Why Service Is Difficult & How To Thrive In The Face of Its Challenges (Part II)

Photo by Joshua Rodriguez on Unsplash


In part I of this article, I illustrated my current easier-than-usual work environment where I still find tremendous challenges to serving others.  I’ve found that this is because of the innate limitations of being human and connecting to other humans.  This exercise has allowed me to look at the finer points of service and the subtler limitations that I (and maybe others) have in order to move beyond them into a fluid, joyful place.  This is the potential that a life of service (or doing anything mindfully) has.  Below, I continue to lay out tools and perspectives to confront the invitations life gives us to resent showing up for others.


Adaptation Energy: You May Have Never Heard About It…But It Rules Every Response You Have

In any given moment, we each have a certain computing capacity.  There is a certain amount of the world we can process while remaining even-minded.  At a certain level of intensity of experience, we start doing less rather than interacting with our environment and more reacting to it.  This is the basis of stress science that has become an increasingly important perspective for understanding human potential since Hans Selye started pushing these ideas forward the 1960s.  He called this computing power “adaptation energy”.  And though it’s existence isn’t really measurable (and still pretty theoretical) it’s a pretty good model to look at how and why we respond to certain situations the way we do.

Basically, the good life means having less unnecessary reactions to what we experience.  Those reactions distort what’s actually happening, making a non-threatening world seem threatening.  Once our computing capacity is exceeded, and the stress chemicals start flowing, then we start rejecting what we are experiencing.  And we miss out on the potential of any moment to nourish us by pushing it away.

Now, many tough guys will tell you that stress is motivating, but really it’s not.  It’s actually draining.  They will say it’s a call to rise to the occasion, which is true.  Rejecting any experience, including a stress response, will bring you even more problems than having the stress response at all.

Anyway, to summarize, people are going to tax your adaptation energy by constantly demanding things of you.  Any demand requires adaptation to it.  And in restaurant service, that adaptation has to be quick and certain.  This costs us energy.  And depleting reserves result in these demands becoming increasingly annoying.  For example, a harmless request for an adjustment to a dish can often cause us to sneer or roll our eyes (hopefully just internally).  This doesn’t even cost us anything, since it’s usually the kitchen has to adapt to the request and take on the stress of preparing something in a less familiar or predictable way (and you can expect them not to be happy about it since their adaptation energy has been verifiably ravaged since the morning).  A mind depleted of adaptation might think: “this person has different taste than I do – they are not to be trusted”.  The less inner resources we have, the less space for difference we can make.

The amount of these inner resources that we have depends on a number of things:
-How much stress and strain have we accumulated throughout our lives.
-How much have we pushed ourselves that day (for example, a request at the beginning of the night may not even phase us, but at 10pm after also working a day job, like is sometimes the case for me, any need a guest may have out of the ordinary can be agonizing).
-How healthy have we been in the last day, week, month, year, or lifetime – for example, if we’re underslept, hungover, lacking exercise, etc.
-How innately resilient are we to constant demand and strain?
-What are we doing to release these old burdens of stress and strain and keep our nervous system strong (especially if you’re not innately resilient to stress…i.e. me – you did not want to work with me in the early 2000’s).


Things To do:


Gives you a power surge of adaptation energy, releases old stresses that colonize the nervous system, and frees up your nervous system to handle more.  Check out the guide here (it’s simple – and simple is powerful).

Don’t Complain

Complaining admits powerlessness – that all you can do is identity what you reject about your circumstances, rather than what you can change.  You’re spending adaptation energy in an act of maladaptation, wasting it.  And you’re reinforcing the habit to simply react rather than interact.  When you experience something you don’t like, you need to decide whether you can change it or not.  If you can’t, then an intentional carelessness is required (Mark Manson calls it “not wasting your fucks”, which is the same as “not wasting your adaptation energy”).  If you can change it, and are willing to, then you still need to accept it.  You don’t benefit from highlighting all the things wrong with the situation as much as you do understanding why everything is happening.  If you view everything as purposeful and valuable (even if it annoys or upsets you), then you can see how to interact with it to make the change you want.  This requires energy to, but it doesn’t waste energy.  This is the key.

Don’t React To Feeling Bad

All this being said, it is crucial for your success in life to not feel bad for having negative feelings or negative thoughts.  This is an especially common symptom of people that have adopted (but only partially understood) Yogic and Buddhist principles of non-violence. equanimity, and other things that sound “peaceful” and “positive”.  This cannot lead to some new paradigm of “perfect” human (which is really a non-human if you expect to be free of stress and negativity in today’s world) that involves a rejection of anything else.  Having negative thoughts or feelings is not a sign of weakness or “stunted evolution”.  Strength is in how you respond to those negative things arising (and though modeling something as “negative” or “positive” already puts you on pretty shaky terrain).  Strength would be having graceful acceptance of them, while not letting them define your reality.  Just observe, let pass, and move on.  You have shit to do.

