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.

8 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. Trip says:

    I know this is a really late comment, but I dreamt that I was working at a restaurant or something in my home town. Every time I walked through the parking lot, a skeletal figure with white features and a dark aura kept appearing and talking to me. He wouldn’t hurt me. I think he might’ve chased me if I ran but for the most part he would just appear and say things to scare me, never laying a hand on me. I did, however, attack it multiple times, one time leaping onto him and slamming my fist against his head. It never had any effect; nothing I did could hurt him, but he never hurt me. What does this all mean ?

    • Dr. Howlin says:


      Thank you for visiting my site. Since you reached me through my blog post on the shadow, I also recommend reading a good little book on the shadow by Jungian analyst Robert Johnson. The book is called, “Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche.” Thanks for the comment and for sharing your dream.

      Dr. Howlin

  3. Alicia velazquez says:

    Okay so I was at an old apt I lived in when I was a teenager and then I walk outside through the back door and I there’s a lot of people and I go to the playground to talk to so more people and suddenly 3 peoples eyes go black and their faces get ever scarier and then I start to go back into the apt through the door but when I turn around everyone’s eyes turned black and their faces were scary and I close the door to them and then I randomly start looking at pictures and in every picture a shadow moves and leaves the picture and then suddenly I’m older looking at the same picture in a beautiful home and I have 2 children one boy one girl and the shadow stabs my son first and I didn’t hear him scream but I heard him drop tot he ground and I saw the shadow so I ran to my little girl thinking I can save her at least but he got to her before I could and after he stabs her he throws the knife at me & then I get the knife and try to cut him but he vanished and some black lady I think she was my nanny for the kids or something sees my son dead and she cries and then I hold my daughter crying and telling her to wake up and then I woke up ….

  4. jj says:

    I dreamt of a dark shadow following a girl behind me. The dark shadow wants to do harm to the girl and I heard a voice calling out to me to turn my back because the dark shadow wants to steal the girl..I grabbed the girl’s hand and so do the shadow.. I faced the shadow like fighting it like staring at it fiercely though inside i am terrified… I say a prayer and the dark shadow was gone.. what does it mean?i hope u can help me .

  5. Jax says:

    I had a dream of fighting a dark tall shadow it was a rather violent fight. I was being tossed into things but kept getting up and running at it. The figure was tall ans had long arms but other than that no other features. I didn’t feel like I was losing but no winning. I was saying the “Hail Mary” prayer each time I attacked. The shadow figure had reach but i felt like i could overtake him despite this fact.
    any ideas?

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Thanks for visiting my site Jax. There is a good little book on the shadow in dreams called; Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. The book is by Jungian analyst Robert Johnson. It may provide some insight. Take care Jax.

      Dr. Howlin

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