What can irritating situations teach us about ourselves?

Swiss psychoanalyst and psychologist Carl Jung and author (and admirer of Jung) Herman Hesse have explained why others irritate us so much.

This is conveyed in their quotes:

“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part yourself. What isn’t part ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” – Hermann Hesse

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung

If a person says or does something that comes across as rude or selfish – that makes us frustrated and angry – Jung and Hesse believe that there is something about this experience that can teach us a lesson about ourselves.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that others don’t behave immorally and that our judgment about such behavior is totally unfounded. What Jung and Hesse are trying to say is that our emotional reaction – be it hatred or simply irritation – to perceived weaknesses in other people reflects something that is happening inside of us.

Psychological projection is a common self-defense mechanism. It involves projecting our own flaws, insecurities, and weaknesses onto other people.

When we make a judgment about a person being selfish, thoughtless, or rude, we could, in fact, be doing so to avoid confronting these characteristics within us.

In Jung’s book The Phenomenology of the Self, he talks about the function of the ‘shadow’ –  the dark side of the personality, residing deep in us.

It is dark because it is primitive, irrational and instinctive – composed of impulses such as the need for power, lust, greed, envy, rage, and anger. It is, however, also a buried source of insight and creativity. Bringing forth the shadow aspect is essential for our psychological wellbeing – a process called individuation.

There is darkness in the shadow because it is obscured: the light of consciousness does not reach it.

As per Jung, we repress the dark sides of our unconscious mind, which in turn makes them prone to projection.

He explains:

“These resistances are usually bound up with projections.

No matter how obvious it may be to the neutral observer that it is a matter of projection, there is little hope that the subject will perceive this himself.

As we know, it is not the conscious subject but the unconscious which does the projecting. Hence one meets with projections, one does not make them. The effect of projection is to isolate the subject from his environment, since instead of a real relation to it there is now only an illusory one. Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.

It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going.”

What truly bothers us isn’t the person or their behavior, but our reaction to it. We can use this negative reaction to reflect on ourselves, to understand what brings about this irritation and hatred.

At a deep level, we are aware of the fact that people are essentially the same. The concept of ‘the other’ is somewhat an illusion. There is a ‘we’ or ‘us’ that is manifested in different bodies, with diverse points of view. English Christian reformer John Bradford has been quoted saying: “There but for the grace of God go I”. The quote has been interpreted in different ways, but in the relevance of the topic at hand, clergyman Edward Bickersteth notes in A Treatise on Prayer:

“The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end.”

Bradford knew about the evil – the shadow aspect – inside of himself that led another person to commit a crime and be executed for it.

From a slightly different viewpoint, there are circumstances we cannot control – such as the place we are born, how we are raised, damaging and traumatic events, and so forth – that can set two people on totally different paths of life.

Should Bradford had been born in the shoes of the criminal, maybe he would have been the one executed? It isn’t a simple question to answer, but nevertheless, they share something very human in common – namely the freedom of choice. And this trait they have in common means that he could have committed the crime himself.

We all have the capability to do disturbing deeds. And this is the essence of the matter. It should make us feel uncomfortable because it makes us confront the shadow aspect that is shared by all human beings. Being annoyed by another person can be an opportunity to examine our reaction on a deeper level; to understand what it reveals about our shadow, and in turn, ourselves.

For a more in-depth look at the psychology of the shadow, see the video below.

Have you been able to integrate your own shadow? Share your experiences on the matter in the comment section, and please share this article if you enjoyed the read.