There is lots of advice out there about how to deal with difficult people, but most of it focuses on how to protect ourselves from harm and move on with business as usual. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but if moving on with business as usual is our primary goal, we generally try not to be affected by what happens. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel how something is affecting us, we miss an opportunity to learn about ourselves, expand our capacity to handle challenges, and deepen our connection with others.
Most of all, when we protect ourselves from negative patterns without letting ourselves be affected by them, we lose the opportunity to transform them. The cycles continue on, uninterrupted.
I experienced this first-hand recently when a Very Important Person in my life accused me of not caring about his needs. I did what my brain immediately told me any intelligent, mature, and caring individual would do: I asked him for evidence. When he didn’t give me any, it was like Helen had been kidnapped by Troy in my brain: a thousand war-ready reasons were immediately launched for why he was wrong for thinking I didn’t care and why he was terrible for saying so without any evidence whatsoever.
I extricated myself from the conversation. I tried not to let it bother me. Then I thought about all the ways I had demonstrated that I cared in the last month and reassured myself that I was a very caring person. I considered telling him that he couldn’t just accuse me of things willy nilly without evidence to back them up. I imagined yelling at him about how hurtful it was for him to say what he did and insist that he not do it again.
In other words, I tried to protect myself.
But none of it made me feel better. I still felt something insanely uncomfortable in my chest, and it wasn’t going away. I managed to inquire into it and realized that it was pain. Hurt. Sadness.
I felt myself wanting to grasp it and push it away at the same time. I was overcome by the fear that I was indeed selfish and uncaring and at the same time I was trying desperately to convince myself that none of it was true. I began to wonder what would happen if I just felt it, making it neither bigger nor smaller than it actually was.
So without grasping or pushing away the pain, I let myself feel hurt. It was uncomfortable, but I stayed with the experience with compassion. I acknowledged that being told I don’t care is hurtful. So my feelings were valid and it was completely understandable that part of me would be upset. Even very upset.
I also inquired into what was true for me in my core. It was immediately clear to me that I do care about this person’s needs, very much. And yet there are times when I’m more concerned about my needs than his. So his feelings were valid as well.
In fact, as the feeling peaked and diminished, it suddenly occurred to me that my Very Important Person was probably feeling very similarly to me. I could suddenly feel how hurt, unseen, and uncared for he must feel if he believed I didn’t care about his needs.
In that moment it became clear to me what I wanted to say:
I’m sorry that you feel like I don’t care about your needs. That must be painful. If you think of any ways that I could help you meet your needs, please let me know. I would really like to try.
When I delivered this message, everything changed. The energy of battle—a stand-off—of enemies waiting for the other to give in first—dissipated in an instant. Suddenly we were on the same team. Suddenly we recognized each other for the good people we are. Suddenly my VIP, who up until now had been hard-edged, blaming, accusatory, and critical, was soft, appreciating, and loving. We both got what we needed.
The way others make us feel is often an almost identical reflection of their own internal experience. A difficult boss may make us feel frightened and inadequate because he himself is terrified that his efforts will fall short. A friend who is hurt by our lack of interest may go out of her way to not include us in her upcoming plans. People in positions of authority who feel threatened because their power might be taken away at any moment disenfranchise others who then feel powerless and vulnerable.
Too often we unwittingly reinforce this negative cycle because we protect ourselves in an effort to not be hurt, and we miss the fact that someone who hurts us is also in pain. We deny compassion not just to others, but to ourselves.
To break the cycle, pause the next time you encounter a difficult person or a difficult situation and ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I feeling right now? What else am I feeling, underneath that feeling?
- What’s at stake here? What am I afraid of? What do I fear this says about me?
- What do I feel in my core to be true? (Try the format of “It is true that….and yet….” to acknowledge the full truth, which is hardly ever black or white.)
- What would it be like to experience what I’m feeling right now without either grasping it or pushing it away? Am I willing to let myself do that?
- What might the other person be experiencing right now? How might it be similar to what I’m feeling?
- Given all this, is there anything I want to say to this person?
Difficult people are our best teachers because they get us in touch with our truth quite viscerally and give us the opportunity to reconnect with compassion. (And they don’t even charge us anything for doing so.) So the next time someone is driving you crazy, after you curse them, you might also try thanking them.