Recognising the shadow in counselling

1 Feb 2016 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

"It is more important to be whole than to be good."
- Carl Jung

In an episode of the TV show The Simpsons, one of the characters said that he liked working as a policeman because it satisfied both his desire to help people and his desire to hurt people. Of course this was a joke, but its funniness lay in the truth behind it, and in that there is a warning message there for anyone in a helping role, that we need to be aware of any susceptible to abusing those we are there to help, either through the impulse to hurt or as a side effect of other unethical impulses.

Page (1999) points out the importance for counsellors of learning how to recognise and acknowledge the desire to hurt when it arises and then to contain the desire so that it does not become manifest in action. He cites seven such containers for the counsellor:

  • the practical structure in which the counselling relationship takes place
  • awareness of the craft and techniques of counselling
  • counselling supervision
  • formal codes of practice
  • personal therapy of the counsellor
  • the counsellor’s personal life
  • the organisational setting

All of these can be useful safeguards in this respect, as long as one doesn’t abuse them by looking for support in them of one’s shadow behaviour. Erich Fromm, in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1997: 337-340) suggests that members of a cultural group can tend to share a common character structure, and this hints at a danger, not only in relation to working with difference and diversity, but also in relation to one’s counselling school.

Each counselling theory casts its own shadow, so that being supervised by someone with a similar theoretical background could possibly lead to shared blind spots where a common theoretical stance tends to hide rather than reveal what may be going on between client and counsellor.

An eighth container not mentioned by Page is a sense of humour: humour can be a relatively safe way of reconnecting with one’s shadow-self and in the process one’s vitality, and lacking a sense of humour can indicate that one is dangerously unaware of one’s shadow aspects.

Page points out that once we have accepted consciously that we have a capacity to do harm then it is less likely that we will do so. Being able to bring one’s own darker impulses into consciousness and being accepting of the existence of those feelings lets one reflect on and explore them in a way that is useful for managing and containing the shadow side of one’s behaviour, and for using an awareness of a shadow “stance” to make better informed actions and decisions.

Bringing shadow impulses into one’s consciousness gives them shape in ways that lays the consequence of acting them out open to rational analysis, and gives the counsellor the option of evaluating them in terms of ethics, and of prudent and imprudent behaviour. Without that, our shadow impulses may be “loose cannons”, able to operate out of our awareness, leaving us open to the danger of acting on them without conscious recognition that we are doing so. This awareness also allows you to reflect on the situation from different angles in ways that are likely to activate other competing impulses, such as kindness and receptiveness to the distress of the person whom you may perceive as responsible for your hurting.

As well as the motives of helping others and self-development, there are other impulses that the counsellor may need to be aware of in their counselling life, such as a desire for respect and status, sexual attraction, fear of rejection, the need for relatedness, the temptation to gossip, wanting to be loved, professional jealousy and perhaps others that are less easily brought to light. These may not be primary motives for a trainee’s wanting to be a counsellor (and there are far less arduous ways available to meet the associated needs), but it is important to be aware that factors like these are possible determinants of one’s behaviour, and of how important it is to be careful that they don’t affect one’s practice as a counsellor in ways that are harmful to one's clients.

A useful response to the recognition of the shadow in one’s self can be to not make moral judgements on one’s impulses, but to affirm them as part of oneself, as the-way-you-are. Your feelings, of themselves, are neither right nor wrong: they just are, and it is preferable to be a therapist who is aware of their darker side and accepting of it as part of their self (without acting it out) than one who doesn’t think they have one and who may therefore act it out unawares.

Not everything in shadow is necessarily negative, and those aspects of us forced into shadow by acquired conditions of worth may be pure gold. Zweig and Abrams (1991) explore in a series of essays shadow-work as the task of integrating the dark side, and a way to wholeness. This is important to address as a practitioner – it’s difficult to be aware of one’s shadow if one is always facing the light – but shadow work is also potentially dangerous. One has to be careful to ensure that one can differentiate acceptance of shadow feelings from acceptance of shadow behaviour, and if external strictures such as moral codes and introjected conditions of worth are a predominant component of the container one has built for the self, then practices to increase self-acceptance that involve a dwelling on shadow aspects may be better avoided.

Page talks about the need to accept one’s feelings towards the client as a first step in dealing productively with the discomfort they create. This is useful, as acceptance of one’s feelings is a necessary precursor to self-acceptance, without which acceptance of the client becomes problematic. However, one has to be careful that acceptance of one’s unethical impulses towards the client doesn’t spill over into the intentional invocation of those feelings for one’s own ends (for example, when practitioners find themselves dwelling on boundary-transgressing fantasies about the client), as abusive fantasies can oil the wheels of client exploitation, as an unconscious or not-so-unconscious way of developing or refining plans and rationalisations for unethical behaviour.


Fromm, E (1997) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. London: Pimlico Press

Page, S. (1999) The Shadow and the Counsellor: Working with the Darker Aspects of the Person, the Role and the Profession ,London: Routledge

Zweig & Abrams (Eds), (1991) Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, London: Perigree Books

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