Many years ago, I had a spiritual teacher who deliberately surrounded himself with people who annoyed and upset him. Finding it more mystifying than mystical, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I just had to ask him, “Why are you putting yourself through this?”
He smiled a little then said, “I do it to heal my issues with that kind of behavior.”
He went on to explain that his choice was intentional. He knew he could choose only those who soothed him or admired him, or who always treated him with deference. However, his goal was learning not to take anyone’s actions personally. Instead, his intention was to witness the bad behavior of others with presence, neutrality and compassion.
“Well, that sounds very lofty,” I said, “but isn’t there a limit to what we should tolerate?”
He thought about it for a moment, then replied, “Yes, of course, but until you can truly know in your heart that their bad behavior isn’t about you, then you won’t be able to respond appropriately.”
He went on to explain: what we tend to do with behavior that triggers us is to go into our own collection of emotionally-charged issues and start projecting these onto the so-called perpetrator. We make up stories that explain the behavior, and start devising elaborate strategies to avoid a confrontation with whatever truth about ourselves we would prefer to leave unattended. Or we simply run from the discomfort of dealing with another person’s humanness.
No, I wouldn’t recommend my teacher’s approach. (Frankly, life has plenty of opportunities to learn from what triggers us!) However, I did embrace the principle that I could take advantage of being upset as a huge opportunity to work on myself. I couldn’t respond constructively until I had dealt with my own issues about the other’s behavior, and sifted out and discarded the conclusions and stories I had concocted about what was going on in that person’s mind.
This strategy may risk staying in a relationship too long or giving the other more leeway than warranted sometimes, but if it’s a relationship with someone whose closeness I value, I prefer to err on the side of caution and own my reactions and projections before taking action.
Bottom line, it really does “take two to tango,” and until you own your impact on the dynamic between you and the other person, you really do risk needlessly isolating yourself and blaming the other person for the “necessity” of your withdrawal.
I think this quote from my spirit guide, Grandfather White Elk, says it all:
“When you have unresolved issues, a teacher will come into your life to assist you in restoring to wholeness that place in your energy where you have given up your power. This teacher is an emotional trigger.”