Home Personal DevelopmentAreas of Life The Individuals We Find Difficult Are Our Greatest Teachers

The Individuals We Find Difficult Are Our Greatest Teachers

Just as there is a beneficial opportunity to be found in every life experience, regardless of how good or bad we initially perceive it to be, each and every person we encounter offers us the chance to increase our understanding of the world and improve ourselves as individuals. Although most of us would be hard-pressed to admit it, the deepest insights and greatest opportunities for self-development are unquestionably provided by difficult individuals we deal with on a regular basis.

Of course, we can learn from a passionate professor lecturing on a topic near and dear to our hearts, but it’s the individuals who push our buttons, annoy us with their showboat antics, and coax us into acting and feeling in undesirable ways that give us the greatest chance for personal growth. It is for this reason that many of history’s immortalized intellects and inspirations icons, whose words we will visit throughout this article, understood fully that the individuals we find difficult to deal with are in fact our greatest teachers.

Whether it’s someone at work, in one of our social circles or even a family member, each of us assuredly has those certain few individuals we just don’t like being around. Whenever we’re forced to spend time with them, which inevitably happens, we quickly remind ourselves of their flaws and begin wishing to be somewhere else all together. That is unless we’re able to consciously bring an opportunistic mindset with us when we’re faced with the prospects of dealing with them. If we can succeed at this challenging task, then we can start thinking about the individuals we find difficult similarly to the immortalized French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr:

Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”

What Can We Learn From Our Greatest Teachers:

A woman is shown with a perplexed look on her face as she attentively watches two other women sitting at the same table as her having a conversation.Despite the fact that human beings are instinctually programmed to avoid unpleasant life experiences and displeasing stimuli in the environment, a seemingly countless number of history’s greatest minds have come to realize a plethora of potential benefits that can come from the circumstances we naturally try to avoid. In much the same way, many iconic psychological and spiritual thinkers, of the past and present, have come to discover a wide range of learning opportunities that come from being around the individuals we find difficult, with the most obvious being the chance to learn how not to behave. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that you should consciously focus on spending more time with toxic people, because you shouldn’t, but as you’ve probably figured out, it’s nearly impossible to avoid them all together. In addition to improving our understanding of the behaviors we want to avoid exhibiting, there are a number of more specific psychological and spiritual lessons waiting to be learnt from the difficult individuals who have the potential to be our greatest teachers:

Psychological Lessons To Be Learned:

From a psychological perspective, there is a collection of important truths that reveal themselves when we’re dealing with the people we dislike being around. Because in many instances these individuals hold beliefs that conflict with our own, about any number of topics, we can gain clear insight into the fact that each and every individual has their own subjective perspective that determines the way they see the world. Although our brains like to adamantly tell us that that our ways of thinking and living are the right ones, the truth is that each of us holds different beliefs about ourselves, others and the world which are shaped by our own unique set of life circumstances. By coming to understanding that no one person’s subjective perspective is more or less valid than anyone else’s, we can begin working to become a more empathetic communicator who offers acceptance and searches for understanding rather than unconsciously judges and blames.

In addition to this truth of subjectivity, the individuals we find difficult to deal with also give us the chance to learn about our own internal issues and personal insecurities by mindfully observing our emotional reactions and psychological projections. While we can gain understanding of our hot button issues by becoming aware of what causes us to react with anger or defensiveness and insights into our own insecurities by monitoring the negative qualities we project onto others, typically the ones we least want to admit about ourselves, both point us in the direction of positive personal change. As one of the 20th century’s most recognizable psychologist Carl Jung tells us:

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Spiritual Lessons To Be Learned:

History’s greatest psychological minds haven’t been the only ones to point out the lessons that can be learned from the individuals we theoretically consider our enemies, but also many of the most esteemed spiritual figures, especially from the great eastern religion of Buddhism. In fact, none other than the Buddha himself understood the value provided by difficult individuals because they offer us the chance to increase our experiential-based knowledge of important spiritual teachings such as the ego, impermanence, and human suffering. For example, although our evolutionary journey has resulted in each of us operating from an egotistical perspective, one that’s based upon the belief of being a solid entity who deserves to live with only pleasurable experiences, the realities of life continuously prove this way of thinking as wrong. While it may not be pleasant to do so, it is certain that when we’re forced to interact with the individuals we dislike, we’re afforded the opportunity to watch as our ego tries to control what’s largely out of our hands. Moreover, because everything in this world is continuously changing, including ourselves and our reactionary feelings, we can gain understanding of the truth of impermanence. Ultimately, in the eyes of the great Buddhist teachers, it’s only possible to create sustainable levels of happiness by first coming to fully realize these two concepts.

