When it comes to self-improvement, the usual go-to advice revolves around role models. Find people you admire and use their lives as templates to discover better ways of approaching your own and as markers by which to begin to raise your expectations for yourself. In bite-size form, this same technique is probably behind the internet's mania for inspirational quotes.

Which is what makes a recent Quartz post from entrepreneur Lauren Bacon so bracing (and thought-provoking). Her advice turns this traditional wisdom on its head, suggesting that a great alternative path to self-awareness and betterment isn't studying your personal hero but your nemesis.

In the piece, Bacon shares her personal experience with a boss she detested, and explains that, done thoughtfully, measured consideration of the qualities we most dislike in others can shine a bright light on our own values, shortcomings, and aspirations. She offers a three-step road map for those looking to try this technique in their own lives.

Step 1: Name your nemesis

First, identify the people that really trigger negative emotions in you. Bacon writes: "Try this: Turn your thoughts to that person you keep running into at networking events whose elevator pitch always leaves you feeling greasy; the columnist whose opinions never fail to stoke the fires of your outrage; the once-cool, indie filmmaker who sold out and started dating fashion models; or the work colleague who seems to have made sucking up to his superiors his job description--any of the people who get under your skin or repel you." 

Step 2: Dig into why

Next, you need to examine exactly why this person irks you so much. What are the qualities he or she has that really bug you? Bacon suggests you ask yourself questions such as, "What specifically about them is so triggering?" and "What are they modeling for me, in a 'how not to be' way?"

Step 3: Face the mirror

The last bit, Bacon contends, is the hardest. Reflexively, when confronted with a characteristic we dislike, most of us run away from it. "Thank god I'm not like that!" we say to ourselves. But while that might be momentarily satisfying, it's not going to help you improve. To get better, you need to do the hard work of digging a little deeper.

"When we succumb to disdain, we transform our worst fears about ourselves into a kind of reverse-affirmation levied at someone else," Bacon writes. "If he's an arrogant windbag, then my self-image as a modest and thoughtful person is reaffirmed, while my terror of self-promotion or provoking conflict can safely be tucked away into a corner labeled 'bad' and 'not me.'" But the truth is, while that guy really might be an arrogant jerk, if that really bothers you, chances are you have some conflicted emotions or fears around self-promotion and being perceived as arrogant yourself. Hating other people is often a flag that marks your own unresolved issues.

"If I have a habit of judging people as arrogant windbags, it might behoove me to take a look in the mirror and ask myself, 'Where in my life could I stand to assert myself more strongly?'" Bacon suggests. "If you can't bear to hear people bragging, ask yourself: Where do I stop myself from celebrating my life? How could I practice more gratitude? Or if selfishness triggers you, ask yourself where you might be harboring resentment about your own self-sacrifice and self-denial."

The idea here isn't to change your opinion entirely about whatever characteristic sets you off. It's simply to become cognizant of traits that trigger strong reactions in you and to take a long, deep look at your feelings about those characteristics. Most of us can benefit from pondering whether we are taking our rejection of a annoying characteristic to a destructive extreme or using it to cover a personal need or impulse that frightens us.

What characteristic in others really pushes your buttons?

Published on: Oct 6, 2014
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