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The ABCs of Dealing With Difficult People

A three-pronged approach.

“From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. —Anaïs Nin

When I run into difficult people, I keep running. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: the people I keep close are a facet of my self care, and my life is too important to waste time dealing with people who are unnecessarily challenging.

Jim Rohn has famously stated, “ you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” So it would only make sense to me that I’d choose wisely. Why engage with difficult people in the first place if I don’t have to?

Isn’t life itself enough of a challenge?

Unfortunately, I don’t always get to pick my battles. And sometimes, difficult people show up in my life in ways I simply can’t avoid. They’re members of my family, coworkers, neighbors, or other people with whom I must engage or keep in touch on a semi-regular basis.

And some of these people may have exceptionally valid reasons to be difficult. When someone is struggling with mental health issues or addictions, when they’re grieving, or during especially challenging times in their lives, it’s only understandable for them to be consumed with things other than being pleasant.

And while that may help explain their behavior, it doesn’t mean it’s any more comfortable when I have to deal with it. Point being: no matter what they’re struggling with or how they show up in my life, there’s no disputing that they will show up.

So in light of that, here are three crucial things that I try to remember when difficult people do show up:

1. Acceptance.

There are a few sayings I should write out and have mounted on my wall. The first of which being “I can’t change or fix anyone,” and right next to that, “It’s a problem, but it doesn’t have to be my problem.”

As easy as these two phrases are to recite, they’re often difficult for me to practice and require constant reminding. Half the time, I don’t even realize I’m trying to change someone or taking on their issues until I’m too far gone, extensively ruminating over all the things I can’t control.

It often masks itself as “voicing my concerns” or even “standing up for myself.” But I’ve discovered that there’s a fine line between choosing not to enable someone’s toxic behavior, and attempting to negotiate a change in it.

I’m only responsible for myself and the choices I make. I can only control how I respond to others; how they react to me is none of my business. It’s perfectly healthy to establish that someone’s behavior towards me isn’t tolerated, but that conversation is fact-based, and not a debate.

How I see things isn’t necessarily how others see them—it’s just my version of reality. And while I can tell people what is okay and not okay for my life, what I can’t expect is for them to join me there.

This mindset is the start of setting healthy boundaries, which leads me to my second point:

2. Boundaries.

My favorite approach to dealing with the difficult people in my life is to set firm boundaries. According to Dr. Henry Cloud, “boundaries help us to distinguish our property so that we can take care of it.” And I find that establishing healthy boundaries is something that gets increasingly easier the more I practice it.

A solid boundary is what protects me from taking responsibility for someone else’s issues, and vice versa. Of course, I only have to work on setting limits with people who don’t inherently have their own, so it’s no surprise that every time they actually get set, it comes with a significant degree of pushback.

Yet that doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility to set them. It’s my way of telling people what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in their behavior towards me. And it prevents me from feeling used, walked on and blatantly taken advantage of.

Sometimes, setting boundaries means not answering someone at all when they text me out of the blue, or after too many drinks on a Friday night. Other times, setting boundaries means addressing the behavior in a very firm, non-reactionary way.

For me, the healthiest approach is usually the one that feels the most naturally uncomfortable. This is actually how I tend to gauge the situation: if I feel anxious addressing it verbally, that’s because I probably need to say something.

And given that I’m going against what’s been “normal” for me since I was a child, dealing with the situation differently always gives me a pang of discomfort — which I now take as an invitation ahead.

Because the choice for how I want to feel is entirely my own.

3. Choice.

There’s always a choice to make, or not to make, with difficult people. I can choose to treat someone as they present themselves to me, and not expect more from them based on what they mean to me. I can also decide not to spend my time with them, or only do so on a limited basis.

I can choose not to engage in a text back when I know the topic will inevitably set me up for disappointment. There’s only so many times you can put your hand in the fire until you decide you’re finished getting burned.

Dr. Henry Cloud says that “to rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless” and I couldn’t agree more. It’s not my job to sweep things under the carpet or pretend that someone’s abusive behavior is normal. And it’s not my job to fix it, either.

Everyone is responsible for the discomfort and consequences that result from their actions. Trying to normalize the distress someone else causes is an exhausting feat for me, and it’s a counter-intuitive approach in the larger scheme of things.

The only way someone could be motivated to change would be to find the resolve to do so in the face of their own discomfort. And I can tell you one thing for sure: they definitely won’t change a thing if I take on the trouble for them.

Shannon Leigh is a writer, letterer and curious cat. To learn more, visit her site.