Have you ever heard that what you find irritating about other people are often your own shadows you don’t want to own? When we harbor disapproval or non-acceptance of ourselves, we can’t truly be understanding and accepting of others. Furthermore, we often project our own self-disapproval—even self-hate—onto others. It’s not just in being convinced that others hold the critical feelings we have of ourselves, but also in our self-criticism coloring the filter through which we experience others. There have been a number of reminders about this truth of late. Let me share a rather innocuous but poignant example.
No Patience for Amateurism
On this past Saturday, I played tennis with someone relatively new to playing doubles. Inexperienced with doubles strategy, she wasn’t comfortable at the net and didn’t know much about court positioning vis-à-vis her partner. Having her repeatedly back away from the net was unnerving. I kept having to run up to cover the net court after serving. I didn’t feel like I could count on her as a partner.
At one point, a high ball was coming over toward the back court, which would have been a natural forehand ground stroke for me. I yelled “me” to let her know I got the ball. However, she ignored me and proceeded to back up from the net on her side of the court to my half to try to hit an impossible double-handed backhand overhead. The ball was so high she was nowhere near able to touch it, let alone hit a good shot. She missed the ball, but I couldn’t get my racquet on it without fearing I’d hit her. So, we lost that point. Very unnecessarily. I lost it internally then. I thought to myself, “I work really hard all week, and I just want to have fun. I don’t have patience for this amateur stuff!” We proceeded to lose that set at 0-6.
Then, something happened when we switched partners for a new set. This inexperienced doubles player continued to commit the same faux pas, but she and her new partner did really well together. At one point, I heard her partner encouraging her, “No worries. You’re doing great.” Meanwhile, at one point, I was so hell bent on getting a ball that I ran over to my partner’s half court and missed it. In that instant, as I apologized profusely to my partner, I recognized I did the very thing I was mad at the other player for doing earlier!
I felt terribly ashamed. I could have been more patient and encouraging with the less experienced player. After all, it wasn’t even 2 years go that I myself felt like a fish out of water at the net and kept doing stupid things as a very green doubles player. I still make dumb mistakes left and right. I didn’t have patience for the less experienced player because I’ve never had much patience for myself either.
The truth is I’m competitive. I’ve never wanted to own that, as I judged competitiveness to be an undesirable quality. Instead, I want to be nice and supportive all the time. On Saturday, I wasn’t playing well myself. I was tired from a long week and had a hard time focusing that morning. I wasn’t meeting my own competitive expectations, which made me vulnerable to seeing only the things the other player wasn’t doing well—when, in fact, she hit a lot of good shots, just like I hit some good shots, too. I didn’t have the consciousness to keep in check the negativity bias in my brain. That meant only remembering all the unforced errors I made—and, by association, all the unforced errors made by the other player.
Spotting Our Shadows
Similar experiences have been happening off the tennis court to remind me to tame my over-achieving inner critic, to remember self-compassion and acceptance, and to be mindful of unconscious projections. Time and again, soon after I had a negative reaction to or evaluation of someone’s behavior or action, I’d do the very thing I judged as unacceptable or sub-par. It’s grossly unnerving to my inner critic, but my higher self recognizes that it’s simply the Universe conspiring to help me along in my commitment to live with high consciousness. That includes giving me opportunities to practice embracing the imperfections of being human—including not being nice, supportive and thoughtful all the time—and owning my shadows—including the competitiveness I’ve tried to stuff in the closet my whole life.
So, how do we spot our shadows and avoid projections on others? There are infinite shadows to consider, but here’s a starting list:
- Are you highly critical of others—and especially of yourself? Reflect on traits and parts of your personality you feel ashamed to own. Notice what triggers and annoys you about others. That would likely give you some clues.
- Do you find yourself being treated like a perpetual doormat/dumping ground? Reflect on ways in which you’re reluctant to stand up for yourself, perhaps due to feelings of unworthiness or not good enough. Notice how others’ treatment of you perpetuates these feelings.
- Do you find it difficult to deal with inconsistent people whose opinions and decisions seem to change at the drop of a hat? Reflect on why others’ changing positions threaten you. What do others’ seeming inconsistencies say about your fear of changing your own mind?
Pay attention to what irritates you about other people. It likely contains clues on what you don’t want to own about yourself. Ultimately, I believe that life gives us encounters that are meant to lead us to greater love, compassion, understanding and acceptance—first of ourselves and then of others, because we simply can’t give what we don’t have.
Now over to you: What do you think about triggers from others’ behavior being projections of our own lack of self-acceptance? What may you add to the list of 3 above as a shadow we commonly disown, even if unknowingly?
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