Much has been said about the positive effects gratitude creates in our lives. Learning to be thankful for what we have today, and the learning experiences we’ve had in the past, empowers us with optimism and joy that help us pursue our goals.
For a long time, I agreed with this idea generally speaking, but I had trouble finding something to be grateful for about the “difficult” people I’ve dealt with in the past. Whether they were colleagues at work I had disagreements with, intimate partners whose relationships with me ended badly, strangers who made comments I saw as insulting, or someone else, I believed I’d be better off without having had some people in my life.
My attitude changed one day when I resolved to sit down at the computer, run down a list of difficult people from my past, and find something about each person I could be thankful for. The results were quick and profound. Even when I was only a few names down the list, I started recognizing how much resentment I still harbored toward the people I named. Holding on to my anger at the difficult people, I realized, took real effort, and put physical strain on my body. As I found something to be grateful for about each person, I felt the pressure releasing little by little, and energy freeing up to fuel me in pursuing my calling.
I believe this happens because, when we take the view that we’d have been better off without someone in our lives, we engage our minds in a hopeless conflict with reality. Holding onto anger at someone causes our minds to endlessly rehash our interactions with them in the impossible hope that, by ruminating on what happened in the past, we can change it for the better. We constantly relive the moment when we felt the other person disrespected us, with the goal—conscious or otherwise—of “fixing” the past. When we see that the person actually gave us something to be grateful for, and that in some way we’re better off today because they came into our lives, we end our mental war with them and make peace with the past.
Based on the gratitude work I’ve done for myself and with others, I want to offer a few examples of how difficult people contribute to our personal growth in ways that make them worthy of our appreciation. As these examples illustrate, nearly everyone we’ve come across has contributed, in at least a subtle way, to our growth. We don’t have to approve of everything they did and said, but acknowledging at least some gift they gave us with their presence contributes much to our own inner peace.
1. They help us reconcile with parts of ourselves we’ve avoided facing. Coming into conflict with people often forces us to draw on resources we’ve forgotten, and perhaps even refused to acknowledge, that we have. In my old job as an attorney, for instance, I remember a few opposing lawyers whom I couldn’t stand dealing with. I felt they were rude and overly aggressive, but my deeper problem with them was how often I had to say “no” when I interacted with them.
Before I got into law, I wasn’t very comfortable refusing people’s requests, and I felt tension in my body each time I needed to deny someone what they wanted—even if I was doing it as part of my job. As I continued forcing myself to say “no,” however, I became increasingly comfortable with it. I even came to realize there was a part of me that could say “no” without apology or explanation, and getting in touch with that part helped me to set healthy boundaries in my relationships.
2. They remind us how much we’ve grown over time. Recalling a difficult interaction we had with someone a long time ago can remind us how far our development has come today. For example, I used to harbor a grudge against a woman who ended her intimate relationship with me many years ago. I believed she did it in a demeaning way and I felt angry at her.
Today, however, when I think about the conversation where she broke up with me, I actually feel peaceful and empowered. I see how personally I took the things she said, and how painfully afraid I was of living without her, and I know I wouldn’t react in those ways to the breakup if it happened today. I’m a stronger and more self-sufficient person now, and although I enjoy intimate relationships I don’t need them to feel like a complete human being.
The memory of my last conversation with her serves as a progress report showing how much I’ve matured since then. I’m grateful to her because, if she’d never been in my life, I wouldn’t have such a clear indicator today of how far I’ve come.
3. They help us admire ourselves for overcoming obstacles. Difficult people help improve our ability to handle challenges, and when we deal with those challenges effectively we gain self-respect. I had a professor in college, for instance, who was known to be particularly harsh in his grading. I probably spent more nights studying into the early morning for his tests than I did for the other courses I took combined. I defied my own expectations by acing the class.
Today, I fondly look back on this man’s course, and my dealings with him, as examples of how tough and persistent I can be. I’m grateful to him for helping me respect and admire myself.
4. They help us make important life decisions. People who, in our view, “give us a hard time” often help motivate us to change our circumstances in positive and fulfilling ways. For instance, I know a number of people who changed their careers, at least in part, because they got tired of dealing with what they saw as their overly demanding and critical superiors. They might not have the career satisfaction they have today if their old bosses hadn’t been as tough to deal with.
5. They help us see our opportunities to grow. Uncomfortable interactions with people can make us aware of places where we don’t fully love or accept ourselves, and where we could stand to develop more appreciation and compassion for who we are. One example stands out from a job I had when I was just out of college. A woman in the office, who seemed consistently stressed and angry, used to call me “what’s-your-name” when demanding I do things for her. I’d feel very distressed when she called me that, and I’d experience a burning sensation in my chest and upper back.
