American Shadow: Healing our wounds, facing our grief

American Shadow:
Healing our wounds, facing our grief
by Carolyn Baker, Ph.D.

The term shadow, first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, was a poetic as well as a psychological term. For Jung, the shadow was not a literal aspect of the mind or personality. Rather, it was the impulses, emotions, thoughts, and fantasies that humans banish from consciousness because they perceive them as unacceptable and incongruent with the image they wish to maintain in the world.
— from "Dark Gold: the Human Shadow and the Global Crisis" by Carolyn Baker

A couple of years ago my friend and colleague, Andrew Harvey, and I were talking about one of our favorite topics, the shadow. Andrew suggested that I write a book on the shadow and Dark Gold: the Human Shadow and the Global Crisis was the result.

We each have a personal shadow and then the collective, the group, or the community has a shadow as well. Dark Gold is not just about our personal shadow; it’s about taking the concept to the larger perspective of the shadow of the collective. The book includes some specific chapters on just a few shadows that show up in the United States, including racism, the military, and torture among others. 

The shadow of the American Dream is particularly interesting culturally because the shadow itself is homelessness. We have a delusion in this culture that this is the land of opportunity. If you try really hard, play by the rules, pay your bills, and so forth you can make it. In the last several decades, the American Dream has meant the ability to own your own home, to have a full-time job with benefits, and to be able to send your children to college. And little by little, we’ve seen all of this slipping away. Interestingly enough, we’ve seen a huge spike in homelessness since the 1980s. 

The shadow side of the American Dream ends up playing out in terms of the terrible difficulties economically that most people in this culture are having just trying to survive. We began to see much more of an eruption of the shadow in the 2008 financial crisis where so many people lost homes and where people who had been fairly secure in their jobs lost not only their jobs but their retirement savings as well. Now we have this whole army of baby boomers who can’t retire or are going to have to retire on much less than they thought they were going to have at their disposal because of the financial crisis. 

The first step in shadow healing is acknowledging that there’s a real issue going on that we can’t control or fix by ourselves with our own wills. Whether it’s a personal crisis or a collective crisis, we first acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. In terms of the larger picture and the planet, we are in a global crisis. Andrew and I talk about a planetary initiation where the planet is in a rite of passage. Similar to the way young adults in indigenous cultures are initiated, we are collectively being asked to go out into the wilderness and have some sort of ordeal that forces us to reach down deep into ourselves in order to discover who we really are. That’s the purpose of this crisis. It’s asking us to listen and to look at all of the aspects of ourselves and our communities that need healing. And, in doing so, we must begin with the shadow. 

The shadow develops in our youth, adolescence, 20’s, and 30’s in the process of sending away parts of us that we don’t like or that don’t comport with the image we have of ourselves. We push away parts of ourselves, saying, “That’s not me. I’m not a dishonest person. I’m not a lying or a cheating person. I’m a kind wonderful, loving upstanding citizen.” As we begin to understand what the shadow is, we realize that each of us has one because we are human beings, and we must ask what is in our shadows. One of the reasons I wrote Dark Gold is to give a toolkit to people to begin doing this work. At the end of every chapter, I offer many practices and exercises that people can use to begin doing shadow work. 

Once we are willing to accept our shadow and start opening up to looking at it, we’re going to see some things that are pretty scary and will not feel pleasant. We’ll see things that are very different from what we think about ourselves. For instance, we may like to think of ourselves as honest people, and if that’s the case, we’re probably going to get in touch with all of the places where we haven’t been so honest. We start looking at these things. We start feeling some grief. We start feeling some shame or anger. As we stay with looking at our reality and the emotions that come with it, it’s very important that we do this with support, trusted allies, or other people doing similar kinds of work. We holdhands as we go through this process because nobody can do this completely by himself or herself. 

