Dealing With Difficult People

An organization I have been working with for almost 10 years recently offered me another chance to look at difficult relationships. During this process, I found myself bristling every time another member of the group attacked or deflected discussion of the issues that rankled him. Unlike the suggestion from the Sage Patanjali, who abjures us to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, I found myself fashioning stingers and cruel comments in response to his meanness. How yogic is that? How does one deal with difficult people without being either harsh or feeble, or withdrawing entirely from any interaction?

Carl Jung and his followers, along with contemporary spiritual teachers, remind us that all the people in our lives mirror ourselves. Once we clean up the mess of hooks and barbs hidden from view, we hope to release the ways we get hooked by our own emotional thorns. Sure enough, just when we think we might have turned a corner on this attachment, a show-stoppingly hard to take person appears to test our resolve to remain calm inside and out.

Carl Jung’s view is that people who annoy or upset us are shadow sides of ourselves, showing us our own aspects that we dislike and disallow, so we project them onto others. Do we have to work on ourselves rather than try to change the person we find so hard to take? Yes, we do. It does not mean we have to overlook antisocial behaviour in others or avoid confrontations. Some relationships are so fraught, it is best to leave.

Yoga 101 has it that we cannot change others. The best we can hope for is our own change which clarifies why we are triggered. Not even the best inter-personal technique will work if you do it from a fearful, angry, judgmental state. An open empowered heart/mind is the fulcrum from which one can move the world outside from within. Some one who has worked with the yoga of acceptance — holding the thought that since everything is an expression of a single divine reality it should be honoured and welcomed, has an easier time with difficult people. Tune into the feelings inside when the hard to handle person arrives and become aware of one’s body messages and interior feeling state.

What makes the person hard to be around? Their energy. Students of quantum theory and Buddhists say the same thing; the energy around us impacts our energy. We all have wild gnarly energies, soft tender energies, kindly and free or hard and constricted energies. Energy expresses itself in the body and mind and creates the signature of our presence. We can see facial expressions, body language and hear the tone of voice which is the underlying and more powerful message apart from the words one utters.

Exploring the shadow side is also a very creative stance. Using a common self hypnosis technique, sit comfortably, wait for your breathing to settle and your mind to release any residual distractions or feelings and use your imagination to see with your inner eye a flight of stairs. Walk down them. See a door there and open the door to find two chairs. Sit in one chair and invite your current difficult person to sit opposite you. Offer some words to make peace. Something like: “I would like to have peace and kindness with you.” At first the other may not even sit down. But if you stick to the practice (always the challenge when changing deep seated behaviours), they will eventually sit with you and you may be very surprised to see what they do that changes the dynamic.

The Yoga Vasistha, one of the radical texts of Vedanta upon which many New Age ideas have sprung, teaches that we experience the world as a manifestation of consciousness itself. When we change our inner view, the world matches the change. Thus if a shift comes in your inner world with regard to someone who rings your bells, the change will also come in the outer world. The dialogue you create with the person you have in mind shifts the subtle energy inside.

Start by witnessing what happens to you in that person’s presence. Try to stay in a state of witnessing. Witnessing awareness is the most empowered part of your consciousness. Energetic contractions begin to loosen. The gnarly feelings let go. Life eases up.

I am looking forward to my next encounter. I have been practicing and now I am ready in my internal dialogue to offer the person something more peaceful, genuinely from my heart.

More joy! Less pain! That’s the promise that yoga delivers on. Please be kind to yourself.


Kelly Murphy is owner of a yoga studio in Nanaimo.