This post is all about what meditation is. It may not seem like it should be complicated, but almost all the answers I see leave things feeling murky. Even after teaching meditation for the last ten years, I still have trouble formulating a precise definition.
In short, meditation is the training of attention and awareness. This training can bring clarity, tranquility, and a deeper understanding of one’s tendencies, habits, and nature.
That’s the most precise definition I can come up with, but there’s a lot more to the practice and discipline of meditation. Keep reading, and we will see where we land.
But What is Meditation really?
I get it – that definition doesn’t tell us very much.
Sure, it’s the training of attention and awareness, but what does that mean?
How do you do that?
Why Would you even want to?
The most basic form of meditation is where you give your attention to one thing exclusively for a set period. This one thing can be the breath or the sounds around you. It can be physical sensations in the body, such as your hands or the place where your butt meets the cushion or chair. It can be the repetition of a word or phrase, often called a mantra.
I know this sounds simple – maybe too simple – but it is much more difficult than it appears.
To understand this, take a moment and consider how often you are doing the opposite of focusing on one thing.
How often are you giving your attention to two or three or four different things?
How many times have you been on a long trip and realized you can’t remember the last hour?
How often does someone tell you their name, only for you to forget it 15 seconds later?
We spend a lot of time distracted, and it’s not a habit we break quickly.
When we sit down in meditation and bring the mind back to one thing, whatever that might be, we are teaching it to stay in one place. It is as simple as focusing until we notice we are distracted and then returning to the object of meditation. We do this over and over again, without criticism or judgment or assessment of the distraction or ourselves, until our timer dings and we go about our day.
That’s all there is to it.
There’s nothing magic about it. There’s nothing especially complicated about it. It is a simple training of attention and awareness.
Try it right now:
Notice your breath.
See if you can stay focused on it from the beginning of the inhale to the end of the exhale.
When you notice you are distracted, return to the breath.
Don’t assess, judge, or criticize the distraction or yourself. Just return.
It’s not as easy as it seems it would be.
This makes sense if you think about it. The mind tries to take in as much information as possible, but it can only do so much. Because of this, it has to constantly scan the environment to make sure we are getting the information we need to keep us safe. The scanning isn’t the problem. The problem is that the mind doesn’t know how to stop, so it jumps from thing to thing to thing, some real, some imagined.
Did I shut the garage door? Oh man, I hope I did.
I hope Richard isn’t rude to me today. I don’t have it in me to deal with him this morning.
I wish I hadn’t made fun of that girl in high school. I hope it didn’t damage her somehow.
Ugh, the grass is really growing after all that rain. I didn’t want to mow this weekend.
I wish he’d stop forwarding me these chain emails. He doesn’t realize how ignorant they make him sound! If he’d only listen to reason.
This monologue goes on and on, day after day, whether we want it to or not.
It’s exhausting, but it’s the mind doing the best it can to keep us safe.
Here’s the cool thing though: every single time we notice that we are distracted, and every single time we that we direct our attention to one thing – whether that thing is the breath, the sounds around us, a physical sensation, whatever – we strengthen our ability to stay present.
That’s what meditation is.
The Mechanics of Meditation
Meditation is as simple as the above paragraph makes it out to be. There are also things we can do to make the habit easier to maintain through behavioral cues and good foundational practices.
Posture matters. You want a dignified posture and one that you can maintain for an extended time. Our spine holds our body upright, and we want to help it do its job. Sitting on a cushion or rolled-up blanket on the floor is helpful. You want to sit on the front 1/3 of the cushion or blanket so that your pelvis rolls forward. This position makes good posture much easier.
If you are sitting in a chair, make sure you aren’t leaning back in it, and make sure your feet are flat on the floor. A solid base is essential, especially as you meditate for longer and longer periods.
So: spine is straight, ears are over your shoulders, and your nose is over your navel.
A dignified posture for a dignified practice.
What do I do with my eyes?
What you do with your eyes is the subject of some debate. Some say close them. Some say they need to be open. Some say cap them. Some say do whatever you want. I tend to be in the third category for no reason other than I cannot keep my eyes open without them burning and watering.
The value of closing your eyes is that they don’t burn and water, and you may be less distracted by external things. The downside of keeping them closed is that the mind tends to get pretty hyper when it is the primary input, so getting distracted is easier. Keeping our eyes open also helps us remember that we aren’t retreating from the world but seeking to meet it head-on.
Ultimately, try both and do what you can do.
The hands also manage to generate some debate. Some people and traditions are fans of different hand postures called mudras. Some people believe they hold specific power. Others think they are helpful in holding focus and maintaining awareness.
Once again, I do not claim to know which of these two perspectives is correct, so I do not hold a strong opinion. Often, people prefer to let their hands rest in their lap, and I think this is fine. Try different things, and do what feels most helpful to focus and awareness.
You may notice a trend emerging: there is debate about how to sit.
There are a few different ways to position your legs.
Some schools emphasize the ability to sit full lotus, and this seems to be the archetypal picture you always see of a “real” meditator: butt on a cushion, right heel on your left thigh, left heel on your right thigh, or vice-versa. Full lotus is, most likely, the best way to sit, but I am not sure it’s possible for everyone.
After years of sitting, I still can’t get my legs in this position for any length of time. I’ve met people with short legs who can’t sit crisscross at all, so I can’t see full lotus being an option for them no matter how much yoga they do.
