We are born whole, with all the pairs of human traits such as greed and generosity, productivity and idleness, and with the capacity to feel the range of emotions, from grief to joy. However, in order to be accepted and have our basic childhood needs met we learned very early which qualities were valued and which were unacceptable.
We may have been told, ‘Don’t cry’ or ‘You’re the responsible one.’ This one-sided attitude splits the pairs of opposite traits, exiling some qualities, abilities and feelings into the unconscious while overvaluing others. Parts of us, now deemed ‘bad,’ were repressed into the unconscious becoming shadow material.
The shadow is composed of all the traits or qualities that we have difficulty admitting we have. When we see these traits in others or in ourselves, we become uncomfortable, anxious and even fearful. We then use a number of defense mechanisms to avoid taking ownership of these traits.
One way in which we avoid owning our shadow material is by placing it onto others through a process called projection. Projection occurs when unconscious feelings, qualities and thoughts are placed onto external people, situations and objects.
Remember, unconscious material are qualities which our ego does not appreciate as they do not suit what our ego thinks we are. For example, if we value a very strong work ethic then we may find ourselves repeatedly complaining about a co-worker’s lack of dedication.
We have difficulties owning our shadow material. Ego exclaims, “I’m not like that!” and out that quality goes, placed onto others. What bothers us about someone is actually a quality we have not fully owned. As Jung noted, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Outwardly, our egos confidently uphold our punctuality; however, the bothered reaction shows that our egos are in fact not strong enough to face (in this case) its own tardiness. We are not mature enough to say, “I accept that sometimes I can be late.” Further, the projection lets us know, “Hey, that’s not so bad. Let’s try that once in a while.”
Projection also occurs around qualities deemed favourable. We can enviously admire someone for his or her creative ability and yet not realize our own. Taking the projection back, we ask, “Where am I creative? In what aspect of my life do I need to introduce some creative energy?”
Partners, friends, co-workers and strangers evoke reactions in us in order to increase our self-awareness. Our task is to claim these projections. As the poet Anne Waldman wrote, “Thе problem wіth уοu iѕ thе problem wіth mе.”