How to Deal with Difficult People

Community Member

Sometimes I think Sartre had it right with his infamous quote, "Hell is other people."   Okay not all people by any means, just some particularly difficult people.   We have all had the experience of dealing with a difficult person in our life.   This person may be a neighbor, a co-worker, a boss, a friend, a parent, or even your spouse.   A friend of mine once said that some people go to therapy and some people cause other people to go to therapy.   Let's face it, how many therapy sessions are probably spent discussing the difficult people in our life?

What defines an individual as being "difficult" is totally up to the observer.   I have met plenty of people who I feel are pleasant personalities only to find that others may view this person as totally abrasive.   Then there is also a range of difficult as some people may only be mildly annoying while others may be abusive and downright toxic to our mental health.

Author Lillian Glass who wrote the book, "Toxic People:   10 ways of dealing with people who make your life miserable" asks questions for you to ascertain whether or not you have a toxic relationship with someone.     Some of these questions include:

  • Do you feel tense or nervous around this person or do you feel devalued after having been around this person?
  • Do you feel constantly judged by this person? Does your self esteem suffer when you are around this person?
  • Do you feel drained of energy after having been with this person?
  • Do you feel emotional relief when you are away from this person?
  • Do you suffer from physical ailments such as headaches, breathing problems, stomach problems, hives, or other tension related troubles after spending time with this person?
  • Does this person make rude, sarcastic, hostile, negative comments to you or give you backhanded compliments?

These are but some questions to ask yourself.   I would add that when we are around a toxic individual; we do not feel comfortable being ourselves.   There is a sense that we need to protect ourselves from emotional harm.

So what can we do?

In my opinion the first thing you have to decide is whether or not you wish to continue the relationship with this person.   This is an extremely difficult decision to make in some cases.   It may be a whole lot easier to cut off all ties with a long distance friend than it is with your parent.   It may be difficult to just quit your job just because you cannot handle your boss's personality.   But sometimes these decisions are made because your mental health is at stake.    In some cases, to leave is the only option in order to keep your sanity.

Yet in a lot of cases we are not in an option to delete the person from our life for whatever reason.   Perhaps we need our job at the moment and cannot just up and quit.   Perhaps we do love the rude relative or ill mannered friend but we just can't stand their behaviors.   So we make the choice to co-exist with this person but how do we do this peacefully?   One way is for you to determine what sort of relationship you wish to have with this person.

What they say is true.   You cannot change other people.   You can only change yourself.

What changes can you make in yourself when dealing with a difficult person?* ** Don't give your power away.** What I mean by this is do not give this person all of your time and energy by obsessing over them. Do not replay conversations in your head and what you think you should have said in reply. You can be sure that the difficult person in your life is not sitting around thinking about you this much.

  • Give your time and energy to those people in your life who are nurturing and supportive. It is amazing how much time and energy we waste upon people who are unkind to us. We react to them, try to figure out why they act as they do, we placate them, and devise ways of making peace. In the meantime, the loving people in our lives quite often get ignored.

  • Use behavioral strategies. Reward good behaviors by telling the person how much you like when they act in compassionate and caring ways. If it is at all possible ignore inappropriate or rude behaviors.

  • Don't take it to heart. Remember that another's behavior is reflective of them as a person and not you. If an individual is making the choice to behave in hurtful ways then you can be certain that they behave this way to others as well. What they say or do is not a reflection of you or your self worth.

  • Repeat back what they say and seek clarification. Sometimes people don't realize what they sound like until you repeat their words back to them. You can say something like: "So what I hear you saying is (repeat their words). Is this accurate?"

  • Confront the person if necessary. Confrontation is hard. It isn't like the person is going to say, "Gee you are so right. I have been a total jerk." The person might get angry and upset. But I always like to think that so much of the anguish of dealing with a difficult person is when we fail to stand up for ourselves. Confrontation doesn't mean to lash out or react in anger. It means to state clearly and concisely your terms for what you will and will not put up with. Do not depend upon a certain outcome in order to feel good about saying something. Feel good because you have been honest, assertive, and that you are giving the person a chance to get their act together.

So what about you?   How have you dealt with the difficult people in your life?   What strategies have worked for you?   Do tell all.   We want to hear your story.