There are 6.4 billion people out there and conflict is a fact of life. Of those 6.4 billion, obsessive compulsives make up 8%, paranoids 4%, schizophrenics 3%, 2% are borderline personality disordered, 5% are chronically depressed and 1% are psychopaths. And those are just the most common disorders. Chances are that even if the only thing we do every day is pop out to buy a loaf of bread, sooner or later one of these people is going to cross our path.
This post assumes we are not the difficult person. It assumes we are used to serious soul searching and have not caused conflict through thoughtlessness or aggressive or irresponsible behaviour.
Well….anyone left still listening?
But seriously, although we all overreact sometimes, have our buttons pushed, have impatient days, get angry with slow or foolish individuals etc., there is no doubt that there are also a whole lot of personality disordered people out there living “normal” lives with whom we come into regular contact and whose aggressive, unreasonable and sometimes downright weird behaviour knocks us off our guard.
Some of them are in our own families, some are at work, some pop out of nowhere when we were minding our own business…many are very difficult to avoid.
So….when these people do crazy things, how can we stop our stress levels rocketing, our blood pressure soaring and untold DNA damage careering through our bodies preparing us for an early grave?
The dilemma is this: if we are completely Zen, withdraw, stay silent, do not voice our discontent, although further external conflict may be avoided, it is possible we are setting ourselves up for a long period of internal conflict while we deal with feelings of injustice, resentment and frustration. And let us make no mistake….turning over what we might have said, what we should have done and eating ourselves away inside with feelings of outrage at what has been done to us is just as bad….correction, is worse for our health than screaming back at the lunatic who caused this situation in the first place.
However, silence is often far more powerful than throwing a tantrum. So how on earth can we live peaceful, mindful, stress-free lives in a world like ours?
Here are just a few examples of possible reactions to difficult people:
Family members and friends :
Here we mean a family member or friend who fails to respect our boundaries – basically this means treating us as less important than them or even as a non-person. Example : a parent who openly favours another sibling, a family member or flatmate who never knocks before entering our room or who uses our stuff without asking, a relative who never acknowledges we may have feelings or needs.
The day we make a stand and say, for example, “I am not an object. I feel you are invalidating my feelings”, the reaction may not be a textbook re-evaluation of the relationship. If the person mocks our feelings and screams, “Oh so your ‘feelings’ are more important than my eternal suffering…” (fill in something they constantly complain about), these are signs we are dealing with a narcissist, especially if the reaction is extreme – nuclear even – involving insults, threats, hysteria, put-downs and attempts to get other family members on board to convince us (not them of course) to have therapy. Anyone who has been a doormat or family/social dustbin and who suddenly stands up and says, “No more,” is likely to endure an intense outburst of wrath, since acceptance that we are in fact not an object would mean the narcissist would have to confront their real image, not the false one, and this they cannot do. In situations like this screaming back, hysteria and threatening is the worst possible reaction, since this will endorse their claim we are the one who’s nuts. Let the difficult person have their enraged reaction, but if necessary we repeat our position in a calm, monotone voice (monotone to help us control our own emotions). No angry emails. Best course of action is immediate withdrawal and either ending the relationship or restricting it to practical matters. Our core values may have moved so far away from our original family/friends any extended contact is harmful and irritating to both sides.
Rumination is likely, since there is no closure; distance is therefore the best possible option in order to distract us from harmful, stress-inducing thoughts. If abusive phone calls or nasty letters/emails arrive, we ignore them. Later, much later, introspection can be employed, in case anything (however minor) about what they said about us is true.
Rude strangers :
If a stranger is rude to us, without real reason and without knowing us from Adam, it is likely they are hard to live with and that it is nothing to do with us, so it is wise to say to ourselves, I’m not going to take this personally. However…difficult one, since in the heat of the moment, they do seem to be attacking us. Remaining Zen and not responding will perhaps limit conflict, but it is deeply unsatisfactory, since it will appear that the rude shop assistant/bank teller/tour guide etc. has “won”. They have disrespected us without possible equalization at a later stage. We can move away, but the balance has not been reestablished and as we do not know them, is unlikely ever to be. The injustice and souring of our mood is devilishly difficult to get rid of if we are unable to state our case.