Stay Healthy

As I said above, diet, exercise, sleep, and everything that effects health effects adaptation energy.  It’s too big of a topic to embark on here, but if you want to explore having a greater capacity for challenging environments, anything you can do for your mental and physical health will pay dividends in this area.


Being A Potential Abuse Magnet

Think about any scene late in an action movie, where the hero has been sufficiently knocked around for over an hour and then suddenly finds himself in a public place.  He hobbles along, perhaps holding a non-fatal bullet wound, attempting to contain the bleeding.  He’s getting a lot of looks, women have dropped their shopping bags and grip their children tighter.  People are frozen, not knowing whether to help him or apprehend him.  He wants to get outta there.

Imagine this to be the inner state of countless people.  Their plotline is their entire life leading up to this point.  Years of being emotionally beat up by others, but so often themselves.  Their wounds are more discrete, visible only to them, and revealing themselves as negative self-talk.  They limp along bleeding and tattered, wondering how many of their negative ideas about themselves are visible to the crowds around them.  Occasionally their jacket opens to reveal a wound, but it’s not like we would expect.  It’s not a bleeding cry for help.

It manifests as aggression towards us, snarky or dismissive comments, or maybe they’re “just giving us a hard time” in a way that feels demeaning or even sadistic.  And like our action hero, we just see their wounds and don’t understand the context.  We don’t see everything that happened before.  We just see a mangled looking dude and don’t really know what to do but react.  And since all we see are the threats to our ego, the most obvious thing is their aggression towards us.  We may not see that it’s just return fire at the hateful voices within them.  We may not see that they have just chosen us as the mannequin to dress in the clothing of their demons, swinging at them in a fury of simulated power over themselves.

If you were to keep this perspective handy, and be able to zoom out whenever someone invites you into there suffering, then you would be free of the default reaction – feeling attacked.  Any negative behavior towards us, and our first temptation is to think it’s about us.  This is understandable.  Even if we know it’s unfounded, we still feel they don’t respect us enough to avoid taking out their shit on us.  These cries of the ego will take you out of a strong position.

First of all, you’d be right, they probably don’t respect you.  They may only respect those with authority over them.  So have authority over them.  This doesn’t mean winning a battle of wits.  It’s subtle, and composed, and full of all that “higher ground” shit that sounds agonizing at first, but pays dividends.  I guarantee that, after any interaction with someone contentious, you will feel better taking the higher ground than even casting them down with righteous language (even the perfectly-worded monologues of all the stuff you “shoulda said” that you repeat in your head after the interaction).  Here are some tools that will serve you way more than giving your ego a bit of candy:


Things To Do:


It doesn’t mean being nice, it just means understanding.  It doesn’t mean shedding tears in honor of their sorrow.  Compassion is really the art of taking in more information and then using that information to interact better.

There are meditations to cultivate this and for that see the guide to Metta Bhavana.  But it is also an active practice.  As an in-action practice, handling this skillfully requires mindfulness.  In any moment there is a choice of what information to let guide you: the person and the situation or the inner voice that is attempting to play victim to the mean things they are saying to you.

Notice what’s happening inside of you, and don’t respond to them from the place that is charged and flailing.  Respond from the still place within.  This is the place that is not trying to defend itself, but simply trying to learn more about the other.  It’s always there, just often drowned out by the ego.  It’s the place that’s able to respond with, “Really? Tell me more about that”, without fear of what is coming next.

This takes practice.  Really doing this will mean noticing all the obstacles that get in the way of paying attention and responding from a place of fearlessness.  It takes skill and stability to simultaneously be aware of yourself and the finer points of what you are experiencing.



Daily meditation will make you automatically better at this since it clears out all the accumulated stress that results in uncontrolled reactions.  Check out the meditation guide here.  Remove these obstacles with daily meditation, then practice compassion throughout the day, and you will be an emotional savant.



Being compassionate and mindful does not mean being a doormat.  It’s not unconditional politeness.  There is a skillful way to manage a more hostile-toned interaction without being confrontational or even controlling.  The most stealthy way involves keeping your interest in getting them what they want, i.e.: “If you keep calling me a shithead rather than telling me what you need, I’m not able to help you.”

For me, as a server in a restaurant, I always remember that I’m in control of who I serve and when.  If anyone is hurling unfounded abuse I can say, “I’m not able to properly serve you when you’re this heated, I should give you a minute to cool down.”  The I can just leave.  Showing mastery and control in these situations may annoy them for a moment, but it will win me respect.(1)

If a guest is making wild accusations, repeat a summary back to them in a tone that doesn’t sound dismissive or disbelieving, but like you are trying to gain a deeper understanding.  “So, to summarize, you think I’m not going to the grocery store to get french fries for the chef to cook you in a plot to undermine you and shame you in front of your guests?  Do you really think that?  Just so I know how to help you further.”  It invites them to rationally examine a highly charged and irrational comment without challenging them.

