Editor's Note: The Shadow

Return to Table of Contents


The Shadow is a term that is used frequently in gay spirit circles. It has a variety of meanings. With this issue of White Crane, we investigate some of these meanings. This topic has elicted a plethora of submissions--more than there is room for. As you'll see, there's practically no white space and few graphics in this issue. There'll be an addendum in a future issue (so if you get inspired by this topic, feel free to submit your responses).

The Shadow is a term from Jungian psychology that refers to the tendency of people to deny certain behaviors in themselves (because they think they're sinful, for instance, or embarrassing), and therefore become unconscious of how they sometimes still act out the behavior, but project it onto other people, interpreting the others' behavior as though it were motivated by what they are denying in themselves, and then often feeling compulsively angry, resentful or judgmental towards the others.

In a simpler way, The Shadow also just refers to the sides of ourselves we try to keep secret from other people, but are fully aware of, and may even be enthusiastic participants in. For a lot of gay men, for instance, interest in S/M sex, anonymous sex, promiscuity, public cruising, etc fall into this category. The Jungian idea, often embraced in gay-oriented and "new age" therapy and championed in gay cultural commentary, is that it is when all this stuff gets denied from consciousness that it can become compulsive and problematic. In therapy, meditation practice, and living fully actualized lives, people should let all this into consciousness in order to release psychic energy from it and so be able to choose or reject it consciously.

Yet another facet of The Shadow is the reality, obvious to gay men but compulsively opaque to most straight people, that the sexual sins that homosexuals get blamed for, especially child molestation and devaluating the family, are in fact behaviors of heterosexuals that the mainstream culture supports them in denying, like sexual attraction to their own children and loss of interest in their marriages. Their problems are projected onto us, the gay men whose lives are lived in the culture's Shadow. We get blamed for the culture's problems and laws get passed against us, but nobody actually addresses the real problems.

Shadow as Projection

The basic principle is that the things that bother one most in other people are traits one is likely to possess oneself.

This principle is liberating if it allows one to understand one's own motivation and see what to avoid. If it bothers you when other people are late for an appointment or gossip mindlessly, then you can recognize those tendencies in yourself and decide not to do them: don't be late for appointments and don't gossip.

The Shadow is a trap, however, when one fails to recognize the traits in oneself and projects them onto other people, blaming others for always being late while one's late onself, condemning others for gossiping in the very process of gossiping about them.

This has been acted out large in the political arena of late. People in particularly polarized situations--like politics or religion--find themselves particularly susceptible to the dynamics of the Shadow. Not to take sides, but isn't it obvious that something's amiss when Republican politicians berate the Democrats for what they call "the politics of personal destruction" while they themselves have been organizing a campaign to destroy Bill Clinton's character by dredging up every personal peccadillo they can find?

Pointing out the hypocrisy of such behavior is one of the things Jesus got in trouble for with the Pharisees. He complained about the people who fuss over the mote in their neighbor's eye while ignoring the plank in their own.

The goal of recognizing the bothersome traits in yourself is to move you to compassion, loving kindness, and therefore forgiveness. When you cease to blame others, the bothersome behavior will disappear--or at least become less bothersome.


Shadow as the Royal Road to the Unconscious

Jungian psychology hypothesizes that human beings generally repress one of the four functions of the psyche into unconsciousness, so that while it continues to influence behavior it does so without the person actually realizing it. The aim of Jungian therapy is to bring the repressed function into consciousness. The four functions are: Sensing, Intuiting, Thinking, Feeling. These are the ways of gathering information (by observation or just "knowing it") and evaluating it (by rational analysis or by emotional response). The repressed, "inferior" function is usually the opposite of the dominant function. Hence, thinking types usually aren't conscious of feelings and experience feelings as odd, discomforting compulsions that make them behave in ways they think they shouldn't. Sensing types, likewise, don't understand intuition and think believing in airy-fairy things like mysticism is silly; they tend to become dogmatic and opinionated about the very things they think silly in others.

In Jungian theory, The Shadow refers to traits repressed into the unconscious. The Shadow shows up in people's lives as compulsive feelings of disapproval and disgust at others' behavior. Jung said that because these feelings are so powerful, they are a great place to begin to look into the person's unconscious and thereby to bring their inferior function into consciousness. The Shadow is the window into the unconscious, the signpost to the royal road to individuation and full consciousness (and consequently freedom from compulsions and sources of unhappiness).


Shadow as Internalized Homophobia

In the gay world, Shadow has another sort of meaning, parallel to the Jungian but with a different emphasis. Here it refers to so-called internalized homophobia, our tendency to accept the mainstream culture's disapproval of sex in general and homosexuality in particular and then to judge ourselves badly and repress our sexual feelings into unconsciousness so that we experience them as compulsions and uncontrollable urges. Such negative self-judgment results in depression and rigidity.


Shadow as Attitude and Karma

Gay cultural jargon calls one manifestation of this unconscious, compulsive rigidity "attitude." This is the bad behavior gay men so often demonstrate toward one another. Attitude arises from fear of other people's attraction; it's a defense mechanism for avoiding the webs of karma that permeate gay sexual space. The mythological/mystical term, "webs of karma," refers to the phenomenon that we get back from others what we put out. In the gay bar, for instance, we often experience that the men we're attracted to are not attracted to us and the men who are attracted to us we're not attracted to! The rejection we put out comes back to us as rejection of us.

Projection of our own pickiness makes us see others as picky. Their pickiness confirms our negative self-judgments and annoys us and justifies our feeling picky back, hence "attitude."

Shadow as Resistance and Mode of Creation

The Shadow arises from resistance to the way things are. It is founded in the passions of fear, desire, and anger. In Buddhist iconography these are represented as a snake, a rooster, and a barking dog chasing one another round and round in the "daisy chain" that generates the world.

According to The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment and, though with different terminology, A Course in Miracles, resistance is what creates the world as we see it. In the jargon of est and the new age: What you resist persists; what you become conscious of disappears.

Life is constantly changing. New experiences are offered us constantly. Because out of fear, desire, and anger we tend to resist what comes up for us, we keep finding the same things repeating themselves. Our resistance prevents us from moving on and experiencing new and greater joy.

This presents us with a curious corollary: The things in the external world that bother us and block us from joy and progress are literally created (at least in our subjective world of experience) by our own resistance. Hence, we'd have to conclude, the reason the Religious Right behaves so badly toward us is because we repress our guilt feelings and project the repressive anti-gay feelings onto them.

Of course, at the same time, they are projecting their anti-sex feelings and guilts onto us. We look like ogres to them because they don't rejoice in their own incarnation (with its fleshly desires and pleasures). And they look like ogres to us because we resist our own incarnations ourselves.

While on the surface, of course, we must argue and debate with them because of the influence they have on society, the way we truly get them to change is by transforming our experience of them by recognizing them as projections of our own shadows, forgiving ourselves and thereby forgiving them.

As we recognize our shadows and release the psychic energy, we will discover that the things in the world we don't like or having been resisting or hoping will change will, in fact, resolve themselves and disappear just in the course of life itself.

The answer to the Shadow is to love life, to love as much as you can from wherever you are. And when you see things you don't like--homophobia in political leaders or attitude in the pretty men in the bars--just say: I love life the way it is and I love myself for not liking it this way, after all, it's only this way because it needs to be loved.

That's the mystical way to transform experience and save the world. In that sense, your shadow is the signpost that points the way on your Hero's Journey of saving the world.

Last update Dec 15 2000