Reevaluating Shadow Work

Let’s talk about darkness. The term “shadow work” gets thrown around a lot in Tarot circles these days, particularly by more naturalistic-ish readers like myself who use Tarot less for prediction and more for personal reflection. Many Tarot readers use Tarot in conjunction with psychoanalysis or other forms of counseling. And many of us are inspired by Jung.

For anyone who doesn’t know,* Carl Gustav Jung is (was? He’s dead now) a Swiss psychoanalyst and one-time student of Sigmund Freud. Eventually, he broke with Freud (although the break was neither as drastic nor as messy as most people make it out to be) and formed his own theories of the human psyche. Where Freudian psychoanalysis was focused on the way that (often sexual, often repressed) memories of the past could cause neurotic breakdowns in his patients, Jung was more interested in how neuroses could be expressed as manifestations of psychic imbalance in a patient’s present. (I paint with broad strokes here. Take a step back from my Impressionist canvas and understand that I’m leaving out a lot of the detail.)

Perhaps Jung’s greatest and most damning contribution to the world of modern woo is the idea of the shadow. This is a tricky, nuanced concept that has–I lament–been kidnapped and prostituted by much of the New Age community, abused to the point that it’s no longer recognizable as what it originally was.

Image from The Red Book. If you invoke the name Jung and you haven’t read The Red Book, you’re doing it wrong.

Any summary I present of Jung’s idea of the shadow self will necessarily be lacking. It’s just one component of a complicated set of concepts that lock together, and it can’t properly be understood without the context of those other concepts. Nevertheless, my Cliff’s Notes version is this:

The shadow is the unactualized portion of the psyche. It is everything that a person had the potential to be but chose not to be, everything a person is but is unwilling to admit she is, and everything a person wants to be but doesn’t think she can.

(I spent a while crawling through the few Jung texts I have with me, trying to find a quote from Herr Doktor himself, but it’s been a long time since I’ve written on Jung and I didn’t have the patience to track down a good definition of the shadow. Mea culpa.)

The core of Jung’s psychoanalysis was about what he called the “process of individuation”: Identifying the shadow self and integrating it into one’s conscious personality (although it’s not as simple as I present it here). A friend of mine used to refer to individuation as “passing the shadow test”. Symbolic shadow-selves run rampant in Western literature, from Doctor Jekyll’s Victorian orgy of repression to Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with Dark Side Daddy. Some, like Skywalker, pass the shadow test and become stronger for it; others, like Jekyll, fail it horribly.


Jung’s work was groundbreaking and fascinating and innovative and many other wonderful things. In particular, he emphasized the idea that the shadow–the set of things we fear or dislike about ourselves–is not evil. Generally speaking, it contains our destructive impulses (violence, anger, self-doubt, etc.), but that’s not all it contains. Jung once said of the murderous Mr. Hyde himself that the literary character represented a “repressed vitality” on Jekyll’s part. The challenge of the shadow test is not to defeat the shadow, but rather to accept the shadow as us and to integrate it into our conscious lives. If Jekyll had been able to express Hyde’s vitality without doing all the murdery bits, his story would not have ended in the tragic manner that it did.

Unfortunately, decades of (mis)interpretation have taken this magnificent, subtle concept and reduced it to something that is neither. This is not to say that everyone who does shadow work is a fraud, because there are some amazing people doing truly profound psychological work based on the ideas set forth by Jung. But the term “shadow work” in the wider world isn’t often used in the way Jung himself would have used it.**

It’s so easy to oversimplify this concept and create a divided notion of the psyche (a.k.a. the soul) as consisting of “light” and “dark”. (Or, y’know, “shadow”.) But this is a false dichotomy, and it is. not. helpful. It too easily overlays those convenient Abrahamic notions of good and evil.

“I call myself a Grey Wyzzird, because, like, I’m not afraid to walk the left-hand path. I’m totally in touch with my dark side.”

When people talk about shadow work in the context of this simplified notion of the light-and-dark soul, they often talk about it in terms of balance. There’s some vague notion that light and dark (read: good and evil) must necessarily balance each other out. We get the idea that “light” is all love and cupcakes and Doreen Virtue, while “dark” is punk rock, sex, and death. We need darkness, or so the argument goes, in order to temper the light.

