Dealing with Difficult People

By Anthony Gold

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.

5 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult People

  1. Wow. Just in time and written so succinctly. Thank you. This helps me to embrace and nurture, the scared little six year-old dictator/tyrant inside of myself who is copying the behavior I observed and felt from my mother. This behavior (tyrant or fear-filled irritated child) is reflected in my boss and sister, who at times, act like bullies. I get it and I can not “deal with it”, but be in love with it and view them and the situations through the eyes of Source. : )

  2. Can elaborate why a gentle person being bullied by a bully is having mirror reflecting back to us and why we become the obstacle that blocks against peace. That’s not reasoning with logic.

    1. Thank you for the question Christian. The mirror doesn’t necessarily imply the person being bullied is themselves a bully. Rather, it is the idea that we give everything all the meaning it has for us (workbook lesson 2). Our emotions are not thrust upon us by the world – rather our emotions are a choice. In Chapter 31 we read, “If you can be hurt by anything, you see a picture of your secret wishes. Nothing more than this.” In other words, when we are unhappy, it is because we want to be unhappy. This is the cruel (hidden) dictate of the ego: seek but not find. So, we believe the world offers us both joy and suffering. And we continually seek joy in the one place we’ll never find it – the world. But the ego teaches us that we just need to keep searching. What the ego never hints at is that we want to be unfairly treated. Because that allows us to point the finger at someone/something else and say “Behold me, brother, at your hand I [suffer]” (T-27.I.4). So, the bullies of the world – in both our public and private lives – prove to us the world is real, I can suffer, and the cause of my suffering is thus. But we never question the logic of the ego and ask, “Does this even make sense?” That’s the opening (little willingness) that begins our entry into A Course in Miracles.

      1. Hallo,
        I am not sure if this will still be read as I realise that this is over a year ago now that this thread took place; but I wanted to thank you for this explanation.
        I am in a situation with a business partner and the interaction with him is a daily struggle and I guess lesson for me. I am now beginning to realise that this is happening for a reason, that he has been presented to me as a learning experience but boy, is it hard. Because my ego (and that of everyone else that has come in contact with him so only reenforces my own egoic view…) of course is very quick to judge and dismiss him as rude, lazy, obnoxious and a bully; it is incredibly hard for me to come to realise that all of this is a reflection of my own thinking and doing, that subconsciously my intention must be a desire for unhappiness or neediness.
        But I am working on it, have surrendered the situation to God; alone the fact that I am now (on occasion…) able not to react as much as I have is a miracle in itself.
        The above explanation I came across when searching for an answer came at just the right time!

    2. Hi Christian, ….Since this is an old post, I don’t know if you’ll see it….Here’s possibly another way to understand the situation. I’ll use myself as an example. Where I work my supervisor had to take a medical leave, and a co-worker was put in charge. She tends to yell and seems to be operating 100% from her ego; recently another worker was in tears after a “run-in” with this person. I realize a pattern for myself, because I had a job previous to this one where I dealt with the identical person (personality-wise, age-wise they are several decades apart).
      I think of myself as “a gentle person”, as you put it. However… and this is a Big However, if I’m honest with myself, I have an INNER “tyrant”, an absolute bully, who has been running the show for years now. Through doing ACIM and other practices, I’ve become Painfully Aware of how this inner bully has been affecting pretty much every aspect of my life. It is the ego — a false belief based on what happened to me as a child (or “what I thing happened”, yadayada, LOL!! [sometimes I have to try not to take the attitude of ACIM so seriously or I get really bogged down :~) Anyway, what people did or said to me when I was a child is one thing, but my Interpretation led to what became my false beliefs (“I’m not good enough”, “I can’t do things right”, etc, etc…) With compassion, I need to undo the false beliefs, then either the difficult people no longer bother me, or they “disappear” (this actually Seems to happen). I hope this is helpful to Christian or someone else in this situation.

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