A few years later, as I reflected on this memory, it occurred to me that I got so upset when she talked to me that way because I had such an aching need to be acknowledged by others. I needed people to constantly tell me I was important and praise my accomplishments, and thus when this woman treated me like I was nobody I felt terribly anxious.
When I had this realization, I started taking up practices to dissolve this need—to develop a sense of wholeness even without constant acknowledgment from others. I wouldn’t have the peace I have today if this woman—whose name I, ironically, don’t remember—hadn’t been there to show me where I didn’t fully accept myself and needed others’ approval to feel complete. And I can genuinely say I’m thankful she came into my life.
Recently, a friend told me she’d like to feel more optimistic. She would like to believe that the world is a fundamentally good place, and that, no matter how difficult her life may seem right now, things will work out all right in the end. But when she looks at the world, all she seems to see are unkind, angry and neglectful people, and financial, relationship and health-related crises waiting to happen. “How can I be an optimist in this world?” she asked me. “What do you think about all the time that makes you so positive?”
From the wording of her question, I could see why she was having trouble. She saw optimism as something one attains by thinking the right thoughts. Many people who hold this view use techniques like repeating “I am optimistic” to themselves to convince their unconscious minds that they are positive thinkers. I don’t see optimism that way—I view it as a physical state one enters by using one’s body. The positive thoughts my friend wanted naturally result from being in that physical state.
The state I’m talking about is one of awe and wonderment at the beauty and complexity of you, as a human being, and the world around you. Even something as seemingly unremarkable as a leaf is a webwork of elegant and dazzlingly intricate biological structures. In a state of awe at the world’s splendor, it’s impossible to see the world as a hostile, hurtful place. If you take the time to drink it in and fully appreciate it, the world really can’t be anything but benevolent and welcoming.
How do you use your body to get into this state? Observe yourself, and the outside world, attentively. Notice not only the extraordinary beauty and functionality of your body’s design on the outside, but the symphony of sensations you feel on the inside. In the outside world, look for details you may not have seen before. For instance, when I started trying to be more perceptive about my surroundings, I realized I’d never before noticed that I have a lovely view of some mountain peaks from where I live. There are almost certainly some features of the landscape around you that have escaped your awareness because your mind was on something else.
When I’m in this perceptive state, and I can’t help but wonder at the world’s intricate beauty, it’s impossible for me to think negative thoughts. When I think of something that usually annoys me, I find myself marveling at the fact that I exist and can experience emotions rather than stewing in my irritation. I can remain conscious of the fact that there are obstacles facing me in my life, but I focus on ways to overcome those obstacles instead of dwelling on how imposing or frustrating they seem.
By contrast, I get into a pessimistic state, and the world starts to look painful and uninviting, when I lose my sense of wonderment. This happens when I start taking the world for granted, as though I’ve seen it all and there’s nothing new to experience. “Oh, that’s just another leaf,” I think when I see a leaf. “I’ve got places to be and people to see. I don’t have time to gaze lovingly at dirt and shrubbery.”
Soon enough, I start mentally putting everything I perceive into a bland, lifeless category. “Oh, that’s just another sunset; just another project; just another evening with the same old friend.” Eventually, the whole world looks like the same old thing, and I feel chronically bored with every aspect of my life. And then I start wondering where all my optimism went!
Of course, when I suggested to my friend that she cultivate optimism by attentively observing the world, she said she couldn’t fit that into her schedule. She’s a busy, high-powered attorney, she told me, and she doesn’t have time for new-agey hippie pursuits. I pointed out, however, that she doesn’t need to spend a month living in a tent to have the experiences I’m talking about. She could simply go through her regular routine in a more perceptive state—for instance, while driving her car, she could notice more details of the landscape as it rolls by.
When my friend tried becoming more aware of her surroundings, she said she felt a little frightened at first. The complexity of the world seemed dizzying, and too much to take in. But eventually, her heightened awareness started to feel comfortable and empowering. And when she was in that state, she was unable to see the world as hostile and uninviting. Instead of feeling despair when she looked around, she felt curious and interested, and even her daily routine took on a new richness and aliveness. This didn’t happen because I logically convinced her, or because she convinced herself, that she should be optimistic—she entered that state naturally by being in awe of the world.
If, like my friend, you’d like to feel more optimistic but think you don’t know how, start by recognizing that you won’t get there by thinking. Coming up with reasons why you ought to be more positive won’t change your emotional state. Instead, try taking a closer look at yourself and the world, noticing the delightful details you hadn’t picked up on before. If you develop a genuine appreciation for the world’s beauty, optimism will follow close behind.
(This article appeared in the Happiness Carnival, located at http://posts.blogcarnival.com/page.php?p=142835.)