I once visited a relative and he looked out of his kitchen window at his neighbour and commented “Look at him, he’s really thick. He doesn’t even know how to use a lawnmower properly.” I happened to know that the “thick” neighbour was head of a law firm, and instead of looking at the neighbour and agreeing I found myself looking at my relative and thinking, “If you’re so clever why are you working in a manual job on minimum wage?”
My relative might have been better off abiding by the timeless rule that a closed mouth gathers no feet. This is because research has shown that the traits you attribute to others are then attributed to you. The famous German novelist, Hermann Hesse, said, “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is a part of yourself. What isn’t a part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”
Whenever you’re judgemental of others, you’re in fact, judging yourself.
This doesn’t mean that if you dislike a murderer or rapist you are identifying with them, what Hesse, and Freud and Jung before him, were referring to is that this kind of dislike has a particular energy. You become irritated by someone in a way that’s obsessive and almost irrational. When a certain type of person always irritates you, what you dislike in them is likely something related to something you dislike in yourself.
The phenomenon whereby traits we publicly assign to others are likely to be attributed to us is known as trait transference and it basically means ‘you are what you say’. The research showed that this association can tend to persist over time too. If we are not gracious and kind to others and instead choose to criticise them we also run the risk of either having our unflattering remarks revealed, or coming across as jealous or vindictive.
Sometimes an imperfection in others pushes our buttons or touches aspects of ourselves that demand our attention.
Think of the mother who puts a bottle of wine in her shopping trolley for herself then admonishes her child for wanting sweets ‘because they are too expensive’. This same mother will criticise her child for wanting second helpings at dinner yet will refill her own plate. Her daughter’s gluttony confronts her own difficult relationship with food. It’s also the hypocrisy of the father who hits his son to teach him that it’s wrong to bully other children.
Maybe, as well as studying people we admire when we are working on self-improvement, we should also study those we dislike.
Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us in others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Everyone is your mirror. Identify what it is in the other person that triggers the response in you. It is through our interactions with others that we can come to know ourselves better. Once we know our negative traits we can acknowledge them and maybe do something about them.
We can only feel whole when we embrace all aspects of ourselves – both our light and dark sides.