We all have unlimited potential. We keep most of it locked away in a vast, mysterious area of the psyche called the “Shadow.” The Shadow is the birthplace of brilliance, the crucible of creativity.
Paradoxically, it is also the domain of our most destructive impulses.
Fictional characters like serial killer Hannibal Lecter become popular icons because at some level we recognize them as manifestations of dark desires we keep locked away in the dungeon of our Shadow. But Mozart, Shakespeare and Mother Theresa are imprisoned in this very same dungeon.
Dualism does not exist in the Shadow realm. There is no distinction between potential for “good” and potential for “evil” – it’s all the same. That’s what makes the Shadow such a frightening and dangerous place.
Yet it’s a place we must explore if we are to live fully actualized lives.
Many avoid undertaking this exploration for fear of letting the monsters out of the dungeon. But the fact is those monsters actually have more power to dominate us when we attempt to suppress them. Left unexamined, they take the form of projection.
Suppressed Shadow monsters hijack our perceptions of our spouses, our children, our parents, our coworkers, our closest friends and bitterest enemies. We project them into political parties, religious institutions and corporations.
They are the source of our deepest resentments. They are the root cause of prejudice, envy, irrational fear and hatred.
When ruled by emotions like these, we are reacting to aspects of ourselves that we have suppressed. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly once put it: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This isn’t to say that all perception of evil or wrongdoing is rooted in delusional projection. Far from it: people and institutions really do abuse their power and create very real threats. There is evil in the world. But when we are dominated by an unexamined Shadow, we react to such threats in destructive ways. In extreme cases, suppression of the Shadow drives us to seek out dangerous, life-threatening situations.
If we fear our own anger, for example, we may be drawn to angry lovers. Our attempts to change or fix the other’s behavior mirror our efforts to tame our own inner monsters. The lover’s actions may be inexcusable, but we – ruled by the impulses of our suppressed Shadow – have placed ourselves in a position to be hurt or even killed.
Of course, projection can take much subtler forms. A coworker or acquaintance that “rubs you the wrong way” undoubtedly has qualities you do not want to face in yourself.
If you often find yourself using the word “stupid” to describe other people, chances are you fear your own intelligence isn’t up to snuff.
Class envy – that pervasive barrier to abundance – is also projection. Whatever negative qualities you prejudge the wealthy as having – snobbishness, self-entitlement, dishonesty, greed, indifference to the suffering of those less fortunate – are sure to be qualities you keep locked away within and hidden from yourself, regardless of your economic status.
Most people never see the extent to which projections warp their perception of reality and keep them closed off from abundance and joy. Advertisers, political parties, the news media and even educational institutions play upon our tendency to project fear and hatred onto other groups, nations and organizations; we are socially and culturally conditioned to live in projection.
Dr. Carl Jung called confronting the Shadow and its projections the “First Act of Courage.” He and his proponents warn of the dangers that lie in wait if one undertakes this journey unaided, or before one is ready.
However, if you have glimpsed the extent to which your projections cause you unhappiness, you can begin to liberate yourself from them and at least get a taste of spiritual freedom without undergoing Jungian analysis.
Turning Off The Projector
In total privacy, write down your deepest fears, resentments and sources of hatred. Hold nothing back. You never have to show this list to anyone; burn it when you’ve finished if you wish. But get the list down on paper, in black and white.
Don’t limit yourself to people. If you’re terrified of spiders, write “spiders.” If flying in an airplane makes you a nervous wreck, write “flying.”
At this point, do not attempt to explain or justify or gain an understanding about the items on your list – just make the list without intellectualizing it. When you can’t think of anything more, tuck the paper away somewhere and leave it for a day or two.
As you go about your life, seemingly inconsequential “pet peeves” – things you suppose too silly to mention – might spring to mind. Make a note of them and include them on your list. When you are confident the list is as complete as can be, look at each item and simply ask yourself, “Why?”
Your list may well include people who truly have harmed you – people whom you feel justified holding in contempt. After writing out their sins and misdeeds, sit back and ask yourself if you have ever done – or wanted to do – the things this person did to you. If the person was verbally abusive to you, think about the most verbally abusive things you’ve said or wanted to say to someone. Consciously identify with the individual you so deeply resent.
In severe cases – an abusive parent, for instance – this may be difficult or impossible to do. If so, skip that person and move on to someone you resent for less traumatic reasons.
Attempt the same analysis with your fears. Why are you afraid of flying? If you know air travel is statistically safer than driving a car, and if neither you nor anyone close to you has suffered a plane crash, what is at the root of this fear? For most people, it is based on an obsessive need for power or control. Is that the case with you?
As you jot ideas down, cross-reference your fears with your resentments, looking for patterns. If your fear of flying is about control, ask yourself whether your resentments have a similar basis: you couldn’t control this person, or that person put you in a situation where you felt powerless.
In all likelihood, this list will prove to be little more than a penlight – a pinprick of illumination within the vast, inky darkness of your Shadow. But the mere act of writing it will bring an awareness of projections large and small that cloud your experience of reality and block you from the life you truly desire.
The Shadow contains the deepest mysteries and darkest secrets of our souls. It can never be completely mastered, but abundant living depends on the willingness to consciously confront it.
The minimal beginning suggested above can free you from at least some of your most destructive projections. When the major ones are out of the way, the smaller and more insidious ones become easier to spot.
As you clear away your projections and see the illusory nature of hatred, resentment and fear, you will become increasingly open to a great reality: the reality of joy.
It will look like this: The Shadow – Birthplace of Brilliance and Creativity