Much has been said about the positive effects gratitude creates in our lives. Learning to be thankful for what we have today, and the learning experiences we’ve had in the past, empowers us with optimism and joy that help us pursue our goals.
For a long time, I agreed with this idea generally speaking, but I had trouble finding something to be grateful for 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, strangers who made comments I saw as insulting, 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 sit down at the computer, run down a list of difficult people from my past, and find something about each person I could be thankful for. The results were quick and profound. 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 pursuing my calling.
I believe this happens because, when we take the view that we’d have been better off without someone in our lives, we engage our minds in a hopeless conflict with reality. Holding onto anger at someone causes our minds to endlessly rehash our interactions with them in the impossible hope that, by ruminating on what happened in the past, we can change it for the better. We constantly relive the moment when we felt the other person disrespected us, with the goal—conscious or otherwise—of “fixing” the past. When we see that the person actually gave us something to be grateful for, and that in some way we’re better off today because they came into our lives, we end our mental war with them and make peace with the past.
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 worthy of our appreciation. As these examples illustrate, nearly everyone we’ve come across has contributed, in at least a subtle way, to our growth. We don’t have to approve of everything they did and said, but acknowledging at least some gift they gave us with their presence contributes much to our own inner peace.
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, that we have. In my old job as an attorney, for instance, I remember a few opposing lawyers whom I couldn’t stand dealing with. 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 to set healthy boundaries in my relationships.
2. They remind us how much we’ve grown over time. Recalling a difficult interaction we had with someone a long time ago 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, 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.
The memory of my last conversation with her serves as a progress report showing how much I’ve matured since then. I’m grateful to her because, if she’d never been in my life, I wouldn’t have such a clear indicator today of how far I’ve come.
3. They help us admire ourselves for overcoming obstacles. Difficult people help improve our ability to handle challenges, 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 helping me 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 experience a burning sensation in my chest and upper back.
A few years later, as I reflected on this memory, it occurred to me that I got so upset when she talked to me that way because I had such an aching need to be acknowledged by others. I needed people to constantly tell me I was important and praise my accomplishments, and thus when this woman treated me like I was nobody I felt terribly anxious.
When I had this realization, I started taking up practices to dissolve this need—to develop a sense of wholeness even without constant acknowledgment from others. I wouldn’t have the peace I have 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. And I can genuinely say I’m thankful she came into my life.