Difficult people. Who are they? The bully. The complainer. The negative nancy. The self-righteous. The ultra competitive. The master manipulator. The victim. The high conflict personality. And the list goes on and on. We all have such people in our lives that we need to deal with whether at work, in our families, or in our extended circle of friends.
The reality is some people we come across in life are unreasonable and irrational. It is the very nature of their behavior and attitude that tends to leave us scratching our head. Difficult people have the ability to get under our skin. Even if we know and expect a person to act difficult, it can still be a challenge to observe instead of absorb their toxic energy. The difficult amongst us run the gamut on grating behaviors: being rude, hostile, demeaning, dismissive, overly aggressive, a know it all. Oftentimes, their obnoxious behavior pushes our buttons in ways we struggle to control. They can trigger our ego or our defenses. Who amongst us has not come across a person who has “being difficult” down to an art form? These people make us wonder why anyone would want to conduct their life in such a way that elevates stress and conflict not only for others, but for themselves.
So why do difficult people do it? For one, they get something out of it. If it is a coworker, perhaps we stop asking them to help with work. If it is our spouse, we stop asking them to help with the dishes. If it is a family member, we don’t ask them to watch the kids because we know they will have a song and dance about how they already do so much for us, and so on and so forth. There is always a payoff for difficult behavior.
The other reason difficult people are so difficult is they get away with it. We don’t speak up because we don’t want more conflict or the headache. We avoid them to not deal with their nonsense.
Another reason difficult people are difficult? It was how they were raised. We all like to think we aren’t like our parents but oftentimes a difficult person was raised by a difficult parent who modeled such behaviors. Ever meet someone’s mother or father and thought to yourself this explains it all. This holds true with difficult behavior. People often don’t even realize how ingrained behaviors are from their upbringing.
How can you tell you are dealing with a difficult person? Below are some common indicators:
- Difficult people are hard to interact with. Whether this entails the difficult person constantly interrupting you, centering the conversation around themselves, or belittling your views & opinions, you are left with the feeling that what you say just doesn’t matter. These people often talk “at you” as opposed to “talk with you.”
- Difficult people tend to be intolerant of differences. In fact, they tend to be very annoyed by other people who hold different views. This may result in social gaffes because they are not tolerant enough of differences to not be offensive to others. These are the “my way or the highway” types. Difficult people often need to be right and tend to be very rigid in their views. They prefer to be in the company of those who hold the same beliefs. Once a difficult person forms an opinion, their minds are closed. Even if you show a difficult person clear evidence they are wrong, they will become defensive. They often lack humor when it comes to differing points of view. There is no “agreeing to disagree” with a difficult person. Some difficult people share many traits of those with narcissistic personality disorder. They are thin-skinned and cannot entertain the possibility that they do not know everything. If a person seems closed off to hearing a viewpoint they do not agree with, they probably may be a black and white thinker. Black and white thinking is a common trait amongst difficult people (and those with personality disorders).
- Difficult people are selfish. Kids are ruled by their feelings. Adults are supposed to be able to think things out and weigh consequences. As we come to adulthood, healthy people have learned just because it feels good or it is what we want, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Difficult people are driven by their wants and their own needs. Your needs do not matter. Don’t get me wrong–difficult people can be very kind and warm-when it suits them. But if you stand in the way of them getting what they want, watch out! Healthy adults recognize others have needs and even if those “needs” conflict with their own, they recognize the rights of others to pursue their own goals. Difficult people often feel you should put their wants and needs before your own. Be very cautious of someone who acts like you should put them before yourself.
- Difficult people are controlling. Many are bullies. They have no problem using whatever means necessary to get you to do what they want. This kind of goes along with being selfish. Difficult people will often tell you what you “should” be doing. Big red flag! Healthy functioning adults do not go around offering unsolicited advice. Difficult people LOVE to offer unsolicited advice. They have an opinion on EVERYTHING. Now, this is not to say from time to time, we all don’t put our two cents in to our friends and family. We do. However, healthy adults don’t put forth advice as a should or directive, nor do they act with a sense of authority. Difficult people do. Remember, people who cannot control themselves try to control others. If someone is trying to control you, it is not worth discussing anything other than the superficial with them, unless you want to fall down the rabbit hole. Healthy people do not try to exert authority over others (unless it is appropriate: example a boss/employee, parent/child, etc.)
- Difficult people love drama. In fact, difficult people will often say they “hate” drama. If someone says this to you, RUN. I am serious. Get out of there! People who do not love drama do not speak about their hatred of drama. People who are in actual “drama free” types exhibit behavior that would not allow much unnecessary drama to develop in their lives (such as proclaiming they hate drama). Saying you hate drama is a clear indicator you love it. Not only do they love it but often they will MANUFACTURE it for their own amusement. If someone is trying to suck you in to drama, try to stay out of their way. These types of people will always find someone willing to engage in their circus. Observe but do not absorb what is being thrown at you.
- Difficult people always have something negative to say about others. More so, they never have a positive thing to say about anyone. Ever. Try it out sometime. Bring up a person that you and the difficult person both know. Wait for a negative comment to fly out of said difficult person’s mouth. Difficult people are often gossips without a kind word to say about anyone (except maybe themselves).
- Difficult people tend to have a low frustration/stress tolerance. They are very reactive people. Difficult people are also often emotional children. If you say something that triggers them, expect them to often overreact or go on the defensive. It is very hard for difficult people to admit mistakes or stay calm in a heated discussion. Many times difficult people have developed inadequate coping mechanisms and will distort, deny, or blame the other. They just do not have the capacity or wherewithal to accept responsibility.