A second position is called half-lotus, where you place the right ankle on the left thigh or vice-versa without trying to follow up with the other leg. This one has always felt unbalanced to me, and I strain my lower back trying to maintain posture, but I know people who prefer it.
A third, and the position I use, is often called modified Burmese. It’s very much like sitting crisscross, but instead of stacking your legs on top of each other, you place them parallel, with the tops of your feet on the floor. I’ve found that I can comfortably maintain this posture for about as long as I want to without any pain or my feet falling asleep.
Lastly, there’s always using a chair. This works for a lot of people, but there are a few things you have to consider. You want to use a straight-backed chair, not your recliner. The ideas about a straight spine still apply. Sit so that that your feet are flat on the floor. Posture will be more and more important as you sit for longer periods. A stable base may be the only thing keeping you from tipping over.
Where should I meditate?
We’ve all seen the beautiful mediation rooms in magazines and movies. If you have one, awesome. Everyone else needs to focus on creating a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. It is impossible to settle into meditation if we are waiting for our kids to bust in the door at any second or keep anticipating our roommate walking in.
In general, anywhere with a reasonable expectation of privacy for 20 minutes will do, and things like noise-canceling headphones and eye masks can make it all easier. I’d encourage you not to put too much effort into this, though. Meditation is about learning to accept the world exactly as it is. Putting too much effort into blocking everything out is counter-productive to this.
Create a quiet, clean spot to sit and get started.
Time of Day
The best time to meditate is right now, although some people prefer different times of the day. The morning seems especially easy as the mind hasn’t started to rev up with all the day’s nonsense yet, but it might also be difficult if you aren’t a morning person.
A lot of people enjoy meditating in the evenings before bed, but others are too tired. Don’t let minor nit-picky considerations derail your practice. Experiment with different times and go with the ones you like the most. The one thing to avoid is scheduling it after eating. The act of digestion makes it a lot harder to concentrate. I know it sounds strange. I thought it was nonsense until I tried it.
Don’t get too caught up on the when. Meditate when you can.
We’ll dive into this topic in more depth over the next few weeks and months. It may seem strange at first, but meditation is a life-changing practice. We don’t know this until we try it because the mind has such a hold on us. It’s like a fish trying to understand the concept of water while living on the bottom of a lake.
It is fantastic to see how many of our problems are constructs of the mind. When we learn to watch this instead of being caught up in it, everything changes.
Give it a try.
You won’t regret it.
You can sign up for the free resource library I have to make this all easier – there’s a full introduction to mindfulness in there, as well as a few other resources.
Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to help.
Nice is an icky word (having been a counselor for close to a decade now, I’ve learned that “icky” is often the only appropriate word for things).
Niceness, in general, can often be icky.
We use nice to describe things that aren’t good or great or memorable. We use it when we don’t want to be mean, but we don’t want to lie. It’s a perfect, middling, lukewarm word.
This is why we often choose being nice over actually being helpful or useful or doing anything at all. It’s an escape, and we embrace it.
Here’s the problem, though: being nice is often one of the least nice things we can do. There’s a reason for this. What we often call being nice is actually us taking the easy way out or being selfish without wanting to admit it.
The Problem with Niceness
Let’s say our friend has changed over the years to be less and less likable. They interrupt people, they are rude, and their hygiene has been slipping. It’s obvious something is wrong, but we, being the nice people we are, don’t say anything to them about it. We, in our niceness, remain friends with them, accepting all these new unpalatable traits.
Now let’s say you are a doctor. A person comes in with a variety of habits that are killing them. They don’t move enough, they smoke cigarettes, their diet is toxic, and they drink too much. They are unhealthy, but you are also a nice doctor, so you don’t say anything about it. Instead, you do as much as you can to make them comfortable and to allow them the highest quality of life they can have without changing.
The first scenario will seem plausible to most of us since we are nice people, but I hope that we all struggle with the second one, at least a little bit. It’s evident that niceness is not always the best choice and can be harmful.
But, you say, this isn’t a fair comparison. In the first situation we’re peers – we are friends. I have no business saying anything to them. In the second scenario, though, I am in a position of authority, the person is coming to me asking my opinion. I should be honest with them.
Why don’t we love our friend enough to tell him what his behavior is bringing to his door rather than watching his social life dwindle to nothing, though? Chances are, he recognizes that people are avoiding him and he may not be aware of exactly why. What is so nice about allowing people to engage in destructive behavior without being aware of it?
The Cruelty of Niceness
It’s hard to be honest with ourselves sometimes. We like to think that we do things out of altruism and selflessness because it keeps us comfortable. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. We don’t like confrontation. We don’t like the moments of uncomfortable silence after we say something that might be true but isn’t nice.
This is why we lie to people. We imply that we could get back together when we’re breaking up with them. We say a position may open up later when we know we aren’t going to hire them. We tell people that circumstances were unfair when they just didn’t measure up.
The problem with these supposed niceties is that they give people a sense of false hope, which might be more cruel than anything we could say to them. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen have a false sense of hope and optimism because someone didn’t want to have a difficult conversation with them. Instead, they let the person die a slow, lingering death waiting for the promised or implied next chance to come along.
The Magic of Honesty
Somebody once told me that I’m not the kind of counselor you send people to for a hug. If I’m honest, this bothered me a little bit at first. I want to be the nice, loving therapist that people look back on as a kind caregiver. I’m that sometimes, but I rarely find that the path to actual change and healing is easy or filled only with hugs.
