Apotheosis episode 38: Embrace your shadow. Drawing of a person standing in a backlit doorway, casting a long shadow on the ground.

Episode 38: Embrace your shadow

Ryan D Thompson Perspectives, Psychology, Skills, Transformation

Key ideas

The complexity of the challenges we face as leaders often requires that we transform as individuals. But to reach our peak as leaders, we first must recognize and come to terms with aspects of ourselves we’d prefer not to acknowledge – the shadow.

  • “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”  This quote is often attributed to Carl Jung. While he probably never said this, it’s a good tagline for his insights.
  • Deep in the hidden corners of our minds lies a part of ourselves we’d prefer not to acknowledge – the shadow. Our repressed emotions, fears, and storylines that remain unaddressed build up in our unconscious mind.
  • From time to time, the shadow rises up and demands attention, driven by our unfulfilled needs. It can lead us to make some really bad decisions. 
  • To prevent the shadow from causing havoc in our lives and harm to others, we need to bring it to light. We can integrate aspects of the shadow into our conscious mind, using its energy for growth and attaining wholeness. 


In January 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake rocked Haiti, devastating the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Over 200,000 people died from the quake. The international community rushed to provide aid to the country, and millions of dollars soon poured in along with thousands of humanitarian organizations. One of these organizations was Oxfam, with a man named Roland van Hauwermeiren leading as country director. He would not last long in this role.

An investigation into van Hauwermeiren and other senior staff uncovered that they had been sexually exploiting local women, some of whom might have been underage. He and the other men resigned from their posts. And it turns out that this wasn’t the first time that van Hauwermeiren had left another aid organization in disgrace. He was ousted from a position in Liberia in 2004 and again in Chad in 2008 for similar behavior: exploiting young women within the very communities he was meant to be serving.

But the disgraceful behavior wasn’t over. Right around the same time, Oxfam’s head of counter-fraud, Edward McKenzie-Green, arrived in Haiti to investigate misconduct by aid workers following the earthquake. In a twist of shameful irony, anti-fraud chief McKenzie-Green was soon arrested for fraud. Turns out he was swindling money from the charity. Using bogus invoices, he stole over $100,000 that was directed towards helping communities devastated by the disaster. Initially, he claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy at the organization to take him down. But he eventually admitted to the fraud and served over two years in prison.

These cases beg the question: how does someone who arrives at a position of power within an organization that is dedicated to doing good end up doing so much bad?

While both of these cases took place within Oxfam, there’s no doubt that similar examples of exploitation, fraud, abuse, and general shadiness occur more widely in the development sector.

As one whistleblower who raised alarms about van Hauwermeiren in Liberia describes, there is a “culture of complacency” that allows men in positions of power to continue this kind of exploitative behavior. Other leaders know about the abuses, and yet somehow look the other way.

What leads these people to betray their causes and the people they’re meant to serve?

One explanation lies deep in the hidden corners of the human mind: what psychologist Carl Jung called the Shadow: the side of ourselves we’d prefer not to acknowledge. Each of us has a dark side, which if left unacknowledged, can create great harm to ourselves or others.

This is the second episode for season three of Apotheosis and part of a series looking at personal transformation. The core mission of this podcast, as embodied in the name Apotheosis, is to seek methods of transforming ourselves, of tapping into our greatest potential as leaders and as human beings.

We all have tremendous untapped potential. But plenty of barriers stand in the way of tapping into that potential – many of which lie within our own minds.

One of those barriers lurking in our mind is the Shadow: the needy “little me,” driven by unfulfilled needs or unexpressed emotions from childhood. It is the part of ourselves that comes out in our weakest, most vulnerable moments. In those times of weakness, we can give into the voice of our worst impulses. Or through coming to terms with our Shadow, we can gain insight into exactly what we need to learn in order to grow, to transform ourselves.

Unfortunately, the nature of the Shadow – hidden and often repressed – makes it especially difficult not to fall prey to the voices of our lesser angels.

As Jung described, “Unfortunately there is no doubt about the fact that man is, as a whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a Shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the darker and denser it is.” In other words, when we try to ignore or suppress our Shadow side, we only make it stronger. When it remains deeply embedded in our unconscious minds, it will rise up from time to time, often leading us to make bad decisions.

Much like no one wants to believe that bad things like terminal illnesses might befall them, most of us don’t want to admit that we are capable of doing bad things.

The Shadow manifests in many forms. Most of us likely won’t commit the more egregious behaviors like sexual exploitation or defrauding a charity. 

However, it’s a mistake to think that we aren’t capable of behaviors that harm ourselves and others. When the Shadow remains unconscious and unrecognized, we are highly susceptible to making poor decisions and seeing the world through the filter of our repressed desires.

