How to Deal With People Who Frustrate You
Deep down I knew better, but I couldn’t stop
opinionated Twitter acquaintance of mine had tweeted a snarky comment
that dismissed all forms of self-improvement as new age feel-good fluff.
It was such a sweeping, cynical remark that I felt I had to set him
So I hammered out a sharp rebuttal, and felt a little better, but there
was still uneasiness. He would surely come up with a counter-attack on
what I said, and it would go back and forth until one of us let the
other have the last word.
After a few minutes, I got the lesson he was trying to teach me: to let
go of my need to be right all the time. I deleted the tweet and he never
A few years ago I learned an ingenious method for dealing with other
people when they’re doing things you wish they wouldn’t do. It’s
adapted from a technique by the late author Richard Carlson. It’s easy
and works exceedingly well.
You go about your day as normal, but you imagine one difference:
is enlightened but you.
The impatient, tailgating driver behind you
The intern at work who drinks all the coffee and never puts on a
The friend who knows he owes you ten bucks but is waiting until
you ask him for it
The guy who keeps clicking his pen during the meeting
The “greeter” at Wal-Mart who tapes your bag shut every time
even though you’re a loyal customer who’s never stolen anything in
Whoever tagged your garage door last night
Your kind old Aunt Sally, who keeps on talking after you’ve
said you really need to get going
all the people in your world are completely enlightened and aware of
what they’re doing to you, and they’re doing it only to teach you
something valuable. Your task is to figure out what.
A true master won’t simply tell you what he thinks you should know.
He’s too wise to say, “Always be patient,” and expect that it will
make you a patient person. Instead, he’ll create a lesson that
challenges you. He will push a button of yours, and see if you know what
If you knew you were being tested on purpose, what would you do?
When your friend was supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago and is
nowhere to be seen, what is he trying to teach you? To be patient? To
avoid assumptions? Unconditional love, maybe.
This is a very empowering way to field whatever life tosses at
you. It works so well because your mentality changes from that of the
know-it-all, the teacher of proper behavior, to that of the
If you insist that you already know the sole cause of your frustration
to be that other person and their bad driving or selfish attitude, then
a) you’ll continue to be frustrated at the whim of others, and b) it
won’t turn out any better for you next time. To habitually regard
yourself, like many do, as the knower — the wiser one — in
each of these run-ins is to cling to an unenforceable
rule that states, “Other people must always behave in ways that
make sense to me and are sympathetic to my needs.”
By responding to the behavior of others with the mindset of a student
instead of a teacher, you develop a habit of self-inquiry that gradually
replaces the habit of condemning others for being less considerate or
less refined or less aware than you. You’ll learn to look for the
smart move instead of the first one comes to you, and you’ll be
building a mental toolkit that can handle just about anything.
The Most Powerful Skills of All
my enlightened Twitter-mate made his apparently cynical comment, he was
presenting me with a precious lesson. I immediately felt a powerful urge
to set him straight — a really strong need to make him understand
me. At first I took the bait, but after a few minutes I did grasp
what he was trying to teach me: Let others be “right.” Cease to
If you’re somewhat familiar with any spiritual teachings — from the
Bible to the Tao Te Ching to The Four Agreements — your new lesson may
trigger your memory of a quote or passage that illustrates it, and that
passage will then take on a deeper meaning for you. Cease to cherish
opinions. Let the baby have his bottle. Love your enemies. You
might already “know” them all, but perhaps you’ve never
consciously experienced each of them as a lesson in action. Well now you
can, and you have brilliant teachers everywhere you look.
The skills your enlightened masters teach are the most powerful and
widely-applicable skills you can learn: patience, self-questioning,
open-mindedness, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, letting go, and love.
If you make a habit of seeing everyone else as enlightened, you will be
strengthening each of these potent skills every single day.
Honing these skills will boost your quality of life more quickly than
anything else you can possibly do. They’ll create better outcomes at
every juncture. Each improvement compounds all the others, for the rest
of your life. If you can learn to deal painlessly with critical
colleagues after just a few pointed lessons, you are saving yourself
untold frustration over the next five, ten or fifty years. The return on
investment is astronomical.
Once you figure out what the current lesson is, it’s hard to stay
annoyed at its teacher, because you’ll know that only you can
drop the ball, by rejecting the lesson. Only you can make you
frustrated. And how could you stay angry at one of your enlightened
masters for administering such a brilliant lesson?
Only when you convince yourself that you know more than your teacher
can you fail to learn.
You’re Headed There Anyway
After a while, you’ll notice that the
lessons you encounter will cater to your weak areas with such uncanny
perfection, you may begin to suspect that your pathetic co-worker and
the perfume-soaked lady on the train really are enlightened. Each lesson
will offer you exactly what you need to overcome the trouble it causes
you, but only if you are looking for it.
This hints at a powerful idea, which has been suggested by Eckhart Tolle,
don Miguel Ruiz, and other spiritual teachers: no matter who you are, the
universe is conspiring to enlighten you.
Just as the stones in every fast moving stream will eventually become
smooth, rounded discs from years of friction and tiny collisions, it
seems we human beings are destined to outgrow our suffering simply
because we are constantly running afoul of it. Over time, we can’t
help but learn to get better at dealing with what ails us. So each time
we butt heads with life — whether it’s in the form of a belligerent
customer or a dishonest mechanic — we get a chance to learn something
of immeasurable importance.
For many people, this learning takes place only by accident. Over many
years, life’s inevitable bumps and bruises gradually clue them in on
what works and what doesn’t. It can take most of a lifetime to make a
noticeable difference in quality of life, because they don’t see
themselves as students. They just want to school everyone else. And
that’s an order much too tall for any lifetime.
If you graciously accept the role of student and open yourself up to the
wisdom of the enlightened individuals all around you, you’ll be miles
ahead of the curve, and your wisdom will be no accident.