By A.J. Drenth
Through the process of psychological development, we all develop an identity that allows us to identify with a certain personality type. An equally important but often overlooked fact is that we tend to disown the emotions or personality traits that do not cohere with our favored self-image. And while there are certain benefits to understanding our personality type, we will never experience personal or collective wholeness until we come to understand and integrate the lost, forgotten, or repressed elements of ourselves; we must become aware of and befriend our “shadow” self.
The shadow self contains all the potentials that we have disowned. Because we experience the shadow as “non-self,” we often unconsciously “project” it onto the outside world, thereby experiencing it as an external force. Extreme examples include schizophrenia or “demon possession,” in which an individual hears voices or otherwise feels affected by “outside” or non-self phenomena that are actually arising from within. A more commonplace example of “shadow boxing” is the projection of repressed anger. When this occurs, instead of being angry at something (as is the case when we experience anger consciously), we unwittingly project our subconscious anger and experience it as others being angry at us. Likewise, instead of feeling hatred, we feel hated. Instead of feeling like we are rejecting, we feel rejected.
Not only do we repress and project negative emotions or qualities, but positive ones as well. This is why one might experience an overblown sense of awe, admiration, or love for certain individuals. As I discuss in this post on the inferior function, it is not uncommon for people to fall madly in love with their typological opposite (i.e., a person who expresses what I have repressed).
Not only can shadow boxing detract from one’s quality of life, but also from our collective well-being. Those who are at war with themselves experience the world as inherently dangerous and evil. They demonize others when they are actually, albeit unwittingly, demonizing themselves.
Casting Light on the Shadow
1. What bothers you most?
One way to become aware of your shadow is by noticing what things tend to bother you most about others. In many cases, that which frustrates or annoys you the most is that which you have most vehemently denied as a part of yourself. For example, you might denounce another as being overly rigid or closed-minded while remaining blind to you own tendency to act rigidly or dogmatically in certain situations. Once you can see and reclaim lost parts of yourself, you can become more empathetic and compassionate toward others who might display such traits.
2. “I am this, but I can also be that.”
Another way to begin understanding and integrating your shadow is to make a list of self-descriptive qualities. After doing so, go through the list and consider times when you thought or behaved in a way contrary to that trait. You may feel a strong inner resistance to even participating in this exercise, which alone is enough to demonstrate the degree to which we struggle to confront and embrace our shadow side.
3. Reversing the direction.
Repressing and projecting emotions involves a reversal of the true direction of the emotion. Here are some examples:
“Others reject me” may be better understood as “I reject others.”
“Experiencing others as hateful” may be better understood as “I hate.” (Such an individual may have no sense that he is hateful, since he has repressed his anger/hate.)
“She was judging me” may be better understood as “I am judgmental.”
What is tricky about projection is distinguishing it from accurate perception. The frequency by which you experience the emotion may be most telling. For instance, if you are constantly experiencing other people as angry, there is a good chance that you are projecting your own repressed anger.
The great thing about becoming aware of our own shadow boxing/projection is that awareness is often curative. Once we are aware of what we are doing, we can laugh at ourselves and the destructive emotion is quickly dissolved. Embracing our shadow allows us to go easier on ourselves and others. By acknowledging all parts and potentials of ourselves, the “good” and the “bad,” we feel less of a need to defend a certain self-image. This, in turn, makes us more willing to accept, empathize, and find common ground with others.