The most significant and most important changes I’ve seen people make have always been predicated by some confrontation – either with another person, with themselves, or with the kind of counselor who doesn’t give you a hug right away.
I don’t know what it is about our culture that has led us to classify confrontation as a negative thing. I don’t think that anything in the history of the world has ever changed for the better without some confrontation. Women got the right to vote through confrontation. People addressed segregation and slavery through confrontation. There was a small confrontation involved in dealing with Hitler.
Outside of these large-scale confrontations are the tiny ones we engage in every day. We talk to our friend about standing us up. We talk to our boss about not getting the raise he promised us. We talk to our spouse about feeling neglected. These are all confrontations, and they are all necessary for things to change for the better.
On an even more intimate scale are the confrontations we have with ourselves. We realize that we’re drinking too much, and we decide to address it. We acknowledge that we’ve been staying up too late and that’s why we’re exhausted all the time, so we start going to bed earlier. We become aware that our ego is running amok, bringing a lot of stress and destruction into our lives, and we address this.
These are all confrontations, and they are all necessary.
As a counselor, a mentor, and a coach, I’ve realized that constructive confrontation in a healthy environment is one of the most important things we can bring into our lives. The desire to be nice, to protect ourselves and other people from confrontation, will always keep people (and ourselves) locked into unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Is Nice Really Nice?
Confrontation is important, but it can also be messy In general, two simple rules that worked for me:
Confront only because you care. Don’t make it about you.
Make sure the relationship is strong enough to bear the confrontation. It’s hard to be confronted, you need to have the relationship capital built up beforehand.
Confrontation is beneficial, but too much can crash things. Make sure your motives are trustworthy and that you are close enough to the person that will be able to hear what you have to say.
Nice isn’t always nice. Be honest with yourself about why you may be avoiding the challenging discussion and confront the people you love when necessary.
I don’t have a desire to do the whole end-of-the-year accomplishments thing in 2020. If you’ve followed the blog or podcast this year, or if you follow me on Instagram, you know that 2020 has not been as difficult for my family and me as it has for so many people.
I try to remain conscious of this privilege and how fortunate we are, and it doesn’t feel right to talk about all the things that went right when so many things have gone so wrong for so many people.
Instead, I wanted to talk a little bit about the things that I think 2020 has taught us.
Here they are:
Busyness is Overrated
Control is an Illusion
Nothing is as Stable as it Seems
Our Individualism has Become Pathological
Reality Doesn’t Care About Ideology
1: Busyness is Overrated
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – I spent a lot of my life being a loser, and this is something that sticks with you. When I finally had the opportunity to do better, I was afraid that I would waste it, so I threw myself into my work.
A lack of discipline has been a problem throughout my life. When I moved to West Texas, I began reading because it seemed like that’s what smart people do. An interest in cryptozoology led me to an interest in the universe and quantum physics. This led me to a book called the dancing Wu Li Masters, which talked about the overlap between eastern philosophy and modern-day physics.
This all led me to learn about the samurai, and for the first time in my life, discipline seemed cool, and this changed everything. It helped me establish a lot of the habits that still serve me well. These days I am diligent in reading and learning, getting up early, going to bed at a specific time, and trying to take care of tasks when they need to be taken care of instead of when I feel like it.
This is all well and good, but over the years, it became pathological, and I took it overboard (as is my tendency). 2020 may be the year that the rise and grind/hustle culture dies, or at least shrinks. The pandemic thrust us into a situation where all the hustle and all the grind in the world couldn’t make things better, and might actually make them worse as we forced ourselves out of the house and into a plague-stricken society.
I don’t know that this is a terrible thing. Hustle is good, but we also need to understand when to take our hands off the wheel and let things play out as they play out. We tricked ourselves into thinking that we know a lot more than we do and that the idea of hustling and grinding is a good thing in and of itself. I’m leaving this in 2020.
2: Control is an Illusion
I’m usually pretty good about recognizing how little control I have. One of the most frequent conversations I had with clients is about dividing everything into three categories: what we have complete control over, what we have conditional control over, and what we have no control over.
No control is the big one here. The weather, global events, other people, the processes of the universe, and other things of this scale are all things that impact our lives in a very real way but that we have no control over. Other people always fall into the category of no control as well.
Conditional control covers everything that we have some degree of influence over. I have control over what I eat so long as the supply lines don’t breakdown, and so long as I have the money to afford it. I have control over where I go so long as I don’t get kidnapped, my car is running, and the roads aren’t closed. I can influence other people, but their decisions are always outside my control.
The final category – complete control – comes down to one thing: we always have control over our response to all the things we have no control over. That’s it.
This all matters because every second that we spend focused on the things we cannot control is time we’re not spending on our response to those things or exercising our conditional control. This is a recipe for suffering.
2020 was a blow to our notion of control across the board. It was shocking to come face to face with how many things could go wrong, and how little we can do about it. For most of the world for most of the year, acceptance was the only path available. This is difficult for people. Even those with the financial and political power in our society found themselves at the mercy of many things that they could not do anything about.
They had more control than we did, but things like COVID and social unrest are not in anybody’s pocket. It’s important to acknowledge this so that we can put our attention where it matters, and so that we can cultivate acceptance for the things we cannot control.
3: Nothing is as Stable as it Seems
If you had told me four years ago that a reality show host would be our president and would be tasked with leading us through the most challenging time in modern memory, I would have called you crazy.
If you had told me a year ago that things like Q-Anon, Flat Earth, and microchips in vaccines were going to be mainstream beliefs for a large number of people, I would have called you crazy.
