The Psychodynamics of Shadow Integration

Shadow Integration

One of the main topics that get people interested in Carl Jung is the notion of shadow integration, for some unknown reason it was popularized by the term shadow work, even though Jung never uses this term a single time. If you want to research for yourself, in Carl Jung’s collected works, you’ll find the terms shadow assimilation or shadow integration.

I wrote this segment after spending a ridiculous amount of time on Google and YouTube researching everything I could on shadow integration. After watching about twenty videos, something was very obvious, maybe two of them had actually read Jung, the rest were just making up the wildest stuff. The main issue is that very few people understand the crux of Jungian Psychology, i.e., psychodynamics and the relationship between conscious and unconscious. Also, you’ll often hear people referring to “parts” or “aspects” of the personality, but no one talks about complexes. However, this idea is so central to Jungian Psychology that Jung himself refers to his work as Complex Psychology.

After this small intro, we’re gonna begin by exploring Carl Jung’s model of the psyche, a few key concepts, and finally diving deep into the process of shadow integration.

Carl Jung’s Model of The Psyche

Conscious Attitude

To start, we have to explore the most important concept, yet forgotten, in Jungian Psychology: conscious attitude. This is basically the Modus Operandi of an individual. In the conscious attitude, you’ll include a belief system, values, and patterns of behavior. It’s every psychological component that you use to filter and interpret your reality. Using a fancy word, your cosmovision.

“For us, attitude is a readiness of the psyche to act or react in a certain way […] The state of readiness, which I conceive attitude to be, consists in the presence of a certain subjective constellation, a definite combination of psychic factors or contents, which will either determine action in this or that definite direction, or react to an external stimulus in a definite (predetermined) way” (C. G. Jung – V6 – §687).

Another key component of someone’s conscious attitude is the Psychological Types and an Eros or Logos orientation (we’ll cover that in the animus and anima chapter). Lastly, to make things really complete, we also have to account for the persona. The sum of these different components will form someone’s conscious attitude. This may sound complex, but to make things really simple, think about your favorite character from a movie or TV show. Now, try to describe his values, beliefs, and how he tends to act in different situations. If you can spot certain patterns, you’re close to evaluating someone’s conscious attitude, and the shadow integration process will require that you study your own.


“The functional relation of the unconscious processes to consciousness may be described as compensatory, since experience shows that they bring to the surface the subliminal material that is constellated by the conscious situation, i.e., all those contents which could not be missing from the picture if everything were conscious” (C. G. Jung V6 – §843).

Now, it’s important to understand that the conscious attitude acts by selecting – directing – excluding, and that the relationship between conscious and unconscious is compensatory/ complementary. In that sense, everything that is incompatible with the conscious attitude and its values will be relegated to the unconscious. For instance, if you’re someone extremely oriented by logic, invariably, feelings and emotions won’t be able to come to the surface, and vice-versa. In summary, everything that our conscious mind judges as bad, negative, or inferior, will form our shadow.

Now, it’s important to make a distinction here, because people tend to think that the shadow is only made of repressed stuff, however, there are things in the unconscious that were never conscious in the first place, also we have to add the collective unconscious to this equation. Plus, the prospective nature of the psyche, but more on that later.

The Personal and Collective Unconscious

Jung’s model of the psyche divides the unconscious into two categories, the personal unconscious and the impersonal or collective unconscious.

The Personal Unconscious

“The Personal Unconscious contains lost memories, painful ideas that are repressed (I.e. forgotten on purpose), subliminal perceptions, by which are meant sense-perceptions that were not strong enough to reach consciousness, and finally, contents, that are not yet ripe for consciousness. It corresponds to the figure of the shadow so frequently met in dreams” (C. G. Jung – V7.1 – §103).

Unconscious contents are of a personal nature when we can recognize in our past their effects, their manifestations, and their specific origin. Lastly, the personal shadow is mainly made out of complexes.

