Johanna LymanWe've all been with partners who have irritated the living daylights out of us. Sometimes these irritations are enough to end the relationship. But then, lo and behold, the next person we're with starts irritating you too... what's a sane person to do?
The answer is: take a look in the mirror, psychologically speaking. When someone does something that irritates you intensely, it is a sign that you're reacting to a trait or behavior that you find undesirable. Makes sense, right? Here's the trick: that trait or behavior exists inside you. Stop for a moment and notice your reaction to that sentence. Was it strongly negative? Did you think, "There's no way I act like that"?
We all receive messages from the time we're very young, from parents and other caregivers, that tell us which behaviors are acceptable and which are undesirable. These messages teach children how to behave in society, but some of them vary widely between households. There are gender related messages: boys don't cry, nice girls don't get angry; and there are unique messages related to money, sex, love, and just about anything you can think of when it comes to human interaction. Some messages help us relate well to others, but many of them stunt the emotional growth of the child who hears them. Why, for example, should boys not cry? Why can't girls get angry?
Regardless of the message, it prevents children from fully expressing the scope of their personalities, and continues to stunt emotional growth in adults. When a child acts in a way that their caregivers deem inappropriate, the child gets the message. The behavior doesn't disappear, but it gets put into a part of the subconscious called the Shadow. The Shadow is where all of the disowned parts of the personality live. The more someone denies their Shadow, the more it wreaks havoc in their lives.
How can you identify a shadow aspect of your personality? Someone you love shows it to you by displaying it themselves, and you react in a negative way. Let me give an example. In relationships there is usually a caregiver and a taker. I'll explain in slightly exaggerated terms, but know there can and are degrees of subtlety in this dynamic.
The caregiver takes care of the taker. It's usually the woman who's the caregiver, thanks to many cultural messages given to young girls, so I'll use the feminine pronoun for the caregiver. She makes sure his lunch is packed for work, she cooks, cleans, and does his laundry, even if she has a job or career outside the home. He provides financial stability, takes out the trash and takes care of the yard. Because he's used to being taken care of (first mom, now wife), he often forgets to put the toothpaste cap on, leaves the toilet seat up, and leaves his dirty socks lying around. I know I'm making him sound like a chauvinist pig, but bear with me.
Then one day, she blows a gasket. "You're so selfish," she screams. All her pent up frustration at feeling under-appreciated bubbles to the surface. In other words, her Shadow pitches a fit. She'd been taught that it's bad to be selfish, that a good girl takes care of her man, so in order to get love she believes she has to be a caregiver.
Despite these beliefs, she has a part of her personality that wants to be selfish, and perhaps another that wants to be taken care of the way she cares for her man. She keeps pushing it into the Shadow because of her childhood beliefs, but it insists on being expressed. When she sees her man expressing something in her Shadow, it's like looking in the mirror. The Shadow recognizes itself and longs to express itself, but the social conditioning keeps pushing it back, until there's an explosion one day. It's not her man's fault, although she will blame him. She may even leave him. But the dynamic will continue to play out until she faces her Shadow.
What do you do about this? How can you allow the Shadow its expression without ruining all of your relationships? Here's how:
1. Identify a behavior that irritates you about your partner (past or present).
2. Ask yourself if you've ever behaved in that way, and be honest.
3. Ask yourself what would be the benefit of behaving in that way. For example, acting selfish means you actually get what you want, which is a good thing.
4. Give yourself permission to behave in that way, even if it's only in limited circumstances. (Maybe you get to be selfish on Fridays.)
5. Practice the new behavior if it's something you want to do. If it's not, forgive yourself for having the desire to behave that way.
We all have an unlimited capacity for differing behaviors; some we may not want to express, but it's important to acknowledge them nonetheless. I may want to kill my husband- clearly that's not socially acceptable, but it's perfectly fine to admit it to myself. Admitting it to myself takes the pressure off the Shadow's desire to be expressed.
There's a saying, "What you don't own, owns you." This refers to the Shadow. Use this practice to go through all the behaviors of other people that irritate you. You will find that you have less irritation once you uncover those behaviors in your own self, even if you choose not to express them.