One of my former clients—I’ll call him John—is a respected, highly-paid attorney. John worked in several different legal positions—at a law firm, in a government office and finally at a nonprofit organization—and in each job his work was well-received. However, John had a problem that doggedly pursued him from one job to the next. Everywhere John practiced law, there always seemed to be one person at his level who distinctly rubbed him the wrong way. This person was very competitive and aggressive, and had the respect of the higher-ups.
John was concerned that this person was “gunning” for him—that his coworker was always trying to prove that his or her work was better than John’s, and was probably making negative remarks about John to superiors while John wasn’t there. John constantly worried about this—so much that it sometimes disrupted his sleep and his ability to work. One of the reasons John had changed jobs a few times was to quell this anxiety, but somehow this sort of person seemed to follow him wherever he went.
When he came to see me, John was on the verge of leaving the nonprofit he worked at and seeking yet another position, to get away from the discomfort he felt in his colleague’s presence. “I’m sure I’ll eventually find a place where people don’t make me so nervous and upset,” he told me.
Before John changed jobs again, I suggested he ask himself whether he’d experienced this type of relationship with other people before he entered the workforce. Did it seem, I asked, that—no matter where he went in life—he was constantly plagued by someone who seemed to be “gunning” for him, fiercely competing with him and trying to undermine him?
After giving it some thought, John realized there had almost always been someone like this in his life, even as far back as his childhood. As a kid, John had two brothers who were close to him in age. Both of his brothers, John remembered, were constantly striving to win their parents’ affection, through getting good grades in school, athletic accomplishments, and so forth. Because his brothers felt that their parents didn’t have enough time or attention for all the children, they would put John down when they talked to their parents, suggesting their parents should pay less attention to John.
For a while, John took the same approach as his brothers, jockeying with them for a special place in his parents’ hearts. Eventually, however, John recalled getting so frustrated by his brothers’ behavior that he decided he wasn’t going to play their game anymore. He was going to do what he wanted with his life, and not obsess over whether he was competing effectively with his brothers.
John also resolved, when he had to work in groups, to be a “team player”—to treat his coworkers as allies and allow them to share equally in the credit for what the team accomplished. If John ever felt the urge to outperform or undermine a colleague, he’d push that instinct away, telling himself those feelings were “selfish” and “inappropriate.”
John’s decision to distance himself from his competitive feelings had some benefits for him in the workplace. Others did indeed see him as a “team player,” and he was generally well-liked. But when we do what John did, and cut ourselves off from part of our instincts or feelings, we often create suffering in our lives. Strangely enough, when we disown part of who we are, it seems that other people start entering our lives who have the traits we dislike. When we deal with those people, we feel frustrated and uncomfortable.
Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone describe this phenomenon in their book Embracing Our Selves. The Stones call emotions, instincts and ways of thinking we repress, or don’t allow ourselves to experience, our “disowned selves.” Simply because we push them away, the Stones observe, our disowned selves don’t stop influencing our lives. Instead, we tend to unconsciously seek out relationships with people who strongly express those emotions and instincts. Our relationships with these people—whether in the romantic, friendship or work contexts—tend to be unhealthy and stressful:
Although attraction to a disowned self perceived in another can often lead to the integration of these energies, unfortunately, we are more likely to see individuals lock into destructive relationships with those who reflect a disowned self. . . . Instead of learning from one another, instead of integrating these disowned selves, they live with the reflection of them in their mates, judging them and continually being angered by them.
To break this pattern of unconsciously seeking out our disowned selves in others, we need to acknowledge and accept these emotions and instincts. We need, in other words, to reintegrate our disowned selves into our personalities. If we don’t, we’ll keep on attracting people who represent our disowned selves into our lives—just as John, no matter how many times he changed jobs, always ran into someone else who strongly expressed John’s repressed competitive, aggressive instincts.
To help John reconcile with his disowned competitive self, and feel more comfortable in his work situation, I recommended that John take up some more competitive practices in his life. To do this, he didn’t have to devote his energy to outperforming or “backstabbing” his colleague. Instead, I suggested, he could take up a team sport, run in a race, or even just play competitive board games. This way, John could get back in touch with his aggressive part in a way that felt healthy and appropriate to him.
John got back into playing basketball each week, which he hadn’t done for years. Not only did he have fun and get exercise by doing this, but it gave him a healthy avenue for reconnecting with his competitive energies. Because of this and other practices he took up, John gradually began feeling more peaceful about his work situation. He started becoming more productive, and sleeping better, because he wasn’t constantly worried about his colleague’s competition.
If you continually find yourself running into someone you dislike in each working environment—or any other setting—you enter, give some thought to the aspects of their personality you’re not okay with. Do you accept those aspects of your own personality? Or do you suppress them before they can come out? If they have a tendency to get angry, for instance, ask yourself whether you permit yourself to feel and express anger.
It may be that the person you don’t get along with has a personality trait you’ve disowned in yourself. If this is true, acknowledging and accepting that part of yourself will likely improve your relations with the person, and free you from the unease you used to feel in their presence.