“You make me SO mad!” “Why can’t you see how much pain I am in?” “Why do you have to be so mean?” “What’s WRONG with you?”

If you have ever uttered these words, or some like them, you probably have a difficult person (or two, or three, or…) in your life. Let’s face it: they are everywhere. The co-worker who won’t carry her load. The in-law who finds fault with everything you do. The sibling who throws in your face how uber-successful they are, while you are struggling to get by. The boss who just can’t wait to find fault with what you do. The friend who only calls when he needs something but would never return a call when you are in need.

The list goes on and on. The worst thing about difficult people is that they often think you are the problem – not them. In fact, being self-reflective isn’t easy for those who cause others pain and confusion. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could change their behavior? Or eradicate them somehow from your personal universe? The problem is that, if you did this, another difficult one would take their place, just in another form and in another scenario. They are everywhere. Most human beings don’t know or understand that everyone is in some sort of pain. They inflict their own pain on others, not realizing the other person is also carrying a burden of some kind. They are different burdens, of course, and some people are more prone to “Why me?” while others are stoic and suck it up to get through whatever difficulty they are facing.

The important thing to learn is how to respond and react to a difficult person, no matter where you encounter them in life. You could simply adopt the mantra, “Kill ‘em with kindness” as Selena Gomez wrote and sings:

The world can be a nasty place
You know it, I know it, yeah
We don’t have to fall from grace
Put down the weapons you fight with

Kill ’em with kindness
Kill ’em with kindness
Kill ’em, kill ’em, kill ’em with kindness
Kill ’em with kindness
Kill ’em with kindness
Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead now

This can work for many difficult people; it’s also known as taking the high ground. However, in a lot of cases, depending on the nature of the person, being kind can leave you open to being taken advantage of. So it’s one strategy to employ, but it won’t always work.

What are some of the things you can do to both protect yourself from the difficult ones, and move to a stronger place when dealing with them? Consider some of these steps to help yourself deal with today’s difficult one, or the one to come tomorrow:

  1. Recognize your personal triggers. Know the curious thing about difficult people? You won’t have the same experience as your friend or neighbor. What’s difficult to you may be benign to someone else. This tells you that a common definition of “difficult” doesn’t really exist. You can empathize and you can understand when someone else tells you about their difficult one, but you might not relate or have the same experience. For that reason, get in touch with what pushes your buttons. Realize there are behaviors you simply don’t like.
  2. Separate the behaviors from the person. Even the nicest, kindest, most approachable people can have their difficult days. Someone might be anxious, tense, or going through trauma. They might have received bad news or have a child sick at home they are worried about. They could have had a string of bad luck. Many people don’t deal well with negative life experiences, and can act out when they are under stress. Try to be objective and separate what you see in the behavior from the human being behind the behavior.
  3. Use objective language – not judgmental language. Is the person “a jerk” or are they “a direct and forceful individual”? Are they “lazy” or are they “a person who needs downtime and rest more often”? Think about these descriptions. Which one is right? Neither – and both. That’s why you always have the choice to take something that irritates and ignites your negative reaction and turn it more objective and neutral. This takes the fire out of your reaction.
  4. Identify where you are difficult. Yes, every single person has attributes that serve them well, and in certain circumstances, or with certain people, those same attributes can backfire. It’s easy to believe the difficult ones are out there, and you are the martyr who has to deal with them, but every single person has some situation where they find themselves on the receiving end of difficulty. This isn’t to beat yourself up. This isn’t to focus on what you’ve done wrong. This is simply to acknowledge that being difficult is a common experience – it just manifests differently for some people. This self-reflective process can make you more compassionate and empathetic to those whom you might otherwise push away.
  5. Learn to accept that you won’t like everyone, and there will always be people whom you find to be difficult. There’s actually a nice freeing experience in doing this. Rather than fight against them, or wish them to be different, you can actually embrace them: “Ah, there is one of my difficult ones today. Let me deal with them and then move on to others I enjoy more!” Take them where they are, and then release the negativity associated with them and focus on other people who bring you joy.

The difficult ones won’t go away, and they won’t allow you to fix them, but you can choose to manage your reactions to them differently and in doing so, you might just find your experience of them changes dramatically, too.

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