In this eclectic article I’m going to talk about dealing with people who are very difficult and at the same time pushing on our sore spots emotionally. I don’t mean the people who accidentally step on our toes (once again emotionally speaking!), but the people who seem intent on getting a rise out of us, or staying entangled in some kind of weird dynamic, or power struggle with us. You can absolutely use some of the following exercises for people who are essentially benign and are just tripping over our triggers now and then by accident.
But if you have someone who is being an absolute nightmare right now, perpetuating a situation or conflict that absolutely does not need to be as difficult as it is, I hope that this will help. Because your situation is exactly what I had in mind while writing. OK, here we go!
Dealing With Difficult People When it Hurts
This is very not fun. You got hurt in the past and now, almost as if the world is poking the wound, it has come back around with a new version of exactly the same thing.
‘What did I do to deserve this?’ Is a common reaction.
It makes sense. It’s not fair that we can go through life trying to do good, but bad things and people with bad motivations still pop up out of nowhere.
But we need to shift the paradigm.
What if the world isn’t trying to hurt or diminish us at all?
What if it keeps coming back with opportunities for us to revisit our wound and heal ourselves stronger? To know ourselves better? To finally move on.
I am currently dealing with a situation like this, so for me it is the perfect time to write about it. In fact, I usually try to write about issues when I am in the midst of them, because then I can truly empathise with you and everyone going through it, in a way that is embodied. A lived experience, rather than just something I know about.
A quick note from me
Firstly I want to remind you, as always, do get help from a trained professional such as a therapist if you are suffering or affected by these issues.
And secondly (but not less importantly), I want to say that I’m sorry you’re experiencing this.
Adding Injury to Injury: A Rare Opportunity?
To have been wounded in the first place, perhaps when you were even quite young, is hard and it’s painful. To have that wound circle back over and over again like some kind of hungry shark can feel even worse sometimes. Like its personal.
And I think it is personal. But not in a malicious way. I believe if the universe thinks you’re strong enough and that you deserve better, it will keep offering you opportunities to step up into a more powerful and real expression of yourself and out of the lingering pain of that wound.
So, a difficult situation with someone who is triggering you can be an amazing opportunity, even though it is also so hard.
It’s important to note that even though we may carry a wound, we don’t need to accept any responsibility for other people’s bad behaviour. We can use it to our own advantage, however, to grow as a person and to heal.
Designer Brands Of Pain
It’s also useful to think about the fact that while other people may act badly, their behaviour may roll off our backs and we may either barely notice it or recover very quickly, if we don’t have the wound that matches it.
While those people who are acting out and looking (unconsciously) to tap into our specific brand of pain, can do things that feel exquisitely painful to us.
If you are a match then they will tend to linger in your life until you have healed that wound enough to stop accepting that kind of pain. At that point, they typically no longer get any release or satisfaction from the dynamic and may even let go of their own accord.
Pointers, Perspectives and Exercises
The difficult thing with these situations is the amount of stuff going on behind the scenes. The invisible stuff that makes a dynamic – most of it unspoken and unconscious.
So I want to talk about a few pointers you can use to get some perspective on a difficult situation like this, as well as some tips for dealing with it.
- Try and Identify the Wound
If someone’s actions or words are hurting, although it could just be about the current situation, if it feels very strong then they may be triggering an old wound. Bear in mind you may need to get support from a therapist as you work with this, because it may be very sensitive and/ or be affecting a much younger part of you.
The phrase “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical” is kind of useful and catchy enough to remember, if patronising – I don’t think you’re hysterical! But, if your reactions are stronger than seems warranted for the behaviour, that’s a strong sign you have an existing sore spot they may be pressing on.
- Try to remember the first time you felt the way this person/ situation is making you feel. Try writing down all of your feelings about that old situation or emotion, and how it made you feel about yourself. Be kind to yourself as you do this, take time out if needed, and practice self-compassion. Self-blame has no place in this exercise.
- Now write down your feelings about the current situation and how it is making you feel about yourself.
- OK, now you have those two lists, find the similarities common to both.
- You can draw this out as a Venn diagram if it helps, one circle being your feelings from the past (from #1), the second circle being the recent situation (#2) and the overlapping section containing the similarities (#3). These can include similar dynamics, feelings, actions, gestures, responses from you, even vocabulary used by the other person or yourself.
2. Take a moment to Breathe
It’s important to be kind to yourself when you uncover these deeper emotions. So take a moment with the following exercise.
