I have this fantasy where Pema Chodron and I go hangout for an afternoon at Peet’s. She is wearing her brown and gold and saffron Tibetan Buddhist robes, and perhaps she’s having jasmine tea while I’m sipping my small single-shot soy latte with no foam, and we’re just chatting about life. Then she says something that just gets straight to the core of everything, such as “The people who irritate us inevitably blow our cover,” and I reach up to high-five her across the table and say, “Pema! Good god! Yes. YES! That is so. right. on!”
This is not unlike how I respond when a friend says something that excites me in real life (it has been observed that I have some, um, exuberant tendencies), but of course, the weirdness is in imagining high-fives with a famous Tibetan Buddhist priest….at Peet’s.
I don’t want salves. I don’t want pithy mantras. I don’t want the thing that makes it okay in the moment.
I want truth. I crave truth. I’m hungry for truth. I don’t even care how ugly it looks–there is something inherently beautiful about looking straight at the ugliness of an unwanted thought. Transparency is terrifying, and at the same time staggeringly beautiful; a relief.
Yes. Someone just told the truth. Yes. Thank you.
The Truth About the People Who Irritate Us
The truth is that I’m a Life Coach, and I support others in radical transformation. I hold space for my clients like a fucking rockstar; I’m high on life after each session. I’m not afraid of bearing witness to pain; I’m also an enthusiastic supporter of full-on lived-out-loud joy. That’s all true.
That said, there’s another parallel track of truth running alongside that train: people who irritate me blow my cover. I can go into “don’t wanna” mode: I don’t wanna hold space for them. I don’t wanna have compassion for them. I don’t wanna support them.
I imagine that some version of that is true for you as well.
It’s even more nuanced than that, though–on a deeper level, we actually want to hold space and be compassionate and be supportive people, but when we’re feeling irritated or frustrated, we’re in pain.
It’s hard to want to do something for someone who is playing a part in our experience of pain.
So, that becomes the difficulty. The people who don’t irritate me get the full on panoply of my support and enthusiasm. The people who do irritate me see me acting closed off, guard-up, judgmental. I can only imagine what some family members and former friends think when they see this website, talking about love and compassion and integrity and courage when their experience of me has been anything but. I share that in the interests of transparency.
The people who irritate us blow our cover. This is good.
Good? Yes. You’re a smart duck, so I bet you already see what I’m leading up to: When I say “the people who irritate me see me acting closed off, guard-up, judgmental,” that’s a choice. We choose our responses to life, to people. Sometimes, when we’re experiencing pain, we choose to shut off and shut down.
In those moments when we shut down and close off around those people, we are operating from a Story of fear (“I can’t let my guard down around this person”) or another form of fear, retaliation (“Why should I be nice to her if she’s not nice to me?”).
The Story doesn’t matter so much. What matters is noticing that we’re operating on default, and that this response to irritation does not actually do anything–it does not even make us feel good.
So basically, anytime someone irritates us, this is an opportunity–the jig is up. All of our hideouts are exposed. We are confronted with pain, and now we gotta deal with it. If you are like me, at first you sigh and think, “Shit.” If you are like me, you also want something bigger and bolder than a life lived on default fear responses.
They’re Doing It, Too
That person irritating you? They’re thinking the same things about you. They’re irritated by you, too. Really, we’re not so very different than that which we’re disliking. When we run a Story, we identify our Ego with that Ego. Then it becomes a double-Ego sandwich that only results in pain.
Who’s going to stop the cycle? Why not you? What’s the Ego vs. Ego thing getting you?
It’s not masochism to be non-resistant to the irritations of life so that you can do the work of sitting with them and accepting them.
It is masochism to keep replaying the old tapes of how that person is and why they irritate us and how we’re so right while they’re so clueless and wrong.
The Difference Between Truth & Abuse
I said that I’m hungry for truth, and that I don’t care how ugly it is.
I’m not hungry for abuse.
Sometimes there are people who will say, “I’m just telling the truth!” after they deliver a searing indictment of your character.
I’m not suggesting that you start taking that in and thinking, “Why, yes, they’re just telling the truth and I’m this way and that way…”
In those cases, they’re not telling “the truth.” They’re telling you about themselves. They’re blowing the cover on their own Story about their experience of their own pain.
This is an interesting thing to listen for. When we separate the content enough so that it’s not personal, there’s an interesting gateway for compassion. When we see where someone else is stuck, it’s easier to be willing to work together.
You can usually tell whether or not someone is delivering truth or abuse by how you feel, energetically, in response to the statement.
When my partner, Andy, locks eyes with me in the midst of an argument and says, “I think you’re playing small, right now,” a feeling goes through my body, and that feeling, largely indescribable, “just knows” that he has delivered some truth. In that moment, I know that I am playing small. He is not telling me that to make me feel like an asshole. He’s asking me to play a bigger game.
It’s uncomfortable to sit with. I don’t like it. I want to be perfect and always play the bigger game of perfect partnership.
He’s blowing my cover. But it’s the truth.
If someone shares something with you and you primarily feel insulted, there’s a very good chance that what they’ve shared, while it might have an element of truth to be parsed out, is rooted in their pain. You have no business taking on their pain as your own.
At first, it might be hard to tell the difference. That’s why noticing becomes the first step. Taking something in, breathing with it, asking yourself about everything from the thoughts that play in your head to the sensations moving through your physical body.
There’s this radical thing that we can do to parse it out–take a moment. Breathe. Stop the conversation until we’ve had some time to think, to question, to ask ourselves what exactly it is that we’re feeling.
We were given these amazing bodies, capable of feeling so many sensations. How about using them?
Take in truth. When you read, see, hear, feel truth, you’ll feel as if someone has just extended you a helping hand to pull you out of a sticky situation. When you’re sitting with abuse, you’ll feel as if someone has just edged you closer to a cliff and is refusing to let you get onto firmer ground unless you agree with their point of view.
Either way, we get to choose. I re-dedicate myself all of the time to the tools of courage, reframing and redefining fear, examining my Stories, forgiveness, and perhaps most importantly, practicing gentleness with myself when–sigh–I went into an interaction with every intention of showing up with love, and then I fell back on defaults.
Every time we decide to choose and choose again, we’re doing our work.