Just as we must pay taxes and die, so too must we deal with people we don’t like. They may come in the form a scheming colleague, a vengeful ex, or perhaps a boss who takes leadership cues from Caligula. As much as we’d like to ignore these people, they aren’t going anywhere. They are the polyester blended into the fabric of our lives; destined to chafe and irritate at every turn.
But take heart. The ever-reliable Greeks are here to share with us their wisdom and guidance. Written over a thousand years ago, Plutarch’s essay, “How to Profit from One’s Enemies,” still offers the best piece of advice on handling our haters: use everything terrible about them to become a better person.
According to Plutarch, while we usually go out of our way to avoid people we dislike, they’re actually good to have around. “Our enemies,” he writes, “by their unseemly conduct afford us an opportunity to view our own. We should take into account both their failures and successes in studying how, by guarding against the former, we may be better than they, and by imitating the latter, no worse.”
Easier said than done, of course. Conflict tends to bring out the worst in us, which can make gaining life lessons from difficult people feel like looking for a dollar in a dumpster fire. How do we keep ourselves above the fray? What can we learn from these people, anyway? Is time a flat circle of miserable relationships? Scroll down to find out.
I. Hold Yourself to a Higher Standard
“Oftentimes we do not learn, until too late, of the illness or the deaths of our friends,” Plutarch writes, “but our curiosity about our enemies all but prompts us to pry into their dreams.” It’s easy to obsess about people we don’t like. We may think of ourselves as decent human beings, but bad blood can quickly turn us into petty little weasels dining on the drama of others.
Since people love to gossip, Plutarch says we shouldn’t give them anything to gossip about. “Always keep one’s life unassailable,” he writes, “the person who knows that their enemy is their competitor in life and repute, is more heedful of himself, and more circumspect about his action, and brings his life into a more thorough harmony.” Taking the high road has us act in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves. It makes us adults.
This also means bringing respect to all our relationships, even the thorny ones. “If you wish to distress the man who hates you, show-self control, be truthful, and treat with kindness and justice those who have to deal with you,” writes Plutarch.
II. Look at Yourself Before You Criticize Others
There’s nothing quite as cathartic as a good rant. But Plutarch cautions us to consider what we say about the people who bother us. We may be more like them than we think.
The value of criticism is in what it reveals about us, not others. The next time we lay into someone, we should pause and reflect on whether we’re actually describing ourselves. “If the man who reviles another’s life,” Plutarch writes, “will at once carefully inspect his own, he will have gained something useful from this reviling, which, otherwise, not only gives the impression of being useless and inane, but is so in fact.”
Spending our energies raving about other people will just leave us drained. But if we can turn those energies inward, we can at least change ourselves.
Embrace Criticism (Especially the Nasty Bits)
Taking criticism is hard, especially when it comes from someone we dislike. Usually we’re too busy thinking of a comeback to even bother listening. But Plutarch says it’s the people we don’t get along with who can tell us the most about our shortcomings.
“Things which are perceptible, material, and evident to all the world,” he writes, “may sooner be learned from our enemies than from our friends and close associates.” The nearer people are to us, the more likely they are to turn a blind eye to our behavior. The people who dislike us, however, won’t have any such qualms, and have probably thought quite a bit about just how exasperating we are.
This is good for us, since it can reveal some pretty glaring character flaws. Even if listening to someone’s opinion of us feels like bathing in hornets, Plutarch says we should listen carefully and not dismiss it out of hand. “Oftentimes reviling launched upon a man [out of] anger or enmity,” he writes, “cures some evil in his soul which either was not recognized or was disregarded.”
IV. Unleash the Motivational Power of Jealousy
Despite his calls to the better angels of our nature, Plutarch concedes that jealousy is inevitable in life. Our rivals will become successful and it’s going to drive us crazy. But Plutarch sees jealousy as a motivating force, pushing us to get more competitive. “Feel the sting of resentment when your enemies enjoy health and happiness,” he writes, “and whet your contentiousness to a sharp jagged edge on these.”
To do this, we need to get over ourselves. Too often, Plutarch says, we bemoan the fact our rivals have done well at all, when we should be thinking about what we can learn from them. “If a man is not blind,” writes Plutarch, “but makes himself an honest observer of the other’s life, character, words, and deeds, he will discover that most of the successes [have been won] as the result of painstaking forethought and fair conduct, and so, bending all his energies in this direction, he will put into practice his own ambitions and high aspirations.”