~"Inside everyone lurks a shadow. Behind the mask we wear for others, beneath the face we show ourselves, lives a hidden side of our personality. At night, while we lie helpless in our sleep, its image confronts us face to face." Fraser Boa~
Have you ever wondered why certain friends appear in your dreams, or why a friend or foe from your distant past suddenly materialises in your dreams at night? Or have you ever been chased in your dreams by threatening strangers with a seemingly ominous intent?
These apparently unrelated dream characters have more in common than one might initially think, and more often than not, our unconscious conjures up these friends or foes to illustrate something about us that is unknown to us about ourselves. Whether it is a desired quality that a friend has that we have not developed within ourselves, or a rejected part of the self that wants to be accepted by us, or some more sinister quality that we view others as having and do not recognise actually belongs to us, our unconscious is highly skilled at pointing out our unknown traits to us in the most symbolic yet exacting way. Through the use of a specifically chosen cast of characters in our dreams, our unconscious works to reveal to us our own shadow: our unconscious darker side that is typically not acknowledged as part of us, but unwittingly foisted off externally onto others instead.
In my last Dream School post, I outlined the most common types of dreams and their functions, as described by Carl Jung. In this post, I will discuss how to both identify and interpret the shadow in dreams, which is an invaluable tool for increasing self-awareness. Within the shadow lurks the unknown, the undesirable, and the un-actualised, yet paradoxically the shadow also contains the seeds to a more whole and healthy psyche.
"Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating." Mundaka Upanishad*
The shadow is a term used by Jung to describe all of the aspects of the personality that are not consciously recognised, and it is often one's less appealing personality traits that tend to reside within the shadow. One of the most famous examples in literature of the ego and shadow is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Dr. Jekyll representing the conscious personality and Mr. Hyde representing his unconscious, darker side. In dreams, the shadow shows up as people of the same gender and usually of similar age, and often as past or current friends we have in real, waking life.
The shadow typically consists of all of those troublesome qualities that we dislike in other people, but deny or downplay within ourselves. However, the shadow is not necessarily only negative; it can also contain positive traits and deeper potentials that we have yet to recognise or develop.
In dreams, the unconscious regularly uses friends and acquaintances to make us aware of our own shadow, because it is often easier to see both desirable and undesirable qualities in others than it is to see them in ourselves.
In "The Way of the Dream," Marie-Louise von Franz explains: "...generally one makes friends with one's shadow figure. Tell me who your friends are and I have the whole panorama of your good and bad qualities." Through the clever use of specific friends that personify our unknown traits, our unconscious aims to make us aware of our shadow, directing us in its own peculiar and symbolic way on a path of self-development.
Recognising your Shadow
Becoming aware of one's shadow is a challenging task, but it is a worthwhile and necessary task for one's own personal growth. In "Aion," Carl Jung says:
"The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance. Indeed, self-knowledge as a psychotherapeutic measure frequently requires much painstaking work extending over a long period of time."
One of the major stumbling blocks along the way to recognising one's shadow is the defence mechanism of projection, in which we see in others negative qualities that actually exist within ourselves. In one of my previous posts, I discussed how focusing on other people's flaws can be a distraction on the path to self-development. Dreams are invaluable sources for uncovering one's own projections, because dreams use friends and the qualities we attribute to those friends to instead represent something subjective about ourselves that we are unaware of. This can seem counter-intuitive and surprising, but dreams are the production of our own unconscious, and our unconscious is most frequently looking to reveal to us unknown aspects of our own personality, rather than to comment on the characteristics of other people. Carl Jung says:
"The frequency of such projections is as certain as the fact that they are never seen through. That being so, it is hardly surprising that the naive person takes it as self-evident from the start that when he dreams of Mr. X this dream-image is identical with the real Mr. X. It is an assumption that is entirely in accord with his ordinary, uncritical conscious attitude, which makes no distinction between the object as such and the idea one has of it."
Confronting your Shadow
In the "Way of the Dream," a woman relates a dream in which her shadow appears as a mischievous flat mate called Sue, who very annoyingly causes a big mess in the apartment every time the dreamer is away from home. The dreamer has a conversation within the dream with her mother, discussing whether she should move into an apartment alone in order to get away from Sue. This desire to "get away from" is a common impulse when it comes to one's shadow, and Marie-Louise von Franz offered the following insightful interpretation of this typical reaction towards the shadow:
"...if your shadow annoys you, the short-cut, the practical solution is to avoid it, to go away and have your flat on your own - not to live with Sue, so to speak. In other words, the most practical thing is to repress the shadow....That's the practical way of getting rid of Sue. But it's not really practical. It's practical at the moment, but one pays for it later."
