The encounter with the Shadow: a key moment on the journey to individuation

The encounter with the Shadow: a key moment on the journey to individuation

wolf of wall streetThe shadow, Applied Jungian Psychology, The Wolf of Wall Street

Discussion about the shadow can be split into three broad categories:

Everything has a shadow – more specifically, every choice, every action, and every encounter, carries within itself a shadow. This is the simple idea that what is explicit, what is seen, what is manifest holds an implicit opposite. Our intentionality is directed to the “object” in a specific fashion. The philosopher John Searle describes it as consciousness having an “aspectual” character. Whenever we contemplate any phenomenon we assume a conscious perspective – this is an a priori condition of cognition. We apprehend phenomena under a specific description; in much the same way as a work of art captures what it is representing under a specific aspect or perspective. However this perspective excludes its own opposite. Where I see opportunity, these is also loss, where I see value there is also disvalue, where I see life, there is also death. The inverse applies as well, where I see only loss there is also almost certainly the seeds of new birth, or at least the possibility of new birth. 

The archetypal shadow which is the inherent duality of existence so well recognised in the Eastern Tradition. All phenomenal existence has a shadow, as the Buddha put it to live is to suffer, or at least that suffering is germane to being alive. Jung conceived of this by crediting not only good but evil, as well, with substantial existence.

The personal shadow – that is the focus of this article and is typically the point of focus of all depth psychology. Simply the investigation into the aspect of the subject’s psychology that “has been left behind”, that is the subject or suppression, repression or simply an absence of expression.


The personal shadow

The hypothesis that lies at the heart of this theory is that each of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances has a substantial degree of dark matter in his or her soul. This “dark matter” can and very often is conceptualised in the paradigm of depth psychology as unconscious content. That is to say that no normative (moral) value is assigned to the content – it is simply the recognition that no personality is fully conscious, explicit and, consequently, fully expressed. The other conceptualisation of this “dark matter”[1] is that of an uncivilised, uncultured and, to some degree, uneducated, dimension of the personality. This aspect of our psychology is constituted by our primary and primitive drives, in psychoanalytic terms: the sexual drive, the death drive and the will to power. These drives are, predictably, manifest as selfish, avaricious, hedonistic, sensual and aggressive (sadistic and masochistic) impulses.

There is however an additional, not insignificant, layer to shadow work in Jungian psychology that offers redemption. Not only is the shadow rude and crude, but it also contains the capacity for beauty, love and, counter-intuitively, great morality. It is presumably this hidden treasure that motivates us to undertake the journey into our own personal Hades. Engaging with and assimilating into consciousness significant aspects of the shadow leads to an expansion and revitalisation of the ego (conscious position) which has over time become stale and petrified. The assimilation of shadow content breaks up this prettification by challenging the dominant ideology and identity of the ego. The eventual goal of the work being the expression of a more balanced and more honest identity; one that is sincerely engaged with the vitality and internal ethic of the shadow whilst not throwing over the conscious ethos. The Hegelian model is appropriate here:

Thesis (conscious ego position) vs. antithesis (unconscious shadow position) , when meaningfully engaged in confrontational dialogue these two positions (ideally) resolve into a synthesised third position.

Obviously this Hegelian model is an idealisation[2] because this is an on-going dialectical relationship and to a degree antagonism between the ego and the shadow – it is dynamic and fluid never eaching a 0 point. This very antagonism is a creative and life giving process and the process that makes this engagement so worthwhile. Its goals being nothing less than renewed life, greater authenticity, a lived morality and the possibility of (psychological) freedom – that is being able to make choices with a full(er) understanding of what motivates those choices.

Working with the shadow can be described as two parallel, partly independent, psychic movements. The one has to do with the owning of desire and other of desire’s limit- our mortal finitude.

The Wolf of Wall Street and desires that live in the shadow

The expression of raw unadulterated and unmitigated desire is brilliantly captured in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie is based on the biographical work of Jordan Belfort.  It depicts the meteoric rise and predictable fall of the unscrupulous Wall Street trader. In his excessive and at time gratuitous appetites Belfort (brilliantly acted by Leonardo DeCaprio) mirrors the era and culture that was Wall Street and raw American capitalism during the eighties and nineties.

There is a particularly compelling speech given by “Belfort” in the movie that captures the essence of the ethos he lived. a speech to motivate his team just prior to listing a new IPO (initially public stock offering). What follows is an extract of that speech. I hope you will forgive the proliferation of expletives and imagine De Caprio at his most compelling and charismatic in front of an office of money drunk young traders – to a get a  sense of the tone

“I want everybody to look down. See that little black box in front of you? It’s called a telephone. Now I’m gonna let you in on a little secret about this telephone — it won’t dial itself! That’s right — until you take some action, it’s nothing more than a worthless hunk of plastic, like a loaded M16 without a trained Marine to pull the trigger. And in the case of the telephone, it’s the action of you, a highly trained Strattonite, a killer who will not take no for an answer! A person who will not hang up the phone until his client either buys or fucking dies! 

I don’t care if you graduated from Harvard or Bumfuck University or never got past fourth fucking grade! That phone is the great equalizer! 

There is no nobility in poverty. I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor and I choose rich every time. At least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of a limo wearing a $2000 suit and $40,000 gold watch!  

And if anyone here thinks I’m crazy, get the fuck out and get a job at McDonald’s, because that’s where you fucking belong! But before you depart this room full of winners, I want you to take a good look at the person next to you, because one day in the not-so distant future, you’ll be sitting at a red light in your beat-up old Pinto, and that person’s gonna pull up in a brand new Porsche, with their gorgeous young wife with her luscious tits at their side. And who will you be next to? Some ugly beast with three days of razor-stubble in a sleeveless moo-moo, crammed in next to you with a carload of groceries from the fucking Price Club! 

So you listen to me and listen carefully. Are you behind on your credit card bills? Good. Pick up the phone and start dialing. Is your landlord threatening to evict you? Good. Pick up the phone and start dialing. Does your girlfriend think you’re a fucking loser? Pick up the phone and start fucking dialing! I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich! I want you to go out and spend money! Leverage yourself, back yourself into a corner, let the consequences of failure become so fucking unthinkable that you’ll have no choice but to do whatever it takes to win!

Be ferocious! Be telephone fucking terrorists!!


Now let me concede that this is not a pretty, lofty, noble or in any way inspirational speech – unless of course one is governed by a similar ethos. It is manipulative, crass and expresses greed of the kind that has led the world into some very dark places. However it has a got a few things going for it that I want to highlight. It is an honest expression of the greed and will to power that live in the shadow. And in Belfort’s speech he owns these qualities, he is speaking directly to the shadow, he is bypassing the idealised ego and talking directly to the animal and there is something very compelling about that – because it is, if nothing else, very honest. 

My suggestion here is that there is something in all of us (as long as we are still alive) that can identify with this way of thinking. Some more than others, and what this “golden chalice” looks like varies across cultures, gender, and individuals, but we all in some form aspire to the ring of power. We all want “to win” to be “numero uno”, to have, to posses, to conquer. And this is a not unimportant, if less than respectable, aspect of our personhood. And the idea in psychoanalytic terms is that this lives in us anyway and is expressed through our actions, omissions and projections whether we choose it or not. But that as long as it is unconscious it has the capacity to wreck havoc in our lives, to delude us, to engender an inauthentic way of being in the world. Making it conscious does not mean we need to live it, at least hopefully not in the way that Belfort and the type of capitalist he speaks for does – as a global community we are paying the price for that excess of greed. But by owning it, the opportunity to map a way forward from a place of honestly, authenticity and (real) integrity exists.  

