Almost 30 years ago, for about an eight-month period of time, I lived in a subtropical rainforest in Australia.
A friend of my boyfriend’s had property outside of Murwillumbah, New South Wales, and he and his family were going to travel around Australia for a year, so they offered it to us while they were gone.
At the time I was living in Sydney and waiting for my green card to come to America so I thought why not, it’ll be an adventure.
It was absolutely beautiful, green and lush however the accommodations were a bit rough.
They hadn’t built a home yet, so it was really just a room, framed with wood pylons holding up hemp tarps, a tin roof and a trailer attached where we slept. The kitchen was built into the side of the mountain and other than the sleeping area, everything was outside including the shower and toilet.
When you wanted to take a shower you had to light a fire in a 50-gallon steel drum 30 minutes beforehand to get some hot water (the water caught in a larger tank further up the hill). Right next to the shampoo and conditioner was a salt shaker to get the leeches off when your fingers would be too soapy and slippery to do the job. I still cringe at the leeches!
We had deadly snakes all over the place, the deadliest of all called Death Adders, a lot of Pythons and King Browns. We were so built into the scenery the same three Pythons would come into the living area every day where they would sleep on the wood pylons absorbing heat from the tin roof. Fortunately, the Pythons don’t have a deadly venom but it did take me a while to get used to them being up there each day. We named one of them Boris.
There was another couple that lived on the opposite edge of the property and on the other side of the mountain a farmer and a Hara Krishna ashram.
We were pretty remote and on our own most of the time but every now and then we would bump into the other couple.
I liked the wife but the husband was really annoying. He acted like a know-it-all that loved to talk over you and tell you how great he was. I couldn’t stand him.
I also couldn’t stop thinking about how much I disliked him. Whenever I did see him I’d be so irritated I would tense up immediately, grit my teeth through the whole conversation and then complain about him in my head for the next 3 hours.
And then I’d think, how can this be happening? I’m in the middle of nowhere!!! I just left an annoying person behind in Sydney – I thought I was free!!
But we’re never free of difficult, annoying and challenging people. We can’t escape them – no matter how remote into the wilderness we go! But we can change our relationship to them and be a lot less irritated.
So let’s dig through this and see what we can learn and how we can free ourselves of the mental torture we inflict upon ourselves when we encounter a difficult person.
Three Levels of Difficult People
The first level of difficult people is typically a stranger, someone we just have a brief interaction with.
Maybe they cut us off on the freeway and then flipped us off after we honked our horn.
Or we’ve been waiting patiently for someone to back out of a parking spot only for another driver to swoop in there when they clearly saw we had our blinker on and were there first!
Just the other day I was walking out to my car in a strip mall parking lot, and another car had pulled into the spot next to me, a guy got out of the passenger side and his door hit mine.
I was standing right there. He looked at me and said nothing.
I could immediately see there was no damage done but I also noticed what a horrible parking job I had done.
I could feel his tension and it was kind of an awkward moment so I said to him, “Wow I really did a bad parking job – sorry about that,” just to see if he would say anything – he didn’t.
Obviously I didn’t need to say that, but I was feeling extra compassionate and thought I would give him a way out, unfortunately he didn’t take it.
But at least I didn’t make his day worse.
Clearly something was going on with him.
Because that is the reality of most difficult people – there is typically something going on with them.
This guy looked stressed – I could tell he was in survival mode and anything I would have said to him would have just triggered him to be defensive and probably escalate the situation into something neither of us wanted.
These types of things happen to us – sometimes on a daily basis – if we’re lucky a whole week might go by. But eventually it happens.
So what do we do in those situations, when we’ve just been given the finger by someone who clearly cut us off and was in the wrong?
Most people will tell you that you have to remember it’s not personal, it happens to everyone. And that so many people are stressed out these days, overbooked and late for everything – they don’t know what they’re doing half the time. And its over, it already happened, you’ve got to let it go.
And all of that is true and you know it’s true too, but you still can’t stop complaining about it.
Because once someone threatens us – no matter how small or inconsequential it is – we go into survival mode too. There is no room for rational arguments at that point. Our anger boils as we cling to our rightness – because they shouldn’t have done it! The more emotional we get, the less logical.
