Your Shadow Self Is What You Can’t Stand About Other People

The little things drive you crazy for a reason

Photo by John Sting on Unsplash

There are millions of people in the world, and hundreds of thousands of events unfolding every day. Only some will come into your awareness, however, and just a few will stick with you.

More often than not, it’s the little things that get to us.

Have you ever wondered why you can watch footage of a deadly car accident, learn it’s the fault of a drunk driver, feel upset for a few moments, and then carry on with your day? Or why, when you see your kiss-up co-worker trying to charm your supervisor, you become so irritated that you’re unable to think about anything else for the next three days?

We often have strong—if not irrational—reactions to small, innocuous behaviors. Just as often, we have moderate—but not neutral—responses to major wrongdoings. We are often more animated when discussing an irritating family member than an unethical political policy with the potential to threaten our lives.

This is not to say we cannot recognize malice in the world. Rather, objectively inoffensive stimuli trigger deep-rooted responses. Often, this response presents itself as an overreaction.

These subtle, non-serious triggers that drive you absolutely crazy are not random. They get to you because they are facets of your own personality; they are, in fact, impulses you have suppressed. There’s a saying related to this: We love in others what we love in ourselves, and we cannot stand in others what we cannot see in ourselves.

I challenge you to make a list of absolutely everything that irritates you about other people. Not things that sadden or upset you, or situations that are legitimately problematic: I’m talking about the minute things that just rub you the wrong way, the things you mull over and obsess about, the things you simply can’t let go. I’m talking about tics, habits, and patterns of speech. I’m talking about personality traits and impulses and the way someone responds to a challenge.

Maybe it’s someone who drags their feet and lacks initiative. Maybe you believe a relative is entitled, or too dependent on someone else for support. Maybe it’s the way someone disengages from a conversation abruptly when you’re mid-sentence. Maybe it’s the way someone talks over others, or cuts you off when you’re trying to answer a question.

Maybe it’s the way someone parents. Maybe it’s the way they run their business. Maybe it’s the way they condescend to you. Maybe it’s the way they insult your appearance or capabilities.

Whatever it is, write it down. Then take a careful look at that list. Next to each point, consider a way in which you are guilty of the same behavior or resist the impulse to engage in that behavior.

Maybe you are distraught over someone insulting your intelligence because you secretly think you’re smarter than they are. Maybe your friend’s vacation photos irritate you because you also want your life to look perfect. Maybe you also humblebrag to your boss, but do so in the privacy of the conference room. Maybe you also talk over people and get distracted mid-conversation, because you assume your own thoughts and ideas are more important.

It’s hard to be this self-aware. It’s impossible for most people. But it is really important to understand that we typically condemn the innocuous actions and traits of others that are also a part of ourselves. If we can take a step back and look at what gets to us, we can pretty quickly identify that we are responding to traits within our own mental and emotional capacities.

We give consequence to those who act on impulses we deny and resist. If we were to affirm these impulses, we would also have to affirm ourselves—and most of the time there’s a good reason we don’t want to behave the way they do.

We are often guilty of the very behaviors that upset us most in others; we just don’t realize we are doing it. We are all prone to being a bit of a toady, a bit of a narcissist, a bit of an overachiever, a bit of a show-off, a bit dependent, a bit needy.

The most acute and stunning tool for self-awareness is not how we see ourselves, but how we see others. If we can see ourselves in others, for better or for worse, we can gain compassion, understand that the issue is ours to resolve, and inch closer to becoming the people we most deeply want—and do not want—to be.