The Collective Unconscious

In contrast, the collective unconscious consists of primordial images – archetypes. In summary, archetypes are an organizing principle principle that exists as a potential to experience something psychologically and physiologically in a similar and definite way. Archetypes are like a blueprint, a structure, or a pattern. They will evoke a typical thought pattern, a definite set of emotions, typical physical sensations, and definite symbolic representations. You’ll find an extensive description on  the archetypes chapter later.


“The tendency to split means that parts of the psyche detach themselves from consciousness to such an extent that they not only appear foreign but lead an autonomous life of their own. It need not be a question of hysterical multiple personality, or schizophrenic alterations of personality, but merely of so-called “complexes” that come entirely within the scope of the normal. Complexes are psychic fragments which have split off owing to traumatic influences or certain incompatible tendencies“ (C. G. Jung – V8 – §253).

Recapitulating, the most important concept is conscious attitude and everything that is incompatible with conscious values will go to the unconscious. For the conscious attitude to be adaptive and contain the unconscious, it has to be one-sided, that way it can develop further. However, this is a double-edged sword, because the more one-sided the conscious attitude gets the less the unconscious can be expressed. The more the unconscious contents are repressed, the more psychic energy they acquire, until they become complexes

Although complexes have repeating patterns and can be grouped around certain archetypes, like the mother or father complex, their nucleus will always be the individual experience. And that’s precisely what we have to focus on when dealing with the shadow, even if there are archetypes at play, we always have to understand how they are being expressed in an individual context. That’s why naming archetypes or intellectually learning about them is useless when dealing with the shadow. We have to focus on the individual experience and correcting the conscious attitude that’s generating problems.

The Personified Unconscious

“[…] For fundamentally there is no difference in principle between a fragmentary personality and a complex“ (C. G. Jung – V8 – §202).

As we’ve seen, complexes are autonomous. We tend to refer to them as “parts” or “aspects” of our personality, because the nature of the unconscious is to be personified. An interesting thing to add here is that we also experience the four functions and the animus and anima as complexes. A modern example of the effects of a complex is Bruce Banner and The Hulk. Bruce Banner aligns with the introverted thinking type. Plus, he has a very timid, quiet, and cowardly attitude. Naturally, this attitude would repress any expression of emotion and aggression. Hence, the Hulk, a giant impulsive and fearless beast fueled by rage.

The Right Attitude

“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features” (C. G. Jung – V12 – §29).

But here we have to take a step back because it’s easy to think that complexes are bad and evil and pathologize them. In fact, everyone has complexes and this is totally normal, there’s no need to panic. What makes them bad is our conscious judgments. We always have to remember that the unconscious reacts to our conscious attitude. In other words, our attitude towards the unconscious will determine how we experience a complex.

For instance, any expression of anger tends to be quickly judged as the works of satan, that’s why most people do everything they can to repress it, and the more we repress something the more it rebells against us. That’s why when it finally encounters an outlet it’s this huge possessive thing. When it’s finally over, we’re left with shame and regret. In reality, we must cultivate an open mind towards the unconscious and seek to see both sides of any aspect. Too much anger obviously can be destructive, however, when it’s properly channeled it can give us the ability to say no, place healthy boundaries, and provide us with the courage to end relationships that aren’t healthy.

When we allow one-sided judgments to rule our psyche, even the most positive trait can be experienced as something destructive. Nowadays, most people run away from their creativity because they think “It doesn’t serve to anything”, or “It’s not practical and it’s such a waste of time”. As a result, most people feel dry and uninspired, because they can’t let go, they have to be in control and rational all the time. The secret is to establish a relationship with these forsaken parts and seek a way of giving them a healthy expression. We achieve that by transforming our conscious attitude, this is the main objective of good psychotherapy. The problem isn’t the shadow, but how we perceive it. Therefore, the goal of shadow integration is to embody these parts in our personality and exert them in a conscious way. Because when these unconscious aspects can’t find a way of being consciously expressed, they can turn into symptoms.

