What Is A “Shadow” In Myers-Briggs Theory?

When you’re browsing the internet reading about Myers-Briggs types, you’ll probably see people talking about “shadow functions.” This is a confusing concept, because people use the term “shadow” to refer to several different things related to personality types.

What Is A
background photo credit: Georgie Pauwels, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

Inferior Function

Every type in the Myers-Briggs system has what we call a “function stack,” which describes how they interact with the outer world, process information, and make judgements. There are 8 possible functions (extroverted and introverted versions of Sensing, Intuition, Feeling, and Thinking), and each types uses four functions:

  1. Primary Function
  2. Auxiliary Function
  3. Tertiary Function
  4. Inferior Function

The primary and auxiliary functions are the ones we use most comfortably, the tertiary function develops as we mature, and the inferior function is largely outside our conscious control. Much of what makes one type distinct from another has to do with how we use our particular combination of four functions. I have a blog post explaining exactly how the four-letter type relates to function stacks. I won’t take the time to repeat that information here, but here are a couple examples:

  • INFJ function stack: 1) Introverted Intuition, 2) Extroverted Feeling, 3) Introverted Thinking, 4) Extroverted Sensing.
  • ESFP function stack: 1) Extroverted Sensing, 2) Introverted Feeling, 3) Extroverted Thinking, 4) Introverted Intuition.

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Often when you’re reading about functions, the “shadow” is treated as just another name for the “inferior function.” I’ve done that myself in several posts. This is also what Isabel Briggs Meyers implies in her book Gifts Differing.* She describes the shadow as “the product of the least-developed part, which a person rejects and disowns. The shadow uses relatively childish and primitive kinds of judgements and perceptions, not intentionally in the service of conscious aims” (Meyers, 1995, p.84). She doesn’t spend much time talking about the shadow, but I get the sense reading her description that she thinks it can include both the tertiary and the inferior function if they are not well developed.

The Jungian Shadow

The best resource I’ve found for explaining the role of inferior functions is the book Was That Really Me? by Naomi L. Quenk. In her introductory chapters, she addresses the concept of the inferior function and the shadow.

Many people confuse the inferior function with the concept of the shadow and use the terms interchangeably (Quenk, 1982). In Jung’s system, the shadow is an archetype, one of our innate modes of responding to important universal psychological realities. The shadow includes those things people are unable or unwilling to acknowledge about themselves, such as undesirable character traits, weaknesses, fears, and lapses in morality, or desirable qualities such as intelligence, attractiveness, and leadership skills. The shadow is a key component of a person’s personal unconscious, a layer of the psyche that is more accessible than its much larger counterpart, the collective unconscious. (Quenk, 2002, Was That Really Me?* p.49)

Quenk draws a distinction between the inferior function as a sort of “doorway” to our unconscious, and the shadow. Our shadow informs our inferior functions, but is not the inferior function itself. Together, our inferior function and the shadow make up our personal unconscious (Jung, 1970, Mysterium coniunctionis).  This is made more confusing by the fact that Jung himself referred to the shadow as an “‘inferior’ personality.” He still draws a distinction between the fourth function and the shadow, though.

The individuation process is invariably started off by the patient’s becoming conscious of the shadow, a personality component usually with a negative sign. This ‘inferior’ personality is made up of everything that will not fit in with, and adapt to, the laws and regulations of conscious life. … Closer investigation shows that there is at least one function in it which ought to collaborate in orienting consciousness. Or rather, this function does collaborate, not for the benefit of conscious, purposive intentions, but in the interests of unconscious tendencies pursuing a different goal. It is this fourth, ‘inferior’ function which acts autonomously towards consciousness and cannot be harnessed to the latter’s intentions. (Jung, 1969, Psychology and Religion: West and East*

So, in Jungian psychology the shadow isn’t composed of any of our four functions. It is outside our conscious control, and shows up through our inferior function, which most of us don’t understand well or use effectively. It’s not necessarily bad but it often shows up as our “dark side,” the part of us that appears when we’re under stress. The shadow and inferior function are very much connected, but they are still different (even though we may use them interchangeably).

Four “Shadows”

One other explanation of shadow functions that you’ll occasionally see is a claim that each type uses all 8 functions. This theory describes the four functions that we just discussed as the “dominant processes” and the other 4 as the “shadow processes.” Using the same examples from before, it looks like this:

  • INFJ
    • dominant processes: 1) Introverted Intuition, 2) Extroverted Feeling, 3) Introverted Thinking, 4) Extroverted Sensing.
    • Shadow processes: 1) Extroverted Intuition, 2) Introverted Feeling, 3) Extroverted Thinking, 4) Introverted Sensing.
  • ESFP
    • dominant processes: 1) Extroverted Sensing, 2) Introverted Feeling, 3) Extroverted Thinking, 4) Introverted Intuition.
    • shadow processes: 1) Introverted Sensing, 2) Extroverted Feeling, 3) Introverted Thinking, 4) Extroverted Intuition.

