Dealing With Difficult People

By Barbara Pierce

Your complaining co-worker who blames everyone else for things that go wrong, your mother-in-law who blows up easily so you walk on eggshells around her, your sister who is so negative about everything.

We all have difficult people in our life — they drain us, they drive us nuts!

You can’t avoid them. They’re frustrating and exhausting and cause a huge amount of stress.

As a mental health professional, I dealt with many difficult people who came to see me because they couldn’t keep a job, a relationship or friends, and recognized they needed help to make their life work better. And I helped many.

Difficult people have a personality disorder. We’re born with much of our personality. Then it’s influenced by the family environment we grow up in and the experiences we have. Those influences shape the way we view the world and the way we relate to others.

Phyllis was a 48-year-old woman who came to see me because she was very uncomfortable around people. As a clerk in T.J. Maxx, she was expected to help customers. But she hid in the stock room as much as possible, avoiding customers.

She told me of being a young child hiding behind the sofa when her father came home drunk. If he found her, he beat her. Her mother left the family when Phyllis was just 3 years old. Kids at school made fun of her dirty clothes, messy hair and bad smell. She was born with a tendency to be shy and her experiences reinforced the need to avoid others. As a young child, she learned people were cruel and there was nothing likeable about her. This shaped her view of herself and others.

Think of your personality traits as being on a scale. For example, everyone gets angry with the right provocation. Everyone feels jealous, or feels hurt at times. But when these traits are extreme and cause problems, that might be a personality disorder.

For Phyllis, her distrust of people and her ability to interact with them was extreme and caused problems; she had a personality disorder.

Elsy, my sister-in-law, feels she’s special, better than anyone else. Growing up wealthy in South America, servants met her every need, parents treated her like a princess. Today, she exaggerates her achievements and brags about how desirable she is. She a deep need for admiration, and lacks empathy for others. She has a personality disorder.

People with personality disorders and other mental health issues are diagnosed through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a reference used by mental health professionals.

There are numerous types of personality disorders. I think it’s interesting how they fall into recognizable patterns. They are grouped into three clusters based on similar characteristics and symptoms:

• Those who are suspicious, paranoid, distrustful of others, have little or no interest in personal relationships, don’t pick up on normal social cues.

• Those who are dramatic, overly emotional and impulsive, sometimes engage in risky behavior, may feel empty and abandoned, or have a grandiose sense of self-importance.

• Those who are anxious, or heavily dependent on others, have feelings of inadequacy, discomfort around others, or are obsessive compulsive.

Six tips to deal with difficult people

1.  Don’t take their words or behavior personally: This can be hard to do. We tend to read way too much into another’s words or behaviors, and believe it is directed at us. Recognize the other person has issues. Not you. This behavior is just them being how they are; it probably has nothing to do with you. Even if it does, ignore it.

2. Try to understand where they’re coming from, what drives their behavior. What is the underlying reason motivating them to act this way? How can you help to meet his or her needs and resolve the situation?

3. Don’t try to change them: Our instinct is to try to change people, to encourage a negative person to be more positive, a dependent person to think for themselves. This never works! In fact, when you try to change someone, they tend to resent you, dig in their heels, and get worse.

4. Losing your temper, arguing and flaring out at the other person won’t do any good. Find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if they are totally wrong or unreasonable, find something to agree with.

5. Most importantly, believe that a person not being difficult for the sake of being difficult. They are not aware of what they are doing, because, if they truly felt the impact of their behavior, they wouldn’t behave that way. They have little or no idea of how they contribute to their problems. Or, they don’t know how to change.

6. Psychotherapy can help. Schedule an appointment with professional psychotherapy services. A trained professional psychotherapy or group therapy specialist working with people to identify and change their negative thinking and behavior patterns can help.

Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at