Understanding the Shadow

By Michael Farnworth


farnworth-shadowIN HER BOOK Kitchen Table Wisdom Rachel Naomi Remen tells about a time her family was assembling a large jigsaw puzzle. Being only three or four at the time, she couldn’t really help, but she watched plenty. As she did, the darker puzzle pieces began to remind her of spiders and bugs, neither of which she was fond of. So when she was alone in the room, she would take a few of these scary pieces and hide them under the sofa cushions. She continued doing this for a week or so until her family’s progress on the puzzle came to a standstill. Frustrated, her mother counted up the pieces, discovered many were missing, and finally asked Rachel if she knew anything about it. Sheepishly, Rachel revealed over a hundred pieces hidden among the pocket change and pencils in the crevices of the couch. When the pieces were returned and the puzzle completed, Rachel saw that though the dark pieces had been distasteful to her by themselves, they were an essential part of completing the beauty of the puzzle’s image.

Similarly, human souls are made up of both light and dark pieces. In Mormon culture, we tend to either ignore or demonize the darker parts of ourselves. We talk about them as temptations from the devil and do everything we can to bury them. The problem is, doing so only results in these dark parts becoming more potent and volatile. Like the genie in the bottle, the longer they’re trapped, the angrier they become. Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung calls these parts of us “shadow energy.”

I spent the majority of my life obeying my culture’s insistence that I suppress my shadow energy. When I felt an impulse to do anything destructive or inconvenient, I was taught that it was a manifestation of the devil. And since I had decided early in life that I was going to be wildly successful, giving in to the devil was not an option. I remember as a thirteen year old telling my mother that I was going to grow up to be a lawyer in the morning, a professional golfer in the afternoon, and a jazz trumpet player at night. Following this grandiose path, I made my life into a living monument to goodness—but it was not a genuine goodness, it was a convenient, phony goodness meant to manipulate the people around me so that I could get what I wanted. I took on the role of family hero as I grew up because it was the best way for me to achieve a sense of validation and worth. I immersed myself in church assignments to further sculpt the image I unconsciously wanted to project.

But inevitably, the less socially constructive aspects of my soul would surface and I’d be told things like: “Don’t be selfish.” “Don’t be jealous.” “Don’t be stupid.” “Don’t be mean.” “Don’t be angry.” “Don’t be greedy.” “Don’t be silly.” “Don’t be disrespectful.” It was only many years later that I realized that when I heard these things, I heard: “Don’t be you!” I rejected and disowned the parts of my natural tendencies that were disapproved of, pushing them down into the darker regions of my personality, like young Rachel stuffing the dark puzzle pieces down into the folds of the couch. My ego took over and became the architect of my public personality, creating not a true personality, but, as Sogyal Rinpche put it, a “false and ignorantly assumed identity . . . a doomed clutching on . . . to a cobbled together and makeshift image of ourselves, an inevitably chameleon self.”

Eventually, I learned that this approach was a big mistake. It only took most of my life to awaken to that simple fact. My attempts at following my culture’s directions and trying to become perfect had made me into a distorted man. I was a puzzle pretending to be finished when in reality I was missing hundreds of pieces. I had not understood that when Jesus commanded us to be perfect, he was commanding us to be whole—dark parts and all.

But how was I to encounter my shadow energy, especially since it had been festering in my hidden places for such a long time? My first instinct was to do battle with it. After all, every time it had surfaced, I had gotten into trouble. But then I watched The Empire Strikes Back—not the first movie one would expect could change one’s life, but it did.

Toward the middle of the story, Luke Skywalker finds a cave that he senses is somehow “not right.” When he asks Yoda what lies inside it, Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.” Though Yoda tells Luke that he won’t need weapons in the cave, Luke takes his lightsaber anyway. Inside the cavern, he confronts Darth Vader and engages him in battle, eventually severing Vader’s head from his body. But as the head lies upon the ground, Vader’s mask dissolves to reveal Luke’s own face. Without knowing it, Luke had done battle with himself. And had lost.

Like Luke, we all have a preoccupation with power. We think we can control anything if only we exert ourselves enough, if only we sufficiently cow the enemy. American culture is steeped in this war mentality: we wage “wars” against drugs, terrorists, and poverty, and that slips over into our religion and our hymnals (“We are all enlisted,” “Hark! The sound of battle sounding loudly and clear,” “See the foe in countless numbers”). But I realized that if I used a war mentality while encountering my own shadow energy, I would only enhance its power to destabilize my life. Shadow energy needs to be integrated, not dominated. Political kingdoms may wage war and establish a winner and loser, but war within the soul brings only spiritual destruction.

