What is Jungian Shadow?

what is jungian shadow

This article is the fourth of the series about Jung and “shadow work” with Özgür Önal.

I have been following Özgür for a long time and got inspired by his interest in Jung’s work and his synthesis of Jung and Sufi mystic thinking. So, we came together one night, with many questions in my head. The intention was one article which resulted in 6 articles around the topic of Jung and shadow work as you can see in the titles below.

What Jung really said?

Are archetypes real?

Who came up with the archetype and why?

What is Jungian shadow?

How do you do shadow work on yourself?

Can shadow work help with depression?

Before starting, I would like to introduce Özgür to you;

What is the Jungian shadow?

Let’s begin with the meaning of the “shadow” from a physics point of view. If the light does not fall on something from one direction, there will be a dark area on the side that is not receiving light. The cross-section of a shadow would be a two-dimensional silhouette or a reverse projection of the object blocking the light.

A very carefully chosen word for the psyche. Because there are some areas in our psyche that are not receiving light. Light is consciousness here.

If I am aware of how I behave in certain situations, in certain moments of crisis. For example, if I began knowing the situations in which the tone or volume of my voice changes during the conversation and how it’s connected to my inner world, it will decrease eventually. This is the miraculous side of life.

You are constantly discovering something new. Life is also changing dynamically. You are graduating from university, beginning your work life, marrying, becoming a mother or a father, and having other roles with new relations in unexpected incidents of life eventually. Life is a continuous journey that each time you are meeting just another aspect of yourself that you have never seen before. Other people in your life become a mirror for you to observe yourself, if you have this practice, and see how you are reacting in certain conflict situations. And if you achieve to see yourself from the eyes of the other, maybe you can notice your repetitive patterns of reactions which follow you from your childhood like a shadow.

Those patterns are, metaphorically, as the small cracks at the bottom of your ship. A ship can sail on the sea even without noticing those cracks until stormy weather catches it. Then stormy weather makes the cracks noticeable during the sailing. And you can understand what’s going on with your ship if you have this practice of seeing yourself with clear eyes. 

Those cracks can be our little wounds from the past or even the consequences of our one-sided choices. Certain choices we made will leave some ghost traces behind which represents our unlived life. 

Shadow is a very broad term for anything that we don’t notice about ourselves. It includes traumatic experiences and wounds but is also much wider and deeper than these. Shadow occurs even in a healthy life when we neglect some parts of ourselves which might be a neglected need or even a talent we have but buried underground. 

Sometimes we might have difficulty accepting those cracks in our ships. Sometimes we avoid accepting their existence, sometimes ignore them, sometimes complain about the weather instead of accepting and beginning to fix them. I mean human creativity is incredible when it comes to avoiding the essence of the problem. Again nafs* is the thing blocking us to see ourselves as we are.

You will do your best. Yes, there is that potential, but it’s still a matter of fatality. You will not idolize Al-Insān al-Kāmil** either.

It is said, “As-Sirāt*** bridge is thinner than a hair and sharper than a sword”. We fall while crossing the As-Sirāt*** Bridge in Heaven and Hell. Another very powerful symbol. Balance. You want to get matured with good intentions. you challenge your nafs* to be transformed and see your blind spots which is not an easy task by the way. But you fall again, this time on the other side. 

When you have too much desire to progress in your inner world, you may fall into the nafs* again. You have to be perfect, right? Then you must have the best “inner work” ever. It’s just another shadow under one shadow shaping your life unconsciously.

Nafs* always find food to eat to be able to grow itself. If you leave it foodless. It’s gonna be nurtured by foodlessness. In many sacred texts, it’s depicted as a 7 headed dragon. 

Probably it comes from these little inner voices whispering to you like “you are not enough”, “you have to be special” and so on. Many inner voices just cover the original voice. Can we hear the original voice of the soul behind many other noises? 

There is a Buddha anecdote that says “if you meet Buddha on the way, kill him.” Very interesting right? The anecdote tells you to symbolically kill whatever you exaggerate even if it’s Buddha himself. I mean that Buddha challenges you. 

First, he invites you to his path asking you to give up your common habits and behaviors. Once you do this, he says “kill me” Ok what am I supposed to do now? Whom am I gonna follow now? Probably, Buddha wants you to find your unique way of mastering yourself. And you can not achieve this by imitating Buddha. Symbolically, you have to kill the Buddha image that you idolized and glorified in your inner world. Does it sound familiar to withdraw a projection from someone?