If someone had predicted the amount of division and animosity between members of our society, including friends and family members, I would have had a hard time believing it, but all of these things have come to pass and now seem to be fixtures of our day-to-day lives.
We, especially here in the United States, take social and economic stability for granted. We live in one of the most prosperous countries with one of the longest times of peace (in our own country) in the history of the world. It may actually be the most prosperous and the longest streak of peace ever.
So far, we’ve always had peaceful transitions of power, and despite a long history of structural racism and the slow creep toward a police state, these things were under the surface and easy to ignore if we chose to. 2020 threw that out the window, and we had to come to terms with how volatile things are, and I think that many of us now have an awareness of how easily they can become much more volatile.
We need to keep this in mind – thinking that everything will return to normal is a bad idea. I’m not saying we should become doomsday preppers. I’m not saying it’s time to start arming ourselves and living in bunkers. But, we do need to be aware that the social system that we have taken for granted to the point of seeing it as an aspect of nature is fragile. This has to be obvious by now.
#4 Our Individualism has Become Pathological
I like to think I have a pretty rational view of humans. I don’t think they are evil, but I think we are all capable of evil things when the chips are down. I don’t idealize people, but I don’t vilify them either. People are people are people.
I’ve always struggled with the “rugged individualism” that America makes such a big deal about, but 2020 was the year where I found myself consistently and pervasively disappointed in the pathological individualism I saw in our society. Something as simple as wearing a mask in public became a life-or-death issue for many people, even though it could potentially save the lives of the people who are more vulnerable than us. How was this the hill we decided to die on?
The panic buying of essential products at the supermarket, comparing masks to the Holocaust, and our eventual attitude of being tired of being in a pandemic and going back to our day-to-day lives was baffling and disheartening.
Let me be clear: I’m not one of the people who things we could shut down entirely and have the government take care of us. Everything the government gives you is something the government can eventually take away, and this always becomes a tool of oppression.
That being said, there is a huge difference between the people who had to go to work to survive or to keep society functioning and the hordes of people going to bars, restaurants, and parties because they did not see themselves as being at risk of contracting Covid.
Talking to people from other countries is highlighted this to me, and they expressed shock at the callous and foolish behavior of their American counterparts. It was sad to see just how little we were willing to do for other people in our society, and this is an unsustainable way of behaving.
#5 Reality Doesn’t Care About Ideology
You can see the last point as a political statement, but I don’t think it is, and this highlights the last thing I’ll talk about here: it is strange that we have decided that the concepts, abstractions, and ideologies that we have created as humans transcend the laws of the natural world that we all live in.
It no longer seems like a stretch of the imagination to picture a group of people who decide that the sun, by disproportionality burning those with a fair complexion, is oppressive. In response, they refuse to wear sunscreen. Maybe they even decide to start going everywhere naked, just to exercise their right to behave like everyone else. The results are predictable, and a matter of cause and effect.
I remember seeing this kind of philosophy in action when I worked at a university. I watched one of my students walk out in front of one of the campus buses. Luckily, the driver was alert and slammed on the brakes. When I gave the student a hard time about it later, she told me that she “had the right of way.” That is the rule, but there are probably a lot of dead people who had the right of way.
There is a way the universe works, and human ideologies and philosophies and concepts are subservient to this. It doesn’t matter if you think that masks are an infringement on your rights – the coronavirus can be an infringement on your “right” to be alive (or someone else’s).
It does not matter if you are gathered in a group to celebrate Biden’s win, to exercise your right to sing Christmas songs in a crowded church, or to “own the libs” by doing a Trump Train conga line around a ballroom. Gravity impacts our body depending on our weight, the sun shines on everyone, and COVID-19 is an equal opportunity infector. It does not care what you believe about it.
Nature supersedes human ideas and beliefs, no matter how deeply attached to them we might be or how “right” they feel. Living in a world of ideas is a good way to get hit by a bus.
These lessons are not new or profound, but 2020 has highlighted them in unusual ways. I hope the year has not been crippling for you, your family, your friends, your community, or for us as a society, and I have a lot of hope looking forward to 2021.
This is a topic I have spent a lot of time talking to people about over the past few years. I used to work as a counselor at a small private university. Having difficult conversations with difficult people would come up every year as the holidays approached, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. The college students struggled with going home to parents and talking about the things that different generations seem to have conflict over – politics, social issues, religion, and things like that.
I am writing this in 2020. Over the past four years, I have noticed that this conversation has expanded beyond the holidays to be a year-round concern for people. It has moved beyond our close family members to include coworkers, bosses, friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even that annoying person behind you in line at Walmart.
Difficult People in a Difficult Society
We have become increasingly divided as a society.
This can be attributed to several things.
The prime culprits seems to be the weaponization of social media, the echo chamber we are all able to live in by cultivating what information we receive, the ability we have to find people who agree with us all the time through different online groups and forums, and, a president who has been especially adept at using this division to further his own agenda.
I am uncomfortable laying the blame on Donald Trump like that, but I do not see a way around it. This is not a matter of Republicans or Democrats or conservatives or liberals, but an aspect of the character of the man himself. He has taken trolling to a new level. He tosses ideas out for public consumption regardless of whether or not they are true. When confronted, he throws his hands up, saying he was just thinking out loud. His most rabid and aggressive supporters have picked up on this kind of behavior and it has spread throughout our society.
