…love thy neighbor as thyself.
– Matthew 22, verse 39

Imagine you’re making a routine visit to your doctor. She tells you that she’s discovered a mass lodged near your heart. A biopsy determines that the mass is totally benign yet strangely magnetic. Further research determines this is no ordinary magnet: this magnet attracts people. And not just any type of person. In its default mode, it attracts people who are very different from you. People who know how to push your buttons and get you to react.

You don’t have to believe this story—instead validate it with your own experience. Whether it’s family members, your spouse, or your business partners, you may notice that you’re often surrounded by a person or two or even a group of people you find challenging. Ask yourself, “Am I somehow inviting people into my life whom I know will make my life more challenging?”

Stop Trying to Change People

How much energy do you put into being critical or trying to rescue, fix, or change others? Do you want your wife to be more decisive, your husband to work less, your business partner to be more direct, or your kids to be more productive?

If upon leaving the doctor’s office, you decided to stop reacting to those around you, what would your life be like? Imagine what you could do if you recaptured the enormous energy you expend judging others, wishing they would be different, or trying to trade them for more like-minded people? If you are going to keep attracting people with challenging traits, trying to change people is a waste of time.

Stop fixing, rescuing, criticizing, or judging people (silently or out loud), and notice what happens. Your new-found acceptance will melt away your reactivity. People may just start to change on their own. Your kids might start to initiate things, your business partner will tell you he wants to retire sooner than planned and your spouse may take on a long-avoided project.

How Else Will We Grow?

Maybe our hearts really are magnetic. What if the primary purpose of our relationships is to reveal something about ourselves? What if the way we evolve is by attracting in others the very attitude and behavior that is least accessible in ourselves? And what if these traits are inaccessible to us because we dislike, fear, disown, or bury them?

Our differences and the tension that comes from rubbing up against something or someone we don’t like are invitations to grow. For example, if you’re frustrated with people you think are lazy, there’s a good chance that either you are lazy in an area of your life that you don’t see or you’re overworking and unable to slow down. The “lazy” person in your midst may not actually be lazy, she or he may simply be motivated differently than you.

We all project our unconscious inner life onto others. If you remain unconscious to your disowned, shadow parts, you are doomed to attract these irritating, frustrating parts in those around you. As you do, you’ll bring out the worst in them and they will bring out the worst in you.

Choose Differently

Don’t waste time getting your heart examined. Instead look at one person in your life, a family member perhaps, with whom you have a challenging relationship. Without condoning bad behavior or allowing healthy boundaries to be violated, think about what quality in this person triggers you the most? What would be possible if you lifted your judgment or opinion about that person? If just for a moment you accepted that person in the deepest way you know how? I bet you’d be less reactive. I bet you’d bring out something better in yourself and the other person.

Instead of trying to change others, choose to turn toward the difference that triggers you most. Then apply the Enneagram in two ways.

First, study your dominant type (click here to learn about the Enneagram and your type). Look at the traits that are the most common areas for development for your type. Chances are you are overplaying one or more of your type’s strongest personality traits. For example, a Type One is called the Perfectionist. When Ones overuse their strengths, they become rigid or critical as they try to bring order to their world. Type Ones who can flex and see perfection even in the messy and embarrassing moments have more range in the way they approach leadership and relationships.

Second, guess the Enneagram type of the people you find challenging. This will deepen your understanding of what drives their behavior and make you more empathetic and skillful in the way you engage with them.

Relationships and the magnetic dance we do with each other are nature’s way of pointing us toward the mirror so we can bring out the best in ourselves and others. Look at your various circles. What’s your heart attracting to you these days? How are you responding to your invitations to grow?