Jane pointed her finger at Elaine from across the room and interrupted her.
"You are so arrogant!" She began. You think you are better than the rest of us in this group!"
Elaine had had enough. She'd tolerated Jane's interruptions, tongue clicking and eye rolling in past group sessions, but this time she spoke up.
"You are always interrupting me!" Elaine shot back, "You complain that I'm controlling and narcissistic, but you're the one interrupting the group, drawing attention to yourself, and raising your voice."
Jane and Elaine had been in group together for about 6 months. It didn't happen every week, but when it did it was uncomfortable for everyone.
Members needed to know that the conflict was going to be managed and not get out of control. Jane had been in conflict with Elaine since Elaine had joined. But this time the gloves were off. The words were sharper and intense.
There are many ways to understand how conflicts arise, and many techniques for mediation. But conflicts also provide a unique opportunity for insight and growth: Particularly when they are intense.
The shadow is a concept widely known and described in psychology and originally elaborated on by Jung to represent the dark, hidden aspects of our psyche. Karen Horney specified the ‘despised self' as those aspects of the self that are hated, which are in direct opposition to those parts of us we pretend are perfect. In the relative safety of the group the projection of the despised or shadow aspect of the self may come out as an intense criticism of another.
Projection is a defense mechanism where you point out characteristics in others that you do not want to recognize in yourself. Or those traits you have guarded against becoming. Jane was deathly afraid of becoming arrogant and self-righteous like her mother and had guarded against being like this in her own life. But when she saw this in Elaine the intensity of her reaction revealed the depth of her fear. This is beyond transference (relating to another person based on a previous relationship.) Jane wasn't simply reacting to Elaine in a way similar to how she feels about her mother. She was projecting her condemnation onto Elaine because the more intensely you can blame the other, the less you will notice you either have those traits, or have polarized yourself and are fiercely defended against them.
The work when this happens in the group is to help the person projecting their shadow onto another to assimilate the projection: To eat their shadow.
There are usually three indicators that the shadow is present:
1. The person has expressed a familiar pattern with their annoyance.
2. They have a targeted intensity to a person in the group when expressing their projection.
3. The behavior they are identifying is either something they do, or they have devoted themselves to never doing it. In either case they have organized themselves around this trait. It is usually obvious to others that they have it, or something they have suppressed so directly they only display the exact opposite.
To help the person eat his or her shadow I will often use an intervention that follows the saying: " When you point your finger at someone, remember there are three point back at you." How that gets done will be a topic for another time, but the idea is to help the person recognize that the other person isn't the origin of their annoyance: The conflict is inside them.
Jung once said: "The greatest and most important problems of life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They can never be solved, but only outgrown."
That is probably true. But help people eat their own shadow can certainly move that process along. The mechanics of how the shadow gets gobbled up will be elaborated on in a future post.