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Coping With People Who Are "Difficult"

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Do you ever find yourself asking why there has to be so many difficult people in the world? Why can’t they just stop being difficult? Ever get together with a group of friends or family and complain about difficult people? While my family is not immune from this variation of gossiping, my daughter, Rachel, often brings everyone back to reality by humorously and ironically saying, after her complaints, “Of course, I’m perfect.” All of us join in by agreeing that we are also all perfect and laugh.

How many times have you been surprised by the responses of friends and family when the disagree with you about an individual being difficult? To you, Martha is difficult. To your buddy, Martha is a nice person. To your sister, Martha is seen as someone with problems but she gets along well with her.

So, how do we define difficult persons? Are they a reality or are they individuals we do not like? Why is it that others experience the same person as other than difficult. How does one cope with a difficult person? These are all good questions.

It seems to me that a difficult person is defined as someone who we are having difficulty with. Does that sound confusing? What I am getting at is that two or more people view one another through a relationship. This relationship begins immediately upon meeting one another. This relationship can begin before actually meeting, through the first telephone, E. Mail or other electronic communication. Each of us begins to form some expectations based on what that first interaction felt like. Therefore, the perception that someone is difficult is subjective. It emerges out of a dynamic interchange between two or more people. This is why one individuals perception varies from another individuals, even when looking at the same person, work of art or anything else.

It has been my observation for quite some time that we make sweeping generalizations about many things in life. For example, “All Republicans are bad or good,” or, “My neighbor is bipolar,” or, “All medical doctors want to push drugs for the sake of making money by helping big drug companies,” and etc.

I believe these generalizations are a result of a world culture in which everything and everyone is homogenized into convenient categories: Crazy vs. Normal, Attractive vs. Ugly, etc. This poses a problem because it robs each of us of the chance to be seen as individual people with our own temperament, motivations, and complex ways of thinking. Another example is, “If Max goes into a psychiatrist’s office he runs the risk of being seen as a “depressive” who is best helped with medication.” In the same way, Max runs the risk of then being referred to a psychologist or social worker who does cognitive behavioral therapy. Why is this a risk for Max? Its a risk if Max wants to talk about and understand himself rather than being given exercises to change his patterns of thinking.

To return to the issue of “coping with difficult people,” I think its important to refrain from quickly categorizing others. To do this each of us needs to recognize that we are viewing this other through the prism of our past histories. Remember, prisms, if you ever peered through one, distort visual images.

This other person, this “difficult person,” has their own problems and backgrounds that motivate them to behave in certain ways.

Want to know how to cope with those we perceive as difficult? Don’t get defensive, don’t take things personally and try to understand who this other person is. Ultimately, if there is no other way to resolve issues, break of the relationship. If it is happening at work with a colleague or your boss, search for new ways to interact or, find another job. Before you take that radical a step, ask yourself, “Why am I reacting this way?”

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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