Repressing the shadow is a short-cut that is not useful in the long run. However by living with the shadow and by claiming it as our own, we fully accept all aspects of ourselves and evolve a more authentic, well-rounded personality as a result. Avoiding the shadow actually fuels it to grow, and indeed the shadow can become truly destructive if it is fully denied and rejected.
Have you ever been chased in dreams by frightening forces from which you could not escape? In chase dreams, the hostile pursuers typically represent a part of ourselves that we have rejected. It is an aspect of our own psyche that chases us; this rejected part of our psyche chases us because it wants to be recognised and accepted by us. Marie-Louise von Franz says:
"Persecution always means that something wants to come to us. The only way to meet a persecuting demon is to turn around and say, 'here I am, what do you want from me?' Then the nightmarish pursuer generally changes face. It simply represents that we have turned away from some part of our psyche, and therefore it runs after us. It wants to get at us, literally. But we don't want it. The unconscious shows us the face we show it. If we reject something within us then it becomes destructive to us. And if we don't reject it...then you suddenly see that it isn't so bad. Then you have a chance that whatever pursues one shows a more amenable face, and one can make some pact with it or some arrangement."
The shadow does not have to be harmful; it is the act of rejecting it that calls it to take on an evil face. The process of de-potentiating destructive forces by turning around and facing them is illustrated beautifully in the ancient Hindu story of the god Krishna and his brother Balarama in the forest. The story takes place at nightfall, and Krishna sleeps while Balarama keeps watch. Balarama suddenly comes face to face with a terrifying demon, and overcome with fear, he screams and faints, his scream awakening Krishna who is unaware of what transpired. Krishna then too encounters the demon. He does not react with fear however, but simply faces him and asks: "What do you want?" and "What are you doing here?" Each time Krishna asks the demon a question, it shrinks in size, until it becomes so small that it fits in the palm of Krishna's hand. Krishna then puts the demon in his pocket, completely stripped of any power.
It is only what we fear and reject that overpowers us. By asking inner questions and searching for answers, we can gain control over the things that previously controlled us. Through this process of self-inquiry and through confronting our own shadow, we can bring our power fully back into our own hands.
Interpreting your Shadow
If a friend, acquaintance, or someone similar to you shows up in your dreams, write down the qualities that you feel they embody. Describe them to yourself as though you are describing them to someone who has never met them. Notice their actions in the dream. Then turn inwards - see if you can find any of these qualities, behaviours, or actions you have just described, but in yourself.
If you are being chased in dreams, stop running from the pursuers and turn around and face them instead. Ask them what they want, and listen to what they have to say. The pursuers often becomes less hostile, and sometimes even become friendly, when we stop running away from them and confront them instead.
If you are involved in a "hot button" issue with a particular person, and then you dream of them, in this case the dream is most likely trying to tell you something important about the other person, rather than to use them symbolically to represent yourself. However this is the exception and not the rule.
"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." Carl Jung
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the shadow. Facing the shadow is a worthwhile task that can lead to profound and lasting transformation. By tending to the less developed aspects of the self, one can allow all parts of the personality to grow and flourish, nurturing within oneself a deeper wholeness and authenticity. Becoming reconciled with the shadow by observing the curious characters that arrive in one's dreams can lead to a more genuine and rewarding expression of one's true character.
Join me next time when I will discuss the Anima and Animus in Dreams - the unconscious feminine side within a man and the unconscious masculine side within a woman. In the meantime, remember to keep a pen and paper by your bed and write down any dreams you have. Please do comment below with any questions you have, and I will do my best to answer them! Once again, happy dreaming :)
Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self - Carl Jung
General Aspects of Dream Psychology - Carl Jung
Memories, Dreams, Reflections - Carl Jung
Man and His Symbols [Part 3: The Process of Individuation] - Carl Jung [Marie-Louise von Franz]
*The Way of the Dream - Marie-Louise von Franz and Fraser Boa