Last week I introduced the start of a several-week reflection taken from a small booklet named “Acceptance” which offers a reflection on the “Serenity Prayer.” Last week I wrote about keeping a challenging life in perspective and keeping the focus in the present moment. This week, let’s look at dealing with difficult people.
A book that I have often recommended (unfortunately) is Elizabeth Brown’s Living Successfully with Screwed-Up People. As of 1999, over 200,000 copies had been sold. (I can’t imagine how many more have been purchased since then.)
Life can be cut down to a reasonable and manageable size. Life is only this place, this time, these people right here and now. This you can handle- at least today. It took Vincent Collins (the author of Acceptance) a long time to realize that at least some of his problems were of his own making. One area where he found himself constantly in trouble was thinking that is was his duty to try to solve other people’s problems, arbitrate their disputes, and show them how to live their lives. Collins writes:
I was hurt when they rejected my unsolicited advice. I finally learned that you cannot help people unless they really need help, are willing to be helped, want you to help them, and ask you to help them. Even then, you can only help them to help themselves.
In Living Successfully … Elizabeth Brown offers four steps to extricating yourself from difficult situations with difficult people:
- Ascertain the options
- Consider the costs (both of acting, and not acting, on this person’s behalf)
- Know your limits
- Own your choice
An old Arab, whose tent was pitched next to a company of whirling dervishes was asked, “What do you do about them whirling?” His answer: “I let them whirl!”
You cannot imagine how many people come and see me to talk about friends, families, work colleagues whom they know, whom they want to help but who are driving them crazy! I often say, “Look there is a difference between “pastoral’ and ’pathology.’ You need to recognize that difference. Also know that they are not going to change. They’re not in enough pain. When they are in enough pain, they’ll change their circumstances. In the meantime, you – can’t – help – them! And you certainly can’t change them.”
I caused myself a lot of unnecessary grief by trying to be unselfish, to think of everybody else first, myself last, and to try to please everybody. You can knock yourself out doing this and that and the other thing to please your cousins and your sisters and your aunts, and you find out that they are really not affected one way or the other.
Please everybody, nobody is pleased; please yourself, at least your pleased. Charity begins at home, and enlightened self-interest is a basic endowment of human nature. You can save yourself a lot of grief by admitting the futility of trying to please somebody who just can’t be pleased.
God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things that I can
and Wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.