Who is pushing?
I turned to see a tall bald man looking down at me as the train pulled in to the platform. I let two people in before me, and that's when I felt the push. As we turned toward the seats I felt another push on my back, and again looked at the man, who now released an annoyed huff of breath. What a jerk! I thought. Does he think that he's the only one who deserves a seat? Then I felt a poke on my shoulder, and in a loud angry voice the tall bald man said,
"What are you looking at? You got a problem, buddy?"
I saw people turn toward us.
"I don't have a problem," I answered, trying to sound calm. "How about you?"
He shook his head dismissively, and found a seat. I spent the next 20 minutes replaying the incident, imagining better, more biting responses than my lame answer, and plotting what I would say to him the next time we met on the platform, to show him that he was wrong, inconsiderate, and rude.
I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. Why am I so worked-up over this little incident?, I asked. As my breathing slowed I began to relax, and let myself feel the emotion; the sense of indignation, personal offense, and obsessive replaying of the event. I knew this feeling well because I had taught others about it, and now I was experiencing it directly. The teaching that I learned is:
That which irritates us most about others is usually an aspect of our own personality that we dislike, but do not want admit to ourselves.
Then the encounter came in to focus. I was anxious to get a seat on the train, and was tempted to rush on to grab the first available seat. But because of my self-image as a "spiritual person" I let others in front of me. The tall bald man's aggression, however, was a reflection of my own feelings of anxiety about getting a seat, but I was unwilling to admit that I too am pushy, so I vehemently condemned him in order to reassure myself that I'm not like him. His unwillingness to recognize me as a "spiritual person", though, brought my self-image in to question, prompting the thought, Maybe I am the pushy jerk here. (If he had smiled and congratulated me for letting others ahead I would have gladly stood for the trip, feeling secure and validated.) But that was very difficult to look at and accept, so I immediately rejected that option, and blamed him. And the internal drama grew... Whew!!
This insane dynamic - the reluctance to accept parts of ourselves that don't fit the self-image that we've created, who we like to think that we are, and who we want to appear to others - is actually a universal human experience. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung named it the "shadow", because it contains the thoughts and feelings that we've subconsciously sent to the dark shadows of our psyche, hoping not to be found, out of fear that our self-image will be challenged. If our self-image is, for example, I am self-sufficient, I am humble, I am caring, or I am spiritual, then natural thoughts and emotions which conflict with this self-image, such as feelings of incompetence, need for adulation, self-involvement, or anxiety about getting a train seat, will be disowned to the degree in which we identify with the self-image. We then lock these thoughts and emotions behind a wall in our psyche so that we can avoid looking at them, where they remain stagnant, stuck at the age when they were repressed, never growing, and never maturing. We may think that we've eliminated the unwanted feeling by locking it away, but there it waits, ready to emerge when provoked. If unaddressed, our shadow qualities can damage our relationships, limit our effectiveness, and make us anxious, depressed, and frustrated.
So, how can we recognize our shadow side? Emergent shadow emotions have a particular quality that differentiates them from other responses. The following are a few common indicators:
Inappropriate reaction to another's actions: This may take the form of under-reacting ("numbing out"), or over-reacting ("acting out")
Recurrent complaints about others: Unless we live in a sealed environment that is, improbably, composed of a particularly annoying brand of human being, we need to look to ourselves as the common factor.
Snap Judgments: When we find ourselves making a snap judgment about someone that we just met or do not know, it is likely that we are projecting an unwanted aspect of ourselves on to the other.
What to do? The following are a few suggestions for positive actions:
Embrace your shadow as an opportunity for growth: The central commandment in the Bible is "And you will love your neighbor as yourself." In other words, you will love others as you love yourself; to the degree that you can accept yourself, with all your perceived shortcomings.
Ask for honest input from a trusted friend, and LISTEN: Our friends and families usually see our "blind spots" - those troubling aspects of our personality that are obvious to everyone but us. It requires courage to listen and seriously consider that the other person may be telling us something that is true and useful.
Don't take yourself so seriously: Find humor in the situation. OK, I am feeling pushy. It's not the end of the world, and doesn't mean that I'm not "spiritual". It just means that I'm a human being who wants a seat - just like the tall bald man.
The good news is that we tend to unconsciously select spouses, friends, work and social situations that bring our shadow forward. We do this because, in our hearts, we want to be known and accepted for all of who we are, and we are drawn to these people and situations that we intuit will help lead us toward repair and wholeness. In this way, people who bring up our shadow side are our teachers, to whom, if we can, we ought to feel gratitude. So, dear tall bald man, thank you for inspiring this message and helping me to be aware of my own aggressiveness. But, in the future, please don't push!
Alan Lurie is the author of Five Minutes on Monday: Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.