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Center for Action and Contemplation
Shadow Work
Shadow Work

The Overly-Defended Ego 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Juneteenth (United States)

Father Richard explains the ego’s role in creating the shadow self:  

The ego is that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important by itself, apart from anybody else. It wants to be both separate and superior. It is defended and self-protective by its very nature. It must eliminate the negative to succeed at this. The ego is what Jesus called an “actor,” usually translated from the Greek as “hypocrite” (see Matthew 23). If our “actor” is merely defended, the shadow will be denied and repressed; but if our “actor” is overly defended, the shadow is actually hated and projected elsewhere.   

One point here is crucial: The shadow self is not of itself evil; it just allows us to do evil without recognizing it as evil! In fact, we often believe that we’re doing something good. That’s the power of the shadow! That is why Jesus criticizes hypocrisy more than anything else. Jesus is never upset with sinners, but only with people who pretend they are not sinners. Check this out, story by story, in the Gospels. This is surprising and even shocking. Why is it that this clear pattern is seldom pointed out in sermons? It might have to do with the fact that religion often can’t see its own shadow and projects it elsewhere. Thus, the high degree of morally judgmental people among most religious groups, which allows them to remain untouched in their self-sufficiency, racism, militarism, and materialism. 

Jungian scholar Ann Belford Ulanov points to the dangers of the group shadow: 

On a cultural level, shadow means what our group, our tribe, our religion, our political party deems negative, out of bounds, to be shunned, to be improved, or to be punished. Behind every social oppression lurks a piece of group shadow whose members are exporting it onto others who are not of their tribe. When the shadow part is not faced, it goes unconscious and lives there. [1] 

Father Richard continues:  

We cannot really get rid of the shadow; we can only expose its game—which is, in great part, to get rid of its effects. Or as it states in Ephesians, “Anything exposed to the light turns into light itself” (5:14). The cause of our unrecognized and fully operative evil is our egocentricity, not our weaknesses. Only those who are converted can say like Paul, “When I am weak, I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). When Jesus does oppose human sinfulness, it is the sins of malice with which he has no patience; the sins of weakness are always patiently healed. Jesus rightly accuses us religious folks of “straining out gnats while swallowing camels” (Matthew 23:24). This pattern exists to this day. 

Jesus and the prophets deal with the root cause, which is always our radical egocentricity. Our problem is not usually our shadow self nearly as much as our over-defended ego, which always sees, hates, and attacks its own faults in other people, and thus avoids its own conversion. 


[1] Ann Belford Ulanov, “Where to Put the Bad? Where to Put the Feminine?,” in The Living God and Our Living Psyche: What Christians Can Learn from Carl Jung, Ann Belford Ulanov and Alvin Dueck (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 56. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2008, 2022), 78, 79. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—CAC Staff, Untitled. Izzy Spitz, Untitled. CAC Staff, Untitled. Watercolor. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Even if my shadow is out of my sight, it still will make itself known. 

Story from Our Community:  

I have an everyday use for centering practice I would like to share. I make my living as an electrician. I often have to work in attic crawl-spaces and under houses. The problem is, I also suffer from claustrophobia. When a sudden panic rises up, I have learned how to center myself—often, by getting into “child’s pose.” I close my eyes and breathe. I surrender to the situation. In that place, on my knees with my eyes closed, I begin to feel I could be anywhere in the universe. God holds me there, in the attic or under the floor, and my panic subsides. I get a sense this may be how others have endured and continue to endure even worse experiences. —Steven E. 

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