What Irritates Us? My Strange Relationship with Coffee

"Don't take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering." - Miguel Angel Ruiz

There’s a widely cited quote by the psychologist Carl Jung, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” I recite Jung’s quote in session with clients during moments I feel irked or distant. What he means is that what annoys us about others is probably an aspect of ourselves that we’re uncomfortable with. We project our insecurities onto others as a means of avoiding them. It’s kind of like how everybody else is a hipster but us.

Projection is the process of unconsciously throwing our own emotions, expectations and ideals onto the outside world in order to protect ourselves from having to deal with them. This process is unconscious, which means we’re unaware that it’s happening. Projection can take many forms and sneaks into the smallest or strangest of aspects of our lives. Powerful emotions can be hidden in the most mundane and unassuming of objects. In this instance, it’s coffee.

An Estranged Brew

In Mt. Pleasant, MI there are essentially two coffee shops for college students: Kaya and University Cup. Kaya has a much “earthier” tone with coffee bean bags lining the ceiling, local acid-trip art on the walls, large comfy couches and clientele consisting of hippies, students and the like. It’s what you would expect from a college town coffee shop. University cup, though still a college town coffee shop, is it’s opposite: modern, simple and frequented by professors and students alike. I preferred University cup, though often found myself at Kaya as it was the preference of friends. You could say I was a hippie in denial.

In addition, I didn’t drink coffee and associated it with the culture of Kaya. Although I enjoyed its roasted flavor and aroma, I was a fairly high strung guy with an over sensitivity to caffeine and its acidity upset my stomach. However, I remained fascinated with the culture that surrounds it. I suppose my fascination was closer to annoyance and fixation than genuine interest.  

Coffee culture, in my eyes, was pretense. I felt alienated by its obscure blends, strange lingo, fedoras and bad acoustic music. At the same time, I spent a lot of time in coffee shops, owned a fedora and performed bad acoustic music on several occasions. Yet, the simple gathering of people enjoying a cup of coffee aroused intense emotion and seriousness.

Though I was annoyed by coffee enthusiasts, I had no trouble diving into the the culture of microbreweries and craft beer. Michigan has a large microbrew culture and home to Founders and Bells, two widely distributed microbreweries. In addition, you can find at least one brewpub, if not several, in most cities. This provides a lot of opportunity to explore a variety of flavors, brewing techniques and interesting ingredients. However, microbrew culture also has its own obscure blends, strange lingo, fedoras and bad acoustic music. Yet, I remained ignorant of their similarities and maintained a distaste for coffee culture. So, where was this irritation and seriousness coming from?

A Roast on the Coast

When working with addiction clients, specifically recovered or current alcoholics, I felt a dissonance. My indulgence in beer was, at times, excessive and beginning to affect my day to day life. Nights were spent staying up late and indulging in different brews which resulted in loss of sleep and hangovers. Trying to console an alcoholic while hungover is not a great feeling nor is it effective. It’s like telling a diabetic to lose weight while eating a donut.

It became clear that I was using alcohol to manage my stress (poorly, I might add). When I decided to leave my job to focus on self-care, cutting back on drinking was an obvious step. I was also looking for a habit to replace drinking to avoid feeling like I had lost something.

When visiting friends in San Diego, I was reintroduced to coffee, though in a different context. We stopped in at a local shop called the Coffee and Tea Collective (CTC), as it was a favorite of my friend Jaime. Everybody ordered coffee and espresso and I ordered  green tea. I tried a sip of the Guatemalan blend and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. In addition, the decor was much like a favorite bar and restaurant of mine back in Michigan. Worlds were starting to converge. The next day I went back for a full cup of the Guatemalan. I was hooked. After leaving San Diego, I kept revisiting the CTC website and became fixated on coffee once again.

I started with Starbucks because I had no idea what or how to order.  It’s menu was also accessible and affordable if opting for black coffee. I ordered and took a sip: delicious again! Why had I avoided this for so long? Memories of Kaya came rushing back and it hit me. I had cut myself off from intellectual discussion out of fear that I would come off smug or pretentious. I must have linked this fear with Kaya and generalized it to coffee.

Though ideas and meaning are close to my heart, I put up a wall because I was afraid of being judged. I didn’t want to go back to being that smug guy ranting about Nietzsche in a coffee shop. Instead of facing this I projected it onto others in order to spare my ego the damage. I missed one of our common defense mechanisms. Oof.

Recently, while at a coffee shop in Denver I overheard a conversation about GMOs and philosophy. I found myself annoyed even though both topics are of interest to me. It was like listening to my college self. It hit me again. Their conversation wasn’t the issue, rather, it reminded me of my former self. I was the coffeehouse ranter. I projected the persona I had tried so hard to shed, that caused tension with friends and family, onto others. I wouldn’t shed old skin and hid my insecurity in the coffee bean.

What Irritates Us? Ourselves.

In the end, I suppose it’s a lesson about perspective and ego. Coffee in this case serves as an example of our larger tendency to generalize and project in order to defend against insecurities in ourselves. Our attitude towards certain foods, cultures, ideas or lifestyles may be mere biases and misnomers. Fortunately, these attitudes can be changed and lessons can be gained from their mistakes.

Unfortunately, I have unfairly typecasted an entire group of people and maintained a mental blind spot. Out of it though, I gained an important lesson on our defenses and how we conceptualize our identity. In addition, I found an alternative to beer that shares many of the same qualities that interest me without the negative affects on my health and relationship to clients.

That being said, what irritates you?

Photo by Kellen Terrett