Do you ever wonder why some people can really rub you the wrong way? Why they get you irritated, frustrated, or angry? Well today I’ll tell you why.

But before I do so I’d like you to take a moment to think about one of those people in your life and write down two reasons why you get so worked up about them. Be specific in your judgment. For example is it because you think they are disrespectful, bossy, selfish, needy, dishonest, stupid or lazy?

So the reason these people push your buttons, is because you can’t stand those same things in yourself! Yes, that means that in some way you believe the same thing about yourself, and may act this out, but you can’t see it, because it’s part of your shadow. Yes I know this can sting, but please read on.

The shadow is a term that was originally coined by Carl Gustav Jung the great psychologist, and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, to describe the parts in us that we reject, hate, resist or disown and that we try to hide or deny because we believe these parts are not acceptable to ourselves, our family and our friends.

The shadow contains the darkest stories we hold about ourselves, the fears we have about being bad, dirty, evil, unlovable, stupid, unworthy and undeserving. These are the aspects we are most ashamed and embarrassed about and that we never ever want the world to see, know, think or say about us.

Let me be clear here, the shadow is not the truth about who we are, rather it’s the stories we’ve been telling ourselves. These are stories that are negative and act as unconscious self-criticism, that we’ve hidden so deeply even to ourselves. Buried in our subconscious however, they have tremendous power to influence our behaviour and make us act in ways that are selfish, stupid, unlovable and self-destructive.

Many of us spend most of our lives trying to convince everyone including ourselves that these stories are not true. We do that by putting on a mask. This is the false self. All the efforts of the mask are aimed at proving to the world that we are not our shadow. So we may work hard at always being right, good, the best, in control, the ‘nice guy’, the sexiest, strongest, healthiest, kindest, and holiest.

The problem is that when we don’t own our shadow, our shadow owns us! That means that as long as we stay in denial about these beliefs and fears we have about ourselves, the more power these stories have over us. Even after years of failed relationships, careers and dreams we continue to pretend these aspects do not exist in us because we can’t bear to feel the shame and fear that are part of the shadow.

One of our greatest strategies for denying our shadow is projection. Projection is when we judge and accuse others of what we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge in ourselves.

So the people you can’t stand in your life and that trigger you, is a result of your projection. These are actually your greatest friends and best teachers because these people are showing you the parts in you that are unhealed and hurting you. They provide an opportunity to make your own shadow conscious.

The circumstances you’ll find yourself in, the people you meet, the many challenges you will face will all in some form or another hold up a mirror to what you carry inside of you. There is no escaping the shadow.

But the shadow is destructive only as long as we don’t acknowledge it.

In her book “Why good people do bad things” Debbie Ford describes how hiding our shadow leads us to engage in destructive and sabotaging behaviours.

Here are examples from my own clients:

Tony’s mother committed suicide when he was 4 years old. She left three kids under the age of 10. Tony’s father was a mean and abusive man. As an adult Tony has a deep fear of being evil. That’s his shadow. This likely is due to the message he got as a child that “if it wasn’t for you kids your mom would still be alive”. Today Tony is married, with two kids. He is an active member of his church and is known to be quite righteous. This is his mask. To deal with the intolerable shame from the mistaken story that he is evil, Tony has a secret life in pornography that nobody knows about. This is the shadow controlling his actions. In turn his secret life keeps him believing he is evil.

When Joey was a little boy his father often ridiculed him. So Joey grew up with a shadow story that he is stupid and incompetent. To compensate for this Joey became the kind of guy that knows everything about anything. He knows every piece of trivia. He’s a real “know it all”. But behind this mask is the fear that somebody will find out that he is actually stupid. After making a “stupid” mistake at work, Joey starts having panic attacks, he can’t sleep and finds it difficult to concentrate. He’s losing his ability to be competent at work, because his shadow is starting to take over. In therapy, he has a chance to face his deepest fears and shame of being stupid and incompetent.

Audrey was a tough woman with a “I don’t need anyone” attitude. (Her mask) She was a bully in high school, and hated any woman that was sweet, feminine, and dependent on guys or “needy”. Audrey’s mother was very dependent on her husband who was very controlling and dominating. Her mother catered to her husband and often neglected the kid’s needs. She described her mother as “weak” for not standing up to her father, and never wanted to be in that position. Her fears of being “dependent and needy” sabotaged several previous relationships (the shadow’s destructiveness) because she was aloof, and disengaged. In order hold onto relationships she had to face her shadow, which is that deep within her she longs to let herself be taken care of and be lean on another.

The problem today is not the traumas and difficulties that have happened to us in the past, and the fear and shame that we inherited from our childhood. But the shame and fear we continue to hold onto daily, by projecting it onto others with our judgments and anger. Every time we find fault with another person we are only making ourselves guiltier by reinforcing our. We are the judge, the jury and the executioner. This is why the spiritual law of love tells us that we can’t hurt another without hurting ourselves. What we do to others, we are doing to ourselves.

To experience inner peace we must excavate all that gets in our way of experiencing it and the shadow is our biggest hindrance. You can never get away from the shadow you have no choice but to look at it, or it will sabotage your life.

This work is delicate and doesn’t happen overnight, it requires a lot of courage and patience but the rewards are unmistakable.

Written by:
Claire Maisonneuve, MA., RCC.
Director of the Alpine Clinic