Shadow zone

Zala Ákos | Human Telex Consulting managing director

What is a shadow zone?

In the shadow zone different values lie that we are aware of, but also values that we are not. Those that we are aware of are either perceived as negative qualities that we do not want to show to the outside world, or latent positives that we know about, but dare not use because we are ashamed of them or fear others will react negatively to them.

The shadow zone also hides known but forgotten values that have been lying unused for a long time. Finally, it is here that we find as yet unknown, undeveloped qualities, as well as distorted traits that we do not even know exist.



When does it become visible?

The question is, when will our personal shadow zone will be visible in everyday life. Primarily in situations where we engage in impulsive, uncontrolled behaviour (Freudian slips). Our hidden qualities suddenly emerge in an unguarded moment. Many people experience this after drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

We also experience the shadow zone in situations of shame. This is when we engage in behaviour that is unacceptable to our ego and therefore falls into the shadow zone.

The third, typical situation is when we show an exaggerated reaction to other people’s behaviour, e.g. I really don’t understand why he says such harsh things, this is not the way. When we observe behaviour in our shadow zone in others, we tend to overreact.

In situations of conflict and stress, the role of the shadow zone can also come to the fore as we are less in control of ourselves.

Another interesting example is that when we fall in love, we often find that qualities come to the surface that were previously hidden in the shadow zone. These can later become ego-traits.


The lesson of the shadow zone

The existence of the shadow zone provides an opportunity to gain a better self-awareness, so the saying – know oneself – also takes on the meaning of know one’s shadow zone. If we examine its contents with persistent interest and curiosity, we have the chance to increase our ego space at the expense of the shadow zone. The latter, of course, never disappears, because we cannot know ourselves perfectly. The human personality is too complex and complicated to be fully understood.


Many folktales illustrate the emergence of hidden qualities. One such example is presented below in an abridged version:

Once upon a time there was a king whose kingdom had a huge forest. It was such a dangerous and terrifying forest that all the hunters who ventured into it were swallowed up and never returned. The king decided to send soldiers to search for the missing ones, but they were never seen again.

One day, a famous hunter arrived at the king’s court and offered to unravel the mystery of the fearsome forest. The king agreed, and the hunter and his dog set off to explore the forest. Once they came to the shore of a lake, the dog ran ahead and started barking. Then a huge, muscular arm reached out of the pond, grabbed the poor animal and pulled it into the water. The hunter rushed back to the palace and persuaded the king to give him some soldiers and equipment to pump out the lake. They did so, and as soon as the water was drained from the lake, they spotted a dark, shaggy beast in the water, and with great difficulty captured him. On their return, the savage was locked in an iron cage and placed in the square in front of the palace for the amusement of the people.

One day, the young heir to the throne was playing with his golden ball beside the cage, and the ball rolled to the foot of the wild man. The prince asked him to give it back, but he said he would only give it back if the prince fetched the key to the cage from the queen’s bedside table and let him out.

The prince pondered for a while, then did as the savage wished, but asked him not to run away or he would be punished. So he did.

The wild man returned to the forest. The prince came to see him later and they became friends. It turned out that the wild man was very clever and good at many things. In the years to come, he helped the prince with many important decisions. 


The moral of the story is that the shadow zone (represented by the wild man) hides good qualities. If the shadow zone is isolated, the good qualities remain inaccessible. If we open it up and get to know it, its content can benefit us, we can learn from it. To use a metaphor: we can bring the pearl out of the mud.


Shadow zone in the group

The separation of ego and shadow zone can also be observed in groups. Like an individual, a group or organisation has a hidden mechanism of operation, the collective shadow zone. When an individual exhibits undesirable ‘shadow behaviour’ in the group, there is a risk that the group will treat him as a problematic case, making him a scapegoat.

A woman says: “At my last job I worked in a group of 6 people. We had a monthly workshop with another group, chaired by the joint leader of the two groups. He did most of the talking, so the meeting could hardly be called a consultation. People all nodded, no one made any critical comments, although they had their opinions, they criticised the leadership a lot, even my group supervisor. I’m a very outspoken and open person, and after two meetings like that I decided that if the next one was like that, I would speak up.

The next time, the two group leaders made a suggestion, to which, of course, everyone nodded in agreement. Then I stood up and said that I knew that most people had a different opinion on the proposal because we had talked about it before. Nobody reacted to what I said and the President said that I was probably wrong. After the meeting, my group supervisor said that I could not have been more stupid. At the end of the year, my temporary contract was not renewed. There was no clear justification, of course, but I think they considered my action threatening.”


In this example, openness and honesty are part of the shadow zone of the group, and if someone behaves in this way, they are perceived as threatening and quickly scapegoated. Rather than learning from their behaviour, they are ignored or ostracised, and a little later someone else is likely to take over the scapegoating role. This reaction can be traced back to the behaviour of the Israelites in the Old Testament, who symbolically transferred their sins to a goat and hoped to rid themselves of the evil one by ritually sacrificing it.


I came across another example of collective shadow-zone and scapegoating during a negotiation training session at an educational institute.

One of the participants approached most of the topics with a strong emotional overheating, which caused resentment and disrespect from the group. When I later confronted the group about their behaviour, it became clear that the norm in that institution was to mask emotions. As a consequence, the display of emotions was placed in the collective shadow zone of the group and the participant who failed to suppress them was treated as a scapegoat.


The scapegoating problem is brought into interesting perspective when we look more closely at a group or organisation. If someone can hear and decipher the message of the scapegoat’s behaviour, they can use it effectively for the benefit of the group.

In families, the scapegoat takes the form of the “black sheep”. If a member of a respectable, conservative family is seen in the company of drunk and suspicious elements, they will soon be labelled a black sheep. The rest of the family is ashamed and tactfully distances itself. But instead, they could investigate what lurks in the family shadow zone and unlock the valuable qualities locked there, which manifest themselves in the black sheep’s distorted behaviour. Drunkenness, for example, can be an exaggerated expression of the enjoyment of life. Contact with suspicious elements may suggest a certain virtue, a risk-taking – one must bear the knowledge that one may get into trouble at any time.


So the message of the Black Sheep to the family in this case is: enjoy life more, be more daring. The tighter the straitjacket the family is squeezed into, the greater the chance that one of its members will feel too suffocated and will break the bonds – including the family ones.



By Peter Gerrickens. Excerpted from The Card Mirror

The book of the same title, which offers both theoretical background and practical descriptions.