How can Compassion and Humanism help us deal with difficult people?
I like to joke that I’m a Humanist, which means, I only really like people in the abstract. Real people tend to annoy me. I don’t suffer fools gladly. Yet, dealing with difficult people is an important life skill. How can Humanism help?
For me, I try to remind myself that not only is this difficult person human, but so am I. My emotional frustration is a normal response to being … frustrated. However, once I recognize that, I am able to consider the other person and my own response compassionately. And yes, this does take some practice and it is not automatic, as much as I would like it to be.
When I consider my frustrated response compassionately, I don’t get mad at myself for failing to be the wonderful compassionate person I strive to be. I’m human. It’s ok that I am frustrated. What matters isn’t the emotion I feel in the moment, but how I respond to it.
This thought allows me to then consider the person who is frustrating me compassionately. They are human too. Like me, they are just trying to get through life. Perhaps they can’t help being annoying. Maybe they have a hidden disability I don’t know about. Maybe they have been through something emotionally traumatic and their ability to behave in an ideal way is limited right now.
In practice, I can never really know why other people fail to live up to my ideal for how I wish other people would behave, but that’s the point isn’t it. The problem isn’t that other people are flawed. All of us are flawed. It’s a fact of life. Other people won’t always live up to my ideal of who I wish them to be. Given that I don’t live up to my own ideal most of the time, why should I expect others to be perfect on my behalf? Shouldn’t I cut them a little slack?
As soon as I realize that the real problem is with me and my perception and desire about how I wish/want other people to behave so that my life will be easier (admitting to myself that I just treated their needs are irrelevant), I can let that go and remind myself not to be so selfish. The other person’s needs are just as important as mine and if they need to behave however they are behaving to get through life, who am I to tell them it’s not ok? For instance, the sound of gum chewing is incredibly annoying to me. However, I have a son with sensory processing issues and he needs to chew to reduce stress. Gum chewing is actually one of the least annoying or destructive chewing options available. I now feel super guilty for all the times I was frustrated when people were chewing gum around me. Some of them were probably doing so for very good reasons. If I had known, perhaps I would have been more compassionate, more accepting and less frustrated.
What I have learned and what my Humanism teaches me is that I not only don’t need other people to behave according to my ideal, it would be rude of me to impose my behavioral expectations on anyone aside from myself. I can’t walk in their shoes. I can only walk in mine. And the more I accept that other people are on their own journeys and have their own struggles, the less I find them annoying, and the more I am able to behave in accordance with my own compassionate ideals.
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