Fighting with the Shadow: An Ethological Approach

We can learn much by observing and studying animal behavior in a natural environment. Witnessing raw, unedited scenes of animal behavior can give us clues on how to approach raw, unedited images that occur in our psyches.

But before I talk further about using an ethological approach to help illustrate a psychological idea, I want to briefly discuss a concept that is unique to Jungian psychology—the construct of the shadow. The shadow is a prominent archetype that is central to the Jungian process of individuation—the process toward wholeness and individuality.

The shadow is an archetype and an unconscious part of the personality that ends up as the depository of those aspects of ourselves that we find disagreeable. This “disagreeableness” may be due to one or more of a combination of cultural, societal, or family factors that influence (often negatively) developing parts of our personalities. These rejected traits end up in the shadow and are often projected onto others so that we do not need to engage with these disturbing, castaway parts of ourselves.

Unfortunately, when we choose to remain unconscious of our shadow—to not deal with it—we limit our potential greatly, in part, because the shadow also contains creative potential. Furthermore, not integrating our shadow can even do damage to those around us because we tend to project these shadow contents onto others quite easily.

For instance, imagine a teenager who has a budding interest in painting. But because she has “friends” who tease her about this, she gives up on these interests. Later in life, she sees artists as impractical and “out of touch” with reality. She then projects these disowned parts of herself onto others. When she starts to explore this in therapy, and acknowledges her shadow, an untapped creative energy enters into her life along with associated excitement.

Oftentimes, when a person enters Jungian psychotherapy, shadow imagery through dreams and/or behavior enters the therapeutic dialogue rather quickly. A male client, who at the time was a young man in his twenties and just starting psychotherapy, had the following shadow dream:

I was running being chased down by a giant man-like creature that wanted to kill me. I barely made it into safety at the last minute.

In dreams, shadow figures are symbolized as dream characters that are the same sex as the dreamer. In the above dream, the twenty-something man had in real life been running from his shadow. He had not been embracing the developmental tasks that were coming up for him, which in this case, had to do with him committing to a more masculine and fully committed approach to his life and work.

About a year ago, while out hiking in a Rocky Mountain valley in the early winter, I came upon a herd of deer, with two large bucks fighting. When two male deer fight like this they are fighting for dominance and claiming territory. The fights are rarely fatal, but serve as more of a ritualistic “dance” with the function of establishing a “pecking order” thereby bringing more harmony to the deer herd.

It was captivating to watch the deer fight close-up and I was able to capture the display with my camera. The photographs, when arranged in sequential order, illustrate symbolically what can occur when we begin to confront our shadow. Often when we engage the shadow, it actually feels like a real fight.

The below photographs depict how nature can teach us about the shadow through vivid and specific imagery. The raw imagery found in nature can sometimes more fully engage the instinctual part of the psyche. Because of this, nature scenes can both teach us about ourselves and leave a deeper imprint.

#1 "pre-shadow" work

#1 “pre-shadow” work

Photograph #1 above with two male deer seemingly going about their own business oblivious to one another is illustrative of a “pre-shadow” work stage when we are unaware that we even have a shadow.

#2 "the challenge"

#2 “the challenge”

Photograph #2 I have titled “the challenge.” The deer on the right holds his head in a posture that challenges his opponent, as if to say, “here I am.”  In the process of Jungian psychotherapy, it is common to see the shadow act “as if” it is actually challenging us. The buck on the left is busily grazing and appears not real sure if he is ready to take up the challenge.

#3 "the face off"

#3 “the face off”

Photograph #3 is “the face off.” Both deer seem to have agreed to fight. This illustrates the beginning of shadow work when we have recognized that the shadow actually exists.

#4 "the fight"

#4 “the fight”

Photograph #4 I have titled “the fight.” The deer have locked antlers and have started to fight.  In Jungian psychotherapy, this would be the time when we decide to engage and struggle with our shadows. This phase has the potential for us to be both a difficult and a rewarding time.

#5 "harmony"

#5 “harmony”

Photograph #5 is post-fight with greater harmony being the reward for fighting and establishing a more secure “pecking order.” When we integrate parts of our shadows, it helps us to integrate important cast-off parts of our personalities that can point toward wholeness and greater creativity.

#6 "synthesis and union"

#6 “synthesis and union”

Photograph #6 I have called “synthesis and union.” In the photo, the male buck is walking away with a female after the fight. In Jungian psychotherapy, this illustrates symbolically what can occur after we wrestle with and incorporate more fully parts of our shadows. This can be a rewarding stage in therapy often associated with the more “positive” emotions.

My client’s above dream about being chased by a man-like creature that wanted to kill him is a common shadow-themed dream. The man-like creature/image from the dream really does “want a fight” so to speak. In the dream’s ending, the young man made it to safety “at the last minute.” Facing the shadow in dreams and in life, and not running away, is usually the best strategy for psychological growth.