Best course of action, assuming the difficult stranger is not likely to physically attack us (in which case a disappearing act is advisable), is therefore to make one short but sharp retort, and then withdraw immediately.
Here are two examples from real life :
On a plane, a young mother still carrying her pregnancy weight was struggling to put her suitcase in the overhead locker with 2 whiny toddlers. An impatient passenger behind her said, “If you weren’t so fat you wouldn’t be taking so long and holding everyone up.”
The mother counted to ten, turned to the passenger and, paraphrasing Winston Churchill said loudly, “I am fat and you are ugly. But I can go on a diet.”
Then she sat down and looked away to end the exchange.
At the pool an office worker in his fifties, trying to pack in a lunchtime swim, picked up a polystyrene board to swim with from a plastic crate – belonging to the pool – containing dozens of other boards. The aqua gym teacher slammed her foot on the man’s hand and said, “I need those.”
The man looked at the 12 portly ladies cycling on the spot in the pool for a short while, each already with their board. There were obviously many spare boards so he tried again to extract one. The aqua gym teacher said, “I said no,” in a very aggressive tone.
The man let go the board and looked at the gym teacher saying, “Oh I’m so sorry. I can see you are a very aggressive person. Apologies, I should have noticed from those deep wrinkles on your upper lip that you have trouble controlling your negative emotions.”
He then entered the pool and back-stroked away.
The entire gym class heard.
In both instances the exchange was brief, honest and calm, but emotions were equalized. No rumination ensued – at least not in the people defending themselves against the difficult person. Note in both of these cases the person attacked by the stranger paused to consider their reaction first and was therefore able to choose one for maximum effect.
Rude colleagues :
Two possibilities – either the colleague has power over us or he/she doesn’t.
If the colleague has no power (and is for example acting as though she does), then failure to react will lead to harmful rumination. After the statutory counting to ten, breathing deeply to avoid sounding angry (even though our heart may be racing), we make our response.
Rude colleague : “I can’t believe you screwed up so badly there.”
Count to ten.
Response to difficult colleague : “How interesting to see you also have an aggressive streak. Is this a new thing, or have I just uncovered it?”
Ah yes, the skill of the put-down. To avoid souring the atmosphere at work – after all, we have to continue to work in it after the exchange is over – we use humour.
If the colleague does have power over us then silence and withdrawal is usually the best strategy, unless we are extremely good at the humorous but pointed response which will not challenge their authority. People in authority often got there because they wanted power over others. If we are fortunate enough to have a boss who took up the position in order to discover his or her inner demons and engage in 24/7 introspection, then a fairer exchange can take place, but let’s face it…there ain’t many of them about, and they aren’t likely to be difficult people.
Although it may lead to rumination, we won’t regret silence in a case like this, whereas we may regret an impulsive angry response. And regrets, fear of consequences and belly-aching remorse are worse in triggering the stress response.
So in this case, the lesser of two evils unfortunately. And if it happens all the time, best to get away from that person if we can – change jobs/departments/activity – since it may be a vibrational personality clash. It is well known people behave differently depending on who they are with. One boss was particularly cruel and overbearing to a young girl who would tremble in fear whenever she was near him. In fact this was because he was rejected by a girl who strongly resembled her years back. Deep down it might not be about us at all, just the fact the difficult person in question is using us to exorcise their own hang-ups. There is a reason for their bad behaviour (but it doesn’t mean it’s not bad behaviour).
If the worst comes to the worst, “I can see you feel very strongly about this,” is a good all-rounder. No one can object to our having said it, and it liberates us from having to swallow our bile.
Let’s drop the need to always be right with difficult people. The one-liner is enough. Conflict is necessary for growth. It expands consciousness and fosters appreciation of its opposite. Rumination, regrets and bitterness write themselves across our brows and add decades to our appearance.
Developing high interpersonal intelligence means learning how to successfully deal with each individual person we encounter according to their temperament.
Photo Credit: Instant Vantage via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: scragz via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: SuperJet International via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: zoonabar via Compfight cc