Our Unlikely Teachers… Learn from Your Enemies

Photo credit: Piermarco

“Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love.”Mahatma Gandhi

I originally wrote this piece in 2012 for Underwired Magazine’s Frienenemy Issue, and decided to publish this now since there seems to be more disruption and deeper divisions in relationships than ever before.  In this blog, I have attempted to give you new tools, ideas and perspectives on how to handle difficult people, always for the sake of your own personal growth, expansion and evolvement.

I considered writing what it means to be a good friend, how to keep your friends or even how to handle it when people don’t like you or seem to be against you. But then I recalled the quote, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” and as it often happens for me, a message about self-discovery emerged. At first glance, one might think it is important to know your enemies so that you can stay a step ahead or be ready for the unknown or an attack. Yet it seems to me that this perspective comes out of fear, paranoia and distrust, and not faith, trust and certainty, which does not serve people. I believe there is something to learn from every experience and every person who comes into one’s path, especially those people who are more difficult— they can be our greatest teachers.

In researching the meaning and origin behind this quote, I discovered this statement was used from a fear-based strategic perspective on how to get ahead. “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer” has been attributed to many sources such as the Chinese General and Military Strategist Sun Tzu or even the from the popular 1974 movie, The Godfather Part II, in which Michael Corleone stated this as a lesson from his father Vito. The most likely source I could find points to NiccolòMachiavelli’s work, The Prince,which describes how to be a dictator.

In more modern times, I have observed people using this phrase to have the advantage in any situation and to remind themselves and others that they need to stay alert and protect themselves out of fear of being hurt, betrayed, left behind or kept in the dark. It seems to me that this is somewhat unproductive and can create much drama, wasted energy and lost time. So, what if you replace the energy of worrying about the negativity that might be ensuing from an unfriendly foe and instead look at the potential learning? What if you could take a difficult situation or a challenging relationship and consider what there is to garner from the experience. And what if the people who are most difficult in your life are showing you an area in which you can grow into a better person?

Keep your enemies close not to get ahead, but instead, to move forward by growing yourself. When difficulty arises, I suggest you turn towards your so-called enemies, or the people in your life who are difficult or hard to get along with, and make some observations. For instance, perhaps there is an opportunity to learn more about this person, their struggles and your lesson is to show kindness or compassion. Is this person showing you something within yourself that you might need to change? For example, maybe there is someone who is judgmental. If so, where in your life are you harsh, quick to judge or unfairly opinionated? And to take it one step further, is this person serving as a mirror for something you don’t like about yourself? For example, do you find yourself irritated by people who are lazy, selfish or rude? If so, maybe there is an area in your life where you are lazy, selfish, or rude— or perhaps they are serving as a reminder to be diligent, selfless and courteous.

Just to clarify, sometimes the lessons are not always about seeing your weaknesses, but rather there is a need to set boundaries with people who drain you, harm you or treat you poorly. There are people who are just downright mean, insecure and they do not play fair. Even then, the lesson is to say no, and realize that you deserve to have people in your life who treat you with respect. After all, we teach people how to treat us. Here are some additional thoughts on dealing with difficult people or situations.

9 Steps in Dealing with Difficult People or Circumstances:

  1. What is the situation?
  2. What is difficult, challenging or uneasy about this for me?
  3. What is their part?
  4. What is my part? How do I keep the focus on myself?
  5. Is this person showing me something I want to change about my behavior?
  6. What is my learning or lesson?
  7. Who do I want to be in this situation?
  8. What do I want to do about it? Do I need to make an amends, build a bridge, show kindness, confront, learn more, ask for help, set a boundary, ignore, or walk away?
  9. What’s next? How do I want to take respectful, loving and productive action?

On a final note, I believe our enemies not only give us the opportunity to learn our lessons, but also to grow our heart and soul through compassion. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Spiritual Leader Mahatma Ghandi said, “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.” By extending the gift of love, kindness and respect to the people who are most difficult to love, our own capacity to love deeply expands.  And finally, British novelist Phyllis Bottome wrote, “There are two ways of meeting difficulties: You alter the difficulties or you alter yourself to meet them.” Which do you choose for yourself?

Some Coaching Questions to Consider:

  1. What is your greatest life lesson at this moment?
  2. Is there currently someone or something in your life that exists to teach you something?
  3. What can you do with the negativity in your life in order to grow?
  4. Is there a boundary you need to set with someone who is unhealthy for you, and can you detach with love?
  5. Where can you extend more love, forgiveness and compassion to others in your life? (Don’t forget to include yourself.