This is what Jesus was saying when he taught us to “resist not evil.” To resist not evil does not mean to become evil but to allow it to claim its rightful place in this world.  As Chuang Tzu once wrote, “He who wants to have right without wrong, order without disorder does not understand the principles of heaven and earth. He does not know how things hang together.”

This was a very difficult idea for me to process, however. It went against everything my culture had taught me. It went against everything I had lived my life by. Later, when I was teaching at Ricks College, my students had similar difficulties. They resisted the idea of the shadow, being more comfortable interpreting it as the devil. It was an uphill battle to get them to entertain the idea that maybe the darkness in them had nothing to do with the devil but was rather a result of having partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, enabling them to know the bitter that they might prize the sweet.

I realized that when I confronted my own shadow, I would have to metaphorically leave my lightsaber behind and trust that the divine force within me would lead in the right direction. I needed to stop trusting in my own efforts, and instead surrender to God’s grace.

Despite this realization, the journey to integrate my shadow energy was a long and painful one. As Jung points out, acknowledging the shadow creates a problem: Your ego has worked for years to create the illusion that you are above the fray, that you are better than others, that you have no dark underbelly; the last thing it wants is a confrontation with your shadow side. As I encountered my shadow, I saw that the more energy I put into the encounter, the more energy my ego would put into creating an almost overwhelming sense of shame. Struggles like this lurked around every corner, and each left me exhausted, wondering if I had the strength to go on to the next. Sometimes I was overwhelmed by fear and contempt for what I was discovering, but I had made up my mind that the divine really was present inside me and that I could embrace God in every corridor of my inner kingdom. So the horrible excavation continued.

In her book The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, Debbie Ford helped me understand aspects of my shadow through a short assignment directing me to list three positive characteristics that I would be pleased to have extolled in the newspaper and three negative traits that I would do anything to keep out of the newspaper. Each set of traits I listed told volumes about my shadow self. For example, I described myself as generous, but I realized that I was generous partly to camouflage a deep selfishness. I found a number of these dualities, one attribute overreacting to its opposite.

Another way to identify one’s shadow energy is to list the things that irritate you about other people. What really sets you off? This list revealed a lot of the shadow energy I had been projecting onto other people. For example, I get easily upset with people who are self-righteous and arrogant. Shadow projection logic suggests that I have yet to accept and embrace my own self-righteous pride and arrogance.

During these spiritual confrontations, I learned to give up my pretentious role-play and embrace my entire self. I started to grieve for the years I had wasted being disconnected from myself. I had spent so much of my life being lost, so many years being my own worst enemy. It was difficult to abandon the ego I had put so much effort into molding. I had to own up to the fact that I wasn’t very good at anything, that I was just a scared little boy who was doing his best to meet the expectations of the ghost authorities that wandered the halls of his inner self. I grieved over letting go of the contrived goals and grandiose images of my success. I slowly gave up my attachments to the phony approval of people who wanted me to continue being a caricature. I could only engage in true spiritual healing if I was willing to integrate myself into a whole: the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the sweet and the bitter. I finally understood Jesus’s teaching about how a house divided against itself cannot stand. I could see for the first time how my soul had been fractured with messages of shame and guilt.

Many Latter-day Saints expend a great deal of psychic energy endeavoring to maintain a sense of perfection. And I was one of them. I thought that if I could just be good enough then I wouldn’t be a burden on Christ. But the perfection I was trying to cultivate was only vanity and pride. Until I embraced my shadow, I never understood my desperate need for salvation.


EVIL IS NOT the enemy of my soul—unconsciousness is. Carl Jung taught that “there is no consciousness without the discrimination of opposites.” Or as Lehi put it, “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” Repressing my shadow energy and projecting it onto others is what brings evil into the world. Unconscious projection of my own shadow qualities will always be easier than consciously assimilating them and allowing them a home. Staying asleep will always be more convenient than being awake. Christ recognized those who would not own their shadows, saying of them, “for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones.”

Carl Jung also taught that “there is no coming to consciousness without pain.” And, indeed, it was painful to awaken from my slumber and own up to my darkness. But I noted that the creation of the world came forth out of darkness. The atonement of Christ took place in darkness. The deliverance of a young Joseph Smith came forth out of a darkness that had overpowered him. My own physical birth came forth from darkness. And from my own darkness I can come forth into the light of consciousness. When I awakened to the shadow within me and gave it its rightful place in my heart, I was changed and redeemed in the process.

One comment

  1. I do consider all of the ideas you have offered on your post.
    They arre really convincing and can definiteky work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are too short for starters.
    May you please prolong them a bit from subsequent time?
    Thanks for the post.

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