Those opposed to Donald Trump play a significant role as well. I recently joined a new social media site that claims to be more about deep thinking and compassion than places like Facebook and Instagram, but I saw the exact same memes, tweets, and unsourced broadsides that I saw everywhere else. They just had a left-leaning agenda. As a society, our entire political discourse has devolved into us driving by and mooning each other out the car window, thinking that we have scored intellectual points in the process.
All of this together has made knowing how to have conversations with difficult people much more necessary. This blog post was born from asking people who followed me what would be most useful for me to write about. The question of how to handle difficult people in difficult situations was an overwhelming number one.
Where We are Headed
Our purpose here is to explore ways to make living in such divisive times more manageable in a general sense, while also exploring concrete tactics to deal with people who do not have any respect for the things we believe.
To begin, we will work to make sure we are not part of the problem by cultivating insight into the things that we do that might make difficult situations worse. After this, we will try understand why people do the things they do and why they behave the way they behave, and we will talk about establishing boundaries to help protect ourselves and the people we love from the most toxic people. To wrap things up, we will look at what it means to walk away from a relationship with someone who has no respect for us or our boundaries.
Dealing with Difficult People: A Disclaimer
I should start with a few statements that establish my overall beliefs about other people. You may or may not agree with them, and that is okay.
We need to choose relationship over being right. That being said, we should not necessarily maintain relationship with everybody in our life. This includes family members and people we have been friends with since we were very young.
Unqualified compassion is a necessary component of life. However, compassion does not mean that we do not have boundaries or that we let people run over us. Compassion and weakness are not the same thing.
Having your feelings hurt is not a significant offense against you, but someone who continually hurts your feelings and shows no real remorse for it should not be in your life.
We have to clean up our side of the street before looking at anyone else’s.
It is essential that we have conversations with people who believe very different things than us.
More than anything, we are all in this together and about 99% of us have more in common than we have to fight about.
Lastly, and this is very important, you can understand where someone is coming from and still not agree with them. There’s this strange thing going on in the cultural narrative right now where we label anybody who disagrees with us as baseless and insane. This makes conversation impossible, and that means that things are only going to get worse for all of us.
Everyone is Doing Their Best with What they Have. Even Difficult People.
There’s another bizarre idea floating around in our heads right now. It is the idea that there are people out there who are knowingly and intentionally doing the wrong thing.
I first encountered this idea growing up in the Christian Church. I was told there was this evil figure, Satan, who hated everything and everyone and only wanted to sow misery and sadness and death and destruction in the world. Even as a child, this didn’t make sense because I did not understand what he was getting out of this. Did it bring him joy to make people unhappy?
This confusion solidified my first year in college when I took a philosophy of religion course. We discussed the idea of a perfect god versus a perfect devil. The idea of a perfect God makes sense because, being the good guy, God could do good for the mere sake of doing good.
The problem with the idea of a perfect devil is that for Satan to do these bad things, he must enjoy them, which means he’s not perfectly evil because he is doing something to bring joy to the world, if only for himself. The idea that someone does evil for the sake of evil doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when we are talking about humans.
One of my core beliefs is that everyone is doing the best they can with the tools they have available to them. As humans, I do not think we can do something without a motivating factor, and that motivating factor must be one we see as beneficial to us. It may be skewed or disordered, but it makes sense to the person.
This is important because if we think we are dealing with irrational, insane people, there is no way we will ever be able to have a conversation with them. Conversations with people who believe differently than us are critical if we are ever going to grow as people and get out of this mess. Look for the reasons someone believes what they believe.
Everyone’s Beliefs Make Sense to Them
If an idea does not make sense to someone, they will not believe it. This doesn’t mean that what they believe is right or true, only that it makes sense to them according to the life they live and the things they see around them. This is especially problematic in our current situation where we don’t have a news media as much as we have talking heads with an agenda posing as news anchors.
There’s the added complication of social media and its debilitating effect on our cultural narrative. We no longer value expertise or objectivity but instead give credibility to something because it is clever or because it made us laugh.
When you think of things like character limits or an image-based presentation such as that of Instagram, we see a situation where people say very little of substance, but present it as the truth. Even worse is the fact that we can cultivate our feeds and the news we consume to only give us things we agree with, so we are getting shallow little bites of things that do not even challenge the pre-existing ideas that make sense to us. Understand that we are all oppressed by this system.
The Exploitation of Difficult People
It may be useful to substitute the word “scared” for “difficult”. On both sides of the political spectrum, the people I see being the most outrageous, aggressive, and obtuse seem to be very scared.
On the right, you have people who fear government tyranny through gun control, socialism, and the slow wearing away of values and ideals that they believe have served us very well for centuries.
On the left, you have people who fear government tyranny through militias, fascism, and the slow wearing away of social and political freedoms that they believe have steered us very well for centuries.
These people are very vocal about these fears, but they couch them in anger and sarcasm because fear is a vulnerable feeling, and we don’t like to express it. There are plenty of people in our public consciousness who are exploiting these fears and making scared people turn into difficult people.
Because of the echo chamber we’ve created, these people feel validated in their beliefs and are becoming more scared and, therefore, more difficult. It is an unfortunate trend, and I am not sure it will end anytime soon because it has worked out very well for the people who have taken advantage of it.
Why All the Sympathy for the Difficult People?
Here’s my deal: I don’t have a desire to see people get owned or humiliated. I don’t want to see one side lose. I know it might feel good for a moment, but it’s not helpful in any real way.
