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It's Time to Do Our Shadow Work

Published by Nexus: Colorado’s Holistic Journal, September/October 1996

By Francesca Starr, Ph.D.

The task of confronting the brutal, destructive elements of the Shadow has become in the 20th century the inescapable destiny of our species: If we fail, we cannot hope to survive.” John Sanford

Atrocities, from the holocaust of Nazi Germany to the Oklahoma City bombing, are often described as “unfathomable,” “unimaginable.” In saying that we cannot understand people who perpetrate violent acts, we are in effect thrusting these people and their acts as far away from ourselves as possible. And why shouldn’t we? As kind, decent people, how can we comprehend such cruelty and destruction?

What is the dehumanizing force that allows individuals and groups to become so inconsequential that other human beings exterminate them? How does it happen that Balkan women are violently raped, while whole communities are “cleansed”; that we walk past homeless people without feeling their desperation; tha we continue to split into angry, self-righteous factions – blacks against whites, men vs. women, conservatives vs. liberals, fundamentalists vs. atheists, straights vs. gays, the “forces of light” vs. the “forces of evil”?

What we call evil results, in part, from that aspect of our Judeo Christian culture which divides humanity, and all experience, into good and bad; that teaches us to repress, or get rid of, the “bad” parts of ourselves. Our unacceptable traits, emotions, and thoughts are pushed into the unconscious and become what the poet Robert Bly calls, “the long black bad we drag behind us.” This repressed stuff is what Carl Jung called our Shadow. It contains emotions and experiences we were not allowed to express or acknowledge as children, such as anger toward parents, fear, sexuality, despair, taboo fantasies, hidden cruelty, and shame. Even joy and spontaneity might be cast into the Shadow if our household was a silent and grim place. The Shadow encompasses the entire range of human attributes that our inner judgmental selves, churches, families, and culture have deemed ugly, unacceptable, and unwanted.

As the Shadow is suppressed in the unconscious, it grows and becomes unbearable, like any dark secret. This unconscious Shadow energy boils up unpredictably and spills out as rage, fear, anxiety, disease, cruelty, depression, destructive sexuality, violence. When we deny our dark side, we either become physically or mentally ill, or we “project” it onto others. It is natural to seek relief by finding a scapegoat to take our unwanted Shadow, to take the blame. We literally see out there what we can’t face within ourselves. Sometimes we give this Shadow to others collectively, as the Germans were induced by Hitler to experience themselves as only good and pure by casting all evil, impure attributes onto Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals.

We see the projection of the Shadow energy at work in families where one individual is always sick, or always getting in trouble, or just can’t “pull themselves together.” If you know someone who cannot climb out of depression, or feels they are surrounded by a black cloud, they may, literally, be carrying the Shadow of their family, their parents, even of their grandparents and great grandparents.

Some of us unconsciously absorb the Shadow of others. This often begins in childhood. It is known that children, unable to face the fact of a cruel or unloving parent, blame themselves when they are abused. By taking on blame children protect a cherished image of loving parents, which enables them to survive within the family system. Sensitive children also feel their parents’ feelings, even those that the parents don’t feel. These “gifted children” energetically take on this unfelt material in an unconscious attempt to make their parents feel better. Whether we cast dark energy onto others, or absorb it from them, we are perpetuating this tradition of passing the Shadow (the lineage of those parts of us we fail to see or know) from one generation to the next. As adults, we face a tough choice: “Do I have the courage to work through my own Shadow material, or do I, like my parents, and their parents before them, pass it on to my children and their progeny?

We have a chance to heal ancient wounds in ourselves, in our lineage and in our culture, if we each take responsibility for our own Shadow side. Shadow work can evoke a rebirth of vitality, wholeness, high energy levels and the ability to resolve heretofore impossible conflicts. In this process we learn to live creatively with paradox, to embrace both dark and light in ourselves and humanity. In this way the Shadow transforms into a powerful source of intimacy, creative expression, and compassion for others. We then can make a commitment to experience the full range of who we are and of what life offers, with all its mystery and complexity.

As we do our Shadow work, we are made whole. It helps us to take back the Shadow projections we’ve cast onto others. Then, neither we nor our children will be so burdened. As wise people who know both the light and the dark, we can, from a balanced perspective, assist with the advancement and betterment of our families, our lineage, the social order, and the planet.


Francesca Starr, Ph.D., CPC
Certified Professional Coach, Post Graduate Voice Dialogue Training with Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone (Creators of Voice Dialogue), Ph.D. Counseling Psychology, MA Transpersonal Psychology, MA Education. Francesca brings finely honed skills and knowledge from previous careers (1. education, 2. business, and 3. counseling) to her passion as a Voice Dialogue Coach and Trainer. Gentle conversations with your Inner Selves that transform your life. Inspired, breakthrough coaching to resolve life and work issues, generate conscious choice and creative action, and evolve consciousness.