We all have irritating people in our lives, don’t we? It’s tempting to think that the problem is them, and if they’d only change their behaviour and stop being irritating, everything would be fine.
The painful truth is that these irritating people are mirrors into our own souls. What we dislike about them is precisely what we dislike about ourselves. Once we resolve our internal issues and learn to accept those things about ourselves, those irritating people would not be so irritating anymore.
“Our parents, our children, our spouses, and our friends will continue to press every button we have, until we realise what it is that we don’t want to know about ourselves yet. They will point us to our freedom everytime.”
– Byron Katie in Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life.
How can we learn about ourselves using irritating people as our mirrors?
1. Identify the specific irritating behaviour
Instead of thinking “Gosh this person is so irritating!” try to pinpoint the specific behaviour getting on your nerves. For example, you may have felt irritated when she insisted on doing the dishes immediately after a meal, while you wanted to relax at the table for a little longer. Or you may have felt like snapping at her every time she interrupted your conversation with another person.
Identifying the specific irritating behavour(s) rather than labelling the person irritating serves two purposes. Firstly, it helps us to break down the problem into manageable chunks that we can deal with one at a time. Secondly, focusing on the issue rather than the person allows us to be more objective about the person.
2. Match the irritating behaviour to your own circumstances
If it irritates you that she insists on doing things a certain way, ask yourself if you have a parent or sibling or spouse who also tries to boss you around. Perhaps your resentment towards this person is simply a way for you to vent feelings you don’t feel allowed to vent towards your parent or sibling or spouse.
If no one else in your life manifests this behaviour, perhaps it is you who exhibit the same irritating behaviour. If you are irritated by a person who constantly interrupts a conversation, do you have the same habit of interrupting others? If you can’t objectively answer this question, ask a close friend who will tell you the truth kindly. It is very hard for us to admit that we dislike ourselves at a fundamental level, which is why most of us subconsciously choose to feel irritated by the other person instead of with ourselves.
3. Shift your focus away from the irritating person
Once we realise that it’s not the irritating person we dislike per se, but the behaviour it reminds us of in another person or in ourselves, it is easier to stop blaming the irritating person. Remember that in most cases that person is not deliberately trying to irritate us, and may not even know that her behaviour is having such a negative effect on us. In fact, many other people are not irritated by her at all, which only shows that the problem is not with her but with ourselves.
Shifting our focus from the ‘irritating’ person to ourselves instantly shifts the problem to within our sphere of influence, since we cannot change other people but can start changing ourselves for the better. If you realise that interrupting a conversation is a behaviour that irritates you because you (or your spouse) have the same bad habit, ask yourself if this is something you want to change.
4. Focus on what you want to change
If you now realise that you’d like to stop interrupting others’ conversations, focus on the behaviour you want rather than the behaviour you don’t want. For example, tell yourself “I will let others finish their sentences and wait for a pause before I speak” instead of “I must stop interrupting.” It is easier for your brain when you focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want.
If it is your spouse that keeps interrupting conversations and this irritates you, you’ll have to decide on one of two courses of action: (1) Let go of your expectations that your spouse behaves the way you want him to, or (2) Encourage him the SMART way to gradually influence his behaviour; which means that instead of telling him not to interrupt, wait for a time when he allowed you to finish speaking, and immediately thank him for allowing you to finish, saying how much you appreciate being heard.
5. Look at yourself from the irritating person’s perspective
I’ve found that one of the quickest routes to humility is to remind myself that I too irritate other people, and probably often. Although we don’t know what exactly goes through other people’s minds, it is a useful exercise to imagine how the other person could be irritated by us. For example, if she keeps interrupting me, could it be that I’m hogging the conversation by talking incessantly about myself? If she insists on doing the dishes after dinner, has she had enough of my leaving dirty dishes lying around so others have to clean up after me?
If we try to look at ourselves objectively from other people’s perspectives, we can usually find at least one or two things that we could improve in ourselves.
6. Confront the behaviour, not the person
Once we’ve gone through the above steps, we’re ready to confront the behaviour of either the other person or ourselves. The next time she interrupts, for example, you could politely ask “I’m sorry, am I hogging the conversation?” Watch her body language closely for the answer, as well as the reactions of those around you. We can usually sense when other people are with us or not. If everyone else starts giving each other a knowing look, chances are they are finding us irritating too but just too polite to say anything. In which case, of course, we should just keep quiet and stop being irritating.
However, if they instantly and sincerely deny it, then we are in a better position to follow up the first question with a polite request, such as “If not, do you mind letting me finish what I have to say?” Such confrontation is not easy for most of us, but will get easier with practice. Many of us will choose to skip this step and not confront the behaviour at all, which is also fine.
7. Bless the irritating person
Hopefully by now we’re not irritated by the person anymore. If we still are, we could go through the above steps again or just leave the issue for another day. Perceptions and behaviours can change instantaneously with sudden realisations, or they can take years to adjust.
If we have successfully walked ourselves through the steps and got to the point where the irritating person does not irritate us anymore, then we have made progress in our personal growth. A bonus would be if we managed to influence their behaviour or our own for the better. In either case, we can choose to bless the irritating person for teaching us something about ourselves, or even helping to make us a better person.