I’ll admit, a few times over the course of being a father, I’ve gotten upset with the kids. OK, if I’m being really honest, it has been more than a few times.
What did they do to upset me? Behaved badly, hurt one of the other kids, treated me disrespectfully, didn’t clean up their messes.
But something I learned from Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Everyday Zen, helped me respond with a bit less frustration: the other person is never the problem.
The kids aren’t the problem. They’re going to behave imperfectly. The problem is my Mind Movie, my ideal, that they should behave considerately and quietly, not make mistakes, never make messes. In other words, I somehow have an ideal that they won’t behave like human beings.
It’s the nature of dealing with other people that we all get frustrated and angry from time to time. We take offense at the other person’s actions. But the other person’s actions aren’t the problem — it’s our attachment to the ideal we have of how they should behave, which of course is unrealistic, and the real problem is the Childish Mind wanting so badly for that ideal to be true.
Isn’t the other person wrong?
It’s difficult to accept that the other person isn’t the problem, because it really does seem like the other person is wrong. But consider this: other people will act in less-than-ideal ways every day, often multiple times a day. This is the reality. If we get angry every time someone else behaves imperfectly, we will constantly be angry.
That’s not a prescription for happiness.
However, while we can’t control the other person’s actions, no matter how much we try … we can change our own reaction through a change in perspective.
Consider these two cases:
- Someone insults Sean’s mother. Sean is understandably insulted, as his mother is very dear to him, is a very good person, and doesn’t deserve to be insulted. Sean might say something, retaliate, or maybe he just gets angry and doesn’t talk to the person.
- Someone insults Jojo’s mother. Jojo hears the words, and takes them as a sign that the other person is suffering (the low-grade kind of suffering), which is normal. We all suffer at some level. Jojo feels compassion for this suffering being, and wants to help reduce the suffering. He expresses a kind wish, internally and then externally, for this person. Perhaps tells the person a joke, or gives him a hug. Jojo might even reach out to his mother, if she’s aware of this insult and has been hurt by it, and give her a hug.
Of course, Jojo seems to be an exceptional man, and perhaps we can’t all be that saintly. However, these cases illustrate that the same exact external circumstance (another person insulting a mother) can have different internal reactions, depending on how we view the external circumstance.
In the first case, Sean viewed the words as an attack on something he holds dear, and found it offensive because his mother doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment. That’s his ideal: that others should treat his mother with respect.
In the second case, what Jojo holds dear isn’t the issue — Jojo makes the suffering of the other person the main issue and focuses on what he can do to help.
The first case is how most of us react to the external offenses of life and leads to anger. The second allows the person to be more at peace.
This shows us that the problem isn’t the external circumstance, which we can’t control — the problem is holding tightly to our ideal of how people should behave, which we can control. We cannot stop others from being rude — but we can loosen our grip on our ideals.
If we can react in a calmer, more peaceful manner, we will be happier. We will then act in a more compassionate way, smile, and perhaps the other person will be transformed just a little bit by this act of compassion.
But what if people you rely on are careless or irresponsible? Aren’t they the problem, then? Sure, the other person is careless or irresponsible. This is reality — there will always be irresponsible people. You can’t change that.
And so the question is, how will you deal with it? You can rage and get mad at them … or you can let go of expectations, breathe, and respond appropriately within this reality.
Responding appropriately can mean a lot of different things: talking to them calmly about the situation, taking the opportunity to teach them a better method, acting with compassion, letting go of trying to control the person and focusing on your own business, setting up a system that works even if people are careless. We might also figure out a way not to rely on careless people, while still including them and caring about them. We can also love and accept them as they are.
What’s missing from all of the appropriate responses is anger and frustration, which only make the situation worse. Inappropriate responses are caused by anger. We always respond better when we remove the anger, and respond calmly.
There’s a Zen story that I’ve found useful:
Picture yourself in a rowboat, rowing across a smooth, foggy lake. Out of the mist comes another rowboat, and the person rowing that boat rows his boat so that it bumps right into yours. “Why didn’t he watch where he was going?” you ask yourself in frustration. Anger arises in you at this inconsiderate action.
