Let's face it, there's no escaping it: we all have to deal with, um, challenging people from time to time. How do we do this in a way that doesn't cause us to lose our cool? I wish I had a magic wand for this one, but instead I'll offer a few thoughts.
Probably the best place to start is: cultivate some compassion for the person (whether you think they 'deserve' it or not!) and yourself. Ahimsa, the principle of non-harming, is always a good position. Yes, it can be hard to cultivate compassion for people who are pushing your buttons. But if you think about it, the best scenario is for your nemesis to be happy and well. If s/he were truly happy and well, s/he wouldn't be bothering you, right? So - how do we do that, anyway?
Observe and let go of your judgments. If this is hard, it can help to remember that people become the way they are for reasons that are multifaceted, and often out of their control. For example, a child doesn't ask to be horribly abused or neglected, and if s/he grows up to be an angry, cranky person it's probably understandable. If there's anything that I learned from my time working at the state hospital, it's that horrific, tragic things can happen to innocent people. Some people's stories are so sad it's a wonder they have any semblance of sanity. So if a person seems difficult, there may be a reason. Just remember: the person you are dealing with has a backstory, and you probably don't know the half of it.
Similarly, it can help to consider that a person's outward demeanor (ex: intimidating, confrontational, needy) may serve a purpose or meet a need. A person who is arrogant and aggressive may build a life around promoting/protecting herself because she feels she needs to. The outward behavior may be defending against feelings of inadequacy and fear.
Consider also - can you connect with this person at any level? You may be surprised to learn you both love poodles or Thai food. Or both. Or something. Look for other aspects of the person besides their "difficultness."
With all this in mind, you can soften your self-protective stance and relax when approaching someone and remind yourself, "we are on the same side." If you put your armor down, they are more likely to do the same. Take a breath, or several.
Next, ask yourself: what's the best thing to do - for all involved? Consider the viewpoint of the greater good, not just what serves your ego. Contemplate your actions from a place of love (corny as that may sound) rather than fear and self-protection. And remember that behaviors - including micro-behaviors like talking and thinking - have consequences, so try to do the right thing even when it's difficult (remember - tapas!). Best to leave a situation with a difficult person with a clean conscience. Less to worry about later.
If you have a person whose life and conduct you admire, you might bring them to mind and ask: "what would [the Buddha/Jesus/Gandhi] do? Yes, it's become a cliche, but it can be helpful in a pinch to give you clarity and a reminder of something higher than, say, revenge.
Avoid control struggles whenever possible. Ask yourself: am I really just trying to control this situation? For the good of everyone involved, do I need to? I'm not saying that you should let someone walk all over you. But if someone seems to need to have control of something and the only issue you really have is one of control (as opposed to how they want to handle it), maybe you can let it go. You can always choose how you respond to something for yourself - it's not like you're handing over the keys to your life. Besides, a person isn't really taking control if you give it to them mindfully. Of course, there will be times you will need to take control of situations for the good of everyone involved, but this is best done mindfully, compassionately and NOT in the service of your ego.
Finally, after you've interacted with a difficult person, instead of mentally concocting some story line about how awful they are or patting yourself on the back for surviving it, contemplate wishing them well. Realize, again - that this person suffers just like the rest of us, and doesn't want to any more than you do. Cultivate the wish for the person to be free from suffering. If this sounds difficult, it can be. Buddhists use this premise as form of meditation: consider the idea that every person you meet was your mother in a previous incarnation in order to cultivate the wish for them not to suffer. Wow.