Like the harmony that can be found in a herd of deer after two bucks fight and the subsequent establishment of a  “pecking order,” the various parts of the human psyche like the shadow, when acknowledged, have the potential to bring about more harmony and less conflict. In other words, you can accept your shadow with its creative potential or be chased down by your shadow with its destructive potential.


© 2013, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in anima, animus, Archetypes, Biology, Dreams, Ecopsychology, Editorial, Imagery, Individuation, Nature, Psychotherapy, Shadow, Symbolic and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Fighting with the Shadow: An Ethological Approach

  1. Matthew moon says:

    I dreamt of a large mass of shadow in my dream. It was not apparent to the eye, but I was aware this shadow was with me in the darker parts of the landscape. I chased the shadow down , constantly hitting it with light from a flashlight . The shadow would shrink, and just before disappearing, scurry to another dark corner to regain its mass. I turned every light available to me on and continued to hunt the shadow, warning those around me. I awoke after one of the many times I pinned it in a corner and attempted to destroy it with light. I would love an appreciate any insight on this. Thank you.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hello Matthew,

      Thanks for visiting my website and blog and for sharing a dream. Though I cannot discuss this dream in detail since I don’t know the particulars of your life, I can make a general comment. This appears to be Jungian “shadow” dream and seems to be saying that no matter what you try, you can’t “beat the shadow down,” even with light. The concept of the shadow is an extremely important one in Jungian psychology. Usually the best way to begin with the shadow is by first acknowledging its presence. Doing this with a good therapist who is familiar with Jungian concepts can be one of the best ways to accomplish this developmental task. I recommend a couple of good books on the shadow; 1) Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert Johnson, and 2) Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams.

      Dr. Howlin

  2. Ann says:

    I Dream fighting with a shadow not my reflection, but it do not fight back, i call my sister to see it also but no.reaction. then i woke up.

  3. Josh says:

    A while back I would have the same dream every time I went to sleep, and no matter where I slept my dream would match the setting of the room and in my dream I would wake up from wherever I was sleeping feeling alarmed, I would then be attacked by a shadow. The shadow and I would begin to fight after it attacked me. In the dream I knew the shadow was me. Then I’d wake up in a sweat every morning at around 2:00 A.M. I’d appreciate your advice on this

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hi Josh,

      I am not able to comment in-depth about dreams in this format, however, a good little book on the shadow that I recommend is by analyst Robert Johnson. The title of the book is, “Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche.” Thanks for stopping by my blog Josh.

      Dr. Howlin

  4. Kim says:

    I haven’t had dreams of shadow fighting but during my quite time the Holy Spirit said you have been shadow fighting?
    I asked what’s that? You’re fighting yourself.
    I have had negative thoughts of something happening to me several times a day, by a person, object or animal. I see the thing and from there it becomes an attack. I see one ant then it’s a mound attacking me. Riding a motorcycle with my husband I see the person at the bus stop then I see them attacking with a bat. I feel I have potential but rarely speaks up in meetings but I feel anger and will show it
    Thank you I need help

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hi Kim,

      Thank you for reading this blog post. I am unable to comment in depth about your concerns in this type of format. However, if you are interested in working in more depth with any of the issues that you are bringing up, I recommend that you reach out to a Jungian psychotherapist or analyst in your area. Thank you for your comments Kim.

      Dr. Howlin

  5. Ina says:

    Hi, I saw a dream last night, and a part of it I was looking and near a small fence wall I regognized a black figure that had bad intentions, and that was there to do something bad at me.i was pleased with myself that I could regognized that shape in the dark as it was blended with the blackness of the night.
    went near and regognized, was someone I know,and had a form of a person,I started kicking it, and pushing her head to a stone in the floor,kept asking her, what have you done, what have you said and was trying to get answer, she said; it is mine.. it is mine,.I could feel that I was a blach shadow in dream as well, like it was a different side,.after bitten her up went on walking (I was like in a countryside) and in front of me now were four creatures, people but this time were colour and I was in danger again., there were there to kill me or something. I was very scared, and I couldn’t see myself but I know I was still a black shadow, and there were in each corner of a building or something, but didn’t see the me it felt like they had to do with the shadow that a beat up earlier,and it was a trap for me .. The dream was like it was spirits word, and everything was different realm, and in I have problem in reality,with the person that I was bitten up in my dream,and she is a evil person in real life.i don’t know what this dream means, and would appreciate any interpretation of it, based in those limit details, I woke up when I sow them four as someone was calling me and I woke up from my dream

  6. Xxxx says:

    I had a dream I was with a woman, and I myself am a straight woman. She had been sexually harassed by her father and I was comforting her. (I have never been sexually harassed). Suddenly a kid like shadow appears and it’s supposed to be our son, me and the woman’s. He starts chasing me and I try to tell him I’m his mother but he still wanted to kill me. I spat at him for some reason thinking it would make him stop but he eventually bit my head off.

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