Being Irritated by Others Isn’t Always a Form of Projection

irritated by others projection

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and the novelist Hermann Hesse (who was inspired by Jung), located the source of irritation with others within ourselves. They argued that when we become irritated by others, this can lead to self-understanding, namely, that the specific trait or behaviour that gets under our nerves exists within us. I have personally found this a useful and productive way to view irritation; it can lead to introspection and self-questioning, rather than seeing others as the true source of annoyance.

In a similar vein, psychologists often frame anger as a secondary emotion – one that masks a deeper, more painful emotion (e.g. sadness or hurt). We can see this deeper layer of anger through introspection, or other methods, such as psychotherapy. So perhaps we can draw some kind of analogy here with irritation: behind the ‘irritating person’ is something in ourselves we dislike, projected onto the person in question. In other words, irksome people are projections of self. 

But, one might argue, not all irritation can be a form of psychological projection. There will be qualities in others that one doesn’t possess, or at the very least, not to nearly the same degree. If I were to try to steelman the Jungian position, we could say that irritation can be a projection in the following ways: we see something dislikable in someone that reminds us of what we used to be like, what we are currently like, or what we could be like.

Hence, it is not the case that every instance of being annoyed by others reflects an attribute we currently possess; it could be one we used to possess that we have rejected, or it could be one we have the potential to express. While we vary in terms of personality, which can affect how we behave, we still all have selfish tendencies, as well as the freedom to decide whether to be selfish or not. Upbringing, culture, and morality may help mould us into less selfish people, but there is no getting around the fact that one could be as inconsiderate as the person who cuts us off in traffic or who blasts music from their phone on public transport.

Moreover, our irritation can be acute when we see someone acting in a way we used to act. This is a dislike of our past self encroaching into existing interactions, with others being annoying reminders of who we used to be. The feeling of irritation can be especially strong if we look back on our past selves with feelings of shame and embarrassment. Other times, this irritation stems from our insecurities: we cannot stand seeing others who have attributes we wish we had.

However, I want to offer a counterargument to this steelmanning of Jung and Hesse’s position. Even if much of our irritation with others can be attributed to how we used to be, currently are, or could be, I would still argue this does not encompass every instance of becoming vexed by others. Indeed, one might view the characterisation of all irritation as projection as not only simplistic and black-and-white but also as individualistic, perhaps even a form of gaslighting. If we view all irritation as a projection of ‘shadow’ – the parts of ourselves we dislike and reject, which sit outside our conscious awareness – then we could end up refusing to acknowledge how some actions are morally wrong or understandably irritating.

To return to the anger analogy, we can say that not all anger should be turned into self-analysis, where whatever it is a person does that makes us angry should be framed as the deeper emotion (if there is one) in ourselves. It may be true that, on many occasions, outrage at others is a reflection of self, but this doesn’t mean this holds true on every occasion. Anger can be a useful emotion, helping us with challenging goals, in our civic engagement, and in getting our needs met in our relationships. None of this means we should avoid asking whether another emotion is beneath anger. But it should make us wary about denying or rejecting anger as a mere mask for what we’re truly feeling. Anger can be an authentic and justified reaction.

Similarly, not all irritation with others, I believe, is a form of projecting oneself onto others. To say otherwise would be to deny the understandable reasons why other people can become a source of irritation, without this necessarily reflecting an unlikeable character trait that used to exist, does exist, or could exist within us. For instance, the psychologist Elaine Aron estimates that 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive persons (HSPs). These are people who score high on the trait sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). If you’re an HSP, you’re highly sensitive to your environment. A sound barely perceptible or noticeable to someone who scores low on SPS could be very noticeable, perhaps even painful, to an HSP.

If you’re an HSP, you’ll be more likely to have stronger unconscious nervous system activity in stressful situations, stronger emotional responses (both positive and negative), and low tolerance to high levels of sensory input. This personality trait can make one much more prone to irritability – the kind of irritability that has to do with sensory overwhelm, not (or at least not only) psychological projection. If you’re an HSP and you find yourself getting irritated by noisy crowds, people talking loudly (to each other or on the phone), people chewing or slurping loudly, people coughing or sniffing, loud sneezing, throat clearing, honking horns, construction work, or anything else people do that overwhelms the senses, then you might not need a Jungian perspective to make sense of why you feel that way. Simply understanding that you’re an HSP can explain why you become irritated with others in those situations.

Introverted or autistic people may find themselves having similar reactions, which again, is not necessarily related to shadow projection. It is just a reaction reflective of personality type or neurodivergence, which could be managed, but it doesn’t require deep self-analysis or self-work. To bolster this counterargument to the Jungian argument, I would add that it is not just personality and neurodiversity that can help explain proneness to irritability but also the reality of how modern living interacts with human nature. We can all become irritated by others for reasons related to the stresses of certain sensory stimulation. If we did not evolve to live in densely populated cities, full of strangers, then irritation with others can be seen as an understandable reaction to this. The hustle and bustle – and noise – of crowds can put us on edge and stress our nervous system, which can translate to feelings of irritability. Having other people interrupt or distract us when we’re trying to work or concentrate while reading can also be frustrating. You don’t have to be highly sensitive or neurodivergent to be susceptible to these feelings. 

Making a distinction between irritation as projection and sensory-based irritation caused by others can be a useful way to reflect on whether or not our feelings of irritation are more externally than internally based.

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