On the first day of a new class, I walked into the room and found a seat. Looking around at the other participants, my eyes were drawn to a woman on the other side of the circle. She sat calmly, comfortable in her own skin, self-contained and poised.
Meanwhile, I was feeling anxious inside. Questions rattled around my busy brain: would anyone like me? Would I like them? Did I forget to bring anything I needed? When would lunch be?
I glanced again at the woman across the circle, so calm and relaxed. A jolt of jealousy hit me. I wanted to be that person who was calm, confident, untroubled by anxious worryings. But I wasn’t that person.
Or was I?
Psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) proposed that every human being has what he called a shadow. Our shadow is everything in us—every part of our being and personality—that we’re not consciously aware of.
When Jung spoke of the shadow, he was talking about the parts in us that we repress and reject—anything we consider bad, evil, and unacceptable.
When we repress our own shadow material—when we stuff it down inside of us so deep that we forget it even exists—we tend to project it onto other people. All the stuff we don’t want in ourselves, we start to believe we see it in others. We label those other people as bad, evil, and unacceptable.
And then we feel OK about belittling them, seeing them as subhuman, and hurting them, or even killing them.
Racism, misogyny, homophobia, and all the other forms of oppression could not exist without this dynamic.
This is why shadow work—getting in touch with the parts we’ve rejected, befriending them, and withdrawing our negative projections onto other people—is such an important part of justice and liberation work.
Jealousy as a mirror
But our shadow also includes the creative gifts and strengths we don’t know we have. Today, many psychologists call this the “golden shadow” or “bright shadow.”
And, oddly enough, jealousy is the key to unlocking it.
Because just as we project the “bad” stuff inside us onto other people, we also project the “good” qualities inside us. All the strengths in us that we haven’t claimed yet, all the creativity, all the gifts we never found a way to express—we take all that and project it out onto others.
And then we get jealous of those others for possessing the very qualities we long for in ourselves, if we could only access them. So our jealousy is like a mirror. We’re looking at other people, but we’re actually seeing a hidden part of ourself.
Take the woman I saw on the first day of class. She seemed so calm, poised, and comfortable to me. But what did I know about her, really? Almost nothing. When my jealousy flared up, I hadn’t exchanged even a single word with her. That’s a pretty good sign that I was deep into the terrain of unconscious projection.
Look into the mirror and see yourself
But there is a way out of our projections.
When you feel jealous of someone who seems to embody some quality you wish you had, ask yourself, what exactly am I jealous of? Try to distill it down to a word or phrase.
Then ask yourself, how am I that way? How do I embody that quality?
And see what you notice.
Back in class, I was so jealous of my new classmate’s aura of ease and comfort. But later, I asked myself, OK, how do I embody ease and comfort?
And something interesting happened.
I felt my breathing slow. My shoulders dropped. I felt a sense of peace start to grow inside of me.
It was so strange. Almost immediately, I found myself tapping into the very ease and comfort I had envied in my classmate. Apparently, I could embody that too!
I came away from this micro-practice laughing at myself, and grateful for the chance to rediscover a sense of peace I’d forgotten I had inside. May it be the same for you too.