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What is shadow and projection, really?

When I was little, I had no idea what the words ‘projection’ and ‘shadow’ meant, other than the thing we used to watch videos at school and the sun casting our reflection in the concrete. And now, it’s posted all over social media within the spiritual community. What exactly is a shadow and projection when talking about personal growth and spiritual evolution?


Although they are inherently interrelated, let’s talk about one at a time to get a better picture. You know when you get angry at a loved one and blame them for something and talk about something you don’t like about them when it is really you that behaves in that way? You’re simply looking for someone else to blame because you can’t see it within yourself. This is projection. According to Feud, projection is defined as ‘a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is always rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude, instead of looking at themselves. Or someone who is constantly inappropriate may accuse someone else in the family of being the inappropriate one, again, without looking at themselves and their own behavior. Their inability to accept this quality in themselves, and their overall lack of self awareness, in addition to victim mentality drives the projection.

How to Cope 

There are several ways you can first identify and then stop projection in its tracks

1)Stop the toxic interaction immediately

If you’re in a relationship in which there’s some projection going on, learn how to stop it in its tracks. For example, the next time Marie gets on Emily for overspending when she’s the one who’s been doing it, she could try responding like this: “Marie, this doesn’t ring true to me, and I’m not going to engage in this conversation.”

By doing this, Emily walks away to take care of her feelings, being very compassionate to herself in the face of Marie’s angry, blaming projection. By not engaging in defending and blaming back, Emily takes herself out of the crazy-making dynamic so that it doesn’t escalate.

      2) Understand that projections aren’t the truth

One of the problems with being unable to spot projection is that many children were projected on by their parents, and they took in the projections as if they were true. Maybe your parents called you selfish, irresponsible, or crazy or told you to stop being angry when they were the ones being selfish, irresponsible, off-kilter, or getting angry.

If any of these or similar situations happened to you when you were growing up, then you may be an easy target for the crazy-making of projection. Being able to recognize this is the first step to putting an end to it.

3) Know it’s painful to feel unseen

One of the hardest feelings to deal with is feeling unseen by someone who says they love you. So when someone you are close with projects their disowned stuff onto you, there is a tendency to want to explain and defend, but this will only make things worse.

The way out of the crazy-making of projection is to learn to trust yourself when someone is blaming you for something and it doesn’t feel right to you. If you are being told that you are a selfish person, but you know that you are, in fact, a kind and giving person, then you need to trust what you know about yourself rather than what the other person is saying about you. And instead of trying to get the person to see you, you need to see yourself and value yourself enough to get out of range of the projection.

  • (Magaet Paul, Ph.D, “Ae You a Victim of Projection? Hee’s How to Know — And Not Let it Make You Crazy” – MindBodyGreen

Shadow Work 

Have you heard the term, ‘shadow work?’ Shadow can be the parts of ourselves that we may not like, or are even aware of, but must be faced for our own human and spiritual evolution. 

In Jungian psychology, the “shadow”, “Id” or “shadow aspect/archetype” may refer to an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify itself, or the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. In short, the shadow is the unknown side. 

Shadow isn’t always bad. But it is akin to projection in that it stems from a similar place: our basic human need of acceptance was not met in some way. So we stuff things down in order to be safe and accepted by our community. Below are exercises and there are SO many other ways to work with your shadow, as well. 

Here are five ways of working with your shadow:

Exercise #1: Watch Your Emotional Reactions

Remember that the shadow is elusive; it hides behind us. Our defense mechanisms are designed to keep our shadows repressed and out of view.

The more you pay attention to your behavior and emotions, the better chances you have of catching your shadow in the act.

We tend to project our disowned parts onto other people.

One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people.

Sure, your colleagues might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within you, you won’t have a strong reaction to their behavior.

If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.

-Carl Jung

But we rarely have time to work with those emotions on the spot.

At the end of the day, it’s helpful to take five or ten minutes to reflect on your interactions with others and your related reactions.

Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself.

Get to know that part, accept it, make it a part of you, and next time, it may not evoke a strong emotional charge when you observe it in another.

Focus on what and who evokes an emotional charge in you. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is; it’s a clue you are denying something within you.

Exercise #2: Engage in Inner Dialogue

Many forms of inner work require you to engage in an active dialogue with your shadow side.

At first, this might seem like a scary idea since we have a belief that only “crazy people” talk to themselves. But all of us have many subpersonalities—numerous unrecognized, autonomous parts in our mind.

Many different psychologies offer ways of working with these disparate parts, including Jung’s Active Imagination, Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems, Stone and Winkleman’s Voice Dialogue, and Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis.

When we don’t pay attention to these parts—one or many of which represent aspects of our shadow—they have a way of influencing our behavior.

Have you ever done or said something and then wondered why you did or said it? A part in you was taking charge.