This isn’t necessarily out of altruism. We are all on the same bus, and we all die if it goes off a cliff. It is crucial that we take the time to understand where other people are coming from to have better conversations with them and help steer them in a more productive direction.
Anger and defensiveness are pretty much automatic conversation enders, but if we can get down to the things that a person fears, we might be able to actually help them, and enough of this can change the society we are living in.
The cool thing about fear Is that it cannot be present unless there is also something they love very much: maybe they love freedom, maybe they love their family, maybe they love their job, maybe they love this country, maybe they love the LGBTQIA community, maybe they love animals, or they love the planet. It is good to love things, but love can flip over to fear very quickly, especially when a charismatic, influential person tells them the things they love are under threat.
Everyone is suffering, and people express this suffering in different ways. It is hard to express suffering constructively in the first place, but it is even harder when you have a thousand different kinds of media working together to turn the suffering into anger and divisiveness.
Cut people some slack. Their response might surprise you.
Insight: Are You One of the Difficult People?
I look for one thing when somebody shows up in my office looking to improve their life: insight, or the ability to look at themselves, their beliefs, and their own behavior with some degree of objectivity. The degree to which this is present is the degree to which they have the capacity to change. We cannot change without the presence of insight.
We must examine where our own opinions come from and take a minute to look at how attached to them we are. One of the uncomfortable truths of life is that our opinions are much more subjective than we think they are. We all like to believe that our opinions are based on fact and long bouts of sifting and sorting through information to arrive at what we believe.
When it comes down to it though, we tend to favor the things that are familiar to us. In fact, hearing a particular perspective tends to shift our opinion towards that perspective. This is why we love such shitty songs. We hear them over and over on the radio, they become familiar and seem like they must be good because everyone must love them enough for them to be on the radio.
Ask yourself why you believe what you believe. What made you choose your position out of the many thousands of positions available on just about every topic?
Ask yourself what it would take to change your opinion on something. If the answer is nothing, then you might be as dogmatic and rigid as the people who are driving you crazy.
Cognitive Biases and Difficult People
I did a short series on Instagram about cognitive biases because we all have them, and they influence the way that we see the world. For instance, the Dunning Kruger effect tends to make the least capable people very confident in the things that they do, while the IKEA effect makes us love things we have created more than we would if somebody else had built them for us.
One of the more dangerous cognitive biases is called Fundamental Attribution. We tend to see other people’s poor behavior and poor choices as evidence of their flawed character while giving ourselves context for our bad behavior.
For instance, you see another customer snap at the kid who’s ringing up their groceries. You assume they’re an asshole, forgetting that you did the exact same thing last week but decided to cut yourself some slack because you didn’t sleep well the night before.
Cognitive biases are not harmful in and of themselves. If you think about the amount of information the brain is expected to take in and process every second, it makes sense that it is going to use some shortcuts to save time and energy. They only become a problem when we allow them to sway our judgment on things too often, or we treat other people poorly because of them.
Cognitive biases steer us toward trusting people who look like us or who think like us. If we have been successful or life has been good to us, we tend think that the status quo is automatically good.
None of these things make you a bad person. These are just things that we all need to recognize about ourselves, especially when dealing with difficult people. It is helpful to remember that they are laboring under the same kind of cognitive biases we are. It is hard to blame somebody for something that they don’t even know is there.
Difficult People, Difficult Emotions
It is strange to me, but this next idea is often unpopular with people: while you are not responsible for the emotions someone else triggers, you are responsible for every single thing that happens after the initial arising.
Let’s break this down.
This isn’t about kids being so soft these days or millennials being snowflakes or anything like that. Everyone is a snowflake about something, we just tell ourselves that our thing really matters and is worth getting bent out of shape over.
Taking responsibility for your emotions is the path to freedom. The most challenging people we deal with have recognized that if you can knock somebody off their emotional center, you have control of them. This is why abusive and manipulative people resort to harsh language and disrespect so quickly. It gives them control of the situation.
It is not any fun to feel anxious or afraid or angry or defensive, and we need to understand that once those things are present in a conversation, that conversation is going off the rails. When they are present in the other person, that person is going off the rails, and we are about to get ourselves caught up in a very unpleasant situation.
Emotions don’t mean all that much in and of themselves though. If you think about it, emotions start off as a simple energy somewhere in the body – fear seems to manifest in the chest, anxiety in the stomach, things like that. When we can learn to allow them to remain as energy, they come and they go pretty quickly.
The problem arises when the mind takes that simple energy and frames it in a way as to turn it into an emotion. This gives the mind something to think about. It thinks about the activating event and keeps that emotion present. Emotions are like stray dogs; they only stick around if you feed them.
Learn to watch your inner response to things that are happening, and as much as possible, stay out of the way of the energy when it arises. This will take one of the primary cards out of the hands of the trolls.
You Don’t Have to Deal with Difficult People
This might be the most frequent exercise I do with clients: I ask them to list the things they have to do. Most of the time, people list things like feed their kids, pay taxes, go to work – the basics of life in an industrialized society.
They start to walk these back to more and more fundamental things once I point out that they don’t have to do any of those things: we feed our kids because we love them or at least don’t want to deal with Child Protective Services. We pay our taxes because we don’t want to go to prison. We go to work so that we have the money to pay our bills.
All of these things are choices. They may be coerced, but they are still choices. If I were to walk outside today and somebody puts a gun to my head and says “your wallet or your life,” I still have a choice in that situation.