The Shadow might arise in our lives through less harmful behaviors like taking pleasure in complaining. Or something that seems increasingly common today, in schadenfreude: taking pleasure in the suffering of others. For example, we seem to relish in seeing celebrities or the wealthy or politicians suffer setbacks or even great downfalls. The shadow might appear in the form of repetitive patterns of bad relationships, like the friend who just keeps falling for the wrong kind of guy. The shadow causes no end of turmoil in our relationships, giving rise to conflicts that almost seem scripted. 

Any unresolved traumas, desires, resentments, or generally unpleasant experiences don’t simply dissolve on their own. Until we come to terms with our Shadow, it will appear again and again.

As leaders, the risk of falling victim to the Shadow is even greater. The stakes are higher, as more people depend on us to deliver. And the pressures leaders face stand a greater chance of triggering the Shadow – often in its most intense form.

As Robert Greene describes in The Laws of Human Nature, we expend a tremendous amount of energy in suppressing the Shadow, of maintaining our public persona – one in which we appear unflinchingly confident and positive. But the stronger the pain and resentment we are concealing from the world, the denser the Shadow grows. When the pressure becomes too great, the Shadow can emerge to release some of the inner tension we feel.

Now, I don’t think any of Jung’s theories about the Shadow or other aspects of our minds exist as real things: it’s not like there’s a hidden shadowy creature actually lurking in our minds. We can hold these ideas lightly and conduct a self-exploration. Can you see examples of the Shadow arising in your mind?

Even in the time it’s taken me to write this episode, I’ve had a powerful first-hand experience of my own Shadow. Following a series of mini-crises and prolonged sleep deprivation at the hands of the new baby sleeping in my bed, I reached my tipping point. Just the other evening, I found myself overcome with complaint, self-pity, and resentment. I cursed and moaned about some petty difficulties. Snapped at my wife and kids. It wasn’t until I had a moment to sit quietly and take a few deep breaths did I recognize how fully the Shadow had occupied my being. I had to laugh at the irony of writing a piece about the Shadow while fully in its grip. 

So, acknowledging that none of us is perfect and that we have flaws buried deep in our unconscious mind that can inhibit our success, we might as well take some action to uncover the actions of the shadow.

But first off, we should understand that the Shadow isn’t some evil thing to be feared.  We should be more afraid of what we might do if we never understand and fully integrate our Shadow into our conscious mind.

How can we do this?

Since the Shadow comprises all of the things about ourselves we’d rather not admit, one of the first steps in Shadow work is to acknowledge that it’s there. We should accept that we have suppressed many painful experiences over the years, and in so doing, they were lodged deep within our unconscious mind – ready to be unleashed with the right triggers. Any experience that we push down and hide will never simply go away. 

To release the emotions and experiences trapped with the Shadow, we must bring them into the light. Like any significant change in our lives, we won’t free ourselves overnight. But here are some methods recommended by psychologists to do what’s called Shadow work, some of which might be best done with the guidance of a therapist.

One technique involves acknowledging your Shadow directly. You could verbally express some of the things you have felt or done that you believe arise from your Shadow, speaking to a trusted friend, family member, or a therapist. Or write them down, even writing a letter to your Shadow. Reflect on how these Shadow elements arose and how they affect your life. 

Another approach involves reframing your relationship with your Shadow. Reflect on the ways that your Shadow side has contributed or could contribute to healthy behaviors. For example, some people who have experienced impostor syndrome – feelings of insecurity closely linked to the Shadow –report that feeling like an impostor has driven them to be more detail-oriented and hardworking to overcome their perceived deficiencies.

And then we can also observe others as a mirror for our own behavior. It’s usually easier to spot the deficiencies of other people than our own. People with whom we have difficulties are often a reflection of things about ourselves that we don’t like. For example, we might find ourselves complaining about a coworker who is always talking about people behind their backs, not realizing the irony of talking about them behind their back! We might also observe our family members, looking for traits or behaviors that are unhealthy and reflect on whether you’ve noticed yourself doing any of the same things.

A common thread in each of these approaches is seeking to set free these long-buried emotions, resentments, thoughts, and storylines. It’s not about defeating or eradicating the Shadow. Instead, by bringing to light these repressed parts of ourselves, we are taking steps towards integration, of being whole. We gain self-awareness and tap into our true potential as human beings.

At the minimum, by coming to terms with our Shadows, we can mitigate our worst impulses and avoid making short-sighted, selfish decisions. The world needs more leaders who can lead with self-awareness, compassion, and wisdom. 

That’s all for this episode. I hope these insights about the Shadow help steer you in the direction of wholeness and healthy decision-making. In the next episode, I’ll continue exploring the theme of transformation, looking at some ideas from Buddhism.

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License