Every so-called “accident” is a part hijacking your behavior. Our disowned parts aren’t trying to hurt us, but when we ignore or deny them, they often do.

By dialoguing with them in our imagination or in a journal, we can integrate these parts into our conscious selves.

Then, they become our allies instead of our enemies.

See: How to Expand Your Consciousness by Using the Psychology of Archetypes

Exercise #3: Challenge the Good Part

Many of us identify ourselves as being a “good person”. We were praised as children for being a “good boy” or “good girl,” and that identification stuck with us.

This intensified the split between our conscious identity and our shadow.

Make a list of all of your positive qualities. Then, highlight the opposite. Try to identify the opposite within yourself.

For example, if you define yourself as a disciplined person, you’re repressing your lazy part. The lazy part is hiding in the shadow.

The disowned is influencing your behavior and constantly challenging your disciplined part.

So identify with this lazy part. See it. Accept it. Make friends with it. It’s okay to be lazy too.

Exercise #4: Get to Know the Shadow Archetypes

Perhaps the best way to get to know your shadow is to familiarize yourself with the work of neo-Jungian Robert Moore.

Moore has outlined the structure of the psyche in archetypal terms.

Moore suggests that the four primary archetypes of the psyche are the King, Warrior, Magician, and Lover.

Each archetype possesses qualities we define as the best attributes of mature adulthood.

But for each constructive archetype, there is a destructive shadow.

And not just one shadow, but two: an active side and passive side (bipolar).

For example, the shadows of the King is the Tyrant and the Weakling. The shadows of the Warrior are the Sadist and Masochist.

Getting to know these bipolar shadows makes it easier to identify their thoughts and behavioral patterns within yourself.

I highly recommend Moore and Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. It’s one of the most important books on psychology I’ve ever read.

See also: The Ultimate Archetypes List (Over 325 Archetypes) and How to Activate the Magician Archetype

Exercise #5: The 3-2-1 Shadow Process

If you want a step-by-step method for shadow work, try the 3-2-1 Shadow Process developed by integral philosophy Ken Wilber in Integral Life Practice.

Here are the basic steps:

Step 1: Choose what you want to work with. It’s often easier to begin with a person with whom you have difficulty (e.g., partner, relative, boss).

This person may irritate, disturb, annoy, or upset you. Or maybe you feel attracted to, obsessed with, infatuated with, or possessive about this person.

Choose someone with whom you have a strong emotional charge, whether positive or negative.

Step 2: Face it: Now, imagine this person. Describe those qualities that most upset you, or the characteristics you are most attracted to using 3rd-person language (he, she, it).

Talk about them out loud or write it down in a journal. Express your feelings.

Don’t calculate say the right thing. There is no need to be nice. The person you are describing will never see this.

Step 3: Talk to it: Dialogue with this person in your imagination. Speak in the 2nd person to this person (using “you” language).

Talk directly to this person as if he or she was there. Tell them what bothers you about them.

Ask them questions such as:

  • Why are you doing this to me?
  • What do you want from me?
  • What are you trying to show me?
  • What do you have to teach me?

Imagine their response to these questions. Speak that imaginary response out loud. Record the conversation in your journal if you like.

Step 4: Be it: Become this person. Take on the qualities that either annoy or fascinate you.

Embody the traits you described in step 2. Use 1st-person language ( I, me, mine).

This may feel awkward, and it should. The traits you are taking on are the exact traits you have been denying in yourself.

Use statements such as:

  • I am angry.
  • I am jealous.
  • I am radiant.

Fill in the blank with whatever qualities you are working with: “I am __________.”

Step 5: Notice these disowned qualities in yourself.

Experience the part of you that is this trait. Avoid making the process abstract or conceptual: just BE it.

Now you can re-own and integrate this quality in yourself.

Experiencing projection and shadow is apart of being human. We must shine light on our shadows and love on them in order to step into our full power, our highest selves, and to fully love and accept ourselves. Shadow work is spiritual work. It’s sacred healing work. Shadow work is what will “up” your game and help you evolve into your highest self in order to step into your dharma (life purpose) and kick butt in this amazing lifetime. It will also help you reach peace, joy and harmony.

We all have people that are our “shadow dancers” in this lifetime. That embody all of the disowned and rejected parts of ourselves. They are most likely people that really trigger you, or you most likely both trigger each other. It could also possibly be karmic. The key is that we become aware of their traits (or the possibility of these traits) within ourselves and set energetic boundaries if someone is projecting onto us. If we can look at these people who project onto us as a gift, to view them as our greatest teachers, we will surely heal, grow, evolve, and elevate our own consciousness, change our lives and change the world around us.

Now I’d love to hear from you.

When was the last time someone projected something onto you? What about you projecting onto someone else? Are you doing any shadow work or would you like to learn more of how to start facing you shadows?



Shadow Work Exercises (from Scott Jeffrey) 

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