!

    1. Then I hope you’ll stick around after A-Z is over, Jenny because I’ll definitely be doing some more posts about the shadow.
      I’m starting to watch my dreams for females too. I’m keen to see what I’ll uncover with that as my focus for dream interpretation.

  7. I keep going round and round in circles on this one and in the end, I am not sure that I really understand the shadow idea. The person I enjoy presenting to the world is one thing, but the shadow characteristics seem to be driven so far back into my consciousness that I have trouble identifying them. Or maybe they are there and I just don’t want to acknowledge them!

    1. Hi Fran,
      The shadow concept is definitely a difficult one to get hold of. I’m in the midst of learning more myself, so will definitely try to offer more help when I know more.
      One thing I do know, though, is that it is very common for us to be unaware of our shadows. It’s not surprising. We’ve had a lifetime of presenting a certain face to the world.
      The easiest way I know of to start uncovering your shadow is to look to things people do, even perfect strangers, that really tick you off or impress you beyond the norm. Any time you have an intense reaction, positive or negative, you can be sure that a matching quality in your shadow is being activated.

    1. Absolutely true, Janet. And if we can get past the idea that everything in the shadow is always dark and horrible, we could probably make slightly faster progress in figuring it all out.

  8. Karen, Quite a few things I’ve explored have shadow elements described … Archetype definitely.. Cognitive Strengths, yup! So yes, I know quite a few of my shadow elements (yes, the shadow descriptions are accurate on both my archetypes and my cognitive strengths) . It doesn’t actually help me with self-acceptance though. Maybe just accepting them as part of my complete, authentic self? Even the “ugly parts”? That’s a work to be done for sure.

    1. Hi Pat,
      There would be lots of information about shadows in anything you read about archetypes because archetypes are a Jungian concept. Jung saw archetypes as all part of what he described as “the collective unconscious.”
      And yes, you’ve got it exactly – it’s tough to accept our negative shadow qualities but as Jungian analyst, Kathleen Brehony says, we need to for completion of our authentic selves. Still, it’s so difficult to do that I think it’s why the formal process of Jungian analysis is a multi-year commitment.

  9. Hi Karen. I think Shadow Work is a very valuable process for self-awareness. And yes, Jung’s work is brilliant! 🙂 I also found Debbie Ford’s “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers” to be insightful and several other books on the shadow as well. As far as my own shadows go, I am mostly aware of them, even if I don’t always remember at all times! I have always appreciated knowing that whatever makes me most angry or fearful in other people AND ANY SITUATION is usually just a cover for a shadow. Not always pleasant for sure, but certainly a way to find peace. Thanks for the reminders. And congrats on nearly completing your A-Z challenge! ~Kathy

    1. I’ll have to take a look at Debbie Ford’s book, Kathy. Yours is the second reference I’ve read to it in a couple of weeks. Thanks.
      I’m delighted to see you back here online. I hope you are taking good care of yourself.

  10. Another interesting idea that I haven’t come across before. I’m finding out a lot in your A to Z posts – even if I don’t have time to comment every day, i’m here!

  11. This is a great thing to contemplate. Only a couple of years before I met my husband, I was fresh out of a divorce and a guy friend asked me to start dating him. He was pretty fantastic, but I knew he had Multiple Sclerosis. I’m ashamed to admit that I turned him down. Even though I didn’t tell him this, it was mostly because of the illness he had. I just didn’t know if I could handle being a full-time caregiver or watch someone I love suffer. Fast forward a handful of years and here I am. I often have people remark (in the kindest way) that they couldn’t endure the life I live. The truth is, you just never know. This part of me was hidden in the shadows. You do what love calls you to do. I like your reminder that sometimes our shadow self is good.
    Facing Cancer with Grace

    1. He wasn’t right, Heather, or it just wasn’t the right timing fresh out of a divorce. Now it’s right. You wrote the perfect sentence – “You do what love calls you do to.”

  12. Yes! I”m aware of my shadow (but never called it that), the good and the bad. And, I’m OK with it all. I try to improve the negatives and am proud of the positives. And, I don’t mind sharing my downfalls. Which… makes it easy to write a memoir. 🙂

    1. I can imagine you have an easier time writing your memoir than others might. And we, your future readers, are grateful. We know you’re terrific but if you didn’t admit to any flaws your book, for all of its adventure, would be a yawner. So thank you for not being perfect 🙂

  13. Great Jungian concept, Karen. I’m in touch with my shadow most times. When busy, I don’t immediately acknowledge its presence, so memories of it come to me during quiet moments, when the day’s events play before my mind’s eyes. We’re in a constant adjustment dance. Working on a better awareness/learning process.

    1. I’m the same, Silvia. I’ve noticed lately that when I’m busy all things that are good for me to do, including pausing, noticing, reflecting fall by the wayside. I just wrote a journal entry today reminding myself that this means I absolutely need to NOT be so busy. Finishing A-Z should help with that a bit.

  14. What an interesting concept. I studied Jung in college but I don’t remember reading about shadows. I will try to be more aware of my shadow self (I agree with Kathy about the things that make us angry or fearful – and I’d add, defensive are probably our shadows lurking) and not try to hide it away so much.

  15. This was a very interesting post Karen and no I’ve never thought about my shadow. You have prompted me to actually read more about it and I also accept that whilst we might consider the word ‘shadow’ in a negative sense we might also find joy and positivity if we look. Don’t forget to link up at Midlife Share the Love Party, we love having you and the link works this week! LOL:)

    1. I will happily join the link up again this week. I’ve enjoyed it the past two.
      And I’ll write more about the shadow in some posts after A-Z is finished. If you think it’s something your readers would be interested in, I’d be happy to do it for my guest post. Your call.

  16. I really enjoyed the quote by alice koller – what I understand is that she is no longer vulnerable in the sense that she cannot be got at because there is nothing to hide, nothing to defend and no need to offend – a quiet sense of self an empowered self that has claimed all the bits and pieces .I am well acquainted with my shadow – tried the denial etc but they are disempowering . one day I realised that I am happy to read say novels of flawed characters but I was trying to ignore deny pretend I wasn’t. what a joke!!! the shadow is not something to fight but something to love to embrace to laugh with – this takes time and practice but as I grow more comfortable I feel myself filling out or in becoming more not less – the other interesting thing about the shadow side is that it is darker when hidden and when we turn it to the light well it really isnt so scary at all.. thank you karen – profound again

    1. Thank YOU, Sandra. Your comment is profound, as always, and your personal example both reassuring and inspiring. One day I will be just like you in accepting every single little bit of my shadow.

    1. Thanks, Debbie.
      I’m going to be writing more about the shadow in a guest post for Sue. If this was a new concept for you, can you tell me any questions or thoughts you had as you read it? That would help me to better focus my writing.

  17. Another very thought-provoking post. I think it would be a rare person who doesn’t immediately think of their own shadows … although up to now I never thought of them that way.
    Looking forward to reading more posts on this one!

    1. I don’t know about you, Joanne, but sometimes I wish I didn’t have quite so much shadow content to think of! Still, uncovering the yucky stuff is part of authenticity so time to bite the bullet and do the work.
      I’ll definitely be writing more. Thanks for letting me know that you’re interested.

  18. Ah Jung, he had so much to give us to think about didn’t he? We all have parts of ourselves we may not want to bring to the fore of course. For me, it may be things like aspects of my life I would like to have erased. But of course, we cannot do that. What I like to consider though is that what we experience, good or bad or somewhere in between teaches us lessons. We just need to be ready to learn.

    1. The more I read of Jung, the more I think the man was brilliant. Whether we agree with, or even understand, his theories, his conceptions of our inner worlds are so far-ranging and all-encompassing. So true that everything teaches us, Denyse. In fact that was the topic for my ‘W’ post two days later. Thanks so much for visiting and for commenting, Denyse. Much appreciated.

  19. Karen, you introduce such interesting and thought provoking topics. It is hard to look at and know one’s shadow side, what I think of as the blind spot in the center of the eye. Yet often others close to us can see those shadow qualities that we try so hard to hide and ignore. As a little experiment, I asked Rob to tell me one thing he knew about my personality that I didn’t know. He looked at me and said in an anguished voice, “Oh no, not that! I am not going to say a word.” Hmmm, it’s that bad?


    1. Thanks for the compliment and the chuckle, Jude. Poor, Rob. He has probably read the husband’s handbook. I’m sure there is one and I’m equally sure it says, “Do not, under any circumstances, answer when asked ‘Do I look fat in this?’ ” Then the handbook will go on to say that the only question more treacherous than that one, is the one you asked.

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