- Difficult people will say YOU are the difficult one. Project much?! Difficult people are incapable of self-reflecting. Interestingly enough difficult people tend to be self-referential (where they make repeated reference to themselves–how THEY would do something or how THEY have done something–and of course they are always the “shining example” of how to act/be). If there is a problem, you can bet they are not going to take accountability. Most mature adults can look back at a conflict and see their role in it. Difficult people project their negative qualities onto you. I have actually had this happen to me before with a textbook difficult person–it leaves you wondering how anyone can be that distorted in their thinking—but believe you me, difficult people can and do live in their OWN reality. In my experience, you must have the sensibility to not be sucked into their projections. It is much easier said than done.
These are just a few of the many characteristics of a difficult person. One overarching truth: difficult people are inherently manipulative. Usually they are playing for dominance and power in their interactions with people. This naturally will put us on the defense as we feel an intrinsic need to protect ourselves when we feel insulted or attacked. If you feel a need to defend yourself in a conversation with someone, take a step back to look at WHY. Healthy people try to have discussions, not arguments. If you express a thought or feeling and the person begins a tirade on why you are wrong—you may be getting gaslighted (more on that later). Healthy people will listen to a person’s perspective, even if they disagree, without going on the attack. We are the best judge of our own experiences. Healthy people do not invalidate other people’s feelings even if they do not agree.
Difficult people try to bait others into reacting. These people are masters of figuring out our triggers and using them against us. Yet to deal with a difficult person you need to overcome your need to “protect” your reputation or “not let them get away with this.” Resisting the trap set by difficult people is easier if you stay focus on the big picture: these people are not worth the energy or the time to tussle with. Below I offer a few suggestions for how to stay sane with such energy sappers.
How to Stay Present and Rational When Confronted By Difficult People
- Observe. Don’t absorb. DO NOT internalize whatever a difficult person tries to project or throw at you. Often difficult people are trying to unload their own negative emotions onto you. THIS IS NOT YOUR BURDEN TO BEAR. People can’t transmit their negativity onto you, if you do not accept it. Try to look at your dealings with such people as a science experience. Figure out which approach works best to neutralize them.
- Resist the urge to argue or win. THERE IS NO WINNING WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE. They live for the fight. They do not communicate to find common ground or resolve conflicts but to “put you are in your place” or put you in a “lower” position to them. These people have fragile egos. Difficult people tend to always be jockeying for position in their interactions with people–and this position is to be on top. Many difficult people cannot stand to think other people have their number. They do not like coming to social relationships on a level playing field. This is why you always get the sense they are trying to keep you off-balance.
- Ask yourself, “Does this person really matter in my life?” If it is a boss or your mother, you will be more apt to figure out ways to “manage” the relationship. If the person is not a key part of your life, minimizing your interactions with them would be the best approach. Avoid when you can, be polite but firm when you must interact. No matter what do not lower yourself to their behavior by acting in kind. These types of people tend to make us act out of character with their crazy making behavior.
- If you cannot avoid this person, ask yourself, “What is my goal in this relationship?” Your goal might need some tweaking if it involves any EXPECTATION on the part of the difficult person. You can expect NOTHING with these types of folks. Your goal with difficult people should be to keep the relationship on an even keel as possible. DO NOT talk about any subject that can trigger them–if you know they are sensitive about their career (or lack there of), do not talk about your recent promotion. If you know they are insecure about how they parent, avoid voicing opinions about things that have been successful for you with your kids. You might be thinking to yourself, but I don’t want to censor what I say or who I am. I understand–but save who you really are for the people in your life you are close with—toxic people will often take what you say and use it against you later. They will twist and distort what you say. These people are not safe vessels to share your true feelings with. It is not worth it to get into it with a toxic person. Saying less is more with these people.
- Practice detachment. Detachment is where you observe not absorb the other person’s words, energy, or actions. Detachment does not mean you are rude or uncaring. It is coming from a mind space where you are still the polite, kind person you are but you are PROTECTING yourself from the toxicity of the difficult person. DO NOT take anything personal with a difficult person. Difficult people are not happy people. I repeat DIFFICULT PEOPLE ARE NOT HAPPY PEOPLE. Happy people do not go around trying to hurt or agitate others. With detachment, you come with a sense of boundaries and integrity when faced with the toxicity of another person. You are not going to stoop to their level but walk away if they are unable to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner. Do not allow yourself to be baited.
- Have compassion. I know you are thinking how can I have compassion for someone who makes my life difficult. But you should. Because as I said happy, fulfilled people do not go around trying to manufacture problems or inappropriately insert themselves into others’ lives. Happy people do not try to make other people feel bad about themselves. These people may be crazy makers but they also create misery in their own lives as well. SO next time, that nosy coworker is putting down your proposal or belittling your presentation, take a step back. People who are overly critical tend to be very critical of themselves as well. Have some empathy for someone who is SO unhappy with their own life, that they exude negativity onto others.
- Have a sense of humor. Difficult people can be pretty funny when you think about it. They are prone to social faux pas and putting their feet in their mouth. Many times a difficult person has NO filter. Of course it is hard to laugh about rudeness or inappropriateness when it is directed at you! Nevertheless if you can keep it light and humorous, that is half the battle. You cannot take these people seriously (except to the extent of protecting yourself from them causing problems in your life). Try to chuckle to yourself when you are forced to share the same space with such people.
- See a therapist. If you really find there is a difficult person in your life who is driving YOU crazy, look into talking to a professional. A professional counselor can help you develop strategies for dealing with the crazy maker in your life. Professional counselors are trained to deal with people who exhibit maladaptive behaviors or may have a personality disorder of some sort.
More on dealing with difficult people to come in further posts. I find many people seek counseling when they are struggling to deal with a crazy maker in their life.
To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649