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The Shadow and the Guard: A Model of Psychological Transformation

Updated: Feb 23

As we develop in childhood, we are given certain ideas about what behaviors, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, bodies, etc. are acceptable or unacceptable. These ideas are reinforced by institutions like the systems of oppression, religion, education, family, and political influences. In

order to adapt to these ideas of what is acceptable, we shove into the personal shadow any of our behaviors that go against the externally imposed grain. In childhood, and using the very instinctively driven logic of a child’s mind, we do this to keep the love and connection we need to survive. We learn to present in ways that help us navigate our environments. The unacceptable parts of us are relegated to the darkness. They are made of darkness and left undeveloped and “young” because they have not been able to grow in light. Those dark, undeveloped parts don’t go away. Rather, they take up residence in the psychological shadow, which sits in the personal unconscious. In practical terms, they are parts of us that are inaccessible to us. They are qualities that were rejected or had some other consequence that was frightening or intolerable for our child self. That caused us to conclude that if we had those qualities, we would be rejected or have a terrible consequence.

People commonly think of the shadow as the part of us we don’t want to be or our negative qualities that we project onto others and then feel irritated by. While these things may be a part of the shadow, this description does not capture the nuances of shadow work. The concept of shadow and the integration of shadow involves much more than accepting that we have flaws that we may see mirrored in others. Indeed, the shadow is more often than not comprised of much needed, positive aspects of self. For example, a girl raised in a home where she was punished or shamed when she attempted to express herself with a strong voice would put her strong voice in the shadow. Subsequently, later in life, she may find herself frustrated that she freezes or cries whenever there is a time that she is dealing with an authority figure and would like to access her strong voice. When we look deeply at the idea of shadow and what it entails, it is complex. This is why I have devised the concept of the shadow AND the guard.

I believe that the guard must be included in any conversation about the shadow in order for us to better understand how it works in our lives. In our childhoods, we experiment with different behaviors and based on the reactions of attachment objects, like parents, teachers, and caregivers, we instinctively and emotionally decide what to shove into the shadow. Children MUST have the love and acceptance of their parents or caregivers for survival. Therefore, for a child, the decision to push something into the shadow is a decision made to survive. It feels so imperative that when the child shoves the aspect of self into the shadow, they then place a guard at the door with the following directive: “Do not, under any circumstances, ever let me into that door. And do not, under any circumstances, ever let that part of me come out here. If you do, I will die! No matter what I say, keep it there and don’t let it out!” The guard is there to keep us from the inaccessible parts of our self (our wholeness). In other words, your shadow is the rest of you, but undeveloped. In my model, guards use symptoms or psychological defenses to block us from the process of integrating those parts of us that were hidden away so long ago.

A lovely and lighthearted example of the shadow and the guard at work can be seen in the 2000 film Chocolat. In this film, the mayor of a town enforces very strict ideas of right and wrong, and shames anyone who does not comply to the extent that no one dare step out of line. A free-spirited woman moves into town and opens a chocolate shop. She does not follow the rules of the mayor, and does not accept the shame he flings in her direction. The woman’s freedom and unapologetic enjoyment of life call up up what I call guard behaviors in the mayor. Guard behaviors work to keep the status quo in the psyche.

When the psyche is locked in guard mode, it feels like the most convincing internal emergency. The pressure of that internal alarm system pushes the mayor into action that builds in intensity throughout the movie. He has difficulty sleeping, obsessive thinking about her, and plots to take her down. He becomes insistent on squashing the perceived threat of this woman’s freedom in life. We know it is the guard functioning because the mayor begins crossing his own moral boundaries and becomes increasingly devious and destructive. Interestingly, guard behaviors are often a reflection of the same tactics that were used by caregivers during childhood to motivate the pushing of parts of self into the shadow: shaming, dismissing, judging, and trying to make someone small and insignificant compared to rules and regulations. From one perspective we could see the mayor as playing out a drama from his psyche, stored from his childhood interactions with his caregiver, but now he has the power and will wield it. It would be easy to mistake the mayor’s destructive and devious behavior as his shadow qualities. However, this is the guard at work. The guard is using any means necessary to keep its directive and not let the undeveloped shadow qualities out into the life. It is important to remember that the guard is doing this because it believes it must in order for the mayor to survive.

In the climax of the film, the mayor’s efforts to sabotage the woman have failed repeatedly, and he is at his wits end. He becomes desperate to destroy the symbol of her freedom and indulgence – her chocolate shop with a beautiful, goddess-like display in the window. He breaks into the shop in the night, and begins an emotional demolition of this display. As the guard goes wild, some chocolate lands on the mayor’s face near his mouth. This is the moment he is actually faced with the shadow qualities in himself. He longingly looks down at his own face, and then finally gives in, licking the chocolate from his face. The guard falls. The shadow aspects of indulgence and freedom emerge with abandon. His act of vandalism becomes an act of free and unbridled consumption of the chocolate in the display. In the morning, he is found asleep in the window, covered in chocolate, his shadow revealed to all.

