A man standing in front of his shadow on the wall.

What’s Carl Jung’s shadow theory? How are we motivated by our subconscious urges?

Patrick King says subconscious motivations come from the part of your psyche that psychologist Carl Jung called the shadow. This is the part we try to ignore, repress, and hide from others.

Let’s explore the shadow theory in more depth.

Carl Jung on Subconscious Urges

According to Carl Jung’s shadow theory, sexual urges, creative urges, insecurities, dislikes, self-loathing, and so on live in the shadow. Because these live in the subconscious, you may not even be fully aware of these motivations at any given moment. 

(Shortform note: Jung’s concept of the “shadow” has significantly shaped psychological practices, underpinning the crucial role the subconscious plays in our behaviors and emotions. Many psychologists assert that understanding this unexplored part of our persona can lead to improved mental health and resilience. The field has further embraced techniques like shadow work therapy, where an individual confronts and understands their “shadow” to help resolve internal conflicts, thereby fostering personal growth. Overall, the concept has emphasized the importance of self-awareness and introspection in psychological healing.)

King contends that it’s not possible to permanently repress subconscious urges, and that eventually, these repressed feelings will motivate a person to behave in ways that might bring them harm—that might hurt a relationship, for example, or drive them to make poor financial decisions. For instance, a lawyer who’s long repressed a desire to write poetry might criticize the efforts of a friend who was recently published, or a person who secretly longs to be fabulously wealthy might impulsively buy a risky stock. 

(Shortform note: In her book Existential Kink, Carolyn Elliott agrees that harboring unfulfilled desires can lead to self-sabotaging tendencies, much like King describes, and she suggests that to prevent that, we should engage with our repressed feelings instead of avoiding them. Elliott proposes a perspective shift: Frame our repressed urges as personal kinks and embrace them as part of our identity. We should stop viewing these desires as deviant or harmful, but instead, as things that bring us pleasure. In doing so, we can gain better control over our actions and decisions, minimizing damage to relationships or financial stability.)

King writes that when you can identify the subconscious motives of another person, you’ll know how to engage them more effectively. You might even be able to manipulate them if you know how to appeal to their secret desires and fears. You’re also less likely to be emotionally hurt by their bad behavior if you can recognize that it’s motivated by fear, anger, self-loathing, or other negative, repressed emotions. 

(Shortform note: Robert Cialdini expands upon the idea of tapping people’s subconscious in Influence, where he suggests that influencing people effectively involves understanding six key factors that appeal to our subconscious: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus. He writes that understanding these factors can not only help you interact with others, it can also help you resist the influence of what he calls compliance practitioners: marketers, salespeople, activists, fundraisers, politicians, and anyone else who tries to get you to say “yes” to what they’re offering by appealing to these six unconscious motives.)

Carl Jung’s Shadow Theory: Where Our Deepest Urges Lie

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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