“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Perhaps Carl Jung's greatest contribution to psychology was his vast understanding of the Shadow—that part of us of which we are unaware in ourselves, but which we see clearly in other people. One extreme example of Shadow from literature is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By day, Jekyll is a respectable physician, but by night, turns into Hyde, a pathological killer. Each is unaware of the other. This has been taken to be a story of the split-personality, but it mirrors the way all humans are unaware of their shadow. We tend hold a particular view of who we are—the part of us we identify as the respectable “I” and repress the parts we do not like in ourselves.
In most of us, the shadow parts are less obvious and, thankfully, not as dark at Hyde. We see them only when we recognize them, and usually criticize them, in others. Example: the person who is terribly controlled and does not allow her passions to possess her, will be excessively critical of a friend who is happily expressing her passions in an obvious way. That friend represents the parts of her she doesn't allow to see daylight, but secretly desires to set free. She thinks the thoughts, envies the freedom, but cannot allow herself to let go enough to play. Conversely, the one who is living out her passionate side will say of the one who is controlled, “She's stiff as a board; I can't stand her always being such a goody-two-shoes.” They are shadow for one another and each of them possesses the “darkness” of the other in secret.
The problem with being unacquainted with one's shadow is that we tend to judge others from the perspective of our precious “I.” I'm speaking for myself of course; I tend to criticize others for behaviors I see as different from me. I don't like it when I am “too loose” or “too talkative” or act out in some way that I see as “not like me.” What that means is that I don't like to see in myself what I see in them. Going beck to the Jekyll and Hyde story, one must remember that the one who is insane is not Mr. Hyde—it's Dr. Jekyll, who keeps trying to perfect himself only to produce his darkest shadow, Mr. Hyde. In the terminology of the 12-Step program, he keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.
When we are critical of someone else, it is an opportunity to look inside and bring to consciousness the part of us that they are living out. The part of them that irritates us, in reality, belongs to us. In understanding our shadow, we grow in self-knowledge and become less critical of others. Any step toward consciousness is a step in the right direction.
In the Spirit,