It’s not always audible, but some believe it is always there. A shaded and hidden aspect of the self. The undesirable, rejected, part of human nature that (in one form) makes itself known through projection onto others. The understanding of the shadow has its origin in Freudian and Jungian psychology. In each there are many places to explore, for the purpose of this post the focus will remain on its presence as psychological defense. Specifically, defense through projection.
I’ve been thinking about the shadow in human nature over the last several months as we’ve wrestled with the contrasting elements of systemic racism, poverty, and the inherent privilege that exist in our country. The ugliness that can be, and has been, inflicted on our fellow citizens is unacceptable ~ but has been allowed ~ hidden in plain sight. In some ways it feels we are the living embodiment of complicity through our citizenship. It further feels, we can’t move this unwitting complicity until we truly understand it.
Today I am hopeful that our country’s new administration will lead us forward and out of the dark days that have been a large part of the Trump presidency. And, like many, I know that Trump’s rise to power could only exist because the uglier parts of our society exist. The parts that have been allowed to fester unseen by mainstream citizens until made openly permissible. The parts that have been insidiously woven into the fabric of our country and our psyches.
There are larger (or maybe deeper) questions that need to be asked and answered. What allows devaluation and dehumanization? Not only, what allows this from economic and social standpoints. But what allows this from a human standpoint? What would allow one to believe it is ok to inflict pain? To take life on an individual or societal basis. That one is better or more valuable than another? That his or her need or wants trump another’s needs?
In part, I think, answers lay within an individual’s (sometimes) conscious and often unconscious needs or wants, and the collective wants and needs of one’s society. The construct of the shadow in terms of projection simply means we (non-consciously) project onto others the aspects (or parts) of ourselves we do not (or cannot) accept. In normative human development, as children reach 8 or 9 years of age they began to measure themselves against others. Shortly after social grouping begins to occur, and generally by 10 or 11 years of age, children have formed groups in which they feel belonging. This of course implies desirable and non-desirable groups ~ groups in which some do not belong.
I’ll take a side journey for a moment. Yesterday, I had a short interaction with a child of about age 6. He innocently asked me, “do you like the red man or the blue man?” This was clearly on his mind as he had listened to adults, in his home, discuss the current political landscape. He was trying (in very normative fashion) to sort this out with his basic understanding that one was good and one was bad. One desirable (based on his growing world view) and one was not. Dependent on my answer, his development, and how acceptance is supported in his family of origin, he would then need to group me into one of those categories. In this instance, I supported his exploration, his love for his family, and shared thoughts about how it is ok to have differing views. Eventually, and as it felt supportive, I spoke, (words that I have always believed but in honesty the foundation of this belief has been shaken in the last several years) “that’s the great thing about living in our country we can have different thoughts and feelings and still love each other very much”.
In essence, it is developmentally normal to place people (along with everything else) into groups. This is done in the context of one’s society and family. It is also done within the framework of human attachment. In short, to belong one needs to do what is acceptable to his or her attachment relationship and eventually his or her group. Attachment research tells us that by one year of age, a child knows what his or her caregiver will do in response to the child’s need. By age 3, due to the immense growth that is occurring in the human brain, there is a strengthened neural network (a hardwired -automatic- neurophysiological roadmap) that dictates response. This overtime is reinforced through hundreds and thousands of interactions.
In the example above, the ideas around “the red man or the blue man” can become associated (through the many subtle and non-subtle interactions that the brain tags and associates) with acceptance and belonging, right or wrong, good or bad. The need to belong (to be accepted -the same as) becomes equated (at its core) with feeling loved. Again, attachment research validates that this process (the process of behaving in ways that are supported by one’s caregiver and eventual group) is a deeply ingrained, hardwired, biological, survival need.
Overtime, the aspects that are deemed undesirable (those seen as bad) are not permitted for conscious exploration by the brain. They just simply aren’t attended to or are attended to as not wanted. It can stay this way for one’s entire life, if one never has a felt reason to challenge it. Many times, individuals come to treatment (in essence) to understand why they feel or behave in undesirable ways. Something painful has caused them to begin to ask questions. Because attachment and trauma form the foundation of my clinical training, I believe the answers lay, in part, in early attachment relationships and the cumulative experiences (internal and external ) that the individual has had in their lifetime.
When I think of the ugliness of racism and white privilege, I can’t help but feel they are counterparts in the shadows of our individual and collective psyches. These unwanted, largely unquestioned forces have been left tethered in the murky places many haven’t wanted to, or haven’t known to, see. The presidency of Donald Trump in its divisiveness has laid bare these painful unwanted truths. We have seen the way our fellow citizens have been treated. We have had to (begin to) understand the ways we have been unknowingly complicit. There is much internal and external work that must be done to both understand and repair (for lack of a much better word) these realities.
The ideas we are raised with whether subtly implied or mightily reinforced become part of our automatic (again neurobiological) response. This part of the human process is normative due to the reasons noted above. These ideas become hidden from us, until something stirs them, and causes enough discomfort or pain to question what is felt, to inspire taking a deeper look. This is the Shadows voice, so to speak. Not everyone can hear it or is psychologically strong enough to question it. But it is there. Intrinsic in its nature ~ driving thoughts and behavior.
To take another side journey, I know that some of my conservative friends and family wont appreciate the idea of the Trump presidency as dark days for our country and its people. I accept that this is true for them and maybe for you. I do respect differing views and I certainly recognize that voting for Donald Trump, for most, wasn’t intended as a vote for racism. What, I hope each and every American citizen could agree on is that no one deserves mistreatment, should be devalued, or should lose their life because one person believes they have the inherent right to take that person’s life. And I think we would mostly agree (on the surface) that this is true.
It is painful to look at this topic. The topic of how a normative developmental need (at its core a survival process) has played an unintended role in the structure of us and our larger society. When we wrestle with the foundational meaning of racism and white privilege. It is uncomfortable, it feels shame based and it isn’t easy to feel this. It is, however, essential to take a deeper look, to fully understand, and to do better moving forward.
I don’t want (and I would believe most ~no matter political affiliation~ do not want) children to grow up seeing “red men and blue men”. That most of us want to see ourselves and the country we were raised in to be that place that we tell ourselves, our children, and the many that seek our country’s support, “that’s the great thing about living in our country we can have different thoughts and feelings and still love each other very much”.
Given human nature, competing economic and social needs, and the very real process around survival and attachment needs, this is a tall order. I would believe it starts with the adults in the lives of young children, and the societal structures around these adults, supporting inherent worth. Ideally we could move from teaching tolerance to understanding the innate value in each of us. A place where belonging means being part of the human group, where inclusion is not a question or a process, it is the norm.
Note: As always, I am adding potential resources for individual support at the end of this post. In addition, resources for taking direct action to assist families impacted by racial and gun violence, and social change are provided in recent posts Collective Pain and Unrest, A Change is Needed, and Desensitization, Kindling for Emotional Defense.
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