This post was written by Marty Raphael, a Newfield graduate of the Coaching for Personal & Professional Mastery program and a Newfield Program Mentor Coach.

Many of us have felt afraid to even broach the topic of the recent election with friends and family who hold a different worldview from us. This campaign and election hit the “us-vs-them” nerve in the U.S., and many of us now feel a deep rift.

Conversations I’ve had with liberal friends revealed unimaginable anxiety, and some were even tempted to abandon the “American ship” and become ex-pats. With fear in their voices, they talked about watching a systematic attack on U.S. institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Protection Agency, and Department of Energy. They talked about even U.S. intelligence agencies being consistently denigrated by this administration.

On the other hand, conversations I’ve had with conservative friends and family revealed deep relief that leaders they believed were disinclined to advance their worldview and beliefs have been defeated. They expressed great satisfaction that their voices are finally being heard and that things are finally going to change.

How to Notice Shadow Projections

When things get really heated in our current political debate, each of us may feel certain the ‘other’ side is in the wrong, and that they are a living expression of innumerable negative traits. The heart of this experience is known as ‘shadow projection.’ Shadow projection is the process by which we disown a part of our self and then project it onto another person.

There are ‘golden shadows’ and ‘dark shadows.’ A golden shadow projection is when we see a positive trait in another person that we cannot see in ourselves. A dark shadow projection is when we see a negative trait in another person that we cannot see in ourselves.

The easiest way to identify the presence of shadow projection is by noticing when we have an internal charge that shows up when we are with another person. This may be a positive charge, such as overwhelming adoration, or a negative charge, such as anger and judgment. Whether positive or negative, if there is a charge, there is shadow projection present.

In a nation that appears deeply divided, adopting a practice that identifies and resolves shadow projection is an essential step toward uniting us as people as it helps us to allow and embrace differences in ideology. When you and I resolve our shadow projections, the charge is eliminated and we become able to actually listen to one another (rather than remain triggered by what we dislike and reject, which keeps us closed-minded). With deep listening, you and I can discover the places of alignment that transcend ideological differences; we can connect as human beings with a shared care, even though we may have different ideas about how to take care of what we care about.

3 – 2 – 1: Face it – Talk to it – Be it

There is a self-intervention practice developed by Ken Wilbur, contemporary philosopher and author, that helps us look at those aspects of ourselves that are too painful to admit to on our own. When these painful aspects of ourselves are repressed, they can show up uninvited and damage our relationships. Bringing them into the light helps us integrate our ‘shadows.’

The practice is called 3 – 2 – 1: Face it – Talk to it – Be it. The process is about seeing how the 1st person, e.g., “I am disgusted (or any other emotion: scared/depressed/angry, etc.)…” is projected onto the 2nd person, e.g., “You are disgusting.” When emotions become too much, they are banished altogether and become dissociated and spoken of in the 3rd person: “It is disgusting.”

The “us-vs-them” phenomenon is, at least in part, a result of this dissociation. Any grouping of humans can become an ‘it.’ Economic class, race/ethnicity, religion, and special interest group are just some of the ways that we group people. When we turn a group into an ‘it,’ we lose touch with our human capacity to be compassionate toward this now objectified group. This is similar to what happens when we dissociate from aspects of ourselves that we label as ‘unwanted’: it becomes difficult to have self-compassion. By engaging in a shadow practice, you and I can do our part to make this world a less divided more understanding place.

The Practice of 3 – 2 – 1

1. First, recognize what person or group you have disowned (the ‘it’/3rd person). Imagine they are in front of you and face them.

  • How can you recognize that you have disowned a person or group? Notice when you experience an inner charge or sense of agitation while thinking about a specific person or group.

2. Second, begin to relate to the person or group as a “you” (2nd person) and dialogue with the person or group as if they stood right before you.

  • Try imagining this person or group in front of you and ask them questions such as, “What do you have to teach me?” “What is your healthy purpose in life?” and “What is the cost of not attempting to understand you?” Allow a dialogue to unfold in your imagination.

3. Third, step into the shoes of that person or group and imagine you are them. BE them by speaking from their imagined voice and feelings.

  • For example, if the person you are triggered by appears belligerent to you, then after dialoging with belligerence, now own that you too have belligerence within you. Don’t force it, you may need to stay in the second step for awhile and just get to know belligerence (in this example). But at some point, you should be able to say “I am belligerence.”

4. By giving them a voice inside yourself, what was an “it” can begin to integrate as an aspect of yourself.

  • It is important to understand that owning negative traits that trigger you in others, will not make you more likely to act that way. In fact, just the opposite will happen because once integrated, you will be able to be calm in the presence of a negative trait. You will be acting from a place of centeredness and able to listen more deeply to what is needed at any given moment.

A powerful outcome of this process is that our reaction to our external trigger is softened, enabling a response rather than an automatic reaction. We begin to have the capacity to see an ‘us-vs-them’ situation in a new way and this new perspective generates new options and possibilities.

My greatest hope is that this process will assist us in being better listeners to each other, in entering conversations with respect and care, and ultimately, in co-creating a more peaceful future for all.

“I looked and looked

And this is what I came to see.

That what I thought was you and you

Was really me and me.”

– Ken Wilbur


If you enjoyed this practice and want to know more about Shadow Projections, invest in yourself and attend one of our transformational programs here

About the Author: 

Marty Raphael is an Ontological Business Coach and Consultant focusing on social and organizational change. She is also a published author, mediator and speaker on such topics as Global Ethics, How Coaching Impacts Leadership and Complexity and Emotional intelligence in the Workplace. She has been a mentor coach with Newfield since 2001 and a mentor coach with the Institute for Generative Leadership since 2008.

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