Difficult People: An Invitation to Practice Mindfulness

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How do you deal with difficult people without being harsh, wimpy, or putting them out of your heart?

Typically, when we deal with difficult people, we automatically jump to I am good and they are bad.  We blame them making ourselves the victim and them the culprit. We do this over and over, and it never works.  Why?  Because 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.

When we make them the culprit, we add more kerosene to the fire escalating the conflict. To de-escalate takes strength, because the urge to do what you always do—scream, cry, hit, whatever—is like a magnet. It’s pulling you down like the undertow. To hold your ground and be non-aggressive takes strength.

Instead of placing blame, we can get curious about our reaction to the difficult person. When we get triggered by them, what stories are we telling ourselves?  That I am unlovable, unworthy? That I deserve to be treated this way? What emotion is getting stirred up in us by their words or actions?  Anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, sadness?

If we look closely, we see how we are being triggered.  Instead of blaming to push away the pain, we can look at the pain.  We will notice that the pain arises, it is there for a while, and it goes away. At least until we tell ourselves the story again. So, we don’t need to lash out, run away or wallow in our emotions.

When we recognize our trigger, we can do what Pema Chodron does.  She says, “This is how I am right now. I have a very short fuse and I’m losing it.” Then I ask myself, “Do I want to strengthen this habit so that a year from now my fuse is even shorter?” By sticking with and reinforcing our habit, we could get really professional at making our fuse shorter and shorter. Ten years from now we could have the world’s shortest fuse.

When someone insults us or does something unkind to us, a knot is created in our consciousness. If you don’t know how to undo the knot and transform it, the knot will stay there for a long time. And the next time someone says something or does something to you of the same nature, that knot will grow stronger. Our knots or blocks of pain have the power to push us, to dictate our behavior.

No matter the source, a common stress reaction is for our focus to narrow. Biologically, this is part of our body’s preparation for fight-or-flight. Our deep instincts start to take over.

  • At very high levels of stress – we hastily retreat or bulldoze ahead with our own agenda and shut down any opposing views.
  • At moderate levels of stress – we start to tune out or shut down, or start to stonewall or jab back.

Unfortunately, succumbing to any of these temptations quickly closes down the possibility of making more skillful choices.

Instead, if you can catch yourself starting to react, bring your attention to your breathing. Make your exhales longer than your inhales to give your body the signal to relax. This makes you better equipped to respond instead of react. It raises the odds of transitioning from fight-or-flight into mindful constructive action.

Some of the most difficult work in life is taking complete responsibility for each and every reaction that we have – without blaming ourselves for the fact that reactions do arise. Keep in mind that you have been training to react for many years.  Maybe you have been practicing to deal with your hurt or anger by venting.  That just creates new neural pathways, strengthening the hold the anger or hurt has over you.  Maybe you’ve been told punching a pillow will reduce your anger, but again you are just strengthening your anger neural pathways. 

So, what can you do?

Notice an uh-oh pinch somewhere in your body. Often it feels like a contraction, a flinch, or a recoiling. This is a sign that your awareness is moving intensely toward taking care of your own needs or defeating the other person’s needs.

Recognize that the conversation itself has started to sound like a tit-for-tat exchange.

Breath. Focus on your exhalations for a few rounds of breath. Breathe out feeling grounded. Feel your feet. Feel your body and mind begin to regain equilibrium.

Soften your chest with the intention of extending compassion toward yourself and the other person. Remember happy people don’t act like jerks. See that the difficult person is coming from a place of hurt or anger.

See if you can find a soft spot.  Some topic that can break the deadlock so you can begin to talk to each other in a kinder, more respectful way.  At some point you may have been friends with this difficult person.  What interests, hobbies or values do you have in common?

Ask three questions

  1. Can I change the situation?
  2. Do I have to put up with it instead?
  3. Should I just walk away?

While everyone has inner goodness, sometimes it is quite obscured. Devious and manipulative qualities surely do exist. Pretending otherwise is naive. We need to be able to discern when someone may be harmful to us. You don’t deserve to stay in an unhealthy situation. Cooperating with the unskillful actions of another won’t benefit you or the other person. Sometimes the only way we can remain loving is to let go of contact with particular beings.

May you have the strength to pause when dealing with difficult people so you can respond instead of react.

4 thoughts on “Difficult People: An Invitation to Practice Mindfulness”

    1. Thanks Sue. I was second guessing myself today, wondering if I should have spent more time on the article before publishing.

  1. Yay Gloria! This is exactly the topic I was bringing up at our last KM gathering. Were you listening in from afar. Your words are very helpful. Love, Kdaren

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