This is important because we often feel that we have to do things that we are choosing to do, including maintaining relationships with the difficult people. There is literally nobody on the planet that you have to have a relationship with. Even if you are a prisoner, you don’t have to have a relationship with the guard who tries to talk to you. You can just not respond and leave everything one-sided. That’s not a relationship; that’s someone talking to themselves.
This is important to remember because for every difficult person you deal with, there is a reason you are choosing to do so. When we don’t own this, we start to feel disempowered at best and sorry for ourselves at worst. There’s only one thing we all have to do, and that is die someday. Everything else in between is a choice, and that’s where our power lies.
Strategies for Difficult People
Let’s talk about boundaries. We have different boundaries with different people. Those closest to us, like our spouses, immediate family, and even super close friends, have a different set of boundaries than that one checker at the grocery store who we talk to every time we go shopping but aren’t even sure what their name is. This seems pretty obvious, but it is something that we often don’t put enough time and energy and intentionality into.
There are three types of boundaries: rigid, diffuse, and flexible. Rigid boundaries are like razor wire where nobody gets past. Diffuse boundaries are like a line spray-painted on the ground that anyone can step over. Flexible boundaries tend to adapt to the situation at hand. Flexible boundaries are the healthiest, and they are what we need to aim for.
The crucial thing with here is to understand that your boundaries are your boundaries. Nobody gets to set them for you. This is important for difficult people because one of the first things they will challenge are our boundaries. They will use guilt, manipulation, and appeal to all sorts of things, such as how long you’ve been friends or things they’ve done for you, to nullify and ignore your boundaries.
When we are conscious about our boundaries, when we set them intentionally, it makes it easier for us to stick to them because we have a reason for saying yes or no to people.
One of the simplest and most effective strategies when dealing with difficult people is to learn to say no and to do so without qualification and without explanation if need be. We are taught to feel guilty for saying no in our society, which leaves the door wide open for the difficult people. Often, they know that they can bear discomfort more easily than we can, so they’re willing to lean on the awkwardness of a situation to force our hand and get what they want.
One of the main mistakes I see people make in saying no is that they overexplain. The more words we use, the more we give the difficult person to twist and manipulate and turn around on us.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this post emerged from questions people had asked me about how to deal with difficult people during such tumultuous social and political times. When it comes to political discussions, saying no to people might look something like this:
I don’t want to talk about politics with you.
I value our relationship, and every time we talk about this subject it makes me like you less, and I don’t want that to happen.
Can we talk about something else? I don’t enjoy having this discussion with you.
I don’t agree with you, and I know you don’t agree with me, and I am OK with that.
I would rather not talk about this anymore.
As you can see, we don’t have to be unkind to be firm. One of the biggest mistakes many of us make is that we wait until we are angry to draw boundaries. When we try to do this, we are not operating out of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for all the best parts of being human, so there is almost no way that it will go well.
As I mentioned above, monitor your emotions. When you start to notice anger, fear, resentment, or defensiveness arise, step away by drawing boundaries. The longer you wait to do it, the longer you train the other person that it is OK to have this discussion with you.
When you wait until you are angry to draw boundaries, you are also giving the other person something to use against you. They will believe that you are just angry at the moment, and they will not take your boundary seriously.
Be kind, but be firm.
I would like you to picture a dartboard. In the center you have the bullseye, and then you have rings moving out from there. Look at your relationships like this. The bullseye is the people who are the closest to you, the people who would always be there for you, and you would always be there for them. This is usually your spouse, your children, maybe your parents, or a few very close friends.
As we move out, the relationships become less close and less familiar: close friends, friends, Coworkers, acquaintances, etc., until we get to the outer ring where the people we know but we don’t really know reside. Think of that clerk we mentioned. You may talk to them, they may know a little bit about your life, but they aren’t anyone who’s ever been in your house.
The final ring is actually off the target. I call this exile, but you can call it whatever you want.
This is reserved for the much more drastic violations of relationship where we have no contact with a person any longer. In general, there’s no way back from exile. If someone’s done something wrong enough to get themselves there, you need to think long and hard before allowing them back into your life.
We all instinctively understand that there are different levels of relationship with different boundaries with different people. Still, I don’t know that we consciously decide where people fall into this. For some reason, when it comes to friends, we don’t move them further out in the circles even when their behavior deserves it.
Now let me be clear: I am not saying that when someone makes a mistake they get bumped. I am saying that we need to reassess our closeness with people when they consistently disrespect us, disrespect our beliefs, or disrespect our boundaries. It’s bizarre that we don’t do this with friends. We do it with people we are dating, but when I mention breaking up with a friend, people look at me like I am crazy.
For some reason, we wait for a drastic event to make these changes. If your best friend slept with your wife, they would both get moved outward on the target, maybe even into exile. It is similar to waiting until we are angry to draw our boundaries; we aren’t using our best brain to do this.
Move people around the rings before things get drastic. It might give you a chance to preserve the relationship. When the cousin you’ve been close to or the friend you talked to two or three times a week recognizes that you’re putting up new boundaries with them, it allows them to address the behavior that caused it. If they choose not to address the behavior, then you know that you’ve moved them correctly.
Difficult People: Wrapping It All Up
We are always going to have difficult people in our lives. There’s nothing we can do about this, and I wonder if it will only worsen due to the nature of our society these days. Social media, biased news, and the ability to cultivate an echo chamber online are all toxic things, and they don’t seem like they’re going anywhere anytime soon.