It is now incontrovertibly clear to me that without engaging with the personal and collective shadows in a process of conscious healing, the noble and necessary intention of compassionate service will be thwarted or perhaps even sabotaged by the machinations of unaddressed shadow material.
— from "Dark Gold" by Carolyn Baker

Engaging with grief is an important element of shadow healing. I do this individually with my coaching clients, and I do it in workshops with larger groups. In the workshops, we take a whole weekend to focus specifically on grief work. I employ a tradition that I learned from Malidoma Somé, an African shaman from Burkina Faso. The practice is based on coming together and doing a grief ritual. For Malidoma Somé, this is a ritual that may be done in his village a couple of times a week. The purpose of the practice is to keep the community clean. People in Malidoma Somé’s village believe that if they don’t deal with their grief by expressing it with each other and supporting each other in expressing it, the grief becomes toxic, and it makes them and their community toxic.

African American communities in the United States, it seems, have much more of a sense of how to do such grief work without having to go to a workshop. Certain villages and communities just kind of naturally do this. We saw this in Ferguson: people coming together to mourn with each other consciously. So, in our workshops, we are very clear that we all come together because we have our own wounding, personally and in our communities, and because we’re going to look at grief in a way our meta-culture in the United States does not often permit us to do. We’re not going to be shamed for it; we are going to support each other; and we are going to thank each other for doing this work. As a result of this clear intention and practice, people invariably get more deeply in touch with their joy and their aliveness, which is core to working with the shadow. 

I like to quote Mary Oliver, who says, “We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two, housed as they are in the same body.” People who do the grief work with me often tell me, “Wow, going deeply into this grief has really helped me feel more alive. I feel lighter. I feel more rested. I feel more joyful, and my compassion has deepened.” There are all kinds of wonderful side effects from doing this work with intention.

We need to work with grief because the shadow can really overwhelm us. Imagine if you were 50 years old, for example, and you’ve been pushing certain painful or scary things out of your life for 30 or 40 years, saying those things are not part of me. Then imagine you suddenly discover that those things are indeed part of you, and you can’t get away from them. You really need support in going on with this without shaming yourself into self-destruction. You really need hands to hold so that you may discover you are not the only person who’s had this experience. When you do this work in a group, you can feel that other people are having a similar experience to you, and in the process of going through it together, you may discover a great love for one another. 

I think what we have seen in this year’s presidential campaign with the mass movement towards Trumpism is the constellation of the American shadow. Donald Trump is a shadow magnet, and he’s drawing out our shadow sense of separation, of difference, of otherness. We’ve seen incredible xenophobia, racism, and sexism. I like to say that Trump is like a poultice for our wounds, drawing out the toxins and the puss to be seen. A shadow is not logical; it doesn’t pay attention to reason. 

Repressing the shadow, as we seem to have done in American society for too long, consumes enormous amounts of energy that we could be using for something else. And experiencing more genuine acceptance of ourselves based on complete knowledge of who we are lessens the guilt and shame we may feel with respect to our so-called negative feelings and actions. By working with our shadow, we will more easily diffuse what we perceive as the negative emotions that erupt unexpectedly in our lives. Also, we will begin to recognize the projections that color our opinions of others. The shadow has to go somewhere, so if you keep stuffing it in “the long black bag” that Robert Bly symbolically talks about in terms of the shadow, something has eventually got to give. When it gives is when we project the shadow out onto other people. Fundamentally, shadow work is about recognizing the projections that we put on others and learning how to reclaim those projections as our own. We can heal our relationships through honest self-examination and direct communication. And, importantly, through this work, we can access and use an untapped storehouse of creative energy through our dreams, through artistic expression, and through sacred ritual.§

We commit to working with the shadow not only because failing to do so impedes our loftiest intentions, but because we are ‘prospectors’ in search of the ‘dark gold’. If there are precious metals to be mined why should we settle for less? As Robert Johnson reminds us in Owning Your Own Shadow, ‘These disowned parts are extremely valuable and cannot be disregarded. As promised of the living water, our shadow costs nothing and is immediately and embarrassingly ever present. To honor and except one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime.’
— from "Dark Gold" by Carolyn Baker


Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is the author of Love In The Age Of Ecological Apocalypse: The Relationships We Need To Thrive (2015), Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times (2013), as well as other books. A former psychotherapist and professor of psychology and history, Carolyn is now a life coach and spiritual consultant. Her podcast, The New Lifeboat Hour, airs weekly online. Learn more about her writing and work on her website: