Do you know someone who really pushes your buttons? Maybe the person exhibits qualities you despise, like dishonesty, egotism, greed, brutality, narcissism, lust, snobbery, rudeness or prejudice. Maybe you're emotionally triggered by the behavior and wonder: "How can someone act like that? Certainly I don't!"
But rather than just pass judgement and move on, this could be an opportunity to discover something important about yourself.
That "something" is your shadow, a psychological concept developed by pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He saw in his clients the tendency to repress, (keep hidden from the conscious mind) those traits which they find unacceptable. It's important to note that desirable traits can also be hidden from consciousness. The collection of desirable traits is called the positive shadow.
People will deny (disown) shadow elements in themselves, but clearly notice them in others.
The process of denying repressed qualities and seeing them play out in others is known as projection. Attributing negative traits to others is a type of defense mechanism, a way to shift blame and shame away from ourselves. Projecting positive traits onto others also happens and may take the form of hero worship.
There is a psychological cost to keeping the shadow bottled up in the unconscious. Under stress, negative traits like rage may manifest involuntarily at inappropriate times. After the explosion you wonder "where did that come from?" The reality is the rage was always there, just hidden away. Such unconscious acting out of the shadow, if unchecked, can do much harm to relationships with family, friends and colleagues.
In addition, repression of shadow aspects takes a lot of psychic energy to maintain. That's energy that can be used for more productive and creative pursuits.
Although it's unpleasant (if not painful) to acknowledge and explore our personal shadow, it can bring us clearer self-understanding about our motives, behavior and relationships with others. With greater self-awareness comes the potential for self-forgiveness and self-compassion. And the resulting liberation of psychic energy can greatly improve mental and physical health.
In next month's Soul Wisdom Therapy Newsletter, I'll describe shadow work, the process of integrating unconscious aspects of the psyche to help us live a more balanced and fulfilled life.