I am having difficulty managing angry feelings toward one of my supervisors. He criticized me harshly during a presentation I was giving in front of a crowd. I know that it was meant to be personal. What made me even more angry than the slag was that I couldn’t fight back or defend myself in that moment. I felt powerless, and I had to swallow the anger that came up. I have been fuming over it for days. In my less angry moments, I absolutely recognize my role in this conflict and the attachments and distorted boundaries that I helped to build, which have led to this. I also know that what feels rooted, vital and expansive is if I were able to let go of these attachments, and with that, the anger and hurt. But my ego is still fuming, and I can’t “get over it”. I also feel some anxiety about having to work with him again, which I will have to do regularly. Help!
I think I need to re-build boundaries that were violated, but I feel so vulnerable right now. No doubt this kind of attack brings up feelings of being attacked by my mother when I was a child and feeling powerless and afraid. My question relates to handling these difficult feelings during circumstances that are less than ideal. Do you have suggestions or insight?
PART 1: THE POWER OF PATIENCE
Dealing with difficult people is a skill that takes practice. Encountering a person that pushes our buttons can feel like running headlong into a wall. We end up with wounds and bruises until we learn to slow down, see more clearly and make different choices. Once we slow down and choose differently, we begin to see that others’ hurtful choices have nothing to do with us. When we slow down and make different choices, we also open to the wisdom that arises as we care for ourselves. We get to know ourselves better as we nurse our long-standing wounds, that have been reopened inadvertently, back to health.
As we explore this week how to deal with difficult people, patience comes to my mind. Yet, when we hear the word “patience”, we may subconsciously think that it only applies to wimps. We are in a society that does not necessarily praise patience, but tends to cheer us on as we roar into battle. We have all heard the phrase “patience is a virtue”. It is a term that has stood the test of time. There must be a reason for such — perhaps, because it is true.
Patience requires particular skill and spiritual evolution. Often falsely associated with passivity and resignation, patience provides a quiet power that helps us avoid getting caught up in life’s dramas. It helps us see that behind the intensity of our experiences, there are eternal truths at play. It helps us to not take things so personally, and see more fully into what is really going on beyond our reactive ego.
Patience, however, is not easily cultivated and often grows through adversity. When we feel like life is a battering ram directed straight at our hearts and things are just not going our way, we are called to soften, surrender and cultivate patience. When we get all out of sorts because life throws us curve balls, we inevitably suffer. Our reactions add fuel to an already raging fire. Patience helps quell any excess heat and keeps our hearts warm and open, while our minds remain cool and calm. With this internal balance, we can meet the present moment more fully.
The dictionary defines the quality of being patient as “the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like; an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay: to have patience with a slow learner; quiet, steady perseverance; even-tempered care; diligence: to work with patience. It is also used to refer to the character trait of being steadfast.”
When we read “to have patience with a slow learner”, we may immediately think that the slow learner we are asked to have patience for is “that fool over there who hurt me”. It is true that patiences teaches us to see all beings as evolving, however rough, unsteady, prone to err and imperfect they may be. However, is it possible that the slow learning we are being asked to have patience for is also our own? Here we are again, faced with adversity and getting all bent out of shape. We know there is a more balanced way to live. We want to be free of suffering. We have come this far on our spiritual path. Too often, when we face adversity, we add insult to injury by criticizing ourselves for events over which we have no control. Not only have we felt criticized by another, we may criticize ourselves with thoughts like, “How could I have reacted again? When will I transcend these emotional reactions and live with greater steadiness?”
Though we may experience hurtful judgements and moods in others, the way we judge ourselves in reaction to them also hurts. If we truly loved ourselves and rested in a place of wholeness, the ups and downs of others moods would pass over us like changing weather patterns. But we are attached to what others think of us and to approval and praise we hope to receive. So criticism hurts doubly.
When we face adversity and in life in general, we need humility and patience for our own folly. We all tend to point fingers at “that person over there” who is behaving “so badly”. But we too have a tendency to act hurtfully. We know we can hurt someone, because likely we are masters at criticizing ourselves. Perhaps, as someone pours negativity towards us, we reactively pour it right back at them. We tend to treat others the way we treat ourselves. As we practice patience for our own humanity, the way we err, the way we hurt, the way we buy into others’ miseries and take them on as our own, we evolve and have greater patience and understanding of the very same in others.
Spiritual texts of all world religions praise patience. It is a quality we must learn as we evolve spiritually. Here are some quotes from the “big books” that may inspire:
“The patient man shows much good sense, but the quick-tempered man displays folly at its height.” (Proverbs 14:29, NAB)
“An ill-tempered man stirs up strife, but a patient man allays discord.” (Proverbs 15:18, NAB)
“A patient man is better than a warrior, and he who rules his temper, than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32).
“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:21-23, NIV)
“No one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but persons of the greatest good fortune.” (Quran, 41:35).
When we face a challenging person, our knee-jerk reaction may be to fight back. But this often gets us pulled into dramas and away from our centre. We find ourselves putting fuel on an existing fire of anger or hate by acting vengefully or impulsively. The need for fight and flight exists as a primal instinct that kept us out of harm’s way when we were in the jungle. But we no longer live in that jungle.
When we cultivate patience, we give ourselves the space to find the cool waters of wisdom-compassion. We see a much fuller picture of what is going on beyond our knee-jerk reactions when our buttons get pushed. Patience’s steadiness teaches us resilience when we face adversity. Patience shows us how to become quiet in the face of hardship and remain rooted in a bigger picture. From that point of view, we see that life is not happening “to me”, but perfectly teaching us how to grow into the compassionate beings we are meant to be.
(Continued tomorrow with “The Big Picture: It’s Not Personal“)