So if you can’t get reason in through your head, then you go through your heart.
My favorite practice – which I think I use for everything now – is to slowly and silently start saying the words, I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.
It’s just two simple words – even in our stressed out state of mind, we can do this.
As we slowly say the words, on the inhale I and on the exhale forgive we start to slow our breathing rate, reduce our blood pressure and release some of the tension out of our muscles. We are breaking ourselves out of the judging, criticizing and blaming thoughts that are fueling our anger and allowing our nervous system to come back into balance.
Maybe on our 10th or 20th time of saying those two sweet words, we start feeling less threatened – we’re coming out of survival mode.
As the tension starts to melt away, keep saying the words because now you’re starting to see the situation more clearly, and those words are what’s leading you there.
It starts to feel less personal, and you might even start to have some compassion for the other person – seeing their suffering. By continuing to say the words, I find it also helps to keep us on track so that the, but I’m right they shouldn’t have done that! thought doesn’t drag us back into survival mode.
I say it as many times as necessary to fully see the situation with wisdom and compassion. I promise you this works, if you’ll do it.
But Now It’s Getting More Personal
So it’s not just a stranger, now it’s a family member, a horrible boss, annoying co-worker or neighbor that happens to live in the same rainforest that you live in! So it’s someone that is a part of your life, you see them more regularly and the anticipation of seeing them or just after seeing them can torment you for hours.
In that case, I bring in loving kindness meditation.
And before you think, OMG Meredith are you kidding me? You’re going to suggest loving kindness meditation for my boss that is such a jerk and is continuously throwing me under the bus?
Yes, I am.
So before we go any further I want to share a story about a Tibetan Buddhist Monk that was imprisoned by the Chinese.
The prisoners were kept in dreadful conditions, left without heat in the cold and tortured regularly.
When the monk was released in the 1980’s he went to India and in a meeting with the Dalai Lama where they were discussing the dangers this monk faced as a prisoner, the Dalai Lama said, “danger to your life, right?” The monk replied, “no, there were times when there was a danger of my losing compassion for my Chinese captors.”
So back to your demanding boss, rude sister-in-law or pesky neighbor. Yes, I am suggesting you do loving kindness meditation.
Why? Because it works – it helps get you past their behavior that’s making you upset and see them more clearly, as human beings that are themselves challenged, overwhelmed, afraid, insecure…
The reason this meditation is so effective is because we start by sending kind thoughts to ourselves, wishing ourselves to be happy, safe and well. Then we move on to family, friends, a neutral person – there are lots of varieties of the types of people in the middle – but we always end on a difficult person.
By the time we’ve sent kind thoughts to ourselves, family and friends our hearts are really open and our minds are really clear – we have the two components we need to see things clearly: wisdom and compassion.
So as you look at your demanding boss, you may start to see the tremendous pressure they are under, maybe you remember a comment that their marriage isn’t doing so well, maybe you see the fear in their eyes.
Does that knowledge change anything?
Maybe, the next time you get a curt email you might not take it as personally.
Maybe you spend less time in your head torturing yourself.
Maybe at night you don’t go home and complain about your boss anymore to your partner because you understand they are already experiencing enough difficulties you don’t need to add to it.
The point is there’s ALWAYS something going on with the other person.
People don’t wake up and think, I’m going to be a jerk today, something is going on that is making them behave this way. I’m not saying it’s right, but its reality.
If you’re lucky maybe you don’t have to have that person in your life.
Perhaps you’re able to find another job, even a better job. But I promise you it won’t be the last difficult person you have to deal with. They’ll re-emerge as the co-worker that’s trying to take credit for your work or the boss that is very nice but micromanages you to death.
There is never going to be a shortage of difficult people in the world: bosses, co-workers, family, acquaintances, neighbors…
Remember there’s only one person we have control over and that’s us. But if you let yourself fall into survival mode, always reacting to difficult people the same way you won’t even have control over yourself! And then YOU turn into the difficult person!
