How to live: Projections and shadows


In conversation with this guy I was dating for not more than a few months, I did my regular joke/not joke, in response to something he’d said. ‘Projeeeecting…’, I commented.

To my surprise, he said, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

So,  I realised at once that I hung around people who knew about the concept of projection, that I knew about the concept of projection, and that somehow, this guy I was dating had little in common with people I usually hung around.

But what is projection? At it’s simplest, it’s an easy concept: when we project our desires, hopes and resentment onto others; and when we assign the emotions or beliefs that we ourselves hold to someone else. It’s easier that way. ‘You look really hungry.’ (Said when in fact it is you who is hungry). ‘Don’t you think you’d be more comfortable if you just took things less seriously’ (Said both because you’d like the other person to be less serious, and also because you’d feel more comfortable if you took things less seriously).

I’m not sure how much to trust Wikipedia these days, it explains the concept of Psychological Projection well enough. It seems like the concept was popularised under Freud. Good old Freud.

There is already useful writing up on the web by others about projection and how it usually isn’t so great for our lives, so I don’t think I need to try to rewrite that. Aletheia Luna, for example, has got up a blog post on 6 examples of projection that we’re prone to., which sounds like they’re doing some pretty good work in the world, also seems to have a good general article about projection, an ‘elusive concept‘.

What took my understanding of projection to a new level was encountering and reading about the ‘shadow’ self. Here we’ve moved on from Freud to Jung, and there are both complex articles about it, explained in traditional psychological terms (such as here from Psychology Today) and more modern interpretations. My dear friend Thomas studied with Debbie Ford, who popularised and modernised the concept of the shadow by encouraging people to embrace their shadows and integrate them into their personality.

The most powerful example of the shadow self for me is in the way we hate, sometimes, what we are. I remember a lightbulb moment when the first research came out showing that the men who are most likely to espouse hateful views against gay men, or to bully us, or to exert physical violence, are in fact those who are attracted to other men, but suppressing it. An unfortunate true-life illustration of the shadow: literally killing or trying to kill a part of yourself that you don’t want to face.

So, the concept of shadows comes up a lot in bullying and bad behaviour. I was surprised when I was able to face myself and apply that theory to my life. Could it be true that the people I disliked the most were the people I actually wanted to be? I had worked a few years already at the same workplace, where people were always fighting and treating each other badly. There were two people who I particularly disliked. One had been promoted to a managerial position, where he promptly stopped greeting or talking to anyone else but the managers. I found that ridiculously bad behaviour. The other person was somewhat psychologically damaged. He had bad body odour and hygiene, and didn’t seem to care, and did little work, playing computer solitaire all the time, though the director of the organisation treated him as if a royal eccentric, rewarding him with one of the highest salaries among us. He would suddenly produce work every few months which was overpraised.

img_2465Reading about the shadow self, and taking a hard look at myself, I had to admit: a part of me wanted to be them. Having always had pride in the way I treated other people, and focused (or even obsessed) over the issues of how we treat each other equitably and fairly, I didn’t realise that a part of me thought what a relief it would be not to care! And how amazing it would be to not feel bad if I was an arsehole to other people!

The same applied to the smelly co-worker. How impressive to either have the confidence or lack of awareness to not care about how he appeared! And, because I’ve always been very serious about work, about putting in hard work and doing a good job (and wanting to be recognised for it), how freeing it would to not care, and not suffer any consequences!

Did it make me like them more? Not particularly. But it did make me step back, to tone down the bitterness and realise that these shadow versions of myself, these projections had something to teach me. Some of my values have served me well, but now if I meet others who are quite opposite, I can sometimes (though not always) respect our different approaches. And I do keep myself in check more, and in observing others, see that the times we often react most badly to other people is really not about them: it’s about us.

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