• We just find certain people more irritating than others, don't we? But what if the people who get under your skin could tell you more about yourself than about them?

  • Therapist Ajay Khandelwal invites you to try a thought experiment to discover something more about yourself

Do you want to find out more about yourself? Well, try this experiment. Are you sitting comfortably? Get yourself some paper and a pen. 

Think of two or three people who really irritate you. When I say irritate you, I mean people who literally get under your skin. Even if you try and behave in a civilised manner with them, you cannot help but get hot under the collar. You have a genuine, uncontrolled, physical reaction to these individuals. Something in them really disturbs you. If you search your memories, try and find a few people like this. They could be family members, celebrities, work colleagues, or even fictional characters. Ok, so write down their initials. 

Now think about the specific “quality” or “attribute” about them that annoys you. What is it about them that infuriates you? Are they selfish, arrogant, stupid, lazy….? Write down whatever comes into your mind, and just jot it down. Don’t think about it too much at this stage. It might look like this:

J.B:  Lazy        

R.F:  Selfish

Obviously, write down whatever works for you. The litmus test is that it has to get UNDER YOUR SKIN. You may be fairly dispassionate about a murderer, but you may feel agitated about your “selfish” neighbour who is having building works done. This does not have to be a rational process. In fact, the more irrational and uncontrollable the process, the more likely it is to be on the money.

Once you have done that I’d like you to put your pen down. Take a breath, get comfortable. Try and distance yourself from the agitation. Breathe normally. Now what I am going to say here is a bit controversial, so don’t shoot the messenger. The qualities you have written down are actually qualities in you. “No way” you say; those qualities are the very opposite of me. I could not be more different to J.B. or R.F! You continue, “I’m a million miles away from them in terms of personality”. You plead, “I am NOT lazy. If anything I am noted to be an industrious person. I am not SELFISH, in fact I am known as a self-sacrificing person.”

So, you may have a point. Consciously, you may well be a hardworking and caring person. In fact as you grew up, people complimented you on those very qualities. You even became a social worker who worked hard for other people. You were the very opposite of selfish and lazy. True. But where did those qualities of laziness and selfishness go? We are humans not gods, so they don’t just disappear. They may have gone deep into the unconscious, or shadow. You have no connection with those parts of you. Therefore you have to find someone outside you to hang those “distasteful” qualities on.

The psyche doesn’t just randomly assign qualities to others. It generally finds good candidates! So J.B. may well be the laziest person around, and R.F. maybe nauseatingly selfish. But they fact that you have a bodily, physical and psychological reaction to them suggests that there is more going on. They are stirring up something that lies dormant in you. There may be selfishness and laziness in you that you are completely unaware of, but is spotted by those around you. In fact they even get in to arguments with you about it when this side of you erupts, or ruins the day. The shadow aspects, which are being projected out onto others, may also provide clues about your unlived life. For instance, the imaginary social worker may need to get a bit more selfish, and leave work on time, and take care of themselves, otherwise they are heading for a heart attack.

I have to say, this is rather distasteful work. You may feel that you have been tricked. This can’t possibly be true. You are not X and Y (the attributes you find so disturbing), but the other person is definitely X and Y! Of course, you do have a point, but why would you be getting so crazy about it, if it didn’t have something to do with you? There are lots of annoying people out there, but you can rub along with a good number of them without any psychological irritation. Yet some people stick out, and really get to you. That’s the sign that they are telling you as much about your own unconscious material and they are telling you about the world out there. 

Still, if you are able to mine this information, it can be very rewarding. Subtle inner shifts, as you being to recognise those previously disowned qualities in yourself, can bring about new possibilities and different relationship dynamics. For instance, you might even begin to see the value in “X” and “Y”; perhaps laziness has its place in the scheme of things; after all doesn’t lazing about allow you to really be with yourself and others in special, unpressured ways? And being selfish, well isn’t that good sometimes? At least all the aggression and desire is upfront; you know where you stand with a selfish person! 

Next time you press your car horn and fume about another person’s bad behaviour, take a pause to think about your own. Yes, they really are a bad driver! But what is being stirred up inside you and what does that mean for you? You may want to get even with them, but maybe a more interesting route is to get curious about yourself.

Ajay Khandelwal is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Central London

Further reading

Meghan Markle and the psychology of media backlash

The psychology of money

The psychology of home

The psychology of freedom