Don’t Become Bitter
When Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years, he didn’t emerge bitter, he didn’t seek revenge of his captors nor did he continue the vicious cycle of oppression, wishing to do to the white community what they had done to the black community.
How did he come out of prison so wise and compassionate?
27 years is a lot of time to do nothing. So while he was in prison he read and re-read and re-read Marcus Aurelius’s, Meditations.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the second century and also a famous follower of Stoicism. A philosophy that puts a great deal of emphasis on the only thing we really have control over – OURSELVES (are you starting to get it?)
He would journal every morning about the responsibilities he faced every day, the people’s fates that would be in his hands, that others would try to steal from him, harm him and how would he respond?
By preparing himself daily with his writings, understanding the challenges he would face and how to handle them with wisdom and compassion he went on to be one of Rome’s greatest emperors. It was these journal writings that were later found and put into publication as the book, Meditations.
I share Nelson Mandela’s story to again illustrate that real people have faced far worse conditions than we have. You can imagine for every one Nelson Mandela there are hundreds if not thousands in a similar or even less awful situation that ended up bitter and vengeful. No one sets out to be bitter – it’s miserable.
For particularly challenging situations and sometimes when there are multiple parties involved, I find doing a contemplation meditation to be extremely powerful.
I still recommend doing the loving kindness meditation first and then go into a contemplation meditation from there. In this meditation, we actively think about what’s going on, what we do have control over, what we don’t. And what we may have missed about the other person’s point of view.
Often in conflict, we forget the person we are having difficulty with has a story themselves. They go home at night and tell their family why you’re being so difficult and making their lives so challenging.
The more we can open up in a contemplation meditation to trying to understand what their viewpoint is, then we might find an opening where we can extend an olive branch to that person to come together to discuss the situation in a more compassionate and wise way.
The goal is to move forward in conflict. But if both sides dig their heels in then no one is moving anywhere.
Someone has to be the bigger person and try to find an opening.
So for those enormous challenges where you just can’t see that person yet as your difficult person in the loving kindness meditation, still do the loving kindness meditation (with another less difficult person) and then go right into the contemplation to try and get some understanding.
The loving kindness meditation in the beginning is important, it will bring the compassion you need so you can also find some wisdom in this situation to help resolve it.
I also want to be clear that the goal here is not to become a doormat, to let people walk all over you. Sometimes we need to be fierce. Maybe we have a just cause we are fighting for. And in that case go for it! Fight for your cause. But don’t become bitter in the process.
I’ve seen so many activists where they are so angry and bitter they aren’t really helping their cause anymore, not to mention you can see how it’s eating them up inside.
That’s not wise. They desperately need to be doing these practices! We are heard when we speak with compassion, even fierce compassion.
Knowledge vs. Experience
With these practices that I’ve given you, I want to remind you it’s not enough to just read these words and think your heart will be overflowing with compassion the next time you encounter a difficult person.
In fact, it’s almost dangerous when we read things like this but don’t do the offered practices, because we start to fool ourselves into believing we’ve got it – our confidence surpassing the reality of our capacity to handle difficult people.
It’s like watching a YouTube instructional video of How to Moonwalk 20 times and then expecting you are going to be able to do it.
And guess what there was a study done where people watched YouTube instructional videos of how to do various things – what they were measuring was the confidence versus ability based on how many times they watched the video.
So one group watched the How to Moonwalk video 20 times, whereas another group watched the video only once.
The group that had watched the instructions 20 times felt very confident that they would do pretty well when it came time to do the moves. Whereas the group that only watched it once did not feel confident at all.
Both groups performed the same.
And the same results bore out regardless of the activity, watching it repeatedly only increased confidence not mastery.
So my advice to you is to do the practices.
Say the words, I forgive, OFTEN!
Do the loving kindness meditation – here is a link to my guided loving kindness meditation.
Do the work, because nothing is going to change if you don’t.
You will always have difficult people in your life – sometimes we are preparing for the big ones that are coming and other times we are dealing with the ones right in front of us. If you’re tired of that narrative in your head of complaining about them, getting frustrated and irritated then do the practices that helped a monk keep his peace of mind while being tortured for 20 years and a prisoner of 27 years not become bitter and vengeful.