8 Ways to Deal With Someone You Can't Stand Dealing With

If you must interact, then at least protect your emotional health.

Posted Dec 30, 2017

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Everyone's life involves interactions with a wide spectrum of people, from our favorite, most adored loved ones to others whose very presence can make our blood boil. There may be people whom we can't stand to be around, because of how they make us feel in their presence — jealous, petty, or nervous. Still others may be simply obnoxious — perhaps they are inconsiderate, bull-headed, or cling hard to beliefs that we find ignorant or offensive. Or perhaps they've hurt us in a way that we've chosen never to forgive.

For many of us, our ideal lives involve not having to interact with these people at all. But not only might that mentality lead to increased political polarization and tribalism in our culture, it's also simply not a practical notion for the vast majority of us. Whether it's a wedding with a fellow guest you can't stand, an ongoing custody arrangement with your ex, or working daily with a boss who makes you want to scream, there are some central principles we can use as tools to get through these interactions in a healthier way:

1. Have a clear plan and mentally rehearse it.

Data has long shown that predictability and control can lessen our physical stress response and our associated feelings of upset. Without being so rigid as to set yourself up to be thrown off if things don't go exactly as planned, come up with a specific strategy that outlines what your interaction will be like. How long will it be? What are your escape routes, mentally and logistically? What are some brief subject-changers or conversation-enders that you can use to civilly remove yourself from a bad situation? Like any big project that has the potential to go wrong, you will serve yourself well by being adequately prepared for different possibilities.

2. Practice self-care beforehand. 

Any difficult interaction is only made harder to take if your resistance is down. You've probably had examples of times in your life where you handled something much worse because of a lack of sleep. Or maybe when you haven't been getting enough exercise, you feel antsy with pent-up energy that has no place to go. Prep for the interactions, whether they are continuous or one-off situations, like a highly skilled athlete going into a sports battle. Eat well, practice mindfulness, move your body, and watch that you're getting enough sleep. This can only make you stronger and better prepared to tolerate adverse conditions and keep your resilience intact.  

3. Be mindful of your physical body.

The people who are most successful in keeping an even keel when they are in emotionally difficult situations are often the people who know their physical bodies best. Spend time really paying attention to your body when you are upset: How do you feel your anger coming on? Is it heat in your chest, tension in your muscles, or maybe a throbbing in your jaw? How do you feel anxiety — is it fast breathing, a flip-flopping stomach, tingling in your hands, or an ache in your neck? All of these physical symptoms are examples of common responses to anxiety or anger-producing situations. And all of them also have physical ways to lessen them — from diaphragmatic breathing to neck stretches, from progressive muscle relaxation to rubbing your temples. Experiment with what works in the moment to lessen these physical signs of arousal, to make you feel less angry and anxious mentally.

4. Don't personalize.

Sometimes we can't stand a person because we can't stand how they make us feel about ourselves. We feel put down by them, or feel that they are judging our very natures: They make us feel not good enough, which in turn hurts us and makes us angry. It is normal to dislike being disliked; it bothers us if we think that someone has a problem with us. But what would happen if you were able to separate someone's judgment of you from your judgment of yourself? What if you were able to accept that some people are angry and critical for their own reasons — and that research has actually verified the idea that "haters gonna hate"? Yes, a subset of people truly have a problem with most everything and everyone. There is no pleasing these people. Try giving yourself the freedom of not personalizing it: perhaps this person doesn't like you because of who they are, not who you are. So why even expend any mental energy on them with a reaction?

5. Remember that you are loved.

Intriguing lines of research have suggested that when we visualize, even briefly, being cared for and loved, it helps neutralize and lessen our sensitivity to threat. In other words, just picturing a loving and nurturing scene, or someone loving and caring for you, can help you feel less triggered and angered by someone by whom you feel threatened. The next time you must endure contact with someone whose very presence raises your guard and makes your hair stand on end, why not try to visualize yourself safe in the company of someone you love who is taking care of you? It may just relax you enough to not escalate a conflict or make a tense situation go from bad to worse.

6. Try compassion.

This is a mental technique that is sometimes used in 12-step programs: Instead of letting hurt or angry feelings about someone overcome you, try sending them thoughts of compassion. Perhaps they are an obnoxious person because they have had an incredibly painful life. Perhaps your boss has been irritable and impossible to make happy because his or her mother is sick. Perhaps your sister-in-law has always been cold to you because she has had a lifelong struggle with depression and is jealous of your happy marriage. Perhaps your neighbor's nitpicking comes from a constant state of anxiety. Stepping into a place of kindness can be as simple as choosing the mantra "I am sending them good will," rather than going to a place of hurt. There is solid evidence that sending thoughts of mercy and good will can help alleviate angry, hateful feelings. This is not about forgiving the person — though that may be helpful, too. When you have those raging feelings in the moment, this is about choosing a few moments to send them kindness instead, warming your own heart in the process.

7. Stick to your boundaries.

Sometimes the worst part of an interaction with someone we dislike comes from the fact that we feel steamrolled after the fact. We may rehash the conversation over and over again, kicking ourselves for not standing up for ourselves, or for having agreed to something we didn't want to do. Or perhaps this person made us join into gossip or some other activity with which we don't agree. Be more clear with yourself beforehand about what you do and do not think is acceptable in terms of your own behavior. You can't control theirs, but you can minimize the feeling of being taken advantage of. Establish what you do not want to have happen in the interaction, and stick to that. This is crucial to protect yourself from letting them infect your thoughts for hours, or even days, afterward.

8. Enlist a comrade.

Ever since Stanley Schachter's classic studies on social affiliation in anxiety-provoking situations, we have known that, for certain people, being around someone else can make a stressful situation feel easier to manage. So if you have to be around someone you dislike, it's likely that you can be helped by having a comrade close by, especially someone you trust and who is a comforting presence. Even if it is not someone with whom you are emotionally close, sometimes having another person around as a distraction, or to help you logistically by aiding in your escape route, can work wonders.

Do you have to endure situations with those you can't stand? What works for you? Let me know in the comments, chat with me live on Tuesdays-- or read the chat transcripts here!