04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2015

Could Your Worst Enemy Be Your Best Teacher?

In my last post, Are You Sleeping Through Life?, I suggested that many of us, including myself, often move through the day in somewhat unconscious ways. Now clearly I don't mean unconscious in a clinical sense, but more as a reference to moving through the day with an insufficient level of awareness.

The lack of awareness to which I refer can be evidenced in a wide range of behavior, from driving while distracted, to losing focus while working on a project, to daydreaming during a meeting. Each of these is fairly common, and we usually get by relatively unscathed.

However, there's another layer to this that might be worth exploring: how aware are you of the gift you are being presented in the form of someone you just don't like or simply can't stand?

(While I used the term "enemy" in the title of this piece, I realize that not all of us actually consider ourselves to have enemies. If you happen to be one of those, you might consider substituting the notion of someone you have difficulty getting along with for the term "enemy.")

One of the major lessons I have learned in my own personal and spiritual development has been that other people can reflect to me aspects of myself that I need to address, or lessons that I need to learn.

Abraham Lincoln had a lot of great wisdom to impart, an example of which can be found in this quote attributed to him: "I do not like that man. I must get to know him better."

What a fabulous insight. What is it about another person that can stimulate such strong internal reactions that we would say we don't like the person, that they are upsetting to us, or that we just can't stand to be around them.

Sure, I know that some people can be difficult to be around, sometimes for no more reason that they are just, well, different. Someone once suggested that in the world of music, there are 12 major keys, and 12 minor keys, each of which has had a symphony or other major work written for it. However, if you were to put major and minor keys into the same phrasing, there would be considerable conflict and unpleasant sounds.

Perhaps it is so with each of us as humans. But what about those people we find irritating because of something more than style or personality?

While my memory will be faulty here and I surely did not take notes at the time, I recall attending a lecture by Bucky Fuller in San Francisco many years ago. Amongst many things he shared during his tenure on the planet, here are a couple that stand out for me:

Take the initiative. Go to work, and above all co-operate and don't hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us.

There are no 'good' or 'bad' people, no matter how offensive or eccentric to society they may seem. . . You and I didn't design people. God designed people. What I am trying to do is to discover why God included humans in Universe.

One of humanity's prime drives is to understand and be understood.

I don't recall which of these were central to this particular evening, but you get the drift. When he finished speaking, the audience was invited to engage in the dialogue via open microphones around the auditorium.

One gentleman took the mic and proceed to tell Buck that he was full of beans, didn't know what he was talking about, and had no basis for his point of view. Bucky paused for a moment, looked toward the speaker, and replied, "Thank you."

As Bucky turned toward another person, the gentleman raised his voice and repeated his denunciation of Bucky and his thoughts, a bit more firmly. Again Bucky paused, looked squarely at the speaker, and replied, "Thank you."

Once again, Bucky turned to another and, once again, the gentleman raised his voice, repeated his diatribe and offered quite a bit of angry energy to his comments, asking why he was being dismissed so summarily.

This time Bucky responded something like this: Did you not notice that I paused to consider what you had to say? I looked inside myself to see if some part of me was reacting to what you had said about me, particularly if some part of me were upset, prone to counterattack, or otherwise affected. I have found that when I am in that kind of reaction, there is typically something there for me to learn about myself, something for which I need to improve. In this instance, I found no reaction. Thus, you were simply sharing your opinion to which you are fully entitled and with which I have no argument. Therefore, "Thank you" seemed most appropriate.


Learning to see the reaction inside of myself as feedback about me, not feedback about the other person, has been a tremendously challenging yet uplifting experience in my life. Indeed, those who present the most difficulties to me are my teachers. I don't always embrace them as such, and yet they are gifts to my own growth and awareness.

Sometimes, the greatest challenge occurs when someone else accuses me of something, or points out a shortcoming of mine, and they are only 10 percent accurate. It's so easy inside to just dismiss that person or go on a counterattack. And, when I look more closely, there is an element of truth in the accusation of shortcoming.

Owning that accuracy, no matter how small, can be game changing in that it points out an area where further growth and development are needed.

This notion also applies when the only thing that seems to be going on is that I find myself irritated with the behavior of another person, with their attitude, or with their approach to another. Even if I'm not the object of the behavior, attitude or approach.

When I'm a bit more on the consciously aware side of life, I can take note of my reaction, and use the other person as a mirror - someone who is reflecting to me something about me that I don't care for in myself. In other words, when I find myself irritated or offended, it can be of great value to simply ask myself: "How am I like that? What about the other person's behavior do I see in myself? How am I limiting myself by persisting in my version of that behavior?"

Not the most pleasant awareness to be sure, but an important one. Especially if I want to learn to live my life in greater equanimity, in greater balance, and in greater peace.

Perhaps we could edit Lincoln's quote slightly, to read, I don't like that man. I must get to know myself better.

More on this theme to come. I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)