Dealing with Difficult People, Part 3: Becoming BIG

Sarah Pachter

As a single girl, I went to a class about marital harmony given by Rebbetzin Rachel Miller in Jerusalem. Single women are not typically invited to this class, but a friend and I asked if she would consider making an exception. To our delight, she agreed.

I’ll never forget what Rebbetzin Miller said during that class. Though it didn’t resonate with me at the time, I kept it in my back pocket and found that later in life, it had a major impact on my relationships. She said, “Ladies, if you want to have shalom bayit, you have to remember these words, and these words alone: Learn how to bear the discomfort of the moment.”

While the words were directed towards marital relationships, they can be applied more broadly.

Difficult people are difficult. They enrage, sadden, and shock us with their words and behavior. They make jabs and snarky comments that hurt us inside. But isn’t it possible to get through the moment and view it as precisely that – one small moment? A moment which will pass?

When we start to view it this way, each uncomfortable experience becomes more manageable. The hurt can sometimes feel like a huge wave of emotion, but it will eventually pass. This awareness provides us with the gift of serenity.

If we don’t bear the discomfort of the moment, it is our loss. Typically, when someone says something rude, the person moves on without a care or concern (sometimes even memory) about what occurred. Meanwhile, we’re left wallowing in our anger – but only if we allow ourselves to.

It is entirely possible to stay calm and allow for those hurtful moments to pass by, but what are our limits and boundaries? What if person X repeatedly hurts us, and a pattern of negative behavior has been established?

The following famous quote sums it up succinctly: “First time, shame on you. Second time, shame on me.” We can and must try to create boundaries in order to protect ourselves from hurtful words and actions. This is imperative to maintaining inner balance.

However, sometimes interaction with a difficult person is unavoidable. Maybe it’s our boss, a coworker, or a close relative. Family gatherings, vacations, and/or working with difficult people can certainly take its toll. Being in the difficult person’s orbit is at times unavoidable.

If this is the case, I offer the following story:

I once saw a student of mine who was previously overweight and had lost a significant amount. She was feeling energized and looking fantastic.

I said, “Wow, you look amazing! What have you been doing?”

She answered, “Yeah, I’ve been working out with this trainer. She’s really mean, but she’s the best in the city.”

“Tell me more!”

“Well,” she replied, “I was in the middle of a side plank, clearly struggling like crazy, and rather than the trainer telling me that I could stop if I needed to, she got in my face and yelled, ‘Nothing’s gonna change if you don’t get uncomfortable!’ So that’s it, I just kept getting uncomfortable, again and again…”

People spend an exorbitant amount of money on trainers, gym memberships, and workout equipment, in order to be healthy and in the best shape possible. We actually pay to experience such discomfort, because being uncomfortable changes you.

This can also be applied in the spiritual realm. We must strive to bear the discomfort of the moment. It’s not comfortable when someone says something obnoxious. Yet, if we can view the offender as our personal trainer, helping us to move through our emotional and mental discomfort, the experience has the power to transform us. This person is now giving us the gift of change and personal growth

That moment is precisely the segment of time that’s going to help make us grow. This leads me to the most important step in dealing with difficult people: We have to become big, as in being the “bigger person.”

We forgive, or move on, not because what they did was so small; rather, because we are so big.

When I was just five years old, I remember visiting my Aunt Laura’s house in North Carolina. She had a large home on approximately 200 acres of land. As a child, I would walk into the house, enchanted by how enormous it felt. Years later, as a teenager, I went back. When I walked inside, I looked up at the ceiling and realized that all along it was a typical two-story house. I realized then that I became big. It was only my perception as a small child that led me to believe it was bigger than it really was.

Each time we experience discomfort by someone else’s cruel words or behavior, we are given the opportunity to practice building our boundaries and setting our limits. Eventually, we become big enough that what bothered us originally no longer even feels uncomfortable. We got this!

But it is important to remember that nothing happens overnight.

Even Hashem didn’t create the world overnight. Wouldn’t it have been much more impressive if He created the world in one hour, one minute, or one second? BOOM, ZAP! Here is the world! That would have been truly impressive. If G-d can do anything, why did He create the world in several days?

He wanted to teach us the awesome lessons of process and of patience. G-d values the road to greatness, not just the outcome.

In our society, it’s hard to feel that a process matters, because we live in a result-oriented world. One can be the second-fastest runner in the world, losing by a millisecond. Yet, no one cares, and you don’t get the Olympic gold medal (or the endorsements for Kellogg’s or Nike). It’s irrelevant to the world that you just spent the last four years practicing and training for that moment. Society values results. Yet G-d values the process.

In my previous article, I mentioned that the key to getting along with others is finding common ground. One thing most people have in common is our struggle. I was giving a lecture once and said, “If only we knew the battle that the person sitting to our left is fighting each day, we would be absolutely humbled.” Every one of us has struggled with something, and that is what connects us all, and what makes us who we are.

The big decisions in life are actually made up of all the previous small decisions, those moments, that we barely gave credence to.

During World War II, Jewish people would knock on the door of a gentile stranger, begging to be hidden to save their lives. They were shivering in the cold, standing outside the door waiting for a response that would determine their fate. That gentile had moments to decide if he or she would let a stranger in. That decision wasn’t actually made in that moment, however. It was made years prior.

What do I mean?

Think about it. That huge decision was made by all of the tiny, positive decisions that person had made throughout his or her life; every time that gentile helped an elderly person cross a road, bore the discomfort of standing so a pregnant woman could sit, or smiled at a stranger. Small moments such as those flexed and built their spiritual muscles so that by the time the Jewish child came knocking on the door, it was hardly a decision at all. They had strengthened and enlarged their kindness trait so much that, of course, they would take a child in! They became the type of person who was big enough to open his or her home wholeheartedly – even in the face of fear.

When journalists interviewed these gentiles after the war, the big question was, “How did you summon that enormous strength to allow a stranger into your home, given the risk?”

These righteous gentiles looked baffled by the question and answered, “What do you mean? How could we not? Isn’t that obvious?”

The decision to perform that huge act of kindness wasn’t made in just a moment. The big decision was prefaced by the small decisions before it.

The small decisions are how we become big in life. Big enough to bear the discomfort of the moment. Big enough to deal with difficult people. Big enough to become uncomfortable and grow from it. Big enough to stand up to the oppressor and to stand up for the voiceless.  My blessing to us all is that we learn to bear the small so that we can become big.