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Five Reasons to be Grateful for "Difficult" People in Your Life

by Christopher R. Edgar

Much has been written about the positive effects of being grateful. Learning to be thankful for the people who have enriched our lives, it's often said, empowers us to live joyfully and pursue our goals. For a long time, I agreed with this idea generally speaking, but I had trouble finding something to appreciate about the “difficult people” I’ve dealt with in the past. Whether they were colleagues at work I had disagreements with, intimate partners whose relationships with me ended badly, or someone else, I believed I’d be better off without having had some people in my life.

My attitude changed one day when I resolved to run down a list of people I've had stressful interactions with, and write something I could be grateful for about each person. Even when I was only a few names down the list, I started recognizing how much resentment I still harbored toward the people I named. Holding on to my anger at the “difficult people,” I realized, took real effort, and put physical strain on my body. As I found something to be grateful for about each person, I felt the pressure releasing little by little, and energy freeing up to fuel me in living my life.

Based on the gratitude work I’ve done for myself and with others, I want to offer a few examples of how difficult people contribute to our personal growth in ways that make them worth appreciating. As these examples illustrate, nearly everyone we’ve come across has added, at least subtly, to our personal development.

1. They help us reconcile with parts of ourselves we’ve avoided facing. Coming into conflict with people often forces us to draw on resources we’ve forgotten, and perhaps even refused to acknowledge, we have. In my old job as an attorney, for instance, I remember a few opposing lawyers whom I couldn’t stand dealing with. On the surface, I felt they were rude and overly aggressive, but my deeper problem with them was how often I had to say “no” when I interacted with them.

Before I got into law, I wasn’t very comfortable refusing people’s requests, and I felt tension in my body each time I needed to deny someone what they wanted—even if I was doing it as part of my job. As I continued forcing myself to say “no,” however, I became increasingly comfortable with it. I even came to realize there was a part of me that could say “no” without apology or explanation, and getting in touch with that part helped me set healthy boundaries in all areas of my life.

2. They remind us how much we’ve grown over time. Recalling a difficult interaction we had with someone can remind us how far our development has come today. For example, I used to harbor a grudge against a woman who ended her intimate relationship with me many years ago. I believed she did it in a demeaning way and I felt angry at her.

Today, however, when I think about the conversation where she broke up with me, I actually feel peaceful and empowered. I see how personally I took the things she said at the time, and how painfully afraid I was of living without her, and I know I wouldn’t react in those ways to the breakup if it happened today. I’m a stronger and more self-sufficient person now, and although I enjoy intimate relationships I don’t need them to feel like a complete human being.

3. They help us admire ourselves for overcoming obstacles. Difficult people present challenges we must face, and when we deal with those challenges effectively we gain self-respect. I had a professor in college, for instance, who was known to be particularly harsh in his grading. I probably spent more nights studying into the early morning for his tests than I did for the other courses I took combined. I defied my own expectations by acing the class.

Today, I fondly look back on this man’s course, and my dealings with him, as examples of how tough and persistent I can be. I’m grateful to him for giving me more reasons to respect and admire myself.

4. They help us make important life decisions. People who, in our view, “give us a hard time” often help motivate us to change our circumstances in positive and fulfilling ways. For instance, I know a number of people who changed their careers, at least in part, because they got tired of dealing with what they saw as their overly demanding and critical superiors. They might not have the career satisfaction they have today if their old bosses hadn’t been as tough to deal with.

5. They help us see our opportunities to grow. Uncomfortable interactions with people can make us aware of places where we don’t fully love or accept ourselves, and where we could stand to develop more appreciation and compassion for who we are. One example stands out from a job I had when I was just out of college. A woman in the office, who seemed consistently stressed and angry, used to call me “what’s-your-name” when demanding I do things for her. I’d feel very distressed when she called me that, and I’d feel a constriction in my chest.

Years later, it occurred to me that I got so upset when she talked to me that way because I harbored an aching need to be appreciated by others. I started taking up practices to dissolve this need—to develop a sense of wholeness even without constant acknowledgment. The practices I found helpful in serving this goal included meditation, yoga and breathwork. I wouldn’t have the peace and focus I'm blessed with today if this woman—whose name I, ironically, don’t remember—hadn’t been there to show me where I didn’t fully accept myself and needed others’ approval to feel complete. Today, I can genuinely say I’m thankful she came into my life.

Author Bio

Christopher R. Edgar is a success coach certified in hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming. He helps professionals find and live their true callings in their careers and elsewhere. You can find out more about Chris and his writings at www.purposepowercoaching.com.

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