Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Irritation Path to Enlightenment

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

It has always irritated me that what other people do that irritates me has anything to do with me at all.  I much prefer thinking it's just them being out of kilter with the way things should be.  The grumpy waitress at the Grizzly or the friend who can't seem to be on time surely doesn't have anything to do with me.  Or does it?  After reading Jung's quote, I decided to re-explore one of my hot-button irritations.

I hate being watched ... it is, in fact, positively irritating.  My mom used to come to the bathroom door and watch as I put on makeup.  I never wore a lot but they thought I wore too much.  I could always feel my anxiety mount as she watched and I would resist the impulse to tell her to go away.  I always felt like I was on the edge of doing something wrong.  My dad, in a kidding-truthful teasing way, always said I never made the same mistake twice but I sure found a lot to make the first time.  It felt like he was just waiting for me to make the next mistake so he could tell me how it should have been.  And, a recent relationship showed the same pattern.  There wasn't much open criticism ... just that continual watching for lights not being turned off, cabinet doors left ajar, irregular noises.  Little by little I felt like I was living in an irritation soup.

The slightest sense of being watched can trigger irritation.  A few years ago it almost ruined a very good friendship.  I traveled to Mexico with a friend who has very definite ideas about how things should be and we disagree on many of them.  Mainly, there are things, small daily living kinds of things, that are important to her that just don't mean that much to me.  I started to feel "watched" ... i.e. insecure, afraid of being "wrong", feeling childish and weak.  Irritation grew until I was prickly, snappy and just plain bitchy. 

We made it through the trip but then didn't see each other for quite awhile.  I didn't really want to see her but I missed her and eventually we decided to do something together.  My friend isn't the type of person to let an issue go unresolved, so as we walked through the woods, she wanted to know what had been going on in Mexico.  I had to try to unravel the threads of what caused that irritation.  I peeled back the layers enough for us to understand what had happened.  But, now, I see a few more links ... when someone "watches" me, they may see an imperfection ... something that I don't do perfectly.  If I am imperfect, I am not valuable or valued.  If I am not perfect, I am not worthy of being loved.  Being watched triggers the irritation of knowing I'm not perfect (true) which triggers feelings of being unlovable (untrue).  I don't expect my friends and loved ones to be perfect, why should I think they expect me to be?

My friend and I worked it out and our friendship is strong again ... and I know a little more about myself from looking at that irritation.  (Isn't it irritating when the great masters (in this case, Jung) are always right?)  It makes me wonder if all irritations, if traced back far enough, have the same well as their source:  feelings of being unlovable.  The slow service of a waitress or the friend who's not on time may just trigger a "if I were truly important (lovable) this behavior wouldn't happen" type of irritation. 

Maybe there could be a whole school of personal or spiritual development based on examining irritations.

So what irritates you?

About this image:  I found some wonderfully playful glasses at a thrift store and as we were getting ready to use them for the first time, I noticed the colorful shadows and spent a wonderful few minutes playing.


  1. Things that irritate are one of the things explored in couples counseling. What's fascinating for each other to discover (and yes, I'm talking about personal experience both with things that irritate and couples counseling) is that link to the past, that trip wire that sets the lizard brain going. When you become aware of the link and make a conscious effort to examine it and resolve it, the things that irritate become much less so and eventually just accepted.

    I think of the metaphor of the sand in the shell making the pearl. Something good and beautiful can come out of all the irritation.

  2. Wonderful post Joyceann. Thank you for your openeness and transparency -- you are beautiful... and worthy.

    At the core of my irritations is a 'tape'. That critter voice that loves to whisper into my reptile brain all the 'truths' that are really lies about me.

    I too have always been 'irritate' by Jung's statement -- because, I know it's true and sometimes, it is just plain easier to not face the truth.

    When I am feeling discord around me and acting out to my lesser instincts, I know it's something coming from within me. Yes, the other person's behaviour may be questionable or objectional -- but my response is always mine.

    I heard a great quote the other day -- it's not how we act, it's how we respond that shows the measure of the person.

    Sometimes, my responses are just plain uncomfortable for me to live with and for me to put out into the world!