I believe that human conflict can be an opportunity for personal transformation and communal enrichment. I do know that this is a bridge too far for many people; I persist. For over 35 years, I have worked in a variety of roles and with a variety of individuals and groups to share this belief and provide some intellectual and emotional tools to make discovery possible. The most challenging topic I tackled with them has always been “Shadow Projection”.
I do not think I was taught about shadow projection, but tutored myself. This occurred early in my conflict engagement work. Many clients shared evaluation information after I provided a keynote, presentation, work shop, or program of some type to a group. There would be a participant majority report of satisfaction, often praise, and then one or two participants would turn in a scathing assessment of my contribution, often expressing rage and attacking me.
In addition to finding these assessments painful and unsettling, I wanted to know what was happening. The hostile evaluations were clearly a minority report, and in sharp contrast to group perceptions, leading me to posit that these persons were displaying a personal issue of some kind. I just didn’t understand it. I had prior comparable experiences, but none so clearly out of balance. My curiosity was catalyzed.
My clinical specialization is as a psychiatric nurse, and I had excellent Master’s program preparation in this field. So, I turned there first to explore this interesting behavior, among other things returning to one of my favorite theoreticians, Carl G. Jung. And there I found his theory of the human shadow and shadow projection. It could be I was taught about it and repressed the lesson; I certainly watched my students do exactly that. Apparently, this time I was more open. I engaged in a deep dive, feeling the discomfort and moral anguish of grappling with my personal shadow, a process that lasted several years, and in my estimation, is never “done”.
In Jung’s theory, we humans, early in our development, in manifesting all dimensions of what it means to be a human, manifest not just the light side but also the dark side of being human, and quickly learn these dark dimensions are profoundly socially unacceptable. Examples may help: excessive aggression, immoral urges, irrational desires to harm others, unacceptable sexual impulses. Here’s an easy concrete example familiar to many parents: biting your classmates in preschool out of frustration or rage.
Over time we learn to disown, repress, and deny existence to these dark aspects, and project them on to others. Because we repress them, they are relegated to our unconscious and hence we may genuinely believe we do not have these traits. Yet, their muttering presence can trigger a need to insist they are manifest in others. They are still there, and they become our “dark side”, buried in the unconscious yet dramatically influencing our behavior. We act them out, rationalize, and then say others acted them out! We become “shadow projectors”!
In my effort to explore my shadow, to rustle it out of my unconscious hiding places, one of the tools I used was the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. I found these helpful since all seven concepts were painfully familiar and I knew how much time and energy had been directed at telling me I should never manifest any of these. I found visual images of these seven and posted these above my desk, which added a fairly subtle entertainment element to meeting with my doctoral students. I set out to locate all seven in me. All this exploring and watching my own behavior was interesting and uncomfortable and often morally challenging. As a result, I am always sympathetic with denying or resistant students, but again, I persist.
Among the experts I turned to in my deep dive, none matched the usefulness of the Jungian scholar and clinician, Robert A. Johnson. He gave me an invaluable set of indicators that were my clues to my own shadow projection. When these three forces were present concurrently, I immediately started looking for my shadow. They involved responses that were (1) emotional, (2) compulsive, and (3) out of proportion to the reality of the situation. I quickly learned that when all three converged, I should immediately slow down and investigate what was going on. More specifically, whatever I was positing as the truth about someone else was clearly a truth about me that I elected to suppress, repress and deny…and then insist it described someone else. This is a quick, convenient way to unearth the dark side if you don’t chicken out.
I discovered, in trying to teach others all this, that once you “get it”, it is almost impossible to “unget it”, so you suddenly grasp shadow projection as a human dynamic. I also learned that anyone who “gets it” quickly learns to see shadow projection in others; they simply have to meet the three criteria and then one can study the situation for shadow projection indicators and dynamics.
Hence, a person can become an expert in shadow projection in others while actively avoiding an exploration of a personal shadow and its projection. This became for me an unintended consequence of teaching this content, perhaps even something of a moral quandary. Upping the judgmentalness of others was not one of my educator goals.
Years of engagement with persons learning about shadow projection has also taught me that while this may be one of the most valuable lessons life can deliver, it is often unwelcome. We want to very much believe that we are only our light side, and that the darkness is manifested only in our enemies. As is perhaps apparent, I just described a central tenet, practice, even obsession of the US culture.
It has increasingly seemed to me that we are a nation held hostage by shadow projections we refuse to see as shadow projections. Going back to Johnson’s three requirements, they read like the essential traits of a political campaign, like how to sell a product that others also offer, like how to describe your home, family, neighborhood, …this list gets fairly long. Shadow projection is not simply an occasional occurrence for us, it is a lifestyle.
This posting is Shadow Projection 1.0 because I hope to revisit this, with particular emphasis on shadow integration. Being held hostage by an entire society using shadow projection with the same habituation and frequency that they drink water or sleep at night is a bit unsettling, and, in my experience, tends to surprise people. A lot of noisy intense persistent conflict is simply complex waves of competing shadow projections. That we can do something about all this is good news, hence personal shadow integration can be a useful goal.
There is one interesting thing to play with in all of this. When you see someone engaged in emotional, compulsive and out of proportion responses to something, there is this moment of awareness where you can pause and say to yourself: they are describing themselves, not others. There is something vaguely comforting about this insight, though often there is little to be done about it other than to be more well informed. Now you can imagine that I share this thought with students and it gets some of them super agitated…you know, the ones that are sure they do not have a shadow.
Why mention all of this? Maybe it is my stubborn effort to continue to try, one more time, to teach something absolutely invaluable for any human embracing the challenges of consciousness and justice. Maybe I hope writing it will be useful. Maybe I like imagining all the people who will suddenly start their own investigations of shadow projection and all that effort has to teach, both uncomfortable and liberating.
Of one thing I am certain. The deliberate effort to study and understand shadow projection in myself and in others is a possibility for all of us and can lead to expansive moments of understanding and hope. It is the essential terra firma of compassion and courage. And, since I believe that shadow integration is essential to personal integrity and spiritual freedom, it’s a good topic to ponder.
Everything that irritates us about others can lead to an understanding of ourselves.”
- Carl G. Jung
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