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Got Difficult People in Your Life? Think of Them as Teachers

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Chid in classroom

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Ask yourself the question, “What are they trying to teach me?”

Just as our earth is a mix of terrain—from grassy hills and rivers to volcanoes and deserts—so is it filled with many types of individuals. While some people are as serene as an ancient forest, others are about as comfortable as a bed of rocks. What happens when one of these people plays a major role in our lives? Perhaps it’s a boss, parent, friend or sibling. How does one stay kind and forgiving and yet keep personal boundaries and a sense of dignity?

In his timeless book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, author Richard Carlson gives us a very helpful strategy for dealing with difficult people. In tip #11, he suggests imagining that everyone is enlightened except for you. In other words, we should think of life as a school with ongoing pop quizzes. The teachers are everywhere, acting out various scenarios to help push our growth.

Behind this simple strategy lies a profound spiritual truth. According to Carlson, you are essentially changing your perception from “Why are they doing this to me?” to “What are they trying to teach me?”

For example, let’s say that your mother-in-law randomly throws in personal jabs to make you feel like an inferior wife and not good enough to be with her son. Instead of taking these insults to heart, imagine her as being sent straight from the Universe as a real flesh-and-blood life lesson from which you can grow. This is your chance to really anchor yourself in the truth of who you know yourself to be, rather than allowing another person to convince you of false inferiority.

It is in the hard times, not the easy times, that our level of growth thus far is revealed. And only then can we recognize and strive for higher ground. Difficult circumstances—and difficult people—tend to reveal our innermost feelings rather than create them.

For instance, have you ever judged someone for a particular action when you ended up doing that same thing a few years later? Perhaps you had just never been in that situation before or had never experienced that level of temptation. That incident may have occurred in your life to reveal that you do have those same tendencies—they had just never been triggered.

When we are forced to interact with people who are hard to love, we are given the opportunity to grow exponentially. Employees who must deal with competitive and manipulative coworkers, for example, now have a golden opportunity to choose the honest path and to develop a deeper level of faith that everything will work out in the end. Parents of children with behavior problems are offered the opportunity to develop patience and deep unconditional love.

After all, if you were surrounded by easygoing and adoring people all day long, it would be harder to face (or even recognize) that hidden inner tendency you might have to look to others for approval. Or if everything was always working out for you, you might never have the opportunity to fix your short temper or pessimistic attitude.

So when difficult people are really getting to you, try to find a way to be grateful for the lesson. They are here to teach you more about yourself, to push you so that you may grow into the person you were always meant to be. And while it may be more comfortable to lie on a grassy hill by a lazy river, it is the act of conquering a long trail or hiking a towering mountain that we find our inner strength and experience true growth.


Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional freelance writer who specializes in psychology, science, health, and spiritual themes.  Some of her most recent work includes covering the latest research news in science and psychology, writing science chapter books for elementary students, and developing teacher resource books.  When she is not researching and writing, she is spending time with her family, reading anything and everything, and going to the beach as often as possible.


Book cover

Someone to Watch Over Me

A Spiritual Workbook for Children & Families

Someone to Watch Over Me is a sweet little gift for connecting with one's inner spirit, for giving voice to one's inner being, and for connecting one's essence with Guardian Protectors or Guides.  Simple and inviting enough for children, lucid enough for adults...a precious offering."

Edward Espe Brown, Zen Priest, Author of The Tassajara Bread Book et al

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