What Do You Do with Difficult People?

Fran's cottage on the Oregon coast should be the perfect meditative retreat. The only worm in her apple is Larry, her landlord, who lives on the property. Larry is an acerbic critic of just about everything—the government, the art world, drug companies, and Fran. He can't believe she's so clueless about simple practical matters. Only an idiot, he tells her, would plant petunias without putting gopher wire around them, and that's just for starters.

Yes, he'll bring her groceries from town, and help her diagnose the weird noises in her car. But he also walks into her house uninvited, and doesn't understand why she minds. After all, they're neighbors, aren't they?

It's not that Larry is a bad guy, and Fran knows him well enough to know that he's harmless. But nonetheless, she feels crowded. She doesn't want to move, yet her landlord's presence hangs over her house like a dark, critical cloud. Worst of all, his irritability magnetizes her own irritation, so she often finds herself talking to him in the same harsh tone he uses with her.

As a conscious person doing her best to follow a spiritual path, Fran feels ashamed of herself for not knowing how to deal with Larry. You might feel that way too, when difficult people show up in your life. Yet the truth is that few of us ever get through life without encountering—often in our intimate personal space—more than one person who is staggeringly difficult for us to handle. Whether it's a manipulative friend, a prickly co-worker, an absent-hearted lover—some form of relationship stress seems to be part of the package we signed up for when we enrolled ourselves in the school that is life on this planet. If we don't have a few challenging people in our lives, we're probably living on a desert island.

So, how do you deal with a situation like Fran's without moving away, being harsh or wimpy, or putting that person out of your heart? How can you explain to your friend who keeps enlisting you in service of her dramas that you don't want to be part of her latest scenario of mistrust—yet still remain friends? How do you handle the boss whose tantrums terrorize the whole office, or the co-worker who bursts into tears and accuses you of being abrupt when you're just trying to get down to business?

More to the point, what do you do when the same sorts of difficult interpersonal situations keep showing up in your life? Chalk it up to karma? Find ways to resolve them through discussion or even pre-emptive action? Or take the truly challenging view, the view held by Jungians and many spiritual teachers, that these people are reflecting your own disowned, or shadow tendencies? In other words, does dealing with difficult people have to begin with finding out what you might need to work on in yourself?

It's All About You
The short yogic answer to the last question is "Yes." Of course, that doesn't mean overlooking other people's anti-social behavior. (Owning your part in a difficult relationship is not the same as avoiding confrontation.) Moreover, some relationships are so difficult that the best way to change them is to leave. But the bottom line is you can't control other people's personalities and behaviors; real power lies in your ability to work on yourself. 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 from which you 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. Yet one person, Terry, could effortlessly disarm this woman, and 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.

It was Terry who convinced me that relationship is all about energy exchanges. Real transformation in a relationship begins at an energetic level. You don't have to be a student of quantum field theory or Buddhist metaphysics to sense how much the energies around you affect your mood and feelings. What we call personality is actually many layers of energy—soft, tender, vulnerable energies as well as powerful, controlling, or prickly energies.

These energies, expressing themselves through your body, thoughts, emotions, and mind, manifest as your specific personality signature at any given moment. What's on the surface, in body language and facial expression, is the sum of the energies operating within. When you speak, it's the energy behind your words that most deeply affects others. When Fran's landlord 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 by trying to placate Larry, retreating, or getting into her own dominance energy, and speaking harshly.