And sure, when you first hear that, it makes sense. Night and day go together. It would suck if the sun were always at high noon. But upon further reflection, the projection of certain constellations of qualities onto the categories of light and dark seems damned arbitrary. Why do we call anger and death dark? Why do we call kindness and babies light? And so on. There is no innate reason that these things should form together in two big clusters of light and dark; rather, we are assigning them to these categories based on socially constructed notions of (you guessed it!) good and evil.

Let me take a step back here and say that I am not opposed to understanding the world in terms of polarity. I’m a Gardnerian Wiccan; I like polarity. But the specific polarity of light and darkness, as used by so many New Age folks for shadow work, is not a useful one.

It’s actually quite similar to the duality of gender. Sure, the division between light and dark (day and night, summer and winter, yadda yadda yadda) exists in nature, just as the division between biologically male and biologically female exists. But we never just talk about light and darkness; we use them as place-holders for a host of other dualities, such as joy and sorrow, mercy and severity,*** life and death, et cetera, et cetera. Likewise, we never just talk about male and female without invoking notions of active and passive, martial and nurturing, rational and emotional, and so on.

The dichotomy of light and dark is unhelpful because it presents a variety of unrelated concepts as somehow intertwined. There is no particular reason that the aforementioned concepts of sorrow, severity, and death all need to go together, but if you’re practicing generic shadow work and trying to get in touch with your dark side, you’ll approach them as if they do. The fact of the matter is, sometimes severity can produce joy. Sometimes death can be merciful. Sometimes life breeds sorrow. (And so on. You get the idea.) It’s erroneous to lock these things into notions of light and dark.

This post has turned out quite differently than I had originally intended. My initial plan had been to talk about the influence of Goethe’s Manichaeism on the Jungian concept of the shadow, how I personally don’t jive with Manichaeism, and how an understanding of the four suits of the Minor Arcana can supersede the need for a Manichaean dualistic worldview. I might still write that post, but for now, I think I’ve hit a decent stopping point with this one.

My intent with this post is sincerely not to offend. I hope I haven’t come across that way. If you do shadow work, either for yourself or in a professional counseling capacity, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on what you do. I merely want to call into question the dominant paradigm I see in a lot of conversations about the shadow, and to show why I think that certain ways of discussing the “dark side” of the psyche can be unproductive.

Next week, the plan is to return with a review of Kat Black’s Golden Tarot. Did you know the gift shop at the Metropolitan Opera sells Tarot decks? Neither did I. I’m so excited.

*Ha! Like there could possibly be anyone in the Tarot community who doesn’t know Jung. Good one, Jack.

**There’s a great quote somewhere–I think it’s in Marie-Louise Von Franz–where Jung is on record as having gotten fed up with a roomful of his students and storming out with a cry of “God save me from Jungians!”

***Shout out to my Kabbalah peers.

11 thoughts on “Reevaluating Shadow Work

  1. I definitely enjoyed this piece. Your sarcasm is matched by your intellect. I definitely enjoy your perspective on this topic as you bring to light (ha ha) that nothing is fully dark nor light. Yet we give them these labels confining them to one or the other, when it is in fact more complex than that. I am excited to delve into the rest of your work!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course! I find great pleasure in reading your blog and processing your perspective. And do not worry about participating – you do not disappoint. And go be quite frank it is very suiting to your character. 😊


  2. Reblogged this on Lost Dudeist Astrology and commented:
    Very impressive article. I am a fan of Jung, also, and some of his ideas underly my approach to astrology. (I am also a fan of Adler.) Lost Dudeist Astrology (LDA) was begun on the premise of exploring the shadow side. So I routinely post an item here or there that might irritate some readers (e.g. pinups). And I reblog Tarot content here. I could say more, but then it would turn into an article. (Maybe I should do that.) Again, GREAT piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is great “The shadow is the unactualized portion of the psyche. It is everything that a person had the potential to be but chose not to be, everything a person is but is unwilling to admit she is, and everything a person wants to be but doesn’t think she can.” I don’t know anything about shadow work, but this has stimulated an interest for me. I started on your blog site at a recommendation of your blog on determinism, and now I can’t stop reading your other blog posts, which are brilliant and challenging, particularly to my intellect lol, but well worth the effort.


    1. Thank you so much! I’m always glad to hear that other people read and enjoy my ramblings. I worry about being too intellectual sometimes, or about being so caught up in my own head that the things I write won’t make sense to anyone else. I’m glad you’ve found something of value here on my little corner of the internet.


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