Why do we find people annoying?
February 21, 2007 10:03 PM   Subscribe

I've heard it said that the reason we don't like certain people is because they display certain traits in OURSELVES that we don't like. Do you find this to be true? Where does this theory come from?

A friend of mine told me that no matter how different an annoying person might be from me, deep down the reason I don't like him/her is because they remind me of a part of myself that I don't like.

This is difficult to think about because: a) it forces me to compare myself to people I don't like, which with all my pride is painful... and b) usually I dislike people for many reasons, not just one. However, it seems that while some people are universally annoying, others who bother me don't seem to rub everyone the wrong way. Why is that?

My friend would explain it this way: everyone subconsciously dislikes different aspects of themselves. It's only when another person embodies those aspects that we begin to dislike them or find them annoying. Naturally this leads to everyone getting along with a given person with varying degrees of ease. For example, if I have never struggled with my weight, I may not find a person's frequent talking about calories super annoying. (I may not like it, or it may be boring, but it won't make my skin crawl.) However someone else may find such behaviour VERY annoying -- because they have their own conscious or subconscious insecurity about their weight.

Where does this theory come from? In your experience, is it true?
posted by goseethesphinx to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First time I heard it was in a Billy Jack movie. I don't know if that's the original source or if it pre-dated that movie.

Personally, I don't buy it.
posted by willnot at 10:24 PM on February 21, 2007

Wait, so is the implication of this that you can only dislike traits that you yourself have? If I know someone who always shouts at me, I dislike them because I have a secret shouty side, not because I find it unpleasant to be shouted at?

That's ridiculous.

How people relate to one another varies tremendously. Sure, some people are oversensitive to traits that they see in themselves, know, and hate. I guarantee however that this is not always true.

Where's this idea come from? I personally have known people who exhibit behaviors I personally dislike and have to consciously avoid doing, and yes, I find those people irritating. So from that your friends ideas have been obvious to me for a long time. But I think your friend is greatly overgeneralizing.

A good rule of thumb is for any question "is X true for people?" the answer is probably "sometimes".
posted by aubilenon at 10:32 PM on February 21, 2007

I've read this, as well as the converse: that the things we most admire in others are the traits we aspire to ourselves. I think there's some truth in both sides of the coin, but it's not absolute.

Is this chatfilter?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:50 PM on February 21, 2007

What your friend is referring to is called "projection". From the wikipedia article:
In psychology, psychological projection (or projection bias) is a defense mechanism in which one attributes ("projects") to others, one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts or/and emotions. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted subconscious impulses/desires without letting the ego recognize them. The theory was developed by Sigmund Freud and further refined by his daughter Anna Freud.
Is it real? In my opinion, absolutely. I am not a psychologist, but I have done enough reading to be basically familiar with the phenomenon, and have caught myself in the act a few times. Realizing that your distate for someone comes from your own insecurities is actually quite a liberating feeling, because it allows you to move past it. In fact this is exactly the sort of thing a psychologist would help you to recognize.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:57 PM on February 21, 2007

from this episode of Seinfeld too.
posted by jourman2 at 10:57 PM on February 21, 2007

I'm not sure where this theory comes from, either. Agreed, though, that this is one of those "sometimes for some people in some situations" questions. If I find myself to be particularly irritated with someone I care about, I will at some point stop and check myself by asking "what's really going on here?" Sometimes it really is more about my irritation with my own behaviors or traits than theirs; otherwise, it's just a mild annoyance and little more.

I have a friend who believes in this idea to the point where *every* twinge of annoyance towards another is in fact an expression of annoyance towards one's self, which I think is a bit extreme. I find this annoying, truth be told, but I'd never tell her that.
posted by vespertine at 11:00 PM on February 21, 2007

Yeah, it's projection, and well documented in the psychoanalytic literature.
posted by singingfish at 11:08 PM on February 21, 2007

I believe in projection. I also believe that some people are just jerks.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:32 PM on February 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

For those asking where the theory of projection comes from, this page says that Freud derived his term "from Robert Vischer’s concept of einfuhlung, the projection of feelings onto the people and things around us."

More on einfuhlung here.
posted by lemuria at 11:44 PM on February 21, 2007

Projection is an element in Jungian thought too, and that's probably the main influence behind its use in "Billy Jack": Tom Laughlin is really into Jung in a big way.
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 11:53 PM on February 21, 2007

Your friend already admits that this is not the only reason why someone dislikes someone else when he (or you) gave the example of the calorie-counter. Some people would find this mildly annoying and others would find that they can't stand it.

The thing about projection is that it's unconscious or automatic. And it's good to have a trusted third party view your interactions (in general as well as in this case) with someone who grates on you. We all have a friend who loves to be the center of attention and then, when they meet someone else who wants to be the center of attention, they get all bent out of shape. This is immediately apparent to this third party and he or she can point this out after the encounter. "Pot, meet Kettle!"
posted by zpousman at 4:45 AM on February 22, 2007

One of the best expositions of this phenomenon is in Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It is a constant theme. In my opinion, projection is absolutely true in some cases, but can be overstated.
posted by chinston at 4:48 AM on February 22, 2007

What aubilenon said, it's totally possible to dislike someone for a trait that you don't have (or don't have enough of to really count, since I guess when you get down to it we've all got a tiny bit of everything).