In addition to the ego and impermanence, Buddhist theology also extensively focuses on the universal truth of human suffering, a truth that we experience when spending time with difficult people and also one that’s displayed by those individuals themselves. From a personal perspective, if we continue to remain ignorant to the fact that we’re not really the world’s most important person and also that it’s impossible to create a life of only pleasurable experiences, because of the impermanent nature of reality, we’ll continue to suffer. Ultimately, this means that until we realize that trying to create lasting happiness by controlling our circumstances and dictating the behaviors of others doesn’t work, we’ll continue to remain unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Furthermore, although we assume the individuals we find difficult to deal with are just naturally rude, mean, annoying and obnoxious, the truth is that they’re sending us their own message of suffering, a message that we should feel compassion for. As the celebrated Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us:

When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need to be punished; He needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”

Opportunities For Self-Improvement Provided By Difficult People:

An image shows a couple of young men talking on the stairs of an office. The conversation looks serious and represents the idea that our greatest teachers offer us many opportunities to grow.When considering the vastly important psychological and spiritual insights we can gain from the people we find difficult to deal with, a plethora of opportunities for self-improvement begin to emerge. Although our instincts tell us to avoid the individuals we find most annoying, hurtful and intolerable, it’s precisely because they bring our limited life perspective, our personal insecurities and our ignorance towards the underlying universal laws that govern the world to the surface, that they can become our greatest teachers. By changing our approach and brining an opportunistic mindset, focusing on understanding and growth, into the inevitable times we’re forced to spend time with them, we can systematically transform our frustration into contentment, dread into gratitude and hatred into love:

Acceptance, Equanimity & Letting Go:

Thanks to the knowledge we can gather from spending time with or thinking about difficult people, the opportunities to practice acceptance, equanimity and letting go become available to us. By consciously focusing on becoming accepting of others, with an understanding of their subjective perspective, we can move our troubling relationships into a more life-affirming direction. Additionally, by discovering our own hot button issues and projected insecurities, we can begin practicing self-acceptance and moving towards meaningful personal change. By coming to realize that everything in the world is impermanent in nature, including ourselves, others, and the undesirable feelings difficult people conjure up inside of us, we can focus on developing equanimity, or being contented with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, and practicing letting go of the things we don’t control. Of course it’s also extremely important to release ourselves from the burdens of resentment, anger and hatred by forgiving others for their past mistakes. As the legendary South African civil rights activist and President Nelson Mandela learned after spending 27 years in prison, holding onto the past resentments does more harm to the person unwilling to let go than it does to the offender. He famously told us:

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Becoming A Skillful Communicator:

Although improving our abilities to communicate proficiently isn’t something we often think about as we go about our day, especially when we’re forced to spend time with individuals we aren’t particularly fond of, there isn’t any denying the fact that savvy communication skills can be an invaluable personal asset. In fact, now more so then even, society is valuing individuals’ abilities to communication skillfully, with high levels of emotional intelligence, because the vast majority of the population seems to be more concerned with what’s happening on their phones than they are with the words coming out of the mouths of others. Luckily for us, there is a laundry list of ways we can become proficient communicators by seizing the opportunity to work on our relational skills when dealing with the individuals we find difficult. Here are just a few of the many ways we can do so: We can work to become better listeners, to increase our willingness to stay open with others, to develop our empathetic capabilities, to become more flexible and adaptable while establishing rapport with diverse groups of people, to practice self-control by biting our tongues when we want to say something offensive, to improve our abilities to influence, and to create personal boundaries by saying no to the things that hurt us in anyway. Of course, these are things that we can also work on when communicating with practically anyone, but to do so with the individuals we find difficult can be especially beneficial because it gives us a greater challenge. In the eyes of legendary motivational speaker, author and life coach Tony Robbins, our ability to communicate largely determines the quality of our lives. He says:

The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives.”

