No one likes dealing with difficult people. But by inviting them into your heart, you can invite a radically different experience
From Yoga Journal January/February 2006
Fran’s cottage on the Oregon coast should be the perfect meditative retreat. The only worm in her apple is Larry, her landlord, who also lives on the property. A local architect, Larry is an acerbic critic of just about everything—the government, the art world, drug companies, and Fran. He cannot believe that she’s so clueless about simple practical matters. For three days last month, he ragged on her for not putting gopher wire around her petunias, and he’s constantly reminding her about the time she put plastics into the paper-recycling bin. Yes, he’ll bring her groceries from town, and help her diagnose the weird noises in her car. But he speaks to her contemptuously, and the last time she came back from a weekend out of town, she found Larry sitting in her living room, surrounded by beer bottles and heavy vibes. As far as he’s concerned, the house is his property, so why should she mind his sitting in it when she’s not there?
Fran feels trapped, as in an abusive marriage. She doesn’t want to move, yet her landlord’s presence hangs over her house like a dark, angry cloud. Worst of all, his anger magnetizes her own rebelliousness, so she often finds herself talking to him in the same harsh tone of voice he uses with her.
We don’t always know why difficult people show up in our lives. There are some good theories about it, of course. Jungians, along with most contemporary spiritual teachers, tell us that ALL the people in our lives are mirroring what’s inside us, and that once we clear our minds and clarify our hearts; we’ll stop attracting angry girl friends, prickly co-workers and tyrannical bosses. Then there’s the view—not necessarily inconsistent with the first– that life is a school, and that difficult people are our teachers. (In fact, when someone tells you that you’re a teacher for him, it’s often a good idea to ask yourself exactly what it is about you that he finds abrasive!) One thing is clear, though: at some point in our lives, most of us will have someone around us who is show-stoppingly hard to take. Sometimes, it seems as if everyone we know is giving us trouble.
So, one of the great on-going questions for anyone who wants to live an authentic spiritual life without going into a cave is this: how do you deal with difficult people without being harsh, wimpy, or putting them out of your heart? How can you explain to your friend who keeps trying to enlist you in service of her own dramas, that you don’t want to be part of her latest scenario of mistrust and betrayal—and still remain friends? How do you handle the boss whose tantrums terrorize the whole office, or the co-worker who bursts into tears several times a week and accuses you of being abrupt when all you’re trying to do is get down to business?
More to the point, what can you do when the same sorts of difficult people and situations keep showing up again and again in your life? Should you chalk it up to karma? Should you find ways to resolve it through discussion or even pre-emptive action? Or should you take the truly challenging view that the people in your life who seem harsh or clingy or annoying are actually reflections of your own disowned, or shadow tendencies? In other words, is it really true that we project onto other people the qualities in ourselves that we dislike or disallow, and then condemn in someone else the traits we reject in ourselves? Does dealing with difficult people have to begin with finding out what you might need to work on in yourself?
The short yogic answer here is “Yes.” Obviously, that doesn’t mean you should overlook other people’s anti-social behavior. (Owning your own part in a difficult relationship is not the same thing as wimping out of a confrontation!) Moreover, some relationships are so difficult that the best way to change them is to leave. But here’s the bottom line: Try as we will, we can’t control other people’s personality and behavior. Our real power lies in our ability to work on ourselves.
This, of course, is Yoga 101. We all ‘know’ it, yet when we’re in the crunch of relational malfunction, it’s often the first thing we forget. So, here it is again: your own inner state is your only platform for dealing successfully with other people. Not even the best interpersonal technique will work if you do it from a fearful, judgmental, or angry state of mind. Your own open and empowered state is the fulcrum, the power point, from which we can begin to move the world.
I used to do projects with a woman whose moods tyrannized everyone she worked with. She was bossy, and tension made her cranky, so hardly a day went by when she didn’t clash with someone. We tried having meetings where everyone told each other what we liked about each other and what we found hard to take. She never took the hint. We tried various non-confrontational communication techniques (“When you talk to me like that I feel scared and angry”), but they only made her defensive.
