Unveiling :: Coping with difficult people

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When we have people in our lives we find difficult, the veil metaphor can help us relate to them more skillfully.

First, we acknowledge that we have thoughts and emotions about that person that affect the way we see them. We recognize how these thoughts and emotions weave a veil about the person that is knotted with memories of things they did or said. Our emotional reactions, judgments, and opinions about them make those entangled threads thicker and pricklier. When we think of that person, we get entangled in those painful threads. If the threads of thought are tightly knotted into a compact mass, we trust in the solidity of our beliefs. So solid is our evidence, we don’t even think the compact mass is woven with opinions but is a hard rock of indisputable facts. Why wouldn’t we trust in the truth of our experience that this rock is solid and perhaps insurmountable?

But a relationship is not a rock. It’s often complicated, sometimes so much so that we can’t see the person through the dense knotted veil we have woven about them. Maybe we steer clear of them and that’s fine. Why hang around with people we don’t enjoy? But if a workplace or social gathering puts us in their proximity, it helps to recognize the veil-nature of our thoughts about our ‘difficult person.’ 

Without realizing it, we might activate the very unskillfulness in them we dread. They sense the way we see them and feel trapped in the tangle of our opinions about them. In their desperate attempts to disentangle, to be seen, respected, accepted, and perhaps even loved, they may react unskillfully, caught up in the very pattern of unskillfulness we dread.

Then, if they say or do something that confirms our judgments, we may react disproportionately, confronting the whole mass of knotted thoughts rather than the person standing before us. Thus triggered, we might use unskillful words like the classic accusation of “you always…” that activate further defensiveness in them, leading to arguments, hurt feelings, or worse. 

If we’re upset with someone, we’re not likely to let go of our veil of them, with its list of grievances and justifications for how we feel. We may think it’s on them to change, not us. But understanding that a veil is a dense weight to carry, especially one we perceive as rock-solid, we might realize it would be beneficial to lighten our load. But how?

As with any reset of intention, we pause, take a breath, notice physical sensation, and release any tension that has accumulated. We might remind ourselves that we have nothing to prove, nothing to defend, and no reason to fight with this person, even if we disagree with them on many subjects. Especially since we would be entangled in a knot of ideas we have about them, not having a direct experience with the person standing before us.

If we know we are going to be around someone we find difficult, it would be beneficial to recognize in advance that our veils are ours to explore, investigate, loosen, reweave, and let go of. We are always at a personal point of power with choices about how to deal with whatever arises. We always have the option to let our attention chase down the threads of one veil or another, tightening the knots of misery or outrage, and perhaps follow-up with entangling in knots of regret and self-loathing. Or, we can let go of the veils and bring our attention back to this moment where we are able to connect with our wisest intention to actively cultivate spacious awareness, compassion, patience, and generosity. Only with these qualities can we soften and drop our tangled veils and see what’s right in front of us: life loving itself into being in all its variety, including our ‘difficult person.’

As these beneficial qualities grow within us, we find they improve our lives and relationships. But old habits of mind are challenging to break if we are not aware they exist. It takes wise effort to notice the nature of our thinking, and the many habituated threads in the various veils we have about ourselves, people, and the world. 

It takes wise effort to take the time to loosen the knots in our veils. But how exactly do we go about it?

One way is to revisit the veil when we are feeling calm and compassionate, perhaps after meditation. When we think of a difficult person, we can purposely highlight memories of the kind or generous things they may have said or done. These threads may be very faint and thin, but highlighting them lets them strengthen. 

We can also use wise effort and loving intention to see how entangled they are in veils. Think of their struggles, the identity veils they have woven about themselves, and their veils about the world. If we can visualize them as physically entangled in veils, we may see how their unskillfulness comes from that binding and blinding entanglement of suffering. Such noticing will likely bring more balance to the veil we have about that person, and may loosen the knots and allow us to see through the veil we have woven and look at the person with fresh eyes. Maybe we still don’t feel inclined to spend a lot of time with them, but we are able to see them as living beings worthy of respect and kindness.

If seeing their entanglement is insufficient for the task of softening and releasing our veil about them, we can imagine them as the small child or baby they once were, perhaps held in their mother’s arms. and see if that helps to cultivate compassion.

It also helps to remember that the difficult person doesn’t have the benefit of realizing that they are, metaphorically, looking at life through veils full of perhaps painful thoughts and emotions. Without the benefit of any meditation or awareness practices, and certainly without the veil metaphor, they weave a thought landscape of fearful ideas and images and take it to be a solid reality. 

We know what it feels like to be entangled in veils. We know what it feels like to feel threatened and afraid. Can we then cultivate compassion for our difficult person? Can we see how they might imagine they are under attack at every turn? Can we understand why they feel that they need to be right, to prove themselves, to defend themselves against the dangers they feel are all around them?

I think we can. And I know from the many instances my students have shared with me over the years of the power of metta, infinite lovingkindness, to heal relationships with their ‘difficult people’. But bringing in this extra added perception of seeing them entangled, and knowing how that feels, makes the compassion even more authentic and powerful.

We are all in this life together. We are all misunderstood at times. And we misread each other’s intentions. Finding a way to see through or even beyond the veils to the living being in need and deserving of compassion is skillful.

“Uh oh, am I the difficult person?”
If you find people in general difficult, then consider that you are probably entangled in a bunch of veils that dim your view and activate negative behavior in others. We tend to discount the power we have to bring out the best or the worst in people. If your core assumption is that people are awful, you weave that expectation into every encounter, and even the kindest friendliest people find themselves feeling defensive and may become uncharacteristically unskillful in their words or actions.

So let’s examine one of the veils of someone who holds such a dim view of humanity and people in their lives in general: the negativity bias veil.

Negativity Bias Veil
We humans as a species have a negativity bias, meaning we tend to notice potentially threatening experiences first. Once we feel ‘safe’, we can turn our attention to positive experiences. So while driving, we’re on the lookout for any potential dangers, and only secondarily to any pleasant experiences along the way. Our negativity bias has its uses.

But some of us, for whatever reason, don’t ever feel safe and we stay in a defensive mode, seeing danger everywhere, seeing only what supports our belief that the world is a dangerous place, and other people are not trustworthy. Since we like to be right, we are drawn to news sources and social connections that confirm our dim view. This has always been the case, but now we can ignore our neighbors and family members whose views may differ and choose to hang out online with and get our news from those whose opinions reinforce and even exacerbate our own. So we shouldn’t be surprised that those threads of judgments and attitudes become thicker, tighter, and more knotted. The denser they become the more solid they seem, and they appear to be an indisputable reality. 

The antidote to such tight entanglement is to take a break from all that heavy-duty online engagement, make sure any news we get is rooted in facts, lessen our exposure to it if it is causing anxiety or depression, and cultivate spaciousness and compassion, and be willing to have civil conversations with people who have different views, finding common humanity.

When we feel tension in the body, we notice where our attention has gone. Is it chasing down threads of old thoughts and getting in tight tangles? Or are we cultivating the ability to look with fresh eyes at the world around us, including the many goodhearted people in our life? May they inspire us always.

I hope that using the veil metaphor helps to ease the tension at any future gathering! Please let me know by commenting below.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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