Who Is Your Difficult Person?

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Is there a difficult person in your life? Someone about whom you might say, “They really push my buttons” or “They always trigger me”? If you had asked me just a year ago who is the most difficult person in my life, I would have been able to identify them immediately. And I would have thought — or even said — those things about them over the many years I had known them.

Recently I spent a few days with this person. We talked about all kinds of things, took walks together, and had an ease of interaction that I wouldn’t have believed possible. Near the end of my visit, I noticed I was feeling peaceful, grateful, and filled with wonder at how our relationship had transformed. I realized, “This is someone I care about. If they have hard times in the future, I want to come and help them through. This person is dear to me.” What had happened? Had they changed? Had I?

It’s a fact of life that we’re going to encounter people whom we find difficult to get along with. We find them in our families, work environments, and even spiritual communities. In Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community, Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thầy) observes that in any Sangha there are members who are easy to like because they are “fresh, open, and full of goodwill,” and there are others “who are difficult to enjoy and love.” He continues:

We all have the tendency to want to drive out of our life the people who are difficult for us. When a member of a Sangha is very difficult, we generally say to ourselves: “We should send that person away, because he makes the whole Sangha suffer.” But we need to have patience with such brothers and sisters and include them in our embrace as well. The practice of loving kindness means developing patience and an open mind. When we open our mind, we will also have room in our heart and in our home to accept those who are difficult to like, and we will not feel the need to drive them out of our life.

Before I found Thầy and mindfulness practice, my habitual way of dealing with conflict was to focus on the other person’s many faults and bad behaviors and to judge and blame them. But Thầy’s guidance is always to bring the focus back to ourselves, to look into ourselves first. In The Mindfulness Survival Kit, Thầy writes:

In a relationship, if reconciliation seems to be difficult, it’s usually not because the two people aren’t willing to reconcile, it’s because the amount of anger, fear, and suspicion in each person is already too big. We often say that it’s the other person’s fault; we want to reconcile, but they don’t. But that’s rarely the case. The other person may want to reconcile, but she or he still has a lot of anger, fear, and suspicion. Telling this to the other person won’t help. If you want to help someone reduce their fear, anger, and suspicion, you first have to practice to reduce the amount of fear, anger, and suspicion in yourself.

So what happened to transform my relationship with my difficult person? First, I just got tired of myself. The habit of ruminating about this person and of being angry and upset with them wore me down. It was exhausting to be either in a state of upset or a state of avoidance. Thầy teaches that we have a choice whether to keep feeding painful emotions or to practice to transform them, and he has given us tools to deal with them: stop, sit down, bring attention to the breath, let the body calm down, the mind calm down. Hold the difficult emotion gently, the way a mother holds her child. The confusion in our mind settles when we sit in silence and stillness, and then we can see more clearly. I saw that my unrelenting judgment of this person was causing suffering for both of us, and compassion arose in me for us both.

Second, once I was able to see the person more clearly and multi-dimensionally, I saw their acts of kindness. When a family member was going through a challenging time, I saw how hard my difficult person worked to offer them practical support. I recalled instances when I had been the beneficiary of their kindness. The Discourse on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger, which was referenced in a recent Still Water announcement, says that if a person speaks unkindly but is kind in their bodily actions, then pay no attention to their speech and focus on their actions. Likewise, if their actions are unkind but they speak kindly, focus on their speech. It’s a simple instruction, to change what we focus on, and for me it has had a big effect.

Third, life. I grew older. My experience with cancer pushed me to reflect on the person I wanted to be for however much time I had left on Earth. I did not want to be an angry, resentful person who held on to grudges for years. I wanted to open my heart and make room there for everyone, even the people I found difficult.

My struggles with my difficult person helped me see some things about myself that I hadn’t been aware of. This is what Pema Chödrön says in her book Start Where You Are: we should be grateful to the difficult people in our lives because they reveal to us our own blind spots, the hindrances that hold us back, the places where we are stuck. She writes:

If we were to make a list of people we don’t like – people we find obnoxious, threatening, or worthy of contempt – we would find out a lot about those aspects of ourselves that we can’t face. If we were to come up with one word about each of the troublemakers in our lives, we would find ourselves with a list of descriptions of our own rejected qualities, which we project onto the outside world. The people who repel us unwittingly show us the aspects of ourselves that we find unacceptable, which otherwise we can’t see.

I came to realize that I found this person difficult not so much because of their personality but because of my own habit energies and insecurities. And that the most helpful response to this humbling realization was compassion for myself, not self-blame.

The process of healing my relationship with my difficult person has taken some time and probably wouldn’t be happening without the practice of mindfulness and meditation. Once my heart began to open, so did their heart. When I was able to listen to them without judging, they were more willing to share their difficulties and to let me see their vulnerability. As I came to know and understand them better, I had more compassion and admiration for them. We were not so different, each of us trying to deal with life’s challenges as best we could. We are co-creating a new relationship of trust and caring. Of course, we still push each other’s buttons now and then. And I have realized that sometimes I am the difficult person.

On Thursday evening, after our meditation, we’ll have a chance to reflect on the difficult person(s) in our life and how they have influenced us. Here are some questions we might like to consider:

  • What qualities or traits of your difficult person are challenging for you?
  • How has your relationship with this person changed over time?
  • What have you learned about yourself through interacting with this person?

We hope you can join us. An excerpt from Thầy on healing conflicts is below.

With gratitude for our practice,

Connie Anderson

From Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thích Nhất Hạnh

So long as we see the other person as the enemy, we are determined to win, to punish them. The more they suffer, the more we are pleased. But, with this way of thinking, we will surely fail. The Buddha teaches us that first we have to win ourselves, meaning we have to free ourselves from resentment, hatred, and wrong perceptions. We have to win our own mind first. Winning does not mean victory over those who cause us to suffer but victory over our own ignorance and resentment inside. We may have the impression that we’re blameless and that all our suffering has been caused by the other person, the other side. But that’s not true. We’ve been responsible for at least part of the suffering. And, if we look, we’ll be able to see that. And, if we still can’t see our part in it, we can ask others to show us.