It’s basically a way to quantify our unconscious and describe how it manifests through our inferior function. However, I don’t think Jung assigned “functions” within the shadow or thought the unconscious could be understood in that way, and I haven’t read support for this theory of 8 functions from psychologists discussing the MBTI.

Probably the best way to understand the idea of a “shadow” is to say that it is the part of our personal unconscious that we have the most limited access to. We experience our shadow through our inferior function, which is a part of the unconscious that we can access more easily because it is still on our function stack. Usually it shows up in a negative way under stress, but there’s also a good side to explore as well.

But the shadow is merely somewhat inferior, primitive, unadapted, and awkward; not wholly bad. It even contains childish or primitive qualities which would in a way vitalize and embellish human existence, but — convention forbids! (Jung, 1969, Psychology and Religion: West and East)

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Still No Oven / Hero Archetypes

Since I am still without an oven, I’m going to depart from my schedule and post something other than a recipe today. The repairman is supposed to come this afternoon so, in lieu of writing about food, I’m going to write about writing.

Over on MarisMcKay.com, I’ve been working on a series of blog posts about character archetypes. I’ve spent too much time on the accompanying images not to try and broaden the audience, so this post will be devoted to heroes and I’ll dedicate Monday’s post to heroines. While collecting the examples of each type, I noticed sci-fi/fantasy may be overrepresented, but that’s what I’m most familiar with and I’ve decided not to apologize for it.

This theory of character development is contained in a book titled The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes. The ideas are based on Jung’s theory of collective unconscious. He identified major archetypes that arise from memories of shared human experience and serve as models for personalities.  For this book, the authors suppose that

 At the very core of a character, every hero can be traced back to one of eight major archetypes, as can every heroine. The core archetype tells the writer the most basic instincts of heroes or heroines — how they think and feel, what drives them and how they reach their goals.

Hero Archetypes

Eight hero archetypesThe Chief His major virtues are that he is goal-oriented, decisive, and responsible. He can also be stubborn, unsympathetic, and dominating. “He is a man who seizes control whenever possible. Active, dynamic, and strong-willed, he urgently needs to fix problems and produce results.” This type of character is not discouraged by challenge, and is typically a born leader or a conqueror type of character.

The Bad Boy This type is succinctly described as “every schoolgirl’s fantasy and every father’s nightmare.” He is typically charismatic, street smart, and intuitive, but is also pessimistic, bitter, and volatile. This character “struts into every room, daring one and all to knock the chip from his shoulder. … All his life, he has been pointed out as a bad example, so he does his best to maintain that reputation.”

The Best Friend “Decent, kind and responsible … He fits in everywhere and is universally liked. Whether he operates out of a sense of duty or genuinely enjoys giving of himself, he is always there.” His main virtues are stability, a supportive nature, and tolerance. His flaws are that he can be complacent, myopic, and unassertive.

The Charmer This is the likable rogue type who can “make you believe in fairy tales” but “is not always there in the ever-after”. He is creative, witty, and smooth, but also manipulative, irresponsible, and elusive.  “Exuding enormous charisma, he showers the people in his life with gifts of laughter and happiness. He is always fun, often irresistible, and frequently unreliable.”

The Lost Soul This character is devoted, vulnerable, discerning, brooding, unforgiving, and fatalistic. He is defined by an isolating event from his past. He “drifts through life with a heavy heart and a wounded spirit. He is dramatic, intriguing, and secretive. … This man has a poet’s voice, an artist’s creative genius, and a writer’s grasp on emotions.”

The Professor Some of my favorite characters — Daniel Jackson, Spock, Sherlock Holmes — share this type. They are “used to being the smartest man in the room,” are experts in their field, and can be absent minded or highly organized. They are analytical and genuine, but also insular, inhibited, and inflexible.

The Swashbuckler This character is an explorer or a daredevil,  fearless and foolhardy. He is exciting but unreliable, capable of finding a solution to any problem, but selfish in pursing his goals. “He loves to leave his mark on every exploit, so he chooses the most rash and flamboyant method of achieving his aim. Impulsive and creative, this man lives for the next adventure.”

The Warrior Tenacious, principled, and noble, this character type is compelled to see justice done. They can be self righteous, relentless, and merciless with their enemies. A character of this type “believes evil cannot go unpunished. He cannot allow the bad guys to walk away, so trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes.” He defends the weak and is the perfect protector.

Writing With Archetypes

I’ve found this book helpful in coming up with ideas for strong characters. For one character, who was disappearing into the background of my finished novel, it’s helped me flesh him out so much that the sequel will be his story. He is a Warrior, and I’m going to layer on some Lost Soul characteristics to make him even more unique.

There is a wide variety within each type, so even if you don’t combine them there is plenty of room for character development. As the writers of this book said, Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady is a chief, like Captain Kirk, but you wouldn’t want him commanding a Starship. If you’re a writer and you can find a copy (the book is out of print, so I use one from the library), I highly recommend this resource.