One man, Terry, could effortlessly disarm this woman; just seeing Terry’s face would lighten her up. Though it sometimes looked as if Terry was working with smoke, mirrors and charm, it was his inner attitude that made the difference. For years, he had practiced what I call the yoga of acceptance, holding the thought that since everything is an expression of a single divine reality, it should be honored and welcomed. Because he had come to embody acceptance, Terry could say and do tough things without creating resistance. His presence would often open me to my own loving, impersonal awareness—the witness state that ‘knows’ when our behavior is unskillful, yet doesn’t judge or condemn us for it.
It was Terry who convinced me that relationship is all about energy exchanges. Real transformation in a relationship begins at an energetic, or thought/feeling level. We work first with our own inner attitudes and emotions and then with the energetics of the relationship. Once we’ve tuned in on the energetic level, the external situation will often shift on its own.
After all, what makes someone difficult? Essentially, it’s their energy. We don’t have to be students of quantum field theory or Buddhist metaphysics to sense how much the energies around us affect our moods and feelings. What makes someone tough for you to take? Basically, it has to do with how your energies interact with theirs. Every one of us is at our core an energetic bundle. What we call our personality is actually made up of many layers of energy—soft, tender, vulnerable energies as well as powerful, controlling or prickly energies. We have our wild and gnarly energies, our kindly energies, our free energies and our constricted, contracted ones.
These energies, expressing themselves through our bodies, thoughts, and emotions, and minds, manifest as our specific personality signature at any given moment. What we see on the surface, in someone’s body language and facial expressions, is the sum of the energies that are operating in them. As we speak, its the energy behind our words that most deeply impacts others. When Fran’s neighbor is being aggressive, his voice takes on a hard, strong tone. His body tightens and seems to get bigger. Fran, whose energy is much softer, gets frightened in the presence of that energy, and reacts either by trying to placate Larry, by retreating, or by getting into her own dominance energy, and speaking harshly.
The beginning of change, then, is learning how to recognize and modulate our own energy patterns. The more awareness we have—that is, the more we are able to stand aside and witness our personal energies of thought and feeling and (rather than identifying with them) —the easier it is to work with our own energies. This takes practice. Most people don’t start out with a highly developed awareness of their own energy or the way it impacts others—and even fewer of us know how to change the way our energies work together. In the heat of an emotionally charged exchange, it’s hard to step back and watch what’s happening—particularly when we are one of the participants!
To complicate matters, we’ve often disowned our more problematic energies—anger, or vulnerability– so they come out sideways, in sarcastic remarks or sudden outbursts, or unexplained tears, as we react to energy patterns that trigger childhood programming, or family dynamics.
This was part of Fran’s problem with her neighbor. Fran is a typical ‘nice’ woman, who would rather stuff her anger than express it. The way she tells it, her older brother had a hair-trigger temper, and used to yell at her and make fun of her. Fran had always tried to placate him, repressing her own resentment. All her life, she’s been attracting angry males into her life, like replicas of her brother, and projections of her unexpressed rage. With Larry, her buried hair-trigger temper had started to surface as well.
Just becoming aware of this pattern made a difference. Fran began to be able to witness the process between them, recognizing the moment when her own anger started to surface. But she was still too frightened to discuss her feelings about their relationship with Larry. It wasn’t just that confrontation scared her. She had a strong feeling that it wouldn’t work, anymore than it had with her brother.
Dialoguing in the Heart
Then, a friend told her about an inner visualization process, and Fran decided to give it a try.
Fran would close her eyes and calm her breathing, then imagine herself in a small, comfortable room in her own heart. She would see a door in the wall, which opened onto a staircase, and she would walk down the staircase. (You might recognize this as a common self-hypnosis technique). At the bottom of the staircase she would find another door, where she would imagine herself entering a room with two chairs in it. She would sit in one of the chairs, and imagine that Larry was sitting in the other.
She would see herself handing Larry a bouquet of roses. Then she would imagine herself saying to him, “I would like there to be peace and kindness between us.”