Now picture the same scene, except this time the other rowboat is empty. The boat comes floating out of the mist, without a pilot, and bumps into yours. This time, you simply steer your boat around the empty boat and move on.
The first time, you became angry because you believed the other person to be inconsiderate. But the second time, you dropped your story about how the other person should have acted, because there was no person in the boat. Without this story, you were free to simply respond to the event appropriately.
The second case shows us how we can respond appropriately once we drop our stories about how people should behave or how things should be.
Always act as if the rowboat is empty.
Don’t assume bad intentions. Just respond appropriately.
The method for frustrations with others
What can we do when we’re frustrated with someone? Let’s try our Zen Habits method.
Start with awareness — to change our reactions, we must first be aware when these reactions happen. You can’t change them if you’re in automatic mode. Be mindful of your feelings, and of your ideals that you’re holding onto that are causing these feelings. What do you expect of the other person? Does your Childish Mind not want to let go of those expectations? See how this is true.
Next, loosen up your attachment to the ideal you have for the other person and how they should act. Turn instead to see the person as they are in reality — see their suffering, their weaknesses, their imperfections, but also their love, their greatness, their strengths, their kindnesses. We are all — including you and me — a wide range of ever-changing qualities. Not perfect, not even all good, but a mixture of various characteristics, a mixture that is always changing.
Now, embrace the changing and wide-ranging nature of people, including yourself and this person in front of you. Appreciate the person in front of you, good and bad, and find gratitude for having this person in your life.
Also, imagine yourself when you’re suffering — have you ever behaved badly, or in a way that others didn’t like? How did that feel? Did your frustrations ever come out in the wrong way? Imagine yourself suffering, and wish yourself happiness. Now do the same for the other person, who is also suffering in some way. See their suffering, wish them happiness.
Finally, vow to spend the time you have with this person in love, kindness, compassion, even when they’re suffering and acting badly.
How do you cope with relationship problems?
First, apply the same method to yourself when a problem with a relationship comes up — whether that’s with a significant other, your kids, friends, other family, co-workers. This relationship problem is a life change, and as such you need to cope with it by seeing the ideal and the Childish Mind that wants the ideal (to have a great relationship, or to have the other person be a certain way) and loosening your attachment to this ideal, mindfully seeing the relationship as it is and finding things about it to appreciate and be grateful for.
Next, you can apply the method to the other person, as in the section above, seeing their good and bad qualities and finding gratitude for them, seeing their suffering and wishing them happiness.
Once you come to a place of peace about your relationship and the other person, you can now respond appropriately. How? There are many ways, including:
- Being compassionate with them.
- Talking to them (without blame) about what you’re going through.
- Talking openly but without blame about the problem in communication and trying to resolve it so that you’re both happy.
- Admitting to your contribution to the problem.
- Helping them feel accepted and not attacked.
- Swallowing your pride and admitting you’re wrong.
- Giving them a hug.
- Writing them a letter, if talking becomes too hard.
- Fixing the mistake, apologizing, mending the relationship, figuring out what went wrong and how we can prevent the mistake in the future.
- Doing our best to help.
Those are just some ideas, of course. There are endless possibilities, but you can see that these are all reasonable, calm, peaceful actions that are appropriate to the situation.
Once you find a place of peace, the appropriate response becomes much easier to find. If you’re having trouble, imagine a friend is in a similar situation, that it’s not happening to you, and try to think of what advice you’d give him or her in that situation. This allows you to get a little distance between you and the situation, so you can see it a little dispassionately.
Dealing with relationship problems and frustrations with others can be a struggle, because we can’t control how the other person sees us, understands the situation, or behaves. When things aren’t going well, it can drastically affect our happiness. But with practice, and not a small amount of breathing, you can get better at letting go of your story about the other person and responding to the situation with calmness and peace.