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The Psychology Of Shadow Work and Projection

To be successful in life, we all have to be fully responsible for our own actions, thoughts and feelings. And to understand this, we have to know about the psychology of projection and the nature of the human shadow. We can define shadow as the parts of ourselves we hide, repress and deny. And projection is the process by which we attribute to others the qualities that actually belong to us.

To understand this fully, you also need an understanding of the human archetypes. Read more about that here.

The psychology of shadow and projection

When you project your Sovereign energy outwards onto another (in other words, you see your own gold in someone else, rightly or wrongly) you idealise them. That’s not inherently bad, for it’s a necessary step in childhood emotional development, and perhaps necessary for the development of romantic love. You might think, though, that it’s better, on balance, to keep your strongest features, your glory, for yourself. And so it is, particularly if you want to be an emotionally healthy adult with power and presence in the world.

Carl Jung showed how the parts of our personality we hold in shadow are particularly likely to give rise to projection. As he rightly said, this can happen on a small-scale, one to one basis, or on a national or international basis. When unstable, immature and unpredictable national “leaders” start projecting their shadows onto each other, the rest of us had better watch out.

A rather unpleasant modern day form of projection is “victim blaming” – especially the victims of sexual assault. This is where the victim of someone else’s actions or bad luck is criticised, even blamed, for having attracted the other person’s attack.

One possibility is that we victim blame because it makes us feel safer. Any story of misfortune, particularly involving violence or harm, can impact us at a deep level. That happens when we imagine how it might feel to be the victim, which causes us to feel some lack of safety or fear. After all, if it happened to them, it could surely happen to us.

So to recreate a sense of safety, we project the victim within us, the part of us which fears attack, onto the other person. So they become culpable, and we are relieved of our fears. The problem is, victim blaming makes us focus on the wrong aspect of the situation. Our energy is always better directed to considering what we could do to prevent such assaults, to make society safer.

Video – victim blaming

Human beings are empathic creatures, and when we hear a story about another person we tend to consciously or unconsciously project ourselves into the story to understand how we’d feel, and what we could potentially learn from the story. We can also project our own fear into the story.

Maybe that’s why so many TV programs feature horrific stories of murder, death and suffering. Why else would we watch such things? Where is the reward, the motivation for watching, if it is not to project our fear outwards and so relieve our emotional burden?

Well, there is another dimension to this. Inside each of us there is a potential perpetrator, a part of us capable of inflicting harm and damage on others. To the extent that we were victimised by others, whether that took the form of emotional, physical, or sexual harm, so we may carry the energy of the perpetrator. This terminology featured in the dynamics described in  the Karman drama triangle.

Such hostile energy is often repressed and denied because it is both socially unacceptable and difficult for us to know, let alone admit, that we carry it. But if we carry that energy in shadow, it will leak out, perhaps as a defence of the perpetrator’s actions, perhaps as victim blaming. Or perhaps as violence and rage. This is where shadow work is needed. 

Shadow work

Shadow work a form of therapy which delves into the human subconscious and allows us to explore what is hidden there. Often, what we find are emotional wounds  suffered in childhood, which affect our lives in the world today in various negative and unhelpful ways.  All the material which we repress into unconsciousness is part of the unexpressed material within us called the shadow.

We sense at some level, even below consciousness, that the energy of the shadow is within us. When we watch  violent TV or movies, or read about violence on our internet home page every day, perhaps we’re unconsciously seeking out a mirror for the part of ourselves which we keep under wraps and pretend doesn’t exist: “I couldn’t possibly do that.”

I heard from a client recently who was unfaithful to his wife. He described how he was “overtaken by a fit of madness” when he found himself “unable” to stop himself accusing his wife of being unfaithful. This is a classic shadow, in this case attributing blame to an innocent person; for how much easier it is to project the guilt and shame of your own infidelity onto your wife than to admit what lies within yourself.

Likewise, a bully may unconsciously project his own vulnerability onto the target of his bullying behaviour. He then can act out aggressively against the victim while not feeling his own insecurity and vulnerability. Such aggressive projections can occur anywhere from the micro-level of interpersonal relationships, all the way up through to the macro-level of international politics to international armed conflict.

A final example of negative projection: people can project their own internal harsh judgements or conscience onto another person. This kind of projection may involve making false accusations of personal or political misconduct.

Shadow work has a positive side

The positive side of shadow work is that, as with all shadow, positive qualities can be projected onto others too. Many of my clients project their positive energy, optimism, hope, intelligence, power, presence, potency, creativity, and so on, onto other people rather than choosing to see it in themselves.

So projection may help you feel safer by keeping you from seeing things about yourself which are too frightening or painful (or magnificent) to admit.

However, the more you project your energy onto others, the less you have available for yourself. And projection can cause a certain level of dissociation, which separates you from yourself and from reality, at least to some degree.

Shadow work, as I mentioned above, is a form of shadow work which can help you take back the projections you’ve placed on others, stop seeing them through the filter of your own shadow, and see them as they really are. Shadow work also allows you to grow because you take your own repressed material out of the unconscious mind and re-integrate it into your whole being. This gives you more of a sense of psychological wholeness and a new source of energy. (That’s the energy which you had previously used to repress your own emotions and feelings.)

Not only that, but taking back your projections is an essential part of growing into your own emotional maturity, simply because you make yourself more complete, more whole. After all, the energy contained in your shadow belongs to you, nobody else. So when you project your shadows onto other people, you give your power away.

Video – emotional maturity

You may have come to believe that the energies repressed into your shadow bag are not yours, so you don’t even think twice about what’s going on when you spot these qualities in others yet don’t feel them in yourself. But the truth is, this is your energy, repressed or not, and you’re diminished when you give it away.  

Conversely, you serve yourself by reintegrating shadow energy into your conscious awareness. You can make it part of the person you are today – and if necessary, you can also transform the energy of shadow back into a more positive form, and reclaim the gold it originally contained.

There are some areas where this process of reintegration is particularly important: sexuality is high on that list! If you don’t feel much interest in sex, while surrounded by others whose sexuality seems to be obvious and keenly expressed, you might be disowning your own sexual energy and seeing it in someone else. Equally, if you feel disgusted about other people’s sexual antics, maybe the disgust you’re feeling is disgust at your own sexual drives and urges?