It’s rare that I’d say any of these things aloud—well, okay, maybe to a friend, but never to the creator themselves. So what’s a little private trash talk? Pretty harmless, right?
Wrong. When other people don’t meet my most critical standards—when something about their personality or their work triggers my negative judgment—it sets off a chain effect that goes something like this:
(Cut to a few hours later, as I’m trying to write a blog post…)
“Ugh, this is sooooo unoriginal. I should just scrap the whole thing and come back when I have something interesting to say. No one’s going to find this useful.”
My inner critic, it turns out, applies the same nigh-impossible standards to my own efforts that it does to someone else’s. It bluntly rejects anything that smacks of “unoriginality” (or whatever the quality is that’s currently sticking in my craw), whether it’s my creative output or someone else’s, and shuts it down. Which means I’m shut down, on some level, no matter how many times I repeat my Anne Lamott mantra or remind myself that failure won’t kill me.
And it’s not only true of creative work. I can get just as tripped up by people’s personalities and communication styles. Whatever the behavior may be that sets me off, it’s a small step from condemning others to holding myself back.
Perhaps the most common example is the freelancer disdaining self-promotion because they see so many others doing it in ways that lack integrity. The problem isn’t with their scruples; it’s that their dislike of sleazy marketing tactics stops them from doing any marketing at all, or even exploring what good, creative, and valuable marketing might look like.
Once they’re able to disentangle the threads of “sleaze” and “marketing,” however, they can find ways to promote themselves and their work that actually work for them.
So how do you shift from “they suck” to “what do they have to teach me?” The first step is to give some thought to who drives you up the wall.
Who’s On Your “People Who Antagonize Me” List?
A friend of mine once confided to me that she keeps a secret Twitter list for a handful of colleagues who drive her crazy, but whom she feels she ought to follow out of polite reciprocity. She checks this secret list every once in a while, “when I feel up to being antagonized.”
Most of us could probably populate a “People Who Antagonize Me” Twitter list without much effort. I can certainly think immediately of a couple of people who get under my skin badly enough that—at least on bad days—I consider any account of their good fortune an occasion for outrage, and any less fortunate news an opportunity for schadenfreude.
I’ve learned that when I find someone “too _________,” it’s another way of saying, “I would never allow myself to sink so low” — which in turn means that I experience major stuck-ness around whatever the quality is that has ruffled my feathers.
Of course, it’s a good thing to hold yourself to certain standards; no one wants to become an intolerable boor. Just don’t use your standards as an excuse for quashing parts of yourself that long to be expressed.
There’s a good possibility that “unoriginal” blog post is exactly what someone needs to read right now. There’s an equally strong chance that if you got over your self-promotion hangups, and found a way to share your successes in a way that doesn’t feel too uncomfortable, you could connect with people who could help you make a greater impact. In other words: trashing someone else or yourself may give you some short-term pleasure, but it will hold you back in the long run.
So, who’s on your “People Who Trigger Me” list? And what labels do you slap on them? Hint: They might just hold clues to the exact things that are holding you back. Here’s how to put the puzzle pieces together.
What Your Disdain Has to Teach You
According to my research with leadership coach Tanya Geisler, when we’re triggered by someone else, it’s usually because we’re simultaneously seeing something in them that we dislike, and denying its existence within ourselves.
There’s a fix for it – and it won’t just make you less irritable. It might just unlock your potential in ways you never anticipated.
Choose one of the people on your “antagonizing” list. Now ask yourself:
- What is it about them, specifically, that gets under my skin? (Really go to town with this; ranting and raving are welcome.)
- What about them do I not want for myself? What’s the specific behavior I don’t want to emulate?
- Why don’t I want to emulate it? Is there fear here? Embarrassment? What do I think would happen if I behaved this way?
- What lessons is this person teaching me about what matters most to me?
For instance, if they’re perpetually angry and caustic, they might make you more aware of how much you value peace and harmony – and also prompt you to consider whether you allow yourself enough permission to express anger without letting it define you.
Once you’re clear on why they’re driving you crazy, and what your standards really are, you can take this line of inquiry further – and transform it into real change:
- How has my reaction to this quality held me back from claiming my own full potential?
- What could I do if I gave myself permission to embody this quality, with discernment and in a way that’s true to my principles?
I’ve seen this approach take people from “She’s so selfish” to “I could do a better job of taking care of myself.” From “He’s such a shameless self-promoter” to “I’ve been missing opportunities to put myself forward,” and from “They’re a sellout” to “I’d love some real recognition of the value of my work.” In every case, the shift isn’t simply about becoming a less judgmental or nicer person; it’s about moving your focus from what someone else is doing, to living your own life the way you want to. And then, of course, creating action steps to get yourself to that point, thus turning your nay-saying into fuel for improving your creative work.
So befriend your judgmental inner critic. It has a lot to teach you about the parts of your life you’ve been neglecting or denying (and you may just find yourself becoming a little more forgiving in the process).
Editor’s note: For more on breaking free of the comparison loop to focus on what matters most to you, visit Beyond Compare, the digital program Lauren co-created with Tanya Geisler.