Difficult People and the Art of Not Losing Yourself

May 13, 2020
You must save your energy when it comes to dealing with difficult people. This implies not having a breakdown, maintaining your good self-esteem, and controlling your emotions so you don't become overcome by anger or frustration.

Difficult people are all about arguments, criticism, blackmail, and just plain negativity in their environment. Our mental health is at risk when we’re forced to deal with them on a daily basis. This is because it isn’t always possible to maintain a healthy distance from them. What’s worse, asking them to change their attitude would be useless. What should you do if you have to work or live with one of these people?

The most important thing is to take care of yourself. Mainly because humans are wired for self-defense and building forts and think of strategies to retaliate or just survive. But we forget about our well-being, which is the most fundamental part for us. When we neglect it, our own mental and emotional energy runs out. Not only that, but we end up vulnerable.

Something quite remarkable about this subject is worth considering. Sociologist Shira Offer of the Bar Ilan University in Israel, tells us that many of the people we consider “difficult” are very close to us. Thus, you can have highly demanding children, parents, or siblings.

Of course, we’d all like for things to just flow, and for our daily life with them to be more rewarding. However, this isn’t always possible, which is why you shouldn’t just put up with it.

“No poison can kill a positive thinker and no medicine can save a negative thinker.” 

-Buddha-

How to deal with difficult people

Two women seemingly arguing.

Difficult people can demonstrate the complexity of their character in many different ways. Some argue about everything. Some avoid any responsibility and refuse to cooperate. Others spread rumors or want to “paint it all black”. But, beyond their personality, it’s what they do, or fail to do, what truly affects those around them.

For example, some people don’t have any problem with that nitpicky coworker that you always try to avoid. This is because everyone has a limit of their own and a way of handling human complexity. So, before getting too caught up on the negative traits of other people, figure out what exactly bothers you about them. Is it their lack of respect? Is it their attitude? Is this something that triggers you for some specific reason?

Regarding this topic, the aforementioned doctor, Shira Offer, conducted a study to prove some things. For one: we stress out when we deal with difficult people. We progressively begin to experience discomfort towards them until we reach the point of intolerance. We tend to forget what it is that we dislike about them because we avoid them at all costs.

However, it isn’t always possible to run away from them. This is because, most of the time, we’re forced to work or cohabitate with difficult people.

Self-care and “second-hand” stress

Two men arguing.

Researchers Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio of the University of California conducted a study in which they talk about the impact of second-hand stress. What does it mean? And how does it relate to difficult people? We’ll tell you in a moment. Complex, adverse, critical, and demanding behavior will always affect us when forced to interact with such people on a daily basis.

Thus, the mere act of watching someone in a state of stress, be it an insufferable co-worker or a family member who’s argumentative, ends up affecting your own nervous system. This is what second-hand stress is about and it affects your health.

Thus, self-care should be your priority when you have to deal with difficult people. This is a form of daily exercise for strengthening the mental muscle that’ll protect you from such behaviors. Therefore, you should devote time and effort to the following practices:

  • Claim some “me time” to relax and try not to think about the difficult people in your life.
  • Learn some stress management techniques such as deep breathing, Jacobson’s relaxation technique, mindfulness, etc.

Self-care to remember what deserves your attention and what doesn’t

Some say that “things only affect you as much as you let them”. There’s a lot of truth in it. However, it isn’t always easy to apply it to our immediate reality. We’d all love for things not to affect us so much, but it’s hard to maintain that equanimity when people of a complex nature violate our rights and liberties.

We must also exercise self-care in these cases. This is because well-being is also about setting boundaries and knowing how to protect ourselves and even defend ourselves if we have to. Well-being is about knowing how to control our emotions and giving importance to what’s truly important. It’s about not giving too much of our precious attention to things that don’t deserve it.

Having a clear sense of ourselves, remembering what our values and needs are, staying calm, and developing appropriate emotional intelligence skills can help you better manage many of these frustrating situations.

At the end of the day, everyone has at least one difficult person in their lives. Therefore, you should learn how to properly handle your relationships with them to make your life easier.

  • Shira Offer, Claude S. Fischer. Difficult People: Who Is Perceived to Be Demanding in Personal Networks and Why Are They There? American Sociological Review, 2017; 000312241773795 DOI: 10.1177/0003122417737951