Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


4 Ways to Deal With Difficult People in Power

1. Don't share personal details.

It's challenging to manage anyone who has a difficult personality, but it’s especially difficult when that person is in a position of power over you. Before considering the unique associated issues, I will first highlight what makes a personality difficult.

A personality is difficult when the individual does not honor and engage in the usual rules and social conventions taught by society for fairness and mutual respect. Difficult personalities can take many forms, including: engaging in a passive-aggressive communication style, being overtly hostile or verbally aggressive, having a bad temper, trying to split allegiances and loyalties of those around them, feeling threatened when someone seems too competent or strong, and getting defensive or even combative when someone holds them accountable for inappropriate behavior.

Any of these personality traits is frustrating and challenging for those in the orbit of the difficult person, but those challenges are seriously exacerbated when the difficult person is in a position of power over you. Whether that individual is a romantic partner, a parent, a boss, or someone else on whom you are currently forced to rely, the dynamic is deeply anxiety-provoking, frustrating, and often confusing. Keeping interactions smooth with those in positions of power over you is crucial. Here are a few key steps for managing a relationship with someone who has power over you.

Avoid sharing personal details. Allowing the difficult person in a position of power access to your true thoughts and feelings can be emotionally risky, as the difficult person may later use the personal information about you as leverage. Think about the content of what you and the difficult person talk about, and avoid discussing anything that has emotional content. It's when we discuss emotional content that our feelings get triggered, but feelings and anything with emotional content should be avoided with a difficult person who has power over you.

People often find after the fact that sharing personal information with such individuals ends up creating more frustration, anxiety, or anger because of the confusing or sadistic way the difficult person twists that information and uses it to subjugate or punish them later.

Express appreciation, even if for the smallest, most insignificant things. This recommendation may sound problematic, but understand that this point does not apply in any situation in which the person in power is doing anything illegal, engaging in harassment, or being abusive in any way. Many exploitative relationships fall short of overt abuse or behavior that is illegal, but these relationships can still be extremely upsetting. If you have a relationship with a difficult person who is in a position of power but not actually abusing or harassing you, it can make your life easier if you find a way to avoid engaging in conflicts or power struggles, and if you instead make them feel appreciated.

No, it's not fair that you should have to eschew your valid and true feelings to cater to a distorted individual but, to best serve your interests (your mood, especially), you must keep the relationship as smooth as possible as long as you stay in that personal or professional relationship. Ultimately, many difficult individuals in positions of power are grandiose and need to feel singled out as special and powerful. By expressing appreciation for the smallest things, you will become less of a target for exploitative behavior from difficult (but non-abusive) personalities by making them feel good and avoiding triggering their most intense insecurities.

Always be prepared, focused, and organized. A difficult personality, particularly when that person has power over you, has the greatest power over your thoughts and feelings when you're caught off-guard, feeling vulnerable, or upset in any way. To avoid being offset by weird, out-of-nowhere verbal provocations or personal digs from these personalities, always be mentally and emotionally organized and prepared in their presence.

Make sure you have multiple outlets to vent your frustration. One coping mechanism simply won't suffice when dealing with a difficult person who has power over you. Going to the gym or exercising isn't enough; talking to friends or writing in a journal won't suffice. When you're entrenched in such a difficult, no-way-to-win dynamic, utilize multiple coping skills to manage the complex feelings that arise.

A Final Point

Finally, it is crucial to note that dealing with a difficult personality is a chronic problem as long as you stay in the orbit of that difficult personality, and that's because fundamental personality traits are extremely resistant to change. Yes, difficult personalities have the capacity to change and individuals with difficult personalities sometimes do. However, typically a person who has a difficult personality has developed extensive defense mechanisms to protect their own ego, so asking a person to change fundamental parts of their personality is an understandable, but not highly rational, endeavor.

You'll serve yourself well to ask yourself honestly how many more months or years you can continue in such a dynamic without your mental health—your mood, your lust for life, your ability to function well—drastically suffering.

Facebook image: Albina Bugarcheva/Shutterstock. LinkedIn image: Witthaya lOvE/Shutterstock

More from Seth Meyers Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today