The Puppet Masters

“The via regia to the unconscious […] is the complex, which is the architect of dreams and of symptoms” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §210).

Complexes are the real puppet masters behind every symptom and we can see its effects whenever we overreact to something when we’re taken by a sudden rage, anxiety, and even depression. As complexes can be grouped around certain patterns and archetypes, the most interesting thing is that they can produce typical thought and emotional, physical, and symbolic patterns. They are the sum of all experiences around a theme, like the mother and father complex. Also, complexes are the characters we see during our dreams, portraying our own psychological tendencies.

The crazy thing is that while complexes are unconscious, they have no relationship with the ego, so they can feel like a foreign body, something completely external pulling the strings. In some cases, this dissociation is so severe, that people believe it’s an outside spirit controlling them. In Volume 8, Jung says that “Spirits, therefore, viewed from the psychological angle, are unconscious autonomous complexes which appear as projections because they have no direct association with the ego“ (C. G. Jung – V8 – §585).

The Complex System

The most important thing to understand about complexes is that they distort our interpretation of reality and produce specific narratives. In that sense, neurosis means that a complex is ruling the conscious mind, now, you get trapped in a system and a storyline. Complexes have the power to shape our identity and consequently our whole lives. For instance, let’s take someone whose identity revolves around a victim complex. This person will fabricate an illusory narrative that “No one suffers like them” and “Nothing ever works for them”. They will start acting like that overly sensitive spoiled little kid, always complaining, and demanding that people cater to his every need. If you refuse to enable them, they throw a huge fit.

Now, complexes have a compulsive quality and will seek to recreate the same pattern over and over again. This means that this person will actively seek to place themselves in situations where they can be perceived as a victim. They will constantly harbor depressive feelings that prevent them from taking action, just like that kid who pretends to be sick to avoid going to school. When you come up with solutions, they quickly find every excuse imaginable trying to justify why this won’t work. They romanticize their own suffering because it gives them an illusory sense of uniqueness. They think that they’re so special that the world can’t understand them and common solutions are beneath them.

In reality, they don’t want it to work, they hang on to every excuse imaginable to avoid growing up, because while they are a victim, there’s always someone to blame for their shortcomings. While they play the victim card, they can secretly tyrannize everyone and avoid taking responsibility for their lives. This is so insidious, that they will shape every relationship they have with this same dynamic, and will even refuse to acknowledge positive qualities about themselves. Why? … Because this would change their identity, once you own positive traits, it becomes your duty to exert them in a conscious way.

In the end, you have to ask yourself brutally honest questions:

  • In which areas am I avoiding taking responsibility?
  • How many obstacles and excuses am I fabricating in order to remain childish?
  • Why do I want to seek labels of ineptitude?

The more you take ownership, the more you see yourself capable of taking agency. Looking for possibilities instead of obstacles changes everything.

The Most Powerful Question

Well, it’s obviously important to try to understand the story behind these patterns and we often devote a great time during therapy doing that. But without looking at the present moment and how we can move forward, this often gets people stuck in the past. In fact, many people get obsessed, because no “why” is ever satisfying enough. Going to the past is only half of the equation, now, we’re adults and we have to move forward. That’s why one of the most powerful questions we can ask is:

How am I contributing to this dynamic?

We just explored how complexes create an intricate system of thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and behaviors. If you find yourself living the same situations over and over again, it’s because an unconscious part of you is fueling this dynamic. That’s why you have to study your own system and ask yourself how you’ve been contributing to keeping this narrative alive. Most of the time we hang on to complexes in order to avoid change and take on new responsibilities. We avoid facing that we’re the ones producing our own suffering. Yes, I know it’s painful, but this realization can set you free. The shadow integration process demands that we take full responsibility for our lives, and in doing so, we open the possibility of writing new stories.

Rafael Krüger – Jungian Therapist

Read Next: The Mother and Father Complex – The Journey To Adulthood

Start your journey with Katabasis – The Shadow Integration Manual

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