But seeing someone else get away with (and usually flaunt, and usually get a lot of positive attention for) something I would love to do but don't because I consider it beneath me? Absolutely infuriating.
posted by anaelith at 4:52 AM on February 22, 2007

I absolutely find this to be true. There are several things about myself that I absolutely loathe - when I meet someone who has these traits it makes it very hard for me to like them, because I'm too busy cringing at my flaws in their mirror.
posted by tastybrains at 5:53 AM on February 22, 2007

Now that we are adults, my sister and I can clearly see where our personality traits come from. She much more strongly resembles my mother, where as my attitude is closer to my Dad's. Who fights about little annoying things the most? You guessed it, my sister and my mother and to a lesser degree, myself and my dad. We both get along with the other parent (the one less like ourselves) in a smoother and more compatible fashion.
posted by typewriter at 6:06 AM on February 22, 2007

There are some people I dislike because they're different than me and some people I dislike because they're the same as me. I think both are true. The most common example of the latter tends to be towards your parent of your sex (esp. mothers).

And some traits are just incompatible, i.e. two people who talk constantly will not get along; two people who insist on always being right will not get along, and two people who rarely talk and never insist on anything will be pretty boring too.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:05 AM on February 22, 2007

If you hate some aspect of yourself (secretly or not) you probably hate that same aspect in other people. I can be too clownish sometimes. I hate this in other people.

If you hate some aspect of other people, it doesn't mean that the reason has to be that you hate that same trait in yourself. I hate people who like to debate (me) for fun. The reason I hate it is because I enjoy having actual conversations with people, where I get to understand what they are thinking, not some grandstanding showdown with someone intent on exposing my presupposed hypocrisy or tripping me up on a semantic point. When people start debating with me, I start to hate them: not because they're too much like me, but because they are completely and totally the opposite of me.

The notion that every thing that I hate about others is just projecting totally begs the question. I mean, I can come up with cockamamie theories like "Everything that people dislike about others must have been something that their first-grade teacher did", but that don't mean it's true, and it don't mean that I can produce a significant amount of data which supports my theory.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2007

IANA shrink, but I don't think this is projection. The post implies that the other person has the characteristic in question, not that the poster is inappropriately or incorrectly attributing some behavior to the other person.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:58 AM on February 22, 2007

I find this to be absolutely true.

I do think that "annoyance" is a somewhat imprecise word, though. There is a big difference between the momentary annoyance of a fly buzzing around your ear and the deep, grating irritation that comes from dealing with a human reflection of yourself.

For me it comes down to anger. People who merely annoy me (say, religious zealots) are laughed off and quickly forgotten. People who touch things that I haven't accepted in myself (say, anyone who claims special privileges due to birth, race, or gender) I react viscerally to. There's a real and lasting anger there, and I know for a fact that it stems from my unwillingness to accept how privilege fits into my own life.

I'm equally certain that one day I will come to peace with that part of myself, and when I do it wil no longer be a "hot button" issue for me. I may not find it an engaging topic, but it will just no longer get the visceral reaction that it does today.
posted by tkolar at 9:54 AM on February 22, 2007

tkolar said: People who merely annoy me (say, religious zealots) are laughed off and quickly forgotten. People who touch things that I haven't accepted in myself (say, anyone who claims special privileges due to birth, race, or gender) I react viscerally to. There's a real and lasting anger there, and I know for a fact that it stems from my unwillingness to accept how privilege fits into my own life.

oh absolutely. i mean i don't think that this is the case for everyone, or that it works the same way for anyone. it's another one of those annoying shades-of-grey issues where you're never going to get an absolutely right OR wrong, or even a helpfully specific answer. the answer, maddeningly enough, as in so many things is: it depends.

in my case i had a real revelation on the sort of theme tkolar's talking about a few years ago. i really don't know where it came from cos i don't read selfhelp books or anything like that, and i have a pathological fear and loathing of therapy and therapists which stems from childhood / lousy-parenting issues that i probably should get fixed or whatever, but i can't bring myself to really give a fuck about it.

anyhow, in my case it suddenly dawned on me one day that the reason certain people really pissed me off and i literally couldn't stand to be around them was that their major annoying traits were things i knew i secretly deep down thought or felt, and hated about myself. so, it was just another one of my passive aggressive traits probably manifesting. yea, okay maybe this is a maturity thing or whatever, cos i figured this out in my mid-thirties, but once i identified it i did my best to try to stop knee-jerk reacting to it.

some days it goes better than others.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:05 AM on February 22, 2007

i absolutely observe this, although not necessarily in a positive correlation sort of sense. what i mean is that when something bothers me it's usually because it's something i have a personal issue about, but not necessarily because it's something i do.

for example: i might be annoyed by the brusque manner of an acquaintance, perhaps doubly so because i'm afraid (subconsciously, most of the time) that i share it. that one is a pretty straightforward example. on the other hand, something that _really_ gets to me to an unreasonable extent sometimes is when i'm sharing food with someone and they take a lot more than "their" portion. i think this is upsetting to me because i really love good food, but it's a moral/politeness rule that is very deeply embedded in my brain that i can never take more than my share of something and really should try to take less in order to be generous. so i can say that i'm annoyed because the other person is breaking this rule that i believe in, but really it's pretty clear to me that in this case at least, what it really comes down to is that i wish i were doing what they are doing (but i don't let myself).

i usually find that when i get really annoyed about something that it falls somewhere on the "uncomfortable things that i do" to "things i wish i could do (or benefit from the results of doing) but can't or won't allow myself to" continuum.
posted by lgyre at 1:03 PM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

or, what anaelith said a lot more concisely.
posted by lgyre at 1:06 PM on February 22, 2007

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