Feb 2011: Problem People

by Brad on February 1, 2011

“Avoid compulsively making things worse.”     – my fortune cookie a few weeks ago

Do you often find yourself in the presence of “problem people,” those who somehow leave you feeling annoyed, frustrated, upset, impatient, betrayed, sad, or just plain pissed off? Problem people. What’s up with all of them, anyway? Don’t they ever stop? Why do they choose you as their target?

At times like these, it’s easy (or perhaps more to the point, unconscious and automatic) to slip into judgment, which shows up most often as “villain/victim” thinking: either they’re villains or I’m a victim, or perhaps both. Have you ever stopped, however, and stepped out of that judgment/reaction for a minute, so as to view the scene from a broader perspective? [As a regular reader, you’re used to hearing this question.]

When you do step back and look, you may realize that even though the villain/victim responses appear to be opposites (one blames them, the other blames yourself), the thinking behind both is identical: someone has to be wrong. So the next question is obvious: what if someone didn’t have to be wrong?

Although I’m not immune myself to villain/victim thinking, my life experience has taught me, often painfully, that neither end of this blame spectrum is either sustainable or satisfying. Bad thinking simply cannot create good results. I’ve been pushed, often kicking or screaming (villain & victim again) into seeing “problems” in a new way. The new way? They’re all teachers. People who piss me off are here to teach me about my anger; people who betray me are here to teach me about self-love; people who frustrate me are here to teach me about patience and about my need to be right; people who leave me impatient are here to teach me about acceptance.

I’m fully aware some of you may see this approach as a form of denial – I mean, what about those who really do need a rap in the head? But if you’re free to choose how you think, why would you think thoughts that constrain your life and constrict your possibility, when just as easily you could think thoughts that help you learn and open you to greater potential? Maybe others do need a rap in the head, but it isn’t about them; it’s about you, and about your own life and your own opportunity. Seeing them as wrong does nothing for you. So the next time you feel an emotional reaction to someone else’s behavior, perhaps you might ask new questions: what is this person (or this situation) trying to teach me? what possibility (for me) might I find in whatever’s going on (for them)? The exercises below are designed to guide you in shifting your perspective.

Exercise #1: Replay villain/victim thinking after the fact. Create 10 minutes of quiet time at the end of each day, and review the major events and conversations of your day. Pay attention to conversations you had with yourself, too. For each instance, notice where you may have judged someone else (or yourself). Note their “wrong” on a piece of paper; then toss it in the trash. Now … ask yourself, “from what part of me did their behavior evoke a reaction? Use my examples at the end of the 4th paragraph if you need a place to start. If others ‘make you angry,’ this is about finding the anger that hides inside you. As you find it, stop again, and get to know it. Allow your inner messages to teach you.

Exercise #2: Replay villain/victim thinking during the fact. After some experience with exercise #1, you will know what to look for in yourself, so you can begin noticing your responses as they happen. Emotional response always shows up in your body, so notice where you feel your reaction. (It can show up in different places for different topics.)  Anytime your reaction-alarm is set off, stop what you are doing – even for 10 seconds, and even if in the middle of a conversation – and replay exercise #1 using what’s happening right now. Over time, you will find “lessons,” places where you need others to “teach” you, because you just can’t teach yourself what you can’t see on your own. This is a powerful and high-impact way to release judgment, to learn and grow, and to enjoy life. 

A River Runs Through It  [Life lessons offered by nature]

With the complete lack of judgment that characterizes the natural world, what we call problems nature would simply call circumstances. No matter where you go, nature has three ways to respond when life’s circumstances encounter limited resources: (1) step back from them; (2) change them; (3) accept them (tolerate without judgment). Any one of the three relieves the constraints imposed by changing conditions. Here’s an example from the desert, where circumstances are limited by large temperature fluctuations and by minimal moisture. Plant life in the desert adapts by being either (1) an avoider – a saguaro cactus has waxy braches to hold water to get through droughts; (2) a confronter – an ocotillo cactus loses its leaves, then re-grows them as soon as it rains; or (3) an acceptor – a creosote bush grows long root systems so it can survive extended dry periods.

We have the same three choices available to us too. None involves making the circumstances “wrong.” As Eckhart Tolle writes in The Power of Now, taking any of the three paths suggested, even if it turns out to be a mistake, offers learning, and therefore growth. Growing helps us to move away from suffering and unhappiness. Choosing none of the three paths, however, results in no change and no learning. This is why we stay so stuck in our lives.

Instinctively we are well aware of these choices; they are “natural.” Our problem arises because we’ve invented a fourth choice, one not found in nature: (4) accept the circumstance, but with judgment. (It’s another example of villain/victim thinking.) “I don’t like it that things are the way they are, so I’m going to complain.”

Life happens now, in each unfolding moment, one after the next. In every moment that we’re consumed with judgments of the past (resentment, fear, guilt, anger) or the future (anxiety), we deprive ourselves of the present, and miss out on now, where the experience of life happens. It’s time to adopt a culture of learning. Listen to nature’s wisdom.

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