This scene is such an excellent example of the shadow and the guard because when the shadow comes into the light, it is undeveloped and immature. It goes wild and passes out in the window. It has no moderation, no brake pedal, no tact. It had been kept in the darkness so long, the light of consciousness could not reach it, so it was in the same developmental stage as when it was shoved into the shadow. This is reinforced in the manner in which the woman approaches the mayor after finding him in her display window. She shakes her head at him, knowingly, almost like a mother. She speaks kindly to him, and he sheepishly asks forgiveness, with a very child-like expression on his face. A new relationship begins. When the shadow has come into the light, it can begin to develop. The adult will learn through this humbling experience, that the shadow behaviors hidden so long ago are not actually that scary nor dangerous. They just need to breathe and live in the light with all of the other various aspects of self. Integration is circulation and healing. Shadow comes to light and begins circulating with other self-aspects and consciousness. With practice, the mayor will be able to indulge in enjoyment and pleasure with balance, tact, and brakes. He will gradually see that embracing this part of himself does not mean he will be irresponsible, rejected, or in danger. In fact, with more of the self in circulation, he will likely become a more compassionate human and leader. In addition, he will be more connected to his community, less lonely, and more capable of intimacy and closeness.

Self is the archetype of wholeness in Jungian psychology. It urges us toward the very situations and people we need in order to become more fully ourselves by reclaiming our inaccessible parts. The woman who owned the chocolate shop reflected that which was inaccessible to the mayor in himself, and that which he had been taught was bad and evil. He could not accept her living so freely what had never been accepted in himself. He projected onto her all the essentially positive emotions and behaviors he feared in himself. This psychological tangent was orchestrated by the self in order to bring the mayor face to face with this shadow.

The content of the personality determines how far one will have to be pushed into mayhem before the integration process is spurred forward. For example, had he been someone who had already done some shadow work and comfort with the process of psychological transformation, he may not have had such an extreme response to her presence. Or, if the original constricting events with caregivers in childhood had been less extreme, his guard may not have been as severe. His disruption may have been milder, thus leading to a less dramatic integration cycle. It might have played more like him being judgmental toward her in his mind, but gradually getting to know her, and eventually moving past his disdain for her simply by seeing that she is human like everyone else. But the size of his projection is directly reflective of the size of the shadow component needing integration. This was a big deal for him. Indulgence and freedom were deep in his shadow. The degree of intensity and the content of each person’s shadow is extremely unique, based on life experiences and the golden threads of our essential selves.

The shadow can be painful to face. Our guards are loyal and follow their directive well. The shadow can also be difficult to identify. It is in the unconscious, and as Carl Jung famously said in an interview, “The unconscious really is unconscious.” That means that we must live through these processes, complete with messiness and mishaps. That is part of the deal. After all, what do we have besides the stories we are living to develop ourselves?

Films are helpful in giving image-rich examples of a model in action. Once we know the model, we can begin to apply it to life. Life provides many opportunities for interactive shadow integration processes that arise naturally. We can use healthy expressive, creative, and therapeutic practices to navigate those situations with intention. For the woman who, as a child, shoved her strong voice into the shadow to survive and navigate her environment, uncomfortable emotions arise when she faces situations in adulthood in which she needs her strong voice. She finds herself crying and feels shame about this. The discomfort and tears are guard behaviors. We can see the guard as blocking the shadow content from joining us in life; in this case, keeping this woman’s strong voice inaccessible. As we work the shadow integration process, though, we can begin to see the guard showing up as a signal that a shadow integration process is needed. Ideally, with help from a therapist or other introspective practices, she can begin to describe what she is experiencing, and can link it to her childhood experiences. This can be so helpful because she can begin to distinguish between her child self reactions and her adult self who knows she needs her voice. It might be that she will have to feel that pain and grieve from her childhood experiences, express herself freely in the present, and provide herself with the support and encouragement she didn’t get as her brain was forming.

Creativity is another important part of intentional shadow integration to allow the unconscious to express the suppressed psychic content now so the inner parts can feel seen, and so the adult self can begin to have compassion for the part that is afraid to use her voice. Brain-based therapies like accelerated resolution therapy can also be helpful in untangling the neurological web woven by early trauma. It will take practice in more situations to use her voice, even when she feels shaky, and even if tears fall. Exposure therapy is part of the process. Speaking and then realizing that nothing terrible happened, even if she wasn’t as strong as she would have liked, gradually builds her self-confidence. The undeveloped part that has lived in the shadow begins to grow as it receives the care it always needed. The more she engages in going against the guard intentionally and loving herself through the discomfort that arises, the more her strong voice will transition from the shadow into the light of her life.

The more we consciously engage our stories with the goal of shadow integration, the more we gain comfort with the method. We can even come to recognize the discomfort we are feeling when engaged in guard behaviors, and be compassionate with ourselves as we feel the fears of our child selves desperately trying to avoid punishment or rejection. We might each have some chocolate display destruction moments in life, and then learn the psychological value of such times, apologize, change our behavior, and become more whole. The most we can do is grow our conscious method for shadow integration so that we can willingly participate in the process of becoming even more beautifully and humbly human than we were yesterday.

By Kyrai Antares, Ph.D.

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