I think it’s safe to say that all of us have had to deal with someone who just rubs us the wrong way. You know, the person that makes you cringe when you see their name pop up in your inbox, or the person who makes you feel physically sick with nerves every time you have the unfortunate task of trying to have a reasonable conversation with them. What about that colleague who keeps talking down to you, or the gossiping “friend” who spreads rumors and bags you out to your mutual friends? These people do exist, we have all been there and it’s part of being human.
In some cases, you might have a clear idea of why this person gets under your skin so much, whilst in others, it might not be as clear- all you know is that you just don’t feel happy, and in fact you might even experience quite nasty thoughts when you are in that person’s presence. These thoughts can be towards the person themselves- for instance wanting to throw your coffee cup at their face (oops did I just say that?) – or perhaps the thoughts are towards yourself, thinking that you mustn’t be good enough and wishing you could crawl up into a ball and hide away.
Sometimes, the solution seems quite simple…..Just don’t associate with these people right? If you don’t like someone’s posts on social media- you can unfollow or “hide” them. If you don’t like someone’s opinion on the television- you can change the channel. If you don’t like a particular singer or band, you don’t go to their concert, and if you find the guy at the coffee shop down the road incredibly irritating and creepy- buy your coffee somewhere else! The solution really is that plain simple sometimes. So doesn’t it seem obvious, then, that if we meet someone who rubs us the wrong way in our personal and professional lives that we should also avoid them at all costs.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that straightforward and certainly isn’t always that easy. “Avoid them at all costs” says it all…the unfortunate truth is, it can actually end up costing us a lot more to completely avoid these unpleasant people, rather than to just learn to live with them.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do truly believe that we all have the right to engineer our personal lives to include only the people who build us up and support us, and that spending time with people who do the opposite to this (I.e., criticise, manipulate, judge, invalidate etc.) can he highly detrimental to our mental health. But sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where it’s just not that damn easy to avoid them.
For example- imagine, your job requires you to spend regular social time with colleagues and clients, and their partners. It’s part of the job, and to keep your job, it’s expected of you. But maaaaaan these people are conceited. They put everyone down, including you. They are rude to everyone except the people in their inner most circles, and well, quite frankly they never stop talking about themselves. Their behavior goes against your inherent values of what you believe it means to be a decent human being, and you are fed up of feeling like crap every time you spend time with them. So what do you do?
Sure……. you could walk away from the responsibilities of the job and go elsewhere. That’s one solution. So go for it!……But waaaaaiiiiit a minute- how does this work for you? You now don’t have your job (that generally you loved if it wasn’t for these people) and you now have the tedious task of searching elsewhere.
Option two, you could keep your job, continue to attend these functions, feel sick with anticipation beforehand and then mull over every word that was said EVERY time. You can then go home and relay every second of the painful encounter to your partner (who tries to be supportive but really they have had enough), and all the while you have expelled a lot of emotional energy and you are exhausted, only to do it all again next week.
It can certainly seem a bit like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. In some cases, if we completely avoid these individuals we can end up being the ones who lose out, but if we stay, we remain frustrated, hurt and upset all too often. It can be incredibly difficult to maintain your sanity, emotional well-being and self-worth when you have to endure difficult personalities, and it’s a very hard call to make regarding when to stay or when enough is enough and to walk away.
There really is no easy answer because if there was, we would all be free of these frustrating encounters. But below, I’ve listed a few key things you can do to try to look after yourself emotionally in these situations, and a few things to consider when assessing whether you tolerate, or whether you cut your losses and walk away. I’m sure there are other tips too that I won’t have listed here in this blog and it’s also important to keep in mind that these are some very general suggestions that I find often have some utility for my clients and myself. But every situation is unique and may require some more tailored problem-solving with a friend, family member, colleague, supervisor, or perhaps even a psychologist.
Also, I cannot stress enough that if there is any form of sexual, physical or emotional abuse occurring, then it is important to seek professional support immediately to help you to exit the situation in the safest way possible. It is highly unlikely that the steps outlined below will be effective or even the most appropriate strategies in the context of abuse.
Tips for dealing with difficult personalities:
1. Check your view of self: make sure that you do try your best to really reflect on what is going on for you in each situation. When you are upset or angry after dealing with the “difficult” person, what is it that is getting triggered for you? A feeling of inadequacy, perhaps? Or maybe a feeling of being invalidated or disrespected? You might even find that the person reminds you of someone else in your life who has previously upset or angered you. Whatever it is, it is always worth reflecting upon and owning your part in the dynamic. No, this is not the same as taking the blame or full responsibility. But no matter how difficult the person is that we are dealing with, there is always something unique about our response and interpretation of that person’s actions, and something that we can potentially work on. If you find that you feel a lot worse about yourself for quite some time after your interactions with this person, it could be worth working through some of your own self-worth issues first before making any rash decisions on how to proceed (and don’t worry, if you do indeed think you are having difficulties with your sense of worth-most of us do experience some level of self-worth difficulties- we are all in this together, and there are ways to work on this with a psychologist).