The first few times she did this practice, ‘Larry’ either showed up faceless, or showed no interest in taking the flowers. Still, she noticed that after doing the process, she felt less fear and distrust for Larry. The fifth time she tried the practice, she actually felt that Larry’s energy was present in the imagined room, and she felt him accepting the bouquet.
A few days later, the ‘real’ Larry came to her door in an unusually mellow mood. They had a cup of tea together, and she asked him if they could talk. She told him that she appreciated everything he did for her, but that she would like to set up a friendly boundary. She would prefer that he didn’t hang out in her house unless she invited him—‘not because I don’t like you’, she said, ‘but because its important to me to keep the energy in my house my own.”
To her surprise, Larry seemed to accept her position. “It was as if he respected me for making it clear,” she told me. Moreover, there was an ease and friendliness in their conversation that had never been there before. Fran felt that it had everything to do with her flower meditation. Whether it had affected him or not, it had certainly released something in her, and that internal shift had allowed her to speak her truth to him without charge. She tells me that these days she’s able to say, ‘Hey, Larry, be nice!’ when he starts talking in his hectoring voice. And he laughs and shifts into a friendlier tone.
The Yoga Vasistha, one of the most radical texts of Vedanta, teaches that the world we experience is actually a manifestation of consciousness itself, and that when we change our inner view, the world changes to match it. If you take this teaching seriously (and it is in fact the unacknowledged basis of much of the current new age teachings) , it follows that when you want to change a relationship in the physical world, you would begin by creating a shift inside your own subtle world, the world of thought and feeling. Whether you do make this shift by creating an intention, by doing a pacifying visualization, or by imagining yourself having a successful conversation, the imaginative work you do with your difficult people is the first step towards breaking down the barriers between you. Just the way athletes imagine themselves playing a winning game, and public speakers see themselves winning over an audience, we can transform our relationships by shifting out of blame and anger into a more creative state of mind.
Here’s one way to start the internal process of transforming a difficult relationship:
Begin by asking yourself to notice the energy that gets triggered inside you in this person’s presence.
You can start this process by remembering the last time you were with them. See if you can sense the way the energy feels in your body when you think of that encounter. Notice how your throat feels, and your stomach. Be aware of any emotions coming to the surface, and of any thoughts you have about them. See how long you can stay in this state of witnessing your own energies, the state where you can stand aside from the situation and your reactions, yet hold them in awareness.
The witnessing awareness is the most empowered part of our own consciousness; it’s actually our connection to the creative power of the universe, and once you tune into it, awareness itself will, over time, integrate all the contradictory energies within you. When you tune into the witness, energetic contractions begin to release. The gnarly feelings let go.
That may be enough in itself to shift the energy between you and your difficult person. But you might want to go farther, and use the creative power of consciousness to communicate subtly with the person, or at least change your internal relationship to them.
For this sort of work, we use symbols, because the unconscious recognizes symbols more easily than words. You can use a practice like Fran’s flower meditation. Flowers are a universally recognized symbol of appreciation and reconciliation, but you might also use an olive branch, or an imaginary gift of some kind.
I like to do this by imagining myself walking into the heart. I feel that a ladder connects my brain to the heart center in my chest, and with each inhalation and exhalation, I walk myself down that ladder. In the heart, I imagine the two of sitting in sort of cave, with a candle between us. Then I speak to them. I ask that the two of us be friends, or that we be at peace. Sometimes I tell the person what it is that has been bothering me in the relationship and ask that they help me to resolve it. Often, though, I just imagine us sitting together in the heart space.
Once I’ve done this internal process, I find that the confrontations I’ve been dreading turn into reasonable discussions. People who seemed distant or disagreeable become easy to be with. Life eases up.
The creative consciousness of the Great Mind is best contacted through the heart. When we use active imagination, or bhavana, to resolve a relationship inside our heart, we are putting this insight into action. I’ve long suspected that this is how the difficult people in our lives become our teachers—by inspiring us to change the dynamics of our relationship with others by shifting the dynamic within ourselves.
© Copyright 2006. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Date Last Modified: 8/3/06