Difficult Relationships

5 Nov 2018 9:44 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

by Tim Burnett

Dear Friends,

I was recently speaking to a friend about a very difficult relationship she was having with a colleague at work, and it made me think about the many difficult relationships I've had at work. I bet you can think of quite a few too! I thought it might be helpful to reflect on how mindfulness training can help. 

Starting with acceptance

Are there expectations that the situation should be different from the way it is? While it's helpful to have hope for change and to look for ways to improve the situation, in mindfulness we find that change doesn't work well unless we start with a deep base of acceptance. Can you fully accept the difficult situation and the person involved just as they are? This may require you to feel some challenging feelings and to acknowledge a strong aversion to the other person or experience very difficult emotions in your own heart.

Remember the definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally? Can you apply this simple, elegant, and often not-so-easy, practice to this difficult work relationship. Can you just attend to how it actually is in the moment when you encounter this person without adding judgments about how it should or shouldn't be?

We start there: accepting that what's happening is what's happening.

What am I adding?

A helpful next step is to consider the qualities and habits of mind that are emerging around the situation. I like to ask myself, "what am I adding?" Are you adding a narrative about how this person should or shouldn't be? Are you adding ideas about how much more wisely and intelligently (or cleverly!) you should respond to this person? Are you adding a strong opinion about how the organization you work within should have been handling the situation? Are you adding an emotional tone like fear or anger about this person's presence in your life?

While it's natural for our minds to attempt to place every situation in a narrative and emotional framework to help us deal with it, there are often elements to this process that do not serve us well. When mindfulness arises along with these mental and emotional additions they have much less power over us. 

A helpful practice to meet this "piling on" aspect of the mind is the practice of labelling. You can do this practice both formally in sitting meditation and also in the middle of the night when you wake up upset about the situation. Try meeting that complex of thoughts and emotions with a simple label like "ruminating about so-and-so" or "fearful thoughts" or "planning" to see if you can acknowledge your thoughts but not get lost in them. Then it is also so helpful to come back to the breath and the body. Remember that the breathing doesn't worry about Monday morning at work. It just breathes.

Every moment of resting with awareness in the sensations of the inhale and the exhale is a moment of peace from these "piling on" patterns. This doesn't make the patterns "go away" but it can bring more ease and perspective.

Seek support, wisely.

We live in such a go-it-alone culture! And yet as social animals we're designed to need support from others. Whom can you talk to about the situation that will help you bring a wise perspective to it? A warning, however – watch out for friends or co-workers who end up just reinforcing the complaining side of your mind. 

'm thinking here of a beneficial stress response called "Tend and Befriend" - a response that leads you to seek support for being in a difficult situation. Can you really feel and receive that support? To be okay with the reality that as a person under stress you need love and kindness from others you trust? Be mindful that the whole conversation isn't just about problem solving. True, some new approaches to the problem may emerge from the other person's perspective, but let the bulk of the conversation be about your needs as a person.

Common Humanity & Self-Compassion

It's also very helpful to remember how universal it is for humans to have trouble getting along. You might practice with the phrase "just like me..." during a mindful pause before going into work or during formal practice. Say to yourself something like,  "Just like me, many people have difficult relationships at work." Phrase it more specifically and in a way that fits your situation. And really feel into this. You are not alone. Of the billions of people on the planet there are surely a whole lot of them are experiencing a very, very similar situation. This wise internal support you can offer yourself is called a contemplation of "common humanity." Contemplating common humanity is a key part of the practice of self-compassion, along with mindful awareness and inviting yourself to be kinder to yourself.

Trust your resources - in the moment.

Somehow we have the false idea that endlessly thinking, rehearsing, and ruminating about a difficult relationship or problem will make us wiser and smarter and better prepared for action. But after a reasonable amount of intention setting and planning has been done, we quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. Or worse, further rehearsing and ruminating just wears us down internally. And all for naught since the actual reality of the next encounter with this person almost certainly won't match the future we'd been imagining.

See if you can coach yourself to trust your resources instead. Remind yourself that you're a competent and intelligent person. Sure you have your limitations, but who doesn't? Remember that you don't know what's going to happen next – which could be an intimidating thought. Or, you could see it as an open and exciting thought: everything changes and you don't know what will happen next. The practice of mindfulness, especially regular formal practice, supports the emergence of more trust that whatever  happens we'll do our best to meet it and that this doing our best will be just that - our best. This is enough. Logically of course that's inherently true! How can we do better than our best? Trust that you'll meet the new situation as best you can and that this is enough.

It's not easy, but is it really as hard as you think it is

The mind has a powerful way of amplifying difficulty. See if you can meet the difficult situation with a "just" attitude. Without trivializing or avoiding the difficulty maybe you can reminder yourself that it's just a difficult situation. It's just work. And it's possible to put it down and step away from the situation when you go home, or even while at work, and in a moment that situation is not the present anymore. In fact, if you look carefully at your moment by moment reality I, bet the difficult feelings around the relationship are actually there most of the time! When they come they are powerful, and difficult, but in other moments there are other feelings and thoughts present in the mind and that particular difficulty, in that moment, ceases to exist.

I'll close with a story from Buddhism that you might appreciate. While written in ancient China and in a Buddhist framework I think it speaks wisely to these situations!

Layman Pang was sitting in his thatched cottage one day with his family studying the sutras. "Difficult, difficult, difficult," he suddenly exclaimed, "like try to store ten bushels of sesame seed in the top of a tree."

"Easy, easy, easy," his wife, Laywoman Pang, answered. "It's like touching your feet to the floor when you get out of bed."

"Neither difficult not easy," said their daughter Lingzhao. "It's like the teachings of the ancestors shining on the hundred grass tips."

I don't know if you've ever had to store ten bushels of sesame seed in the top of a tree, but we sure do have to do some challenging things at work, and in life. Difficult, difficult, difficult to be sure. And yet is there also an element to this life that is easy, easy, easy? Or is the true reality neither difficult nor easy? Life unfolds as it does. We do our best. Moment to moment to moment.


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