In my personal development, years ago, I was seeing dreams of figures like police or soldiers representing authority. In the first dreams, I was paralyzed by their power and there is so much fear in those dreams. Eventually dreams evolved. Figures, events, and atmosphere were changing but the symbolic meaning was so much aligned that they were like a dream series.

The dream was developing with my various efforts in the physical world. In one dream I remember, finally, I made it. I was able to shout at them. And they just stepped back and my authority made an impact in the field. I was incredibly surprised. I was not expecting this withdrawal. They were my external authority images blocking me to develop my inner king. 

Consciously doing my inner work and taking necessary steps in the physical world, finding meaning and purpose in the calls of life, eventually helped me symbolically to kill the external images of authority to be able to develop mine. For men, one of the most important figures is the father, I will not go into detail but just let me say, for every man, there is a lot of inner work with the father image.

I claimed my inner authority from my relationships with authority figures in the physical world. More it happened, dreams followed whatever is happening in physical reality to guide me. 

This process is a lifelong journey of building a kingdom beginning from a needy youngster down to a magnificent king. It can be a little kingdom first. That’s fine. At least you have borders to work on later. 

A Zen proverb says “I hold my finger like this, but why are you looking at the finger? I’m showing you the Moon. Don’t look at the finger pointing at the moon, look at the moon.”

At this point, some stories come to me as well. For example, the question asked Rabia: “How is your love for Prophet Muhammad”, they say. Rabi’a said that; “my heart is so full of God’s love that there is no room for anyone else.”

Moreover, after watching the Yunus Emre series again, I praised Yunus incredibly. Then, after a nature walk, I made a shamanic journey, and the guidance on the shamanic journey was very clear: “Don’t be Yunus Emre, be Ayşegül. Be yourself.”

Where does shadow work come from? Who invented shadow work?

Jung used this word. It was mentioned in conference texts as I know. Active imagination as a method, dream method. These were concepts that Jung came up with within his own time.

But even though we all live in different geographies and believe in different religions, man’s search for truth with worldwide diversity draws a metaphorical image to me. There is a closed box in which we drilled holes in different places. We are looking at the same place and we are all trying to understand the truth. The diameters of the windows are different. It gets different light. Some see more clearly because they are higher up.

If it is an effort to understand the truth with good and pure intentions, more or less everyone is looking at the same place.

Therefore, about shadow work, Jung is a person who appeals to the psychological healing approach, the psychology community, of course, he shared it with its technical dimensions.

Those who came after him also approached the methodological dimension.

If I give a technical answer to this question, yes, active imagination and dreamwork are shadow works.

But if I look at it from a wider window by synthesizing it myself, if I look at what Sufi thought says about it, for example, I can answer this question as follows.

There is a hadith that says, “he who knows his nafs* knows his Lord.” 

Nafs*, as it turns out, is the selfish space that belongs to me. The area that says “I”. It says, “look at the area that says me, wants, wants to have, only wants to take it for yourself”. If you look there, you will know of your Lord. Rab has a second meaning in Arabic, it is also the teacher. Then you learn, you get information about yourself.

This is something that has already been said.

What does shadow work mean?

What I understood from shadow work. The one that does not shine on my character and personality, which I cannot comprehend with my consciousness.

What does this mean?

For example, Jung has such a sentence. ‘I have noticed that certain parts of the psyche operate autonomously.’

Without my consciousness… It works by itself like an Autopilot. I do not influence my behavior. I remain involuntary and passive when I’m not looking there. That area works by itself.

This can be dangerous actually, can you imagine that some of your behaviors are not under your consciousness and willpower. It can do anything by itself and then you can be regretful later for something “you” did. “You” is questionable here under the Jungian perspective. What kind of parts can “you” unfold to? And the world is full of statements like “I just lost me at that moment” or “It was not me.” etc.

In this area, there are not only negative actions; to get angry, to shout, to hurt. Of course, there is an area that concerns psychology and therapy, and where it is necessary to work with a specialist.

But beyond that, it is our responsibility to be a good person, a decent, mature person. I do workshops because I feel responsible for doing something with this aspect.

This aspect is not the dimension of therapy. The dimension of being human. Even if we are psychologically healthy, we are still immature.

So shadow work, looking at that space and what I don’t know about myself, works by itself. Unconscious, on autopilot. The one who decides for me acts sometimes puts me in a difficult situation. It also puts the people around me in a difficult situation, upsets, offends, hurts. Shadow work is an intention to look at what kind of energy field does it have?

What’s shadow work?

