When do our family interactions become toxic?
There’s an old meditation expression that says, “bring everything onto the path.” We tend to live our lives thinking that everything (and everyone) who upsets us is somehow out of place and that if we could only change the situation (i.e., get rid of them) then we would find peace of mind.
But looking at life in this way is a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, unhappiness. In fact, it may well be worth considering a different approach altogether.
Life is not how we think it should be, but rather how it is. As human beings, we experience the human condition, wrinkles and all. Living with others is part of that condition. Yes, sometimes we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by people we like, but at other times we have to live, work, or be with people we don’t like. [Editor’s Note: This is when I use the SOS pack.]
This is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, how could we possibly like everyone equally? Loving everyone equally is a different matter of course, as is respecting them, not wishing them harm, or perhaps even going so far as to wish them well. But liking them… sometimes it just doesn’t work out like that.
So, what do we do when we end up working with someone we don’t like? Well, rather than end up with our head down, wrapped up in feelings of resentment or hostility, it’s far more skillful (and pleasant) to bring it on to the path, to make use of the situation, to better understand what it is that pushes your buttons, what it is you resist in that other person and, more broadly, how to use an otherwise painful situation to train the mind in awareness and compassion.
Here are five ways to approach the situation—they are by no means mutually exclusive:
If we are training in mindfulness, then we are training in awareness. This requires us to take an active interest in that which we like (the things, places and people we may be attached to) and that which we dislike (the things, people and places we may have an aversion to). And it requires us to do this not only with genuine curiosity but with absolute honesty and zero censorship. This is not always easy, it might even be painful at times, but it is the one sure way to lasting peace of mind.
The result is that we discover points of resistance, perhaps a growing awareness of people we don’t like. This is an opportunity to understand what we resist in others, and perhaps what we resist in our own mind. We do not have to buy into the thoughts of dislike, but neither should we ignore them. Remain interested, observing these thoughts, knowing they are just thoughts, nothing more, without acting upon them or feeling the need to share them with everyone around you—especially the person in question.
The takeaway: if we are always running away from unpleasant feelings, then how will we ever understand that part of ourselves? We can only understand others if we understand ourselves; the only way of doing this is training in awareness.
Training the mind is an incredible journey of discovery, in which we realize that our perception of the people around us is defined not so much by their appearance, actions, or opinions, but rather by our own thoughts about those things. To be clear, this does not negate or excuse the ill-considered, disrespectful or harmful behavior of others, but does require us to reexamine how we react or respond to those things.
Remembering that our perception of another person is entirely subjective can help to take the heat out the situation. What we may bristle at, another may embrace; what we may sneer at, another may cherish; and what may cause us to despair, may cause another to laugh. As an idea, this is nothing but common sense, but as an experience, the realization that nobody is inherently and objectively likable or unlikable can be life changing.
The takeaway: when you experience that feeling of dislike or aversion, remind yourself that this is just your own version, your own story of this person. Instead of looking outward with an attitude of blame, look within and examine the reaction.
If we subscribe to this idea of using every situation in life to learn from, to bringing everything onto the path, then not liking someone provides the perfect opportunity to cultivate empathy. Whilst it tends to get in the way of our story of how annoying this person is, the truth is, more often than not, that person is not trying to be annoying. This person, like of all us, would no doubt prefer you to like them. But for whatever reason (and we never really know what’s going on in someone else’s private life) they are behaving in a way that has you thinking otherwise.
Take a moment to consider how it feels to be told or to think, that somebody else dislikes you. We know how that feels, when we let down the bravado, the defenses, it doesn’t feel good. Knowing this feeling helps us to connect with this other person in a different way. Sure, they may still drive us mad, but that’s not the point here; the point is to relate to how they might feel being on the end of so much dislike or resentment. The more we know ourselves, the more naturally this happens and, usually, the more our dislike tends to thaw or dissolve.
The takeaway: rather than putting so much energy into telling yourself why you dislike this person, remember how it feels to not be liked and notice how that changes the intensity of feeling, leaning away from blame and closer to empathy.
It may sound a little abstract at first, but have you ever really considered the dynamic of like and dislike? They do not exist as two independent entities, but rather as two sides of one coin. If we like one thing, then we will often dislike the opposite or something different, and vice versa. This may sound obvious, but the implications of fully realizing this are profound. Would we be willing to give up all that “like” in order to be free of “dislike”? Would we be willing to lose the people we like in our life to be free from those that we don’t like?
We cannot have one without the other—and this is OK. We cannot possibly like everything and everyone in equal measure. As humans we have preferences, not just with people, but with places, with hobbies, with food, with everything—and this is OK. It only becomes a problem or an issue when we create a story out of it, when we begin to spend vast amounts of time and energy telling ourselves why something, or someone, is so amazing or so terrible.
This inner dialogue not only gets in the way of us being present with life as it is but also prevents us from seeing this other person for who or what they really are—rather than simply a projection of our own inner dialogue.
The takeaway: take a moment to consider whether you would give up the person you like most in your life to be free from this person you dislike so much. Somehow it reduces the intensity of feeling and increases the degree of acceptance.
You may have already noticed, but it requires a lot of effort to maintain a constant state of dislike toward someone. In order to maintain that feeling we have to feed it with thoughts of what we don’t like, what they once did, or once said and so on. Of course, we may well experience feelings of dislike toward others as we travel through life, but we can also choose to let these thoughts and feelings go. And when we let go we not only free up precious real estate in our own mind, but we create the conditions for harmonious relationships in the world.
A big part of letting go is learning to take ourselves less seriously, living life a little more lightly. This is not always easy when we are busy with lots of commitments and feeling under pressure. In these situations, the mind likes stability—even if that means the stability of not liking someone. So it’s important to recognize when we are falling into the trap of getting stuck on a particular thought or train of thought about a person, one particular opinion or viewpoint. This does neither us nor the other person any favors at all and rarely feels good, so choose to let it go.
The takeaway: maintaining dislike takes effort, it fills our mind with unpleasant thoughts and creates disharmony in our relationships, whereas letting go allows us to live with a calm and spacious mind, at ease with the people and the world around us.