“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – C.G. Jung
There’s a lot of personal development writing about how it’s important to avoid “toxic people” and “energy vampires”—people who criticize us, make fun of us, tell us we can’t achieve our goals, and so on. I actually have the opposite view: that the “difficult people” in our lives offer us wonderful opportunities to grow as human beings.
My sense is that, whenever you find yourself getting annoyed, disturbed, or uncomfortable around someone, you’re always learning something about yourself. In a nutshell, what you’re becoming aware of is a part of yourself you aren’t fully comfortable with. When someone acts in a way you see as greedy, fearful, obnoxious, or something else, the discomfort you experience is actually your distaste for your own greed, fear or obnoxiousness. The other person’s behavior is simply reminding you of this unwanted part.
What’s more, simply having this awareness can do much to help you reconcile with parts of yourself you shunned before—and free up all the energy you were using to repress those parts, so it can fuel you as you pursue what you want.
My Own Example
I’ll tell you a story that illustrates this idea well. When I first started my own business, I had a friend who basically told me I was wasting my life, and that I had been brainwashed by self-help books I’d read about being an entrepreneur. When he said these things, I felt angry, and initially I reacted the way I think most of us would. I decided I was “justified” and “right” in feeling upset, and distanced myself from him to make sure he wouldn’t hold me back from reaching my goals.
However, around that time, I began reading Embracing Our Selves, by Hal and Sidra Stone. One of the many valuable observations the Stones make is that, when we feel distressed by someone in our lives, that’s probably because they embody a part of us we tend to “disown” or push away. On reading this, I realized the reason I felt so upset when my friend spoke pessimistically about my business was that there was actually part of me that felt the same way.
In starting my new venture, I’d been making a concerted effort to stay positive and directed, and never let doubt creep into my mind. Labeling my friend as “toxic” and pushing him out of my life was a natural outgrowth of this mindset. But by forcing myself to be perpetually upbeat and motivated, I was shoving aside a younger, less self-assured part of myself—a part that was scared that I would fail and that I was, in fact, wasting my life. And by pushing that part away, I was doing violence to who I really was.
Making Peace With Our Fearful Parts
For a moment, instead of keeping this scared child part at bay, I tried allowing it to voice its concerns. I acknowledged that, on some level, I was feeling fearful and pessimistic about my path, just like my friend. When I admitted to myself how I really felt, some tense areas in my body suddenly relaxed, and I felt refreshed. All the energy I’d been using to plaster a smile on my face and force away negativity was now freed up to help me achieve what I wanted, and I actually started feeling more excited and directed about my goals.
So, in an important sense, my friend’s pessimism was helpful to me. By voicing his doubts about my course in life, he alerted me to a place where I wasn’t completely okay with myself. I was repressing a childlike part of me that felt timid and unready, and straining against that part was actually physically tiring. But when I fully accepted that part and listened to what it had to say, I felt more powerful than ever before.
What I learned from this experience was that the greatest power to pursue our goals and succeed comes from wholeness—from our acceptance of every aspect of who we are. This may sound counterintuitive, because a lot of self-help literature advises us to simply tell our fearful inner voices to shut up, and avoid people who remind us of them. But if you try on the accepting mindset I’m talking about, and simply let those voices be without judgment, I think you’ll find it worthwhile.
- Growing Into Our Humanity, Part 3: The Myth of the “Ego-Free Project”
- Five Reasons To Be Grateful For “Difficult People” In Your Life
- Growing Into Our Humanity, Part 2: The Myth of the “Bulletproof Life”
- Interview With Tess Marshall, Author of “Flying By The Seat Of My Soul”
- “Authentic Marketing,” Part 2: On Actually Caring About People
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