Anything can be. Let’s say, you are walking by the sea and taking your day into account. Inner accounting is shadow work. It is very religious in that sense. Almost all religions commonly advise you to do your accounting every day. What did I say to my beloved? How could I express it better without hurting? What are the other situations that I react to similarly? These kinds of simple questions can even lead you to a discovery of some unconscious patterns. 

Shadow work doesn’t have to be a super cool Jungian technique or something. I believe anything can be shadow work as long as you keep your sincerity and authenticity towards meaning in your life. It could be with a ritual, it could be with praying, it could be your religious practices and prayers. You can also do it more secularly and technically, no matter what your religion is. When you create a pure intention in your heart to become a less complicated and more peaceful person tomorrow, whatever you do would become the shadow work in the broad meaning of the word. 

Very interesting. It’s not just monsters and evil things in that shadow area. That area is the closed area of ​​the unconscious, at the same time, it is also a space where my great potentials and strengths that I neglected about myself are hidden.

For example, let’s say I have a great musical talent. But my life busyness did not allow me to bring it out. That area can be disturbed by dreams, fantasies. Your potential would try to remind itself. It would cause one type of disturbance in your daily life. Any type of activity which makes your job easier to hear this disturbance and respond to it in a meaningful way would be shadow work. Briefly, even the skills and talents that I neglected can also be a subject to shadow work.

Man is a very interesting being. A person either knows or does not know something. In the best case, at least, you know what you don’t know. But there are more hidden areas like not knowing what you do not know. It is due to human nature, again nafs*, that people avoid accepting these hidden areas. 

This is a very crucial thing. That’s exactly why shadow work is essential. When I look at the times when I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, I always keep this question in mind, I wonder what I don’t know yet.

Once I had asked one of my elders: “How will we know we’re in the right direction?” He responded to me this way: “With each passing day, compared to yesterday, can you become a person who is more beautiful, more pleasant, where the people around you are happier and more peaceful with you?” I think that this is a very crucial indicator.

My mother’s grandmother had a prayer. “Gratitude without reckoning”. Now after listening to you I am adding to this prayer: “Repentance without reckoning.” Because I am conscious that I am unconscious. I also repent in areas that I do not know, and I pray that they may come to the light of my consciousness.

I think it is a journey of knowing one’s nature. I am human, I have two feet and two eyes. I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. I can’t see behind me. Even that is a limitation. I can see in front of me, I cannot see behind me.

As Lütfi Filiz said at this point, I can only see my face in the mirror.

This is a very powerful metaphor. I am a person who is incapable of seeing even my face. Also, there is a hadith around this with rough translation which means that “believer is the mirror of the believer.”

I think this means that every being that exists is limited by its creation and potential. Just like that, We have blind spots from being human. We must take responsibility for this. I think that’s what shadow work is.

There is an understanding of this as an intellectual concept first, and we can also practice and transform it in our own lives. Without any trial and error, when first encountering these concepts encyclopedically, there is a high probability of saying, ‘What is this, why do I need this?’.

That’s why I want to highlight, just try, give it a shot.


Shadow work is so tricky. Being human is not an easy job at all. So better to have some compassion for ourselves. 

The fight of the light and darkness is each and every moment continuing. Because of that shadow work is continuous in our life. The simple, better. Be creative and, listen to your inner voice and find those rituals that work for you, new or old. Does not really matter. 

What matters is being able to connect. From that connection having faith that a more peaceful person will nourish for you and others around you. Continue to have a pure intention and do your best. Rest is depending on God 🙂

We continue to dive deep into Jung’s work with Özgür.

As I have already mentioned, this article is part of an interview series about Jung and shadow work with Özgür Önal. 

You can also be interested in these articles below,

What Jung really said? 

Are archetypes real?

Who came up with the archetype and why?

How do you do shadow work on yourself?

Can shadow work help with depression?

Below is a Pinterest friendly photo…. so, you can pin it to your Jung and Shadow Work Board!

* Nafs is an Arabic word occurring in the Quran, literally meaning “self”, and has been translated as “psyche”, “ego” or “soul”.

** In Islamic theology, al-Insān al-Kāmil, also rendered as Insān-i Kāmil and İnsan-ı Kâmil, is an honorific title to describe the prophet, Muhammad. The phrase means “the person who has reached perfection”, literally “the complete person.”

*** As-Sirāt Bridge is, according to Islam, the bridge which every human must pass on the Yawm al-Qiyamah (“Day of Resurrection”) to enter Paradise.

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