It's Not Them, It's You
We all have that annoying friend, who, when someone is driving us crazy, asks us, “what can you learn from the person who’s driving you crazy?”
Brace yourself: I am that annoying friend.
It’s always easier to conclude that our problems are external to us. If someone grates on our nerves, it’s because there is something wrong with THEM. But what happens when we play out that “they-are-the-problem” belief? For example, a colleague always complains to you. You can’t stand it, so you grit your teeth and think angry thoughts while he goes on and on. Later, you share your annoyance with a friend, bringing you right back into that awful feeling, and bringing your poor bystander friend right into that awful feeling with you.
So what has this belief accomplished?
Feeling terrible in the moment.
Feeling terrible after the fact.
Sharing your terrible feeling with others.
And the punchline is, you are now complaining about a complainer. Yes, you’ve become the complainer.
That’s a lose-lose-lose! If you want to hate adulthood, externalizing all of your problems is an unbeatable recipe.
Here’s an alternative belief to play around with: those who drive me the craziest have the most to teach me.
Another way of saying that: whatever triggers me emotionally is precisely what I refuse to acknowledge in myself.
Let that one soak in…
We all possess the full range of human potential. Some of that potential is ugly, and we often don’t want to accept that WE could be THAT. Maybe you see yourself as a positive person - that’s your self image - so you don’t want to take in any data that contradict that belief about who you are. But that complainy colleague, oh man, when he complains, we judge him HARD. This is how it works: we become attached to an image of who we are, and we blind ourselves to the reality that WE are sometimes negative, too; instead, we project “negativity” onto others.
Not only does that lead to the aforementioned lose-lose-lose, it also keeps us blinded to a part of ourselves, and the more we resist and deny those unsavory parts, the more they manifest, and the more problems they cause us.
So what can you do about this?
Wait...first of all, this is great news! It turns out there is something positive - something empowering - we can do with every instance of triggering that we experience. Game-changer, right?
Okay, so what to do:
When someone triggers you emotionally, ask yourself, “what judgment am I making about this person?” Write it down, e.g., “S/he is selfish”.
Turn it around on yourself, and ask, “when in my life have I been that which I’m currently judging them to be?” If you can’t find it, keep looking until you do. Write down some examples.
Forgive yourself for also being that “bad” thing - that is, for being HUMAN. This is a critical step. The idea is NOT to beat yourself up in judgment, but rather to accept the fact that you - like EVERY OTHER HUMAN - possess undesirable traits. Acceptance is critical to transcendence! Congrats: now that you see it, you don’t have to be subconsciously run by it. Phew! You can instead look for positive ways to express the trait. Using selfishness as an example, if you’ve created a self-image of non-selfishness, perhaps you are caring for everyone but yourself (and probably resenting them as a result - there’s that dark side), so healthy integration of selfishness could be taking better care of yourself and letting go of taking responsibility for everyone else’s wellbeing. Whatever it is for you, write down a few healthy ways to integrate it.
Consider when that undesirable trait is triggered for you - perhaps in interactions with specific people, in certain social or work contexts, etc. Write down contexts in which you might act out the trait in a way that is counterproductive. This builds your self-awareness and can help you break the cycle of unconscious reaction in those situations.
The next time you're triggered or you’re acting out that undesirable trait, challenge yourself to catch it (“I’m feeling triggered”), label it (the judgment is “needy”), and let it go, rather than get swept up in it.
Next time you’re triggered, try making it about YOU, and see what you’re able to discover. Email me if this exercise hits home. I’d love to hear about your experience!