So maybe you're thinking - why should I have all this love and compassion for this person who is driving me crazy?! Try it and see if it doesn't feel better than collecting resentments. I believe it's also called love thy enemy.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who, as a teacher, enjoys summers off but will soon be returning to school. She explained that she's been doing a lot of yoga and personal work this summer - and wonders how her hard-earned serenity will hold up when she has to return to the chaos of work. I thought it was an excellent question - how do we maintain serenity in chaos? Here are a few thoughts:
*Maintain your practice and your routine. When time is tight, it becomes tempting to abandon yoga, meditation, or whatever you practice. We all take a day (or two+!) off from time to time, which is fine. The problem is that we'll tell ourselves it's ok to take a few more days off, which then turns into a week, a month and longer. Yes, it can be difficult, but making the time - even just 10 minutes a day for meditation - will keep you in touch with your practice and yourself. You will stay more centered and paradoxically, have more time for the rest of your life if you make the time to practice. Trust the process. Show up, and the process of practice will carry you along.
*Observe your internal dialog. Cultivate an awareness of your thoughts and feelings, and ask yourself: what are you adding to your situation? Negativity? Resistance? Often our thoughts about a situation can add a lot of stress and negativity, and we're not even aware of them. A good practice is to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings and label them (ex: "I'm thinking about how much I dread going back to school. Feeling anxiety.") Then, practice letting the thought and/or feeling go, and return to the present moment by focusing on your breath or other physical sensations. (Note I said 'practice' - it does take some practice). If you have trouble letting go of your thoughts, visualization can help: you might imagine your thoughts or feelings are like clouds drifting overhead, helium balloons that you release and watch float away, or boxes on a conveyor belt being carried away. For some reason, thoughts and feelings seem to have a need to be acknowledged, but it helps to remember that they are not facts. Some are useful; some are not. Just practice observing them and you will eventually begin to realize they are transitory and you don't have to get carried away by them. And when we are not caught up in our own storyline (ex: "I have to go back to school in a few weeks and it's going to be awful") we can meet day to day challenges with a lot more clarity, less negativity and resistance.
*Remind yourself of your intention. Why do you do what you do? Do you have a personal mission statement? Even if your job (or your life) isn't finding a cure for cancer or ending world hunger, you can create your own meaning by considering what is important to you and reminding yourself of this regularly. It doesn't have to be a big mission like saving the world. Maybe you will try to make one person smile today. Your mental health (and others') will benefit.
*Ask yourself when you start tensing up - "could I lighten up about this?" Chances are, you could. We tend to take things - especially things our ego doesn't like, such as conflict, disapproval, and other challenges sooo seriously. You may have heard this before, but it bears repeating: when you're stressed about something, ask yourself, "will this matter in a year from now?" Most of our day to day snits we won't even remember in a year. Take a deep breath (or several) and lighten up when you can.
*Have some fun. Laugh. Have a sense of humor, and don't forget to make time to see friends and do the things you enjoy. If you spend a lot of time working, you will need some time spent away from work to decompress and recalibrate your mind and emotions. Again, time constraints can make this a challenge, but you won't regret making this a priority. Of course, as with all things, balance is the key. I'm not suggesting going on a weekend drinking binge in the name of having fun, just that it's a good idea to make sure you have some down time.
*Accept that life can be difficult. I think sometimes we forget this, and when the going gets tough, we think we're doing something wrong, or are inadequate to meet the challenge. The truth is, life is challenging for everyone at times, and in the big picture, it's not that important that we are 100% happy, 100% of the time. Our expectation or need to be happy all the time can actually make us more unhappy! This doesn't mean you have to endure horrible situations that can and should be changed. It just means that not every phase of our life is easy - and that our greatest times of growth come from our greatest challenges. Step up to the plate. This is tapas. And don't hesitate to ask for help when you need it!
*Finally, remember that a challenging situation is an opportunity to serve. Whether you choose to serve God, humanity, your highest ideals (or all of the above), challenges are times to remember that it's not all about you (or me). When you stop feeling you have to protect yourself all the time, and enter a situation with an attitude of service, your load is lightened. And remember, all you have to do is do your best, and then leave it. (see last week's entry on the niyamas)!
Of course it's also a good idea to make sure you are eating well and getting enough rest, too. These are a few things I try to remember to do when the going gets tough. What do you do?