We can understand where someone is coming from, we can have all the love and compassion in the world for why they believe what they believe, and still draw boundaries with them. Not only is this possible, but it is also important and necessary. Do your best to understand why people believe what they believe, but don’t let this discount the need for boundaries and clear expectations of how you want to be treated.
Be conscious about the role people play in your life, and how much of your time, energy, and mental space they are allowed to have. If someone is not honoring these things, it is time to reevaluate your relationship with them. Do this intentionally and with purpose.
You deserve to have loving, affirming relationships that challenge you to be better. You’re the only one that can make sure this happens in your life, don’t ignore the responsibility.
Let’s look at some of the things people tell
me they are looking for in a mindfulness practice:
Freedom from difficult emotions
Now let’s look at some of the most common
words and concepts associated with mindfulness when it is discussed by experts
You’ll notice a distinct difference here:
people are hoping mindfulness will make things different, but mindfulness seems
to be oriented toward allowing things to be as they are. This is probably the
most frequent complaint I get from people.
It’s odd, but the simplest thing we can do –
let things be they are – is probably also the most challenging thing we can do.
We have this amazing thing called a brain, and its whole job is to keep us
alive and fix problems and make sure we are getting the best deal possible.
This is awesome and perfect when we are lost in the woods or trying to find
food to eat, it’s less so when we are mad at our kids for leaving their room a
mess or wondering what to do about a douchebag boss.
Comparisons and the
Death of Joy
Comparisons are necessary.
Should I get the
minivan or a new truck? I need to backseat room, but I also need to haul things
back and forth from Home Depot.
Should I drink a coke
Do I take this new job
offer, or stay where I am?
Without the ability to compare, we would wind
up in trouble very quickly. The problem is that there is always something
to compare to, and it is rarely essential. Even worse, what we get is often out
of our hands.
Ugh, my internet is
down. I wanted to watch Netflix all day.
Ugh, it’s raining, I
wanted to go ride my bike.
Ugh, the Patriots are
going to the Super Bowl, and I like the Cowboys.
None of these things are really positive
or negative, they are as they are. This is true about all sorts of stuff, but
we filter everything through the lens of what we want and what we think is good
These comparisons can turn positive things
into negative things, neutral things into negative things, and negative things
Oh, but wait, I
thought everything was neutral, James.
In general, I believe this, but there will
always be some things that we don’t like, and others that we are wired to
dislike. This is biological. This also becomes dicey when we try to apply it to
other people – I do not think it is fair to put the idea of things as neutral
on everyone, especially if they are experiencing something we have not. That
being said, as a rule, everything someone experiences is different from what we
have experienced, because we all process things differently. So, putting our
way of doing things on others never works out.
Making the Worse the
Some things suck.
Think of things like pain, disappointment,
betrayal, heartbreak, and sickness.
None of us like these.
We are wired to dislike them, and we would
have to skew reality to see them as inherently positive.
But, there is a difference between the pain
they can cause us, and the suffering we cause ourselves.
We’ll walk through them:
My neck hurts all the time. This is painful.
But, it only causes me suffering when I complain about it, wish I had done
things differently, or fall into blame/resentment toward my doctors for not
offering perfect solutions.
I thought I was going to Dallas with my wife,
but plans changed. I had the initial “pain” of not getting what I thought I was
going to get but only turned to suffering when thoughts of how things “should”
be or questioning the circumstances, which were beyond my control, began to
Someone breaks up with us, cheats on us, or
leaves our life completely – this will always hurt, always cause us pain, and
we will never like it, but none of them have to cause us to suffer. If we can
accept the things that are beyond our control, we will not suffer as much. If
we can embrace them, suffering becomes even more difficult. If we can recognize
them as neutral, as things playing out as they play out, suffering becomes
something we have to try to do.
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati….Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.”
If we think about it, it’s kind of weird that
we have an opinion on any of this.
Think about it.
We come into this consciousness that we did
nothing to earn or create, and there is all sorts of stuff already here.
Our bodies are premade and have their ways of
doing things preprogrammed – they grow and need food and water and sleep and
heal from cuts all by themselves. We didn’t do anything for that.
Things like the weather and gravity and the
planets and nature are all already here, doing their thing, like they always
have, paying no mind to us, and needing nothing from us.
To make it even weirder, we don’t even walk
into all of this, but we emerge from it. Our bodies are made up of
materials from the environment around us, and who we are – this idea of me
– only emerges in relationship to other people.
We depend on and are created by all of this
stuff that was here way before us and will exist a long time after us and isn’t
dependent on us in any way, and yet we complain. We complain,
and we have this idea of how things are supposed to work, and
this supposed-to is based entirely on what we want and what we think is best
for us, and we expect the universe to get on board.
It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.
A Way Out
And this, right here, is the toughest thing in
the world, partly because it is so simple. We have this ego
that gives us the idea that everything revolves around us, and that leads us to
have strong opinions about a great number of things that we have no control
over. Further, we have opinions about things that are essentially neutral but
are inconvenient to us. This keeps us in opposition to reality, which is the
definition of suffering.
There is a way out, though. The same brain
that thinks us into this opposition can help think us out by training ourselves
to ask a few questions over and over, especially when we are distressed or
unhappy with something:
What am I judging
What am I comparing
What is intrinsically
negative or bad about this?
What would this
situation be like without my thoughts about it?
Is this bad or
Is this something that
actually has anything to do with me?
And so on – you’ll find your own relevant
questions emerging as you practice.