2. Check for black and white thinking and assumptions: in reflecting on your “own stuff” it can be important to take note of any black and white thinking or views that you might be holding onto. For instance, do you hold very strong, inflexible beliefs that there is a “right or wrong” way to think or behave in most situations? Do you believe that everyone “should” know how to communicate and treat others with respect? That people “should” know that their behavior will offend you? Are you perhaps making assumptions about why the person acts the way that they do? Whilst your perspective makes perfect sense to you, after all it is YOUR perspective, not everyone has had the same experiences as you, the same upbringing, the same values, and therefore the same perspective, and nor should they have to. Whenever we find ourselves thinking “they should” or “they shouldn’t” or “they are only treating me this way because…..” this is often a sign that we are being inflexible and black and white in our thinking, or we are making assumptions. Unfortunately- these ways of thinking ultimately only leave YOU feeling distressed or frustrated. The reality is, there will ALWAYS be people who function differently to you, who operate under different rules, and who have different reasons for their behavior to what you would expect. Just because your rules for living say one thing, doesn’t mean that someone else’s way of operating in the world is wrong or invalid, and it can be helpful to remind yourself “just because we choose to do things differently, doesn’t mean that either of us are wrong or right…. we just see things differently.” This leads on nicely to the next point….:
3. Perspective taking: as much as it can pain us to try to be understanding to people who operate in a way that is completely different to our way of working, doing some reflection on what the other person’s perspective could be can actually help YOU more than it can even help them. By trying to step back and view things from their shoes, often our frustration levels can reduce. This can be hard, especially if we really would never act in the same way. But try to be open minded and imagine why they might act how they do. By perspective taking, does this mean that we endorse their behavior? Absolutely not. But often, if we can gain an understanding about WHY someone might operate how they do, it can help to de-personalise their actions and to better tolerate their behavior. So ask yourself- where might this person have learned this behavior? How might it function for them? Is it possible that something in their experiences has taught them that this behaviour is correct, normal or useful? If their previous experiences have suggested to them that this behavior is useful and it gets the outcomes they desire- isn’t it, then, only human nature that they continue to use that behavior? Is it also possible that they simply lack the skills or knowledge required to act any differently?
4. Compassion towards others: when we do all of the above, it can assist us to find a greater level of compassion towards others. A helpful attitude to adopt is that, most people, if not all of us, are doing the best that we know how, with what we’ve got. Now that certainly doesn’t mean that everyone’s behavior (including our own) is always healthy or the best choice, but, behaviors are generally learned and most people function from the perspective of “this is what I know and this is what I’ve done and what has worked for me personally in the past”. Generally speaking, even when behavior is purposely manipulative or deceitful, this is how the person has learned to get their needs met and they may not know any different. Does this mean that we need to accept and tolerate their difficult behaviours- absolutely not and I will get to this. But what this step can do, is help to reduce your frustration so that you can then approach the situation from a less emotionally-fueled place.
5. Compassion towards self: whilst compassion towards the other person can be incredibly helpful in reducing distress in these difficult situations, compassion towards yourself is of the utmost importance. Watch out for guilt and shame about the way that you feel or respond to this person. Often – if you are hurt and frustrated- this is indeed a sign that one of your boundaries has been crossed or one or more of your needs left unmet (whether purposely or not). It is important to remember, that whether the other person has the same perception or not, you do have the right to feel the way that you do. In fact, we all have the “right” to feel however we feel, but it’s HOW we communicate our feelings that is important in helping to determine the outcome.
6. Communicate where appropriate – this really is key. If we operate under the assumption that other people should know better and should always respect our feelings and needs, then we are going to live a pretty miserable life. We are all human, we all get caught up in day to day life, and we all have learned behaviors and ways of operating. It is possible in some circumstances that the person carrying out the behavior isn’t aware of the impact it’s having on you. It really is our responsibility to communicate our needs to others, if we wish for them to be considered. I would love it if everyone in my life just inherently considered my needs without me voicing them- but this can’t always be the case. Effective communication of needs really deserves a whole post on its own, but you can find some useful tips at the following two websites. The first is specific to romantic relationships and friendships and the second is more relevant to the workplace.
In saying this, perhaps you feel you have tried some of these communication strategies and the message hasn’t got through. The person continues to cross your boundaries and disregard your feedback. It’s at this point that setting clear boundaries will be important.
7. Set clear, appropriate boundaries: We all feel frustrated when people cross our personal or professional boundaries. But often, when we feel frustrated we first need to check whether we have even made those boundaries clear. Setting boundaries can be obvious (I.e., John, I would prefer we didn’t talk about this topic as it is uncomfortable for me), or they might be less overt (I.e., choosing not to engage in nasty or attacking communications by not responding or leaving the situation, choosing to only answer the phone when it’s convenient for you etc). Furthermore, it’s not only important to voice boundaries to others, but also to follow through on these. If you tell your teenage son that when he raises his voice you won’t engage with him- but then you choose to yell back at him every second time, that boundary is essentially null and void. Action and consistency is key with implementing firm boundaries. Effectively setting boundaries is hard. It takes practice. But Psych Central has published some fantastic tips on how to set boundaries effectively here-
Now…… if you feel you have given all of the above a really good go but the other person just simply isn’t responding, and you are experiencing ongoing distress, then it’s likely that it’s the best time to choose your own well-being over and above other things. This might not even necessarily mean completely cutting this person out of your life all together but perhaps getting some distance in the short-term. In some cases, when the relationship is highly detrimental to you, a complete break is the only option. In order to do this, clear boundaries and communication are often required and sometimes removing yourself physically from an unhealthy environment will require the support of other people in your life, and in some cases, a health professional.
To sum up, I really love the quote posted below because I think it truly reflects our right to set boundaries to keep ourselves resilient against and safe from emotionally damaging relationships as much we can. But it also highlights that most people aren’t inherently malicious and that most people really are doing the best that they can. Unfortunately, their best just might not be the healthiest thing for you in this moment, and that is ok.
I hope these suggestions are helpful to someone at this point in time and I would love to hear of other peoples’ experiences in dealing with difficult personalities and what approaches have been particularly helpful. For further suggestions see this great article:
Remember- we can’t control the actions and thoughts of other people but we can control our own, and we can choose to be open minded whilst still prioritising our self-care and putting some boundaries in place.
Thanks for reading guys.
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