From the perspective of depth psychology, not only are our split-off qualities projected onto people in our daily lives but they are also projected onto figures in our dreams, appearing for example as monsters, people victimizing us, animals we fear, or even forces of nature that threaten us such as storms or earth quakes. The following dream illustrates this phenomenon. In the dream a man, apparently on a safari, is hunting a lion in the woods. He is on the lionʼs trail, evident from the dead and eaten prey he sees along his path. When he catches sight of the lion, it turns towards him. He becomes frightened and, unprepared to take on the lion, decides to retreat.
The man who had this dream recalled seeing lions on television, in movies, and in zoos, especially the lionʼs incredible roar at the opening of each MGM movie, but he didnʼt know what lions were really like, having never studied them. He didnʼt know if they attacked if individuals came upon them in the wild, how they communicate with each other, or how they fit into the web of life. He simply had a preconception that lions had three qualities, all of which are seen in the dream: 1) they had powerful, frightening roars, 2) they had a natural instinct to stalk their prey, and 3) they had the capacity to kill. His preconception and limited knowledge about lions made them the perfect image on which he could project his own shadow qualities as is also reflected in the conversation we had and my interpretation of it:
I asked: “What are you currently struggling with in your life?”
He responded: “I am afraid about my career. I want to leave my job as an account manager, a job I have held for fifteen years. I have been thinking about making the change for a few years now, but the security of my current position is very compelling. I get right up to the edge of the decision and then back off.” (Interpretation: The dream suggests that the lion can do what he cannot. He projects aspects of himself onto the lion. Just like he gets close to the lion then backs off, he gets close to leaving his job and changing his career then backs off; he doesnʼt want to acknowledge his potential predatory nature, power, and mastery. However, he will need to claim these qualities if he is going to resolve his career dilemma.)
I asked: “What stops you from leaving your job?”
He responded: “Lots of people start their own companies; many of them get eaten alive.” (Interpretation: This comment makes it clear that he also projects upon the marketplace. To him the marketplace is ruthless, self-serving, and can eat him alive.)
I asked: “Do you know any people who have been successful at it?”
He responded: “Yes, two women I used to work with, the people who caused me to seriously think about setting out on my own.”
I asked: “What were they like?”
He responded: “When they first left the company, I thought they were irresponsible; I thought that they should work on their startup on the side and not burn their bridges with the company until they knew it would be successful. But they seemed to use the company and connections to further their own agenda. You know, they were those cut-throat business people who have little regard for others.” (Interpretation: He also projected onto the women. They were like lions who went after what they wanted and took decisive actions, shadow parts of himself he could not acknowledge. He didnʼt only need to learn not to judge these women, he needed to learn to “be” them.)
I asked: “What would you do if you were like them, if you were irresponsible, a cut-throat businessman, willing to burn bridges?”
He responded: “I would just give my leave and do what I have been wanting to do for a long time.” (Interpretation: If he could claim the qualities that he split-off he would not only be less judgmental of the women but would become more whole and able to accomplish what he wanted in life.)
I asked: “But what about your family; what if you donʼt make it?”
He responded: “If you donʼt go for what you want, youʼre kind of dead already.” (Interpretation: He projected onto the business world, seeing it as the lion, killing him, its prey. While logically the answer may be to find a safe place from the lion, psychologically, the safest response is to become a lion. He needed to stop projecting onto people and circumstances he judged and claim the lionʼs qualities as his own split-off ones.)
About six months after our conversation, he left his job. Telling his employer he was leaving meant speaking up (roaring like a lion), putting an end to an old life (“killing” it), and stalking his new life.