Lately my thoughts keep drifting back to Difficult People. We all know them, that friend, or co-worker, or family member you love BUT…
Difficult People, DP’s, come in all shapes and sizes, and while the details of their difficultness vary, they share some common traits:
- They are hard to be around or work with for any length of time.
- They either can’t see what makes them difficult or don’t take any meaningful steps to deal with the problem.
- Everyone in their social sphere tends to have the same complaints about them.
- They frequently have some amazing skill or personality trait that *almost* compensates for their difficulty.
I will add that sometimes mental illness (diagnosed or not) can play a big part in DP behaviour.
DP co-workers are frustrating because we often have little or no choice about that relationship and work is the place where most of us spend most of our time. DP family members are likewise bound to us, though we can often choose to distance ourselves as much as possible.
But of all the DP’s we encounter in our lives, it is the relationship with our DP friends that can sadden and exhaust us the most. These are the people who we connect with entirely by choice. These are the people whose behaviour constantly forces us to re-evaluate the friendship and ask “Is it worth it?”
Right now, some of you reading this are nodding vigorously. You know who your DP is. You can see their face. You feel tired and angry and despondent just thinking about them. You wish there was a magical solution—a word or phrase you could utter—to make your DP instantly easy to deal with.
Maybe there is such magic. I have not found it.
When I Googled variations of “difficult people, friends, co-workers” etc. what I got was a lot of links to religious and conflict resolution websites. Considering my most recent and biggest DP experience, the advice these sites dole out make me think the authors are talking out of their asses. I’ll refer to the person in my experience as DP1 and share some of these nuggets of wisdom with you…
“Let the other person talk”
Are you freaking kidding me? The problem was not letting DP1 talk, the problem was reining him in so that others had equal talking time. There is one incident I remember with PTSD-like clarity. In this instance, DP1 would not let me speak at all, no matter how hard I tried, and I ended up throwing in the metaphorical towel in front of a group of people I was supposed to be leading. Humiliating does not begin to describe that moment.
HA HA HA!! Those of you who know me in real life know that there is almost nothing that can make me lose my cool. I am slow to anger. I am Zen incarnate. Prez says that I don’t have a vindictive bone in my body and I am inclined to agree. I’m no one’s doormat but I’m happy to say one of my better qualities is my ability to see the big picture and not get ruffled by the small stuff.
I tell you this so that when I admit that within a very short time DP1 had me shouting and crying and so enraged I went nights without sleeping you will understand how far a Difficult Person can push those around them.
“Use the power of visualization”
Yes, this was a real suggestion. The author encourages you to “try to imagine that person as a loving spiritual being.” Look, logically I know that for the most part DP1 means well. He is not a bad person, in fact much of his bad behaviour actually comes from a place of good intention. The entire reason I didn’t throw my hands up and walk away months earlier than I did was because of this knowledge.
Knowing that assholes don’t exist in a vacuum doesn’t make them any easier to deal with. And imagining that the person who is making your life 31 flavours of miserable is a “loving spiritual being” is nothing short of slapping your hands over your ears, closing your eyes, and singing at the top of your lungs.
“Genuinely consider the other person’s point of view”
Sure. Good advice. But what if you do that over and over and over and over … and you still come to the conclusion that they’re wrong? What if you constantly bend over backwards to accommodate their point of view and are seldom, if ever, shown the same consideration in return?
How long can a person bend before they break?
No. I’ve come to the conclusion that some DP’s cannot be reached, placated, or handled. Like addicts and abusers, they must first admit they have a problem and then seek help for it. More than that, they must really, really want to change and sometimes that takes hitting at least one form of “bottom” first.
If you’re wondering where this rant is coming from, well, that’s complicated. One part is the situation with DP1 that I vowed not to share until my emotions had settled enough to think logically again—it has taken almost two years. One part is seeing some friends recovering from or dealing with their own DP’s and empathizing with their struggles. And the last part is the hope that maybe some DP’s out there might read this and realize the damage they’re doing to others and to themselves.
What bothers me most about all the DP advice I found was that 100% of the responsibility is put on the shoulders of non-DP’s. As if we must all cater to the precocious adult children of the world.
No. No. No. No. No.
I will bend like Gumby in a sauna to make my world run smoothly. I will open my arms and heart to friends who are struggling with their demons. I will empathize. I will listen. I will love. But I have a line and when a DP in my life crosses it they are no longer welcome. No matter what it takes, I will cut them out like a cancer.
If you are a DP or suspect you are a DP, re-read the paragraph above. That is what I (and I suspect many, many other people) want you to hear. There is a line. When you cross it, you lose a friend/family member/co-worker/employee. We ask ourselves “Is it worth it?” and we mean “Is it worth the headaches and heartaches to have this person in my life?” You, DP, also need to ask “Is it worth it?” Except, your question means “Is my behaviour, no matter how I try to justify it, worth losing this person from my life?”
If the answer is no, seek help. Find a therapist, counselor, psychologist or other professional who can help you get to the bottom of what’s making you this behave this way. Heck, you may need medication and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes your brain needs as much attention as your heart or lungs or teeth. Your real friends will support you. Hell, they’ve put up with worse!
Do your share of the work and we’ll do ours.
Those of you struggling with a DP, I’m sorry. Truly sorry. I can’t offer you any useful advice since nothing I’ve tried has ever worked when it comes to someone who is really determined to be a DP. What I can tell you is that you need to take care of yourself, without apology. Sometimes distance is the only solution, as tricky as that can be. Whatever you do, don’t blame yourself. That’s Dead Endsville, my friend.
It has taken me two years to get to a point where thoughts of DP1 no longer trigger an emotional reaction but my confidence in myself remains shaken and there are still moments when I ask, “Could I have handled that better?”
Sometimes the answer seems clear. Other times there is no answer only the unhappy realization that sometimes doing your best is not good enough.