The Shadow Side of Caregiving

This is the fourth in a series of posts:

  • The first discusses ways that caregivers can support a loved-one as they embark on a healing protocol;
  • The second considers self-care for caregivers, including dealing with powerful emotions; and
  • The third addresses sustainability, by investigating how caregivers can address their own needs.
  • This post examines the shadow side of caregiving.
  • The fifth explores how to be an advocate.


The Shadow

Carl Jung referred to the rejected and hidden part of the self as ‘the shadow’.

The shadow self is unknown. Inherently. When it’s existence is also denied, it can cause serious problems.

“Everyone carries a shadow,” wrote Jung, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.

According to Jungian psychology, we try protect ourselves by denying the existence of our shadow self. Usually this results in projecting the contents of our shadow onto others. Anytime we blame someone rather than taking responsibility, or judge others rather than working to improve ourselves, chances are good that the shadow is at play.

We each have a shadow, and entire societies also have a collective shadow.

When ignored, this shadow creates tremendous pressure.

It needs to be expressed.

If we don’t take charge of it’s expression, it will find it’s own way. And is likely to do harm in the process.

A Current Example

The popularity of Donald Trump in the United States is an example of the collective shadow at work.

Trump is almost a caricature of the shadow. Watch him and you’ll see it!

If our culture had mechanisms for constructively expressing its shadow, as many traditional societies did, people like Trump wouldn’t be able to capitalize on it’s repression to gain power.

The Shadow Side of Caregiving

What does the shadow have to do with caregiving?

A lot, in my experience.

As caregivers, we often feel that we can’t express our strong emotions and need to repress our needs.

The demands of caregiving can feed the shadow through this suppression, with destructive consequences.

According to Stephan Diamond, “The shadow is most destructive, insidious and dangerous when habitually repressed and projected, manifesting in myriad psychological disturbances ranging from neurosis to psychosis, irrational interpersonal hostility, and even cataclysmic international clashes.”

Acknowledging the shadow, and finding constructive ways to express it, is critical for caregivers.

We know that suppressing the shadow can have destructive consequences. What is less often emphasized is that acknowledging and constructively expressing the shadow can be profoundly healing.

Robert Johnson, in Owning Your Own Shadow (excellent book!), explains that “healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise.”

Throughout this series of posts I have reiterated the idea of caregiving as an opportunity to do personal work.

Why would we want to do personal work when we’re already dealing with more than we can handle?

Because to generate strength to be an effective caregiver, we need to.

The Work

‘The Work’ is simply what is required to become your best self.

And the way to begin is to get to know yourself, including your shadow. And to start to take personal responsibility for its contents.

There are many things we can do to address the shadow side of caregiving:

  1. Acknowledge strong emotions. And express them. Appropriately. Have a look at ‘Ring Theory‘ as a guide for who to express strong emotions to when you find yourself in a caregiving role.
  2. Prioritize your needs. When life is stressful, sometimes it’s helpful to be systematic, especially in situations with little certainty or predictability. I’ve created a worksheet Get to Know your Needs as a guide to the process of acknowledging, rather than repressing, your needs as a caregiver.
  3. Recognize your shadow. The more we reject our shadow, the gnarlier it gets. So accept what’s lurking there, and channel it accordingly. Into art. Through a robust spirituality. By paying attention to your dreams. Take responsibility for it without inflicting harm on others. Or yourself.

This is the work.



2 thoughts on “The Shadow Side of Caregiving

  1. Self-care is so important, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series as a beacon onto a topic that rarely gets much air-time. Expressing emotions is a pickler for me, I know I need to do it but I often bottle it up until I feel lousy! This post has definitely given me some food for thought (even though I’m not a care-giver!).

    • For a long time I’ve wondered about repression of emotions and needs as a risk factor in developing chronic illness. Gabor Maté explores this topic in ‘When the Body Says No’ (Here’s a link to that book: If there is a connection, then taking personal responsibility for expressing our emotions & meeting our needs is an important health practice.

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