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What Is the Shadow Archetype?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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The shadow archetype is the unconscious side of a personality that a person represses. This term was first coined by Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist who practiced in the early 20th century. In literature and film, this archetype is a powerful prototype that represents the dark forces of human nature.

Carl Jung theorized that human beings have a set of shared unconscious, instinctual psychological ideas that are passed down from generation to generation regardless of the culture. Called the collective unconscious, these thoughts and instincts are expressed as archetypes and can influence a person’s behavior without his or her conscious knowledge. An example is the shadow archetype.

The shadow archetype is supposedly the reservoir of repressed urges and emotions that are expressed outwardly in the conscious mind as the very aspects a person dislikes about himself or herself. As the word shadow implies, this archetype is often seen to be a dark force. When a person looks inward and glimpses emotions or behavioral tendencies that are frowned upon by society, he or she may choose not to recognize the behavior as a natural part of the personality. Anger, selfishness, violent tendencies, the quest for unbridled power, and some sexual impulses are examples of the type of behavior a person may choose not to acknowledge.

In literature, a classic example of the shadow archetype is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886. Mr. Hyde is the ugly, murderous personality that emerges after the affable Dr. Jekyll develops an experimental drug he tests on himself. Many times in literature and film, however, the shadow archetype is not the complete bad guy. The character of Batman is one example since he might be the savior of the city of Gotham, but he is also viewed as a dark force, barely able to keep his anger and love of power under wraps. He has grappled with his demons and therefore is better able to control them.

According to Jung, people must unite their conscious self with their unconscious drives and instincts in order to be psychologically healthy and lead fulfilling lives. The more aware a person is of his or her shadow archetype, the more control he or she can exert over the dark impulses that it engenders. According to psychologists, however, most people are afraid to confront their darker side, and they often project their faults onto other people instead.

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Discussion Comments
By donasmrs — On Mar 21, 2013

@burcidi-- I don't agree with you about the shadow archetype not being negative. It is negative, it's terrible and that's why we repress it.

Jung believed that each person has a light side and a dark side. The dark side, or the shadow, is everything that we dread to see in ourselves. But this doesn't change the fact that it's there.

The shadow includes emotions of destruction, anger, jealousy, hate and so forth.

By burcidi — On Mar 21, 2013
@fify-- The shadow archetype makes more sense if you learn about the other archetypes that Jung described. He described many, but the major ones were the self, the shadow, the anima and the persona.

The self is your individuality and personality. The shadow is everything that is repressed. The anima is the true self and the persona is our social mask.

If you think of it within this context, you can see that the different archetypes represent different sides of us. There is a side that is our true self, free from the ego. There is a side that even we don't acknowledge, that's the shadow. There is a side that we show to the world.

So the shadow archetype is not necessarily totally negative. It's just the side of us that we don't usually think about or acknowledge. We repress it and ignore it.

By fify — On Mar 20, 2013

I don't quite understand what the shadow archetype is. Are these just negative qualities?

Does everyone have a shadow archetype or can you be free of it?

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