Put your hands on your heart and say these phrases in your mind or aloud in your own time:
“I am safe and I am loved.
I am worthy of love and respect.
I am not to blame for others’ actions.
My worth remains high, no matter how I am treated
I am whole and worthy of love.”
3. Imagine What a Mentor Would Do
This does not have to be someone you know in real life, or even a real person. Just pick someone you look up to. Like Judi Dench, the Black Panther, Marlon Brando – whoever you feel a strong respect for. OK, now you have your person in mind, try this quick exercise:
Imagine your ideal mentor in this exact situation. With an open mind and taking your time on each question, wonder:
- How would they respond?
- What would they say?
- And how do you think they would feel?
This is a very useful exercise because it tells you not only how you want to be in the situation: it tells you more about who you actually are deep down. If there is a strength you admire in your mentor you may not have fully embodied or owned it yet, but it’s in there. Congratulations!
4. Identify What the Difficult Person is Trying to Get/ Get Rid Of (and What is Hurting You)
Our weak spot is our wound, the ‘difficult person’s’ MO is whatever emotion they are trying to put on us or get from us. For example, if someone can’t deal with their own anger they may be impossible to work with until we feel that anger and express it for them. Or if, as very commonly happens, they are in pain and can’t bear to feel it, they will act in a way that hurts us, putting their pain on us instead.
I had a realisation of another key aspect of this dynamic, while reading an amazing book called Group by Christie Tate. In it her therapist says that when you keep a secret for someone else, you’re agreeing to hold their shame. I realised this may be crucial to the kind of poor behaviour we might experience from others, beyond an unconscious channelling of their pain into us or trying to elicit specific emotional responses. Because shame is a very specific, sticky, uncomfortable emotion – difficult to hold and difficult to let go of. Even if the difficult person is not asking you to keep a secret, they may be trying to alleviate their own feelings of shame.
So there are a wide range of things the other person may be asking us (unconsciously) to hold or to supply, from emotions such as anger or joy, to… forces (? there may be a better term for these) such as love, attention or pain. It is great to be open-minded while considering what the relevant one(s) in your situation might be.
(And the ‘difficult person’ most likely has their own wound they are trying to distract from or satisfy. But that is none of our business, because that is their issue to deal with, not ours to try to fix (a common way we might try to avoid addressing our own discomfort, or avoid acknowledging our value).)
I believe symptoms of holding others’ pain may include: agitation, confusion, excessive problem-solving about the situation, self-blame and thinking about that person too much. And symptoms of holding others’ shame may include all of those and also: feeling like the connection between you is “icky”, you feel bogged-down or ‘gross’, and that the issue is starting to affect how you feel about yourself, for example: lowering your self-esteem or ability to listen to your instincts.
So, try this short exercise:
- Wonder with an open mind, what the main emotion or specific dynamic behind the scenes is.
- When you have one or a couple, say to yourself:
- “This [the specific emotion or dynamic] is not mine to hold. It has nothing to do with me.”
- Picture it leaving your body, and also your, and the other person’s, emotions separating.
- Take a deep breath and let your shoulders drop a couple of times.
- Then pick out a pleasurable and healthy thing to do to nurture yourself today. A walk, a smoothie, massaging your shoulders – whatever it is, try to enjoy shifting your focus back to yourself and your life in an empowered and embodied way.
5. Get the Care You Need
Although this situation has been a great prompt, it is powerful to keep your attention on yourself, your healing. In fact, shifting your focus back from the other person to yourself is the ultimate success. Because, although you may never get the apology or vindication or even just clarity you want, the point is always you and how you feel about yourself.
So, try this open-ended exercise for considering your healthiest next steps.
- Call to mind the nature of the hurt you are carrying, with a gentle and open mind set (avoid getting into specifics or the “story”)
- With a curious and open mind, wonder – what is the best way forward for myself? Is it therapy, massage, more socialising, speaking more openly to my friends, setting up healthier boundaries, or other? This next step could be anything as long as it is healthy and feels right for you.
I hope you enjoyed this simultaneously long and way-too-short-to-cover-everything article. It occurs to me we have not covered the practical aspect of dealing with difficult people, so I may revisit this topic with a second part next week. And if you’re struggling with a situation like this, you may also benefit from reading Part One and Part Two of my article on dealing with narcissists.
I hope you’re doing OK with everything, feeling healthy, happy and whole.
As always, take care!
PS If you want to check it out, this is the Group book (it’s an affiliate link btw).