The Hidden Benefits of Irritation

IrritationI have a photograph of my father, face filled with annoyance, tapping the side of his head in the traditional ‘this person is mad’ gesture.

I was practising with a new camera, he was watching Arthur Scargill on the news. You might remember Arthur Scargill as the leader of the National Union of Miners at the time of Margaret Thatcher and the miner’s strike in the early 80s.

A dispassionate look at Arthur Scargill would show you a strident man with a bad comb-over and radical political views. For my dad (and many others) he might have been the devil incarnate.

Decades later, I wonder if my Dad’s reaction was the result of what Jungian psychologists would call the ‘shadow’.

When we are born we arrive with our instincts, our needs and innate capacity to learn. There’s a lot of potential in each baby, all the human emotions and thoughts are possible for that child at that moment. In time they could turn into the next Hitler, the next Einstein, or just another accountant – the possibilities at that moment are endless.

Then they are enrolled in what Ram Dass called ‘somebody training’. The family take the child and use their experience of being somebodies to create another somebody.

When you are enrolled in a somebody training you find out pretty quickly that some behaviours and emotions are favoured, welcomed and encouraged.  Other emotions and responses are not favoured at all, they are met with disapproval and discouragement. Over time you learn what is right or wrong and what qualities or behaviours are good or bad from the perspective of the family and the culture.

Since you are capable of all kinds of emotional and behavioural responses you have to do something with the stuff that isn’t allowed. From the Jungian point of view, everything that your are not allowed to think or feel is put into your ‘shadow’ an area of your mind out of direct awareness. It’s a psychological mechanism for sweeping stuff under the carpet, like it’s domestic equivalent, after a while it leaves a bump in your psychological carpet.

One way of coping with a lumpy emotional carpet is projection – noticing the denied traits, responses and emotions in other people. The things you were not allowed to think and feel in your somebody training are displayed by others and you react to them.

When these reactions are minor we experience them as irritations of one sort or another. Just to be irritated by your irritations is to miss an opportunity to expand your capacities by edging into your ‘shadow’ and reclaiming some of the qualities that were disowned during your somebody training.

Your irritation maybe a sign that you have reached the edge of your territory and that what is irritating you is something that you were denied in your somebody training. To put it another way – you just tripped on one of those bumps in the carpet.

Irritation is a good place to start to explore the edges of our somebody training.

  • It’s not too powerful or dangerous
  • We are not usually overwhelmed by our irritations.
  • They are fairly easy to work with.

The benefit from working with your irritations are:

  • You will be less easily triggered – life gets more comfortable
  • You will be more likely to have better judgement in previously irritating situations. You can respond, rather than react.
  • You may become more compassionate and understanding of other people.

How to proceed

  • Notice the annoyance – that shouldn’t be too difficult!
  • Remember that the annoyance is not just about them, it’s about your reaction to them – this is more difficult.
  • When you notice the annoyance there are two useful questions to ask
    • What does this remind me of? It may be that your irritation reminds you of some event or situation from your past that wasn’t very enjoyable at the time.
    • What ‘rule’ from my somebody training has been broken – what are they doing or feeling that I am not allowed to feel or do?
  • Use your technique of choice to work on what you have uncovered. I wrote about one way of doing this is  [How to make the best of a pain in the neck .

What was it about Arthur Scargill that so aggravated my Dad? What part of his shadow was triggered? I don’t know the answer to that and my Dad is no longer around to ask. He would probably give a rational answer to the first question because he would have his reasons (which were not the same as his reactions).

If I asked him about his shadow and what had been triggered I suspect he would pull a face at me and tap the side of his head in exasperation at my daft ideas.

Image courtesy of Hello Turkey Toe

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