This is the question and in a sense the challenge I have for you. Is it possible to ask yourself the question: what is my heart’s my deeply felt desire? And to hear an answer in response that is not the voice of your parents; nor from the parish priest, not your aunty Agatha but an answer that comes from a place of honesty, from the beast that lives in you and that ergo you are?  Now to be clear, this does not mean you are obliged to give expression to it – you may need to oppose it, but that you are immeasurably better off knowing your desire than its being unconscious. How you chose to give it expression is a complex issue and goes beyond the scope of this article.  


Impotence, inadequacy and shame 

The other aspect of the shadow, I want to highlight, is our shame at our inadequacies. There is tremendous pressure on us in this world to strive, to achieve, to outdo – simply to perform. So when we fail to live up to this edict from the superego the most natural response is one of shame.  We then fall into the trap of not only feeling shame about our inadequacies, but feeling obliged to cover this shame or to compensate for it by expressing its opposite.

I feel weak – so I pretend to be strong, strength becomes my guiding principle, even when it does not serve me or others. James Hollis puts this very well when he says that at some point in our lives that which was developed to cope with our (perceived) shortcomings itself becomes the problem. We develop coping techniques as adaptation to adverse circumstances (either inner or outer) and later on it is just these adaptations that hinder our development, that hold us back from being all we are capable of. These shameful aspects of the personality form fragmented entities (or complexes) and the journey to wholeness and to reclaiming the shadow is to reintegrate those aspects that have “broken off” from the main body of the personality. This is really the central project of most psychoanalysis, identifying, articulating, understanding, accepting and assimilating these fragmented parts of the personality. 


The id – superego standoff

There is then something of quite a malevolent nature in the id – superego standoff that fragments the personality, and it is these fragments that (amongst other things) constitutes a significant part of the shadow. We are given desires and prohibitions against those desires in equal measure. There is a speech given by John Milton (aka the devil)  in the Devil’s Advocate that is a protest against “God”, however for our purposes substitute the superego here, that captures this inherent splitting we are subjected to.

Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do, I swear for His own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time.

 Look but don’t touch.

Touch, but don’t taste.

Taste, don’t swallow.

Ahaha. And while you’re jumpin’ from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He’s laughin’ His sick, fuckin’ ass off! He’s a tight-ass! He’s a SADIST! He’s an absentee landlord! Worship that? NEVER!

The act then of integrating the shadow or at least of coming to terms with it is a project requiring some finesse and not a little cunning. One is obliged to recognise one’s desires, one’s ambitions, and one’s fantasies and simultaneously understand the limits of one capacities and the prohibitions of one’s (authentic) morality. It is a project then that can and I would say does, at least for those who are sincere in engaging with it, test your moral fortitude to its maximum.

Is it worth it you ask – well what do you think?

Until we speak again,




[1] This term “dark” and its various expressions, shadow, black, etc. is shared with cosmology but has the additional dimension in Jungian psychology of denoting something negative, primitive and inferior. There is an obvious problem with the regrettable but unintended transitivity of this light –dark dyad into skin colour, which suggests an elevation of the white over the black or light over dark. Whatever the complex aetiology of this semantic inheritance may be it is one that the author and contemporary Jungian study distances itself from.

[2] Like any model in science.

Share this post

Comments (5)

  • Allan Cohen Reply

    Thanks Stephen,
    This article helps me put my concepts into clear bite size boxes to revisit later.,I’ve my shadow that I hate accepting and dealing with

    February 5, 2014 at 12:29 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      My pleasure Allan, glad it helped to clarify things. Shadow work is never easy, but usually well worth the effort.

      February 5, 2014 at 1:44 pm
      • Gail Townsend Reply

        Thank you Stephen for this

        February 28, 2014 at 4:53 pm
  • lyn peel Reply

    Whereas I’m not seeking comfort in learning from this course I am wondering just how wild a ride it will turn out to be!

    Thank you

    April 21, 2015 at 8:47 am
  • IamIamnot Reply

    An outright war of opposing sides from within, that enivitably results in no other way out then through the valley of a very painstaking process of defeat and surrender.
    For those that embark on the path, congratulations as well as sincere condolences.

    July 30, 2023 at 10:52 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *