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Learn From Other People’s Extremes

Everyone has a different personality.

Like snowflakes, no two of us are exactly alike. Sometimes those differences show up as innocuous or insignificant variances in taste. At other times, however, our differences appear to be extremes. And by “extremes”, I mean “differences that are too counterintuitive for us to empathize with.”

These extremes are exactly what we’re referring to when we say things like “How could a person say something like that?” or “How could someone be comfortable living like that?” or “How in the world could he/she date someone like him/her?” This inability to make sense out of the tendencies and tastes of others isn’t just an academic issue of not being well-versed in psychology. It’s more often than not, the basis for most conflicts. The harder it is for us to imagine ourselves doing a particular thing, the harder it is for us to tolerate, forgive, or accept those who do those very things.

Extreme differences in personality don’t just show up as if they’re complimentary colors comprising a beautiful rainbow. They show up as perspectives and practices that easily appear to be rude or inconsiderate to others. Whenever we annoy or argue with one another, this simple fact is usually the reason.

Rather than experiencing our extremes as enlightening, or adventurous, or refreshing, we experience them as a primary source of conflict and frustration in our day to day lives.

Here’s an exercise that can help:

Practice the art of learning from other people’s extremes.

When people do say or do things that seem really far out or just flat out wrong, our natural instinct is to criticize them, get away from them, or try changing them. These instincts are useful for our survival, but they aren’t the only instincts we need. If all we knew how to do was condemn or protect ourselves from apparently threatening extremes, our creative potential would never be fully harnessed.

Some of the other most important instincts we need to feed are the instinct to learn, the instinct to play, and the instinct to pursue the novelty of facing fresh challenges. You can feed these instincts (and improve your relationships at the same time) by asking yourself a simple question everytime you feel angered or annoyed by another person’s extremes:

What is the most admirable quality evinced by this person’s extreme  behavior?

Maybe the person who constantly forgets things that you see as a matter of life and death is admirable in the sense of not being easily burdened by the expectations of others.

Maybe the person who complains incessantly and nitpicks everything is admirable in the sense of being deeply in touch with their standards and unafraid to speak up about it.

Maybe the person who is “too silly” is admirable in the sense of being able to see an element of joy and humor in situations that others dismiss as boring, uninteresting, or even depressing.

Maybe the person who is “too serious” is admirable in the sense of being able to see profound insights and life lessons in situations that others dismiss as ordinary, insignificant, or even hopeless.

It may will take some work to think about other people’s extremes in ways that challenges US to grow, rather than merely thinking about them in ways that challenge THEM to get their act together. But the work of finding the exemplary in the extremes is a work that is extremely rewarding to our own personal development and to the happiness of those who have to put up with us.

Make a game out of appreciating the  brilliance of those who annoy you. And don’t talk yourself out of the fun by treating the game as if it’s necessary to pretend that people are perfect. Ycan still be honest about how much others annoy you, but instead of treating annoyances as if they are the end-all-be-all of being honest about the people you have to deal with, nurture your instincts for compassion and creativity by challenging yourself to see the praiseworthy behind the blameworthy and the admirable alongside the annoying.


T.K Coleman

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