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When difficult and disrespectful people appear in our lives continuously who make our blood boil, skin crawl, and tears gush, we can find ourselves in desperate moments when we run out of all ideas, throwing up our hands and asking: “Why?” and “What do I do?”
If you’re familiar with the sentiment “the greatest tormentor is your greatest mentor” then you might understand that intrinsic feeling we all get when life gives us the same problem to solve over and over again, knowing it’s a test we must pass or it will continue to haunt us.
As profound and insightful as that may sound, when you’re personally in that scenario, all you can think about is how unfair it is, what did you ever do to deserve this, and how could the universe do this to you?
For years, I looked for ways to “handle” difficult people, trying to get rid of them by dropping hints, rejecting their requests by coming up with excuses, manipulating the situation so I could maintain control, beating them at their own game so I could feel like the winner, or retaliating to show that they’d messed with the wrong person.
I was stuck in a pointless time loop that had no beginning and end with them because I felt like I had something to prove. And difficult people happily engaged because that’s what they live for, and I felt like the victim.
It took me a long time to be able to step outside each situation to see things clearly, but I finally understood why I reacted to difficult people the way I did and why I kept attracting them: they mirrored a shadow part of myself that I didn’t like and had yet to resolve.
It became clear that the “skill” I was seeking wasn’t a way of handling other people but a way to respond to them from the most centered version of myself. That meant recalibrating myself so no part of me would align with those who deliberately looked for targets to bully.
While some tact was required, the more important thing to work on was my own mentality and the way I related to difficult people.
How to deal with difficult people:
1. Identifying triggers
Our emotional triggers are eye-openers to the shadow parts of ourselves inside. That includes fears, insecurities, old wounds, and anything else in the subconscious we’re unaware of.
The first thing to do is identify those parts that cause you distress when confronted by a difficult person. What do you feel when confronted by this person, and why do you feel the way you do? What did that person say or do specifically whenever those feelings arose? Make a list of everything you feel when dealing with your difficult person.
For example, I am particularly sensitive to people who are condescending toward me. My emotions heighten immediately when someone takes a belittling tone with me. It brought me back to the way we were treated when my family first moved to the United States, without friends, financial stability, or the ability to speak English well enough to explain ourselves. Condescending remarks are tied back to some of the unresolved anger and hurt from that time.
2. Understanding your current boundaries
Contrary to what most people believe, our boundaries are constantly shifting based on our circumstances. Other than the rules of fundamentals, our soft boundaries are rarely carved in stone and inflexible throughout our entire lives. We adjust them based on the relationship, comfort level, new information, our own growth and maturity, and of course, our desires.
Assessing your boundaries when it comes to dealing with difficult people often comes with its own unique set of rules—because you’re already guarded and know what to expect from experience. You might be at your limit with a difficult person and cannot be flexible with your boundaries, and that’s okay. That’s a part of acknowledging where you’re at right now, as long as you also acknowledge it’s okay for this feeling to change if your relationship dynamic changes.
That way, you leave room for the possibility to improve your relationship, even if it’s with a difficult person, especially if they show signs of effort. Sometimes our feelings of anger and hurt put us in direct opposition with a particular person and we are so absolutely certain that we’ll always be against that person that we fail to see their effort to improve the relationship.
It’s important to extend compassion to even difficult people if they have a desire to change. We are all learning and growing after all. If you are able to repair the relationship, then it would truly be a win-win solution and a transformative experience for the both of you.
3. Holding and communicating your boundaries
Communicating truthfully about what is acceptable and not acceptable to you is perfectly okay. A lot of times we let self-judgment and feelings of guilt get in the way of taking care of our needs, which only makes things more frustrating for ourselves and the people we’re working with.
While crafting the right words to communicate swiftly and gracefully is a fine art in itself, here are some effective phrases that can help you minimize or diffuse a tough situation:
>> “I need some time to think about this. Let me get back to you when I have an answer.”
>> “I appreciate your concern, but I already have a solution in mind.”
>> “I don’t really need help right now, but if I do, I will be sure to ask you.”
>> “I don’t have the capacity to help you with this right now. I will let you know if that changes.”
>> “That’s not my area of expertise and it’s outside of my comfort zone. Someone else will be better to assist you.”
>> “I’ve already communicated my answer to you and I’m very comfortable with that decision.”
>> “I don’t feel good about the way this conversation is going. We’re not being effective or productive. Let’s stop until we can calmly talk about this.”
>> “I don’t want to participate in a shouting match, so I’m going to walk away now. I’m happy to continue our conversation when you are more calm.”
4. Coming to a resolution, for your own inner peace
Ultimately, it would take a mutual decision between you and your difficult person if and when you want to improve your relationship. Be mindful that a decision from a place of peace and harmony will always leave you feeling better than a decision from a place of anger or retaliation.
Accepting the situation
In many cases, accepting difficult people as they are could be the best-case scenario. By that I don’t mean become their friend and hang out together, but to see them as who they are and remove expectations and judgment of how they should be. If you simply don’t understand each other and your personalities clash, then try to have a conversation with each other and acknowledge the reality. Once you can agree to disagree, you will reduce the tension between you because there is now a mutual understanding.
Change your attitude toward the situation
It’s not hopeless if you’re unable to reach any kind of agreement or resolution. You can still change your own perspective and the way you respond to the situation. Remember, you’re only responsible for your own reactions and not theirs. Let go of your control and expectations of the outcome and focus on working toward your own peace. Most of the time, when you disengage and shift your focus away from difficult people, they will also begin to shift their attention away looking for a new target to entangle with.
Remove yourself from the situation
When faced with someone who simply will not give you the space you need to be your best, then perhaps it’s time to leave the situation behind and move on. Take some time to assess your situation and think about how it has affected you and your life. If it’s an unhealthy relationship and has been depleting your time and energy, then give yourself permission to leave. Create an exit plan and follow through. There is nothing wrong with an act of self-love, no matter how obligated you think you are to stay.