Psychological Immunity: Increasing our ability to Deal with Difficult People

dealing with difficult peopleThe body’s immune system is set up to resist and reduce the impact of elements that negatively impact the body. It does its best to either fight off or do damage control against bacteria, viruses, and even foreign objects. But what if the offending agent is another person? How do we protect ourselves from the impact of an irritating, mean, negative, abusive, or otherwise intolerable presence in our life?

Most of us have someone in their life who rubs them the wrong way. It could be a member of your family, someone you work with, an acquaintance, etc. For me, it’s a cashier who works at my local grocery store. I’m sure that she’s a perfectly lovely person with people in her life who care about her. However, for me, the style of small talk she makes as she runs through my groceries is particularly irritating. She makes comments on the food I am purchasing, openly disagrees with my bagging preferences, and generally presents as a negative person (in my completely biased opinion).

When I put my psychologist hat on, I know it’s simply a mismatch in styles between her and I and that, at the end of the day, it does not matter what we talk about for 3-5 minutes once a week. However, when my psychologist hat is off and I forgot to check and end up in the line at this cashier’s till, I feel annoyed.

This is an example of a minor and time-limited difficult interaction that in most cases is easily avoided by simply choosing another checkout line or practicing mindfulness while I speak to this person. However, there are many situations where people might be dealing with a difficult person on a regular basis and the impact is much more significant. This could be a challenging child, parent, co-worker, supervisor, friend, spouse, and so on. The impact of continued exposure to challenging people could be minor (e.g. temporarily makes us feel aggravated), moderate (e.g. increase overall stress levels), to significant (e.g. impact how we feel about ourselves, the world, or other people).

So what can we do to increase our skills in dealing with this type of person? One of the most important things is to remember that we cannot control other people. We might be able to influence them but it is neither our responsibility nor in our ability to change them. So that means what we can do is manage how we behave in that situation. Here are some ideas*:

*This article refers to difficult behaviors and NOT abusive behaviors. If you or someone you know is being emotionally, physically, or sexually abused, please contact Jennifer, the Distress Centre (403)266-4357, or Access Mental Health (211) for more specific support.

timing is important1. Make choices about when and how much exposure you have and how you will handle unavoidable exposure.

If you have choices regarding when and how you come across the difficult person, it would be advantageous to choose times where you feel well-rested, energized, and good about yourself. This is, of course, not always possible. So what do we do when we must face a difficult person when not feeling our best? Even though we cannot control the other person’s choices regarding their behaviour, we can manage our behaviour in order to not make the situation worse. Monitor yourself and the situation. If you feel that irritation or anger bubbling to the surface, take a deep breath. Picture yourself somewhere pleasant for a moment. Make eye contact with someone else whom you like and feel supported by (and try not to roll your eyes). Keep yourself level and grounded so no matter what happens with the other person, you can feel centered.

humour is effective2. Use humour and self-care.

Being around a difficult person can take a toll on our mental and physical health. Support yourself by maintaining a sense of humour. This can also be a good way to diffuse tense situations. Also make sure to maintain your wellbeing through self-care. For information regarding self-care, see these two articles:

1) ‘Boring Self-Care’ Drawings Celebrate Everyday Mental Health Victories
2) What Nobody Tells You About Self-Care

3. Pick your battles.

When someone pushes our buttons we might respond to even neutral experiences from this person negatively. Make conscious choices about what to address and what may not be worth your time or energy to engage in.

having good boundaries4. Draw boundaries and be respectful and clear in your communication about them.

One thing that I think most of us need to improve in is being able to respectfully and assertively (neither passively nor aggressively) talk to others when they are crossing our boundaries. For example, even though I choose not to talk to the cashier about her comments regarding my bagging preferences, if someone I had a relationship with made negative comments to me, it would most likely be beneficial for me to tell them that their actions are making me feel sad and request that they stop. This gives the other person the opportunity to be aware of how they are impacting me and make a different decision in the future. Though we often worry that this type of conversation will create a wedge between us and the other person, if done respectfully it can often bring two people closer in the end.

5. Use empathy skills.

This is likely the most difficult of the ideas because it is incredibly challenging to have empathy for someone that creates emotional strife in us. However, if we can take a moment to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, it can reduce our experience of irritation, anger, and frustration. For example, it helps if I take a moment to recognize that the cashier is most likely talking to hundreds of people a day, is probably unaware that her comments bug me, and is simply a human being with worth and value in herself.

Dealing with difficult people can strain our energy and resources – especially if you see them on a regular basis. Remember to control what you can, take care of yourself, and ask for help if you need to.

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Jennifer McCormick

About Jennifer McCormick

I'm a Counselling Psychologist in Calgary at the Healthy By Nature clinic. I excel in individual counselling, helping people with trauma, PTSD, and other psychological challenges. I also write for the Psychologist Calgary blog, here on the site. You can read more about me here.

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