I once worked for a boss who could best be described as a bully. He yelled at the slightest hint of bad news and believed that threatening people was the best way to inspire them. He had a very “successful” professional career in that his teams accomplished extraordinary results and he scaled to the penultimate position in his industry. But most of his employees were terrified of him – until the morning he died of a heart attack in his office, right next to mine.
How do you feel when you are stuck in an environment with a difficult person? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of working with (or for) someone who was extremely challenging to your psyche. An awful boss who created a very challenging workplace. A difficult co-worker with intentionally opposing views or ineffectual skills. A family member that represented everything contradictory to your views.
Whether those encounters induce mild frustration or stressful, cortisol-pulsing rage – they aren’t fun, and few people look forward to such incidents. But that need not be the case.
Our initial coping reactions typically lead to various forms of placation, confrontation, or avoidance. We attempt to balance our need to defend ourselves while trying not to exacerbate the situation. Thus we may endeavor to diffuse the conflict with real or even feigned agreement, we might attack back to establish our position, or perhaps even walk away. And deep down, we are hoping (admittedly foolishly) that the person or situation will eventually change.
Many self-help regimens advocate the proverbial “deep breath, count to ten” routine – which of course can be very helpful at lowering our anxiety and restoring our sense of calmness. Plenty of scientific research has demonstrated the benefits of deep breathing which includes slower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, and decreased production of stress hormones.
While there is a lot of practical advice here, unfortunately none of these coping mechanisms actually address the reason we get upset in the first place. Even the popular phrase dealing with difficult people presupposes that there is a situation that must be dealt with. What if instead of dealing, we could actually embrace difficult people? And more radical still, what if instead of experiencing them as difficult, we actually had the sensation of contentment. We can!
While this is hard for many of us to accept, the only reason we can get upset with another person is because they remind us of something distasteful in ourselves. While we might not actually do the thing they are doing, their action (and more importantly, the meaning we give their action) stirs something that resonates in us. Something we are not proud of. Something we aren’t particular fond of looking at within ourselves. It can’t be any other way.
There is a lesson in A Course in Miracles that reads I am never upset for the reason I think. We think we are upset because of some situation that happened in the world. In actuality, we give all things all the meaning they have for us. And we choose to give some things a meaning of discontent because it is far easier (and more acceptable) to our ego to blame others for our lack of happiness.
In this sense, the difficult person is really just a mirror reflecting back to us some obstacle we’ve erected that blocks against peace. But rather than viewing those barriers within ourselves, we choose instead to dwell on their faults – a far more ego-rewarding activity than looking inward.
Beware of the temptation to perceive yourself unfairly treated. Your brother is the mirror in which you see the image of yourself as long as perception lasts. (T-26.X.4; T-7.VII.3)
Viewed this way, we can begin the process of recognizing that all sources of unhappiness and discontent come from within. Our brother then shifts from being the difficult person to the insightful teacher who is showing us exactly where we need to look within. And instead of needing to deal with difficult people, we can embrace the peace that assuredly follows from looking within and finding the love that joins all and excludes none.