Coping with Difficult People (Part 2)

This column and the previous one are for people who are deeply frustrated with someone at home or at work. If most other people have the same problems getting along with this difficult person, your first step to making your peace is to understand your enemy.

Last week I explained how during hard times growing up, we all develop a character style. That’s the characteristic ways we’ve developed to handle feelings and relationships, to keep us safe from rejection and abuse. Extreme and inflexible character styles are known to us shrinks as "Axis Two", "personality disorders", or simply "PD’s".

Last week we looked at four pairings I often see when opposite disorders attract. With FEAR, POWER, ANGER, and RIGIDITY, those with too little are often attracted to those with too much, and the attraction works both ways.

This pattern of opposite extremes attracting is seen at all levels of life—human, animal, plant, cellular chemistry, and even way out there with astrological physics. Human relationships pair weak and strong, rich and poor, high IQ and emotional IQ, drunks and teetotalers, shy and outgoing, even healthy and sick.

The second step in making peace with difficult people is to realize you can’t change them. Accept your powerlessness over them. Stop beating your head against their walls by trying to rescue, appease, punish, or reform the difficult people.

The next mantra to repeat is accepting them: "I can accept them without approving of their behavior." "They have a right to act that way if they want to." If this is hard, it’s likely because you’re trying to skip to step four, which won’t work without the first three.

Now step four: choose a moderate emotional distance for your relationship. You can’t afford to get too close to PD’s, and if you want to get along with them, you can’t scoot too far back either. Stay close enough to where you both still need each other, but far enough back where you don’t need each other too much.

Step 5 is the most important, with the most potential for your coming to actually enjoy difficult people. It requires a good grasp on the first four. Hold them responsible for their selfish behavior by making your responses to their actions realistic, an accurate portrayal of how any normal person would react.

Imagine how a future roommate, coworker, boss, spouse, or neighbor would treat them. Look at how the healthy people you know deal with them, and you follow suit. The idea is to teach difficult people that in dealing with you, they will get exactly what they pay for.

I said this step of changing your reaction to hold them accountable is important, but anyone who’s tried it can tell you it’s by far the most difficult challenge in making peace with these people. (If you want to know more about particular strategies for "Coping with Difficult People", I wrote a book by that title a generation ago, and though it’s out of print, you can get a used copy on for next to nothing.)

When PD’s show us too much or too little of a certain behavior, our natural tendency is often to counterbalance: If they are irresponsible or unkind, we tend to be overly responsible or kind. But this only makes it easier for them to justify being difficult, so I’m saying counter your tendency to counterbalance (to go to the opposite extreme. Don’t go to any extreme.

Look for your tendencies to do too much of a good thing and cut back. This will round off your own rough edges of too much helping, analyzing, excusing, coddling, lecturing or punishing. If taking care of them keeps backfiring, take better care of the caretaker (that’s you!).

Do you see how this rounds off both your rough edges and theirs? It reduces friction between the two of you, and puts the rub where it belongs. The friction is felt inside each one of you, challenging you to be a more well-balanced person with smoother relationships.

When you become a more well-rounded person, you will soon discover a wonderful exception to opposites attracting. Well-rounded people attract other well-rounded people. The fellowship of the embittered losers will back away from you, and you will get more support from upbeat people. Take it and enjoy!

In conclusion, research has shown that opposites attract: unbalanced people with bad habits draw and are drawn to other losers at the opposite extreme. And winners attract: well adjusted folks are attracted to other healthy people. As many times as I’ve seen this work out in the lives of folks I work with, you can’t tell me there’s not a higher power somewhere trying to inspire us to grow up and get along with each other better!

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt