Recently, at a previous company I worked in, there was a colleague I worked closely with on the same team that always managed to trigger feelings of irritation in me.
And it was interesting to observe my reactions to this person because while she had a very rigid and sort of inflexible way of doing things and going about work, it wasn’t as if she was actually doing anything very, very bad or very, very wrong. It was mainly very inconsequential, very small things that managed to set me off.
But I noticed that no matter what she asked or did, it would trigger a whole chain of irritation and anger. What was also interesting was that these feelings that I felt were very familiar, and seemed to how I felt around someone else.
It took me a while to kind of unpack what was really brewing behind my interactions with her and what was really triggering my irritation. I had a few realisations.
#1 Do they remind you of someone you’ve got a similar dynamic with?
The nagging, constant questioning and the anxiety around the questions straight up just reminded me of my own interactions and dynamic with my mother. Her behaviours, the way she would ask me something, the assumptions I’d make going into the interaction were like a blueprint of my conversations with my mum. And it wasn’t just that, but this colleague tended to come across rigid and inflexible, being a huge stickler for rules, which was also very mum-like. Both of them had the tendency to fret about things I consider very unimportant and inconsequential as well.
So something to consider when certain interactions bring out specific emotions is – are we projecting the image or the opinion that we have of someone else on to this person.
It’s important to distinguish our projections from what we are truly experiencing. Projecting too often means that we are seeing the person through the lens of how we see someone else; two people that are entirely different from each other. Projections can even be dangerous because we are not seeing reality as it is. The lens through which we are seeing reality through can lead to distorted perceptions which can lead to us making the “wrong” decisions or taking away lessons that are not helpful in the long run.
#2 What is the intention behind the behaviour you are perceiving
A second thing to understand here is what are the intentions behind both situations or both people and are they even the same? So for instance, my mum likes to engage in these sorts of verbal debates with me whenever I complain about something to her. And it turns into a verbal sparring session where I’m having to “defend” myself from her.
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Over the years, I’ve come to realise that she is not trying to be difficult, but is just trying to understand her situation. And her method of understanding is by asking plenty of rapid-fire questions in quick succession. The issue is that whenever a dynamic like this plays itself out like that in other relationships, I tend to assume that the person is trying to verbally spar with me and I have to get into defensive mode.
This is what happens when this particular colleague asks me questions, it gets me into a defensive mode because the way she asks questions reminds me of the way my mum does it! But all she’s doing is just…asking a question. Quite interesting to see how the mind immediately gets triggered by the assumption that she is questioning me in the same way my mum is.
#3 Are you expecting something from this interaction or friendship?
Another thing to consider are the unspoken expectations that you holding of this person or interaction that this person is not “fulfilling”. In the case of my colleague, I was unconsciously expecting her to behave in ways that were agreeable and nice – because I was behaving in such a way to her. So when I perceived that she wasn’t, it triggered those irritated feelings.
This is something important to consider – are we putting expectations on people unknowingly and then “punishing” them by reacting in ways that show our disappointment?
Ultimately, what is the baggage we are bringing into the dynamic?
Whenever we find ourselves triggered by someone for no apparent reason, it is important to ask ourselves what is the emotional or psychological baggage that we are bringing into the current dynamic. Certain people may remind us of a particular person or event that may not have left positive memories. So when we encounter someone innocuous that triggers a deep sense of anger, disappointment, frustration, hurt etc without them having done anything that really warrants those sorts of emotions, it’s helpful to step back and ask ourselves why and what they are reminding us of.