The other day I nearly caused a car accident. It was an immensely stupid decision, one I must have made out of sheer panic. I’m sure the other driver saw me as an imbecile. I’m sure those who witnessed the event thought the same.
Only a few days before that incident I found myself in their shoes. A truck had narrowly cut off another driver in my peripheral vision; if the victim hadn’t been so quick thinking, I would have witnessed an accident. I found myself immediately firing negative thoughts in the offending driver’s direction as sour adjectives flooded by mind. I had, in an instant, defined this man’s character without so much as seeing his face. Were this driver's actions spawned from arrogance and narcissism? They might have been, but it is more likely he made an honest mistake.
I noticed there was a reason I was quick to judge: because it distracted me from my own insecurities about my subpar driving — It took the weight off of my shoulders and allowed me to scorn another for his mistake. This phenomena is called projection. In a psychological sense, it refers to a defense mechanism in which we project negative qualities onto others in order to avoid confronting them within ourselves. As light cannot exist without shade, the conscious mind cannot exist without the unconscious, where the contents of these projections are thought to originate. Psychologist Carl Jung summarized the danger of the unconscious with his characterization “the shadow”: the beast which lurks beneath the covers of the conscious mind, secretly implanting its motives and desires into our daily behaviors and thoughts. Much like a shadow stretches and distorts menacingly across the pavement, the unconscious mind can take a wicked shape if not properly tamed.
If someone cuts you off in traffic, your gut reaction is to assume they are doing so because they are a narcissistic jerk with no regard for others’ space. Whenever you do the same, you rationalize that you were in a hurry or that you simply made an honest mistake. It happens to everyone, but we rarely give the benefit of the doubt to others: where we were merely clumsy or forgetful, others are malicious, apathetic, or idiotic. It is easy to project negativity onto others because, if we were to wear our shadows on our sleeves, we’d be wholly contemptible people — the world would shun us as we do the world. In casting our burdens onto others, we build the facade that we are perfect people; this illusion allows us to amend the responsibility of facing up to our darker attributes. What we don’t realize is that the closer we walk toward light the greater the depth of our shadow becomes. In avoiding confronting our shadows, we inevitably allow them to expand.
Perhaps that’s why politics has grown so incendiary and detached, or why the world appears to have grown so miserable — we scapegoat others in an attempt to shield ourselves from our own insecurities. We don't wish to confront the vitriol within ourselves, so we pass it on for others to burden. Jung warned of the consequences of this behavior, and suggested a natural remedy. Like fears, the shadow must be confronted in order to be overcome, lest it manifest and spread its influence deeper into our behaviors, thoughts, and identities. We cannot allow ourselves to be corrupted by aversion. In doing so, we become very toxic people — detached from empathy and compassion. We become bitter and caustic, and ready to lash out at others. Instead, we must confront our anxieties, insecurities, and eccentricities lest we remain tormented by them. We must learn to forgive and to be understanding. We must integrate our shadows into our conscious awareness, and tame them. Only then can we grow and find the light we seek.
KELBY SWANSON is an Ottawa Township High School 2019 graduate. He is looking to study psychology and philosophy at Illinois Valley Community College.