“An archetype is like an old watercourse along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed.” From Civilization in Transition, Paragraph 395, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung
The Birth of the Persona and the Shadow
Eastern spiritual tradition, as described in the Vedic texts, holds that we are born from the universal collective unconscious. At birth, we take the form of a physical body, and from there, our persona begins its lifelong process of being molded by both the conscious and unconscious forces of life on Earth. Your personality type, or persona, is the part of your Self that you learn over time to show the world – the way you choose to be perceived by yourself and others based on what is socially acceptable and desirable. It is the resulting combination of our social conditioning, our cultural influences, our epigenetic inheritance, and our conscious and unconscious beliefs about ourselves and the world. Through this process of persona development, our shadow also forms. The shadow, from Jung’s perspective, is the part of ourselves that we have relegated to the unconscious, hidden side of life. In it, we repress those parts of ourselves that we learn, through conditioning, are not socially acceptable about ourselves, the parts that threaten to cause us shame, social abandonment, and loss of respect and value to our community. Our shadow accompanies us throughout our life despite us being mostly unaware of it, often appearing at surprising moments of emotional intensity or when we must make big decisions. It drives many of our unconscious behaviors and decisions, causing us at times to question “why did I do that?”; “Why did I say that”?
As we grow into adulthood and establish ourselves in our life and livelihood, we eventually begin to question these parts of ourselves – the persona and shadow – in an effort to better understand our spiritual underpinnings. This process, called “individuation” by Jung, is the beginning of the third birth into that of our spiritual life. It is an essential and necessary phase of life, often fraught with confusion, doubt, and even pain – but also awe, inspiration, and joy. Not everyone will go through individuation at the same time, but the potential is there for each of us to go through this radical transformation of self-actualization and transcendental awareness.
“We know that archetypes help to describe the whole aspect of life; stories that tell of life and peace but not of death and strife without resurrection. Archetypes and symbols have the capacity to convey immediate knowing and understanding without a single word being uttered or written.” -The re-emergence of the great mother archetype, International Journal of Arts and Sciences 3(3): 67 – 76 (2009)
Archetypes serve as helpful language during the process of individuation. The persona and the shadow themselves are archetypes of the ego. Archetypes are unconscious but powerful structures that our instinctual senses are fluent in. They help us understand the world through the lens of story and narrative. Through them, we make meaning of the confusing and unknowable universe we find ourselves in. However, archetypes are not human artifacts. They are structures that exist beyond human agency. These forms drive us, speak to us, and shape our destiny – but they are not ours. They are the creation and function of the collective unconscious. Philosophers and storytellers throughout history have recognized the power of archetypes and have described and cataloged them through epic poetry, oral history, song, myth, ritual, and religion. Plato famously expounded to the Greeks his ideas about archetypes:
“In the Platonic view, archetypes—the Ideas or Forms—are absolute essences that transcend the empirical world yet give the world its form and meaning. They are timeless universals that serve as the fundamental reality informing every concrete particular.” Source
In the early 1900s, Swiss psychologist and forefather of modern psychotherapy Carl Jung theorized that each person embodied a variety of universal persona types during his or her lifetime. He brought into our modern awareness the existence of twelve human archetypes (though there are likely many more). These and others have occurred and expressed themselves in our collective unconscious since the beginning of our awareness as a social species: the Ruler, the Artist, the Sage, the Innocent, the Explorer, the Rebel, the Hero, the Wizard, the Jester, the Everyman, the Lover, and the Caregiver.
Toni Wolff, a psychologist and Jungian analyst who was both personally and professionally influenced by Jung, further theorized that there are four primary persona types specific to the feminine psyche. Each type also embodies a Shadow side that is unconscious to the beholder until the process of individuation begins. (The italics in parentheses indicate Wolff’s own terminology).
- The Mother – her orientation is toward personal relationships. She is the nurturer, selfless, calming, and needs to be needed. Her shadow side may be anxious and overprotective, neglectful of her own needs, and may fear being perceived as selfish, uncaring, and destructive.
- The Lover (Hetaira) – her orientation is also toward personal relationships but the takes a different role. She is the muse, evoking the heart and soul of others. She is an artist, lover of all things sensual, and is ruled by the senses and trying new things. She avoids decisions and commitments and has various passions and careers. She is devoted to bringing out the best in other people, though at the risk of losing herself. Her shadow side fears commitment and being trapped by her decisions. She fears routine and redundancy. She may also struggle to form her own identity that is separate and independent from others – seeking their approval for her own validation.
- The Professional (Amazon) – her relationship is oriented toward the material world. She has the energy and drive to take charge and change the world. She is self-sufficient and responsible, ruled by logic and reason. She is skilled at planning, taking calculated risks, and is up for a well-planned adventure. Her shadow side rejects emotion and sensual passions. She fears being held back by other people’s needs and expectations of her. She avoids making decisions that don’t feed her material needs. Her ambition comes at a high cost – the potential for deeper and more fulfilling relationships with others.
- The Mystic (Medial) seeks (and finds) a direct relationship with Spirit. She is connected intuitively to the Divine, rejects the material world, is less reliant on hard proof of science, and lives by a moral code. In her shadow side, she may struggle with identifying with her own Ego and distinguishing between her internal and external reality. She may dissociate from “real life” to her own detriment, remaining aloof in interpersonal relationships and escaping through unhealthy means. When at her most vulnerable, she may inadvertently engage in spiritual bypassing.
Even though the roles of women were very different in Wolff’s time and we now understand sex and gender to be much more nuanced and complex, these are nonetheless universal energies that femme people embody. In fact, as women and femme-identifying folx, we have all four of these forms in us, each expressing themselves differently over the course of our lives. Understanding our archetypes puts a framework around our persona, helping us better understand how we consciously and unconsciously operate.
Self-Empowerment Through Archetype Exploration
Through learning more about your persona, and then later encountering your shadow, you gain insight into both the conscious and unconscious factors directing your life. In the process, you can work to overcome the limiting beliefs and behaviors that hold you back from living consciously, and be empowered to create the life of your dreams. Most people think they are their personality. They overidentify with their persona and therefore cannot identify with their shadow. In coaching, we are attempting to become aware of this shadow self – the things our ego doesn’t allow us to express, the unlived parts of ourselves. When we integrate the shadow, we realize we can be both our person and our shadow. If we don’t claim our shadow, the danger is that it will find us anyway. It can cause trouble in our life. The psyche has a natural state of homeostasis, and if the shadow goes ignored for too long, our lives become imbalanced.
This deep and iterative process is what Jung called “individuation”. The ultimate goal of individuation is to integrate our archetypes (including the shadow) to gain greater personal insight for self- and spiritual realization. Full and total integration of the Shadow is rarely (if at all) attainable in one lifetime, however, this is not the point. Individuation is a journey – a process of introspection, of making the unconscious conscious, of peeling back the layers of the Ego to live a fuller, more whole life true to who you are and can be.
A simple way to begin this inner journey is to ask – how do you find yourself acting out the tendencies of your primary archetype? How is your life limited by the active (but unconscious) repression of the shadow elements that threaten to destroy that carefully created persona? These questions can begin to shed a small light on the unconscious realm of your identity, but the nature of the shadow is to exist in the darkness of the beholder. And so, this work can be most powerful and effective when done with an objective and trusted processor, someone trained in the theory and practice of inquiring deeply, guiding you through the darkness, and helping you to illuminate previously unknown corners of your unconscious mind.