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.
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Ever felt really depressed and couldn’t work out why?
The problem arises when we wake up, feel depressed, and then our mind seeks a reason to justify the depression.
There are always reasons in our life to be depressed. Even if everything is going well, we may fear losing the happy state, or feel guilt over having achieved something others didn’t, or about an argument with someone recently. We feel something is bound to go wrong if it hasn’t already, and the downward spiral begins. Taking antidepressants may correct the chemical issue in the short term, but it fails to address the root cause. Pinpointing the original thought or emotion that is niggling us is the first step towards changing our mental state. Sometimes these emotions can be traced back to something someone said days or even weeks ago.
Rumination is now being shown to be one of the key causes of ageing and illness. If we fail to recognise wallowing for the health compromiser that it is, we are playing Russian roulette with our bodies. We must recognise that our thoughts are profoundly influenced by our mood, and that when we are depressed, this is not who we really are. Sad, defeatist thoughts are alien invaders, which we must wipe out if we value our health. In times of despair when we are too raw even to think, repetitive chants can sooth us into a gentler mental state. Countless studies have confirmed that chanting reverses depression. Chanting has been shown to block the release of stress hormones, normalise adrenalin and lower cholesterol, as well as filling the mind so it cannot focus on sad and depressing ideas. It is therefore not hocus-pocus but a tried and tested remedy against ill health.
There are many different chants but one easy one is Om shanti shanti shanti.
Depression is harmful to our health, and speeds up ageing. It can lead to weight gain, heart disease, insomnia, and aches and pains. Low levels of serotonin can lower our pain threshold, and stress hormones make us more susceptible to disease. Health problems associated with depression include diabetes, stroke, digestive issues, cancer, kidney disease, arthritis, autoimmune conditions such as lupus and Parkinson’s. Depression may start in the head, but the effects on the body are soon felt if it is not addressed. If we are tempted to wallow, the spectre of physical problems to add to our emotional ones should spur us on to change our mental landscape.
Sometimes an underlying medical disorder can trigger a chemical imbalance which leads to depression, but as depression also triggers chemical imbalances….well, could be chicken and egg. Morning depression is sometimes a hangover from sleep or Seasonal Affected Disorder, thought to be caused by the hibernation response left over from our biological ancestors. Lack of serotonin may play a role in SAD, but however little we feel like it, the symptoms can soon be overcome by engaging in physical activity or exposing ourselves to light.
Even if the cause of depression is hormonal, such as in premenstrual syndrome, MRI scans have now proven beyond doubt that changes in our thinking can change brain chemistry. This is a fantastic piece of news that gives us mastery over not only our lives but our bodies too.