Cultivating Beneficial Spiritual Qualities:

Beyond developing the advantageous characteristics of acceptance, empathy and equanimity, there are a range of additional beneficial qualities that we can cultivate within when dealing with the individuals who give us fits. According to Buddhist theology, the state of equanimity is considered as just one of The Four Immeasurable States we should work to develop if we hope to create true and lasting levels of happiness. The other three, which all relate to our relationships with others, are loving-kindness, compassion and mudita, or rejoicing in the joy of others. Because the individuals we find difficult to deal with lead us to think in the exact opposite ways as the four immeasurable states, they offer us an unmatched opportunity to consciously focus our attention on transforming our ways of thinking. Furthermore, the difficult individuals, who are actually are greatest teachers, give us the chance to offer gratitude for both the personal development opportunities they provide us with and for the individuals we lovingly hold closest to our hearts, and also to practice tolerance in the face of challenging relationships. Perhaps better than any other living person, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama understands the unmatched opportunity to cultivate beneficial spiritual qualities when dealing with negative people,  as he has spent the vast majority of his life living in exile under fire, in the form of harsh and demeaning rhetoric, from the Chinese government. He tells us:

In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

Tools To Increase Understanding & Seize Opportunities:

An image shows a woman sitting on floor at home doing yoga meditation. This image represents the idea that there are strategies and practices we can utilize to fully learn from our greatest teachers.Just by increasing our understanding of the opportunities to learn and improve ourselves as individuals that are provided by those we consider difficult to deal with, we’ll be able to shift our mindset and begin thinking about them as being our greatest teachers. Yet still, to make sure we make the most out of the relationships we most loathe, we can go a step further by utilizing a number of transformational strategies and practices. If we really want to change the ways we deal with those that annoy, anger and frustrate us, the following four tools can be of great help:

Mindfulness & Meditation:

Over the past decade, the practices of mindfulness and meditation have exploded in popularity throughout the western world due to the vast benefits individuals attain from them. Unsurprisingly, by increasing our levels mindfulness, or the ability to monitor internal and external states in a non-judgmental and accepting way, we’ll naturally become more accepting of others and more proficient communicators. Additionally, by heightening our levels of mindfulness in a formal meditation practice, we can improve our ability to catch ourselves before reacting emotionally and more readily pick up on the personal insecurities we project onto others. Beyond the benefits that come from mindfulness, we can also use specific meditation techniques to cultivate the Four Immeasurable States of loving-kindness, compassion, mudita and equanimity which lead to heightened levels of subjective well-being. None other than the Buddha himself instructed his followers to insistently practice meditation so they could:

Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”

Conscious Questions & Analytic Reasoning:

Until we become observant of our mental thought patters and work to transform the ways of thinking we deem adverse to our well-being, making any type of personal change will remain challenging. It is certain that one of the main reasons many individuals continuously feel dissatisfied with their relationships and life in general is because they remain unaware of limiting cognitions in their heads. Fortunately, by using the practices of conscious questions and analytic reasoning, each and everyone of us can revolutionize the ways we think about practically anything. In regard to the individuals we find difficult to deal with, we may focus on asking ourselves questions related to empathy, our projected insecurities and solutions to our relational problems. For example, we may ask ‘How could they perceive this situation different than me?’, ‘What can I learn about myself from the ways I think about others?’, and ‘What steps can I take to make the relationship more civil?’ before spending time in deep thought analytically thinking about these answers. Additionally, we can use this process to plan and prepare for difficult encounters, to push ourselves to try different communicational approaches and to commit ourselves to personal boundaries. As the immortalized physicist Albert Einstein famously told us:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

S.T.O.P. Before Reacting:

Most of us assuredly know how difficult it can be to stop ourselves from reacting emotionally whenever we find ourselves in a tense situation or heated argument. Usually, instead of taking the time to cool down, our strong emotions seemingly overpower us and lead us to speak and act in regrettable ways. Luckily, to counter our negative emotional reactions and improve our levels of emotional regulation, we can use the acronym S.T.O.P. which stands for Stop whatever your doing, Take three deep breathes, Observe how your body feels and Proceed with kindness and compassion. While there may be times when we need to take more then three seconds to calm ourselves down, it is certain that using S.T.O.P. will make us more observant of our emotions and help us balance ourselves before we lash out at others. In the eyes of celebrated psychologist and decorated author Daniel Goleman, having the emotional regulation skills that the acronym S.T.O.P. promotes is vital for our chances to succeed in life. He tells us:

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you cant have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Deep Listening & Loving Speech:

In his 2013 book The Art of Communicating, the previously mentioned Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh illuminates a framework for effective communication and at the heart of his teachings are the practices of deep listening and loving speech. He tells us that because egotistical and preoccupied communication habits are often the cause of others’ suffering, we should commit ourselves to only speaking in heartfelt ways and making the effort to give our full attention to others when they are talking to us. Additionally, it’s important we strive to make others, including the difficult individuals who are our greatest teachers, feel good about themselves through compassionate yet truthful communication. The celebrated poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou so appropriately tells us:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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