These are just examples and not the only possible script.  Honestly, trust your intuition.  The right things to say will come to you if you are mentally positioned as both respectful and worthy of respect.  There are endless ways of keeping people’s claws retracted while making them still feel heard.  And, though they may not sound natural at first, practicing them positions you as a better listener.  And there is no better way to charm someone than to listen to them.


Our Need For Acceptance

Wanting to be of service to others often gets confused with feeling worthiness and belonging.  And needing the people we serve to tell us that we are worthy.  It needs to be understood that you are already worthy, and service is just a way of bringing that worthiness into contact with others.  If we are disconnected from our inner knowing that we (and all we offer) is of value then we will look to others to give the right feedback.

If some gives you a report you don’t want, then they are just telling you what they need.  They are not reflecting your worthiness.  They are just providing you with knowledge of how to serve them in particular.

For example, ever do something for someone, thinking it’s the greatest, nicest, most helpful thing you could have done?  Or maybe you said something to them you thought was so profoundly insightful and potentially life-changing for them that for sure they’re gonna be moved to thank you profusely for setting them on the path of truth?  Or, if you’re in my line of work, you gave them the most glorious dining experience they could possibly have.  And the response: Not much.  Maybe nothing at all.  Either way, it wasn’t what you expected.  What they reflected back was far from satisfactory considering the magnitude of what you did for them.  And you resent them: they’re unappreciative, they’re clueless, they’re just generally rejecting your awesomeness somehow.  Screw them.

How quickly we pivot.  We thought we were acting selflessly, thinking only of them.  But if that was the case, we wouldn’t be writing them off for not responding the right way.  As it turns out, we maybe didn’t want to help them so much as receive the nectar of their praise.  The veil has dropped: it was actually all about us.

Aren’t we bastards?

Okay, c’mon now.  You do care about others.  It’s your nature to do so.  You may just be a little too in need of acceptance.  Remaining connected with your caring nature just requires is a bit of perspective.  You need to shift your expectations of where the payoff for caring action is coming from.  Firstly, it definitely can’t be expected to come from the person you are helping.

Reasons for this:

-Some people don’t express gratitude effusively.
-Something really game-changing might be uncomfortable for them to hear, so songs of joyous praise are not the first thing they think about throwing down.
-People are more likely to show gratitude for something that is easy to hear and confirms what they already believe.
-People have different priorities than you.  Your sense of perfect is very rarely anyone else’s sense of perfect.  What you consider important is not necessarily what they are going to consider important (chances are it’s not even on their radar).

This goes the other way.  Have you ever had someone express praise to you that you didn’t expect?   And you’re like, “Oh…thanks.  I mean, I don’t even see what was so special about what I did.”  There’s no predicting what will be appreciated and how.


Things To do:

Karma Yoga

All you can do is put yourself out there and not expect anything back.  It’s the doing that is sacred.  The only thing that spoils it is the resentment that the outcome did not meet your expectations.  This is not suggesting that we just act without the intention to help.  In fact, it’s even more of a call to do so.  We can be even more helpful because we don’t need anything back.  All we need is the act of helping and the discoveries it provides along the way.



Grounds you in who you, independent from anyone else’s definition of you.  Read the guide here.


Metta Bhavana

Allows you to leap out of your own egoic needs and into those of the other.  Read the guide here.


Love The Variety

The fact that theses challenges exist is a good thing.  Endlessly different human priorities means endless human variations and the constant potential for an adventure of discovery.  Everyone’s response to our actions is a gift: it gives you a piece of the puzzle, letting you in to how they work and how to better connect with them.  It’s not a dismissal of the service you provided them, it’s an invitation to grow.



  1. Often the protocol would be to get a manager, so if that’s the case then do that as soon as possible so you don’t have to.  Where I am, we are able to handle these situations ourselves so that is one script that might work.
  • […] There is an art to it.  A maturity of perception is required.  You need to observe the context of the situation and see what role you are being called to.  When are battles worth fighting and when are people worth upsetting? These are challenging roads to navigate.  It gets even more complicated when you bring in the factor of time. What will benefit them most now, in this moment vs. years into the future?  And then there’s the question of the radiating effect to people all around that person. You can’t know or predict these things. All you can do is observe the moment and what it asks of you.  Then act, observe the results, learn what you can, and move on. Doing this smoothly, without the unnecessary inner turmoil we experience when we want something to turn out a certain way, but does not, is a spiritual practice known as Karma Yoga (which is discussed more here and here). […]

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