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Keeping Spirits High When Others Drag Us Down

How we respond matters the most.

Curmudgeonly characters lurk in offices, schools, parties, and families. They package unsolicited advice, weave in backhanded remarks, and stonewall, saying nothing as they derail glad tidings.

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Relationship difficulty is all around. Our response makes the difference in dealing with it.
Source: L. Oberlin/Shutterstock Purchase

It’s never pleasant, yet we can influence how it lands upon us when we implement four words: If we let them.

In psychology, we know people often slap new content onto ineffective process. When we hear sassy, critical negativity about this incident or that event, it's substance. As content gets bantered, as barrels-loaded barbs or pent-up grievances, this is process. The process appears also with closed-off posture, sighs, or harsh voice tone.

The root of troubling interactions may be hidden anger, perhaps passive-aggression, more about process than content. Passive-Aggression is an indirect, incongruent expression of hostility that's manipulative, negative, or sarcastic, and people see it through actions or repeated failure to act upon requests. The passive-aggressor escapes responsibility with plausible excuses that leave the recipient feeling confused, frustrated often because of mixed messages.

Momentarily we can all be indirect, but as Overcoming Passive-Aggression, the book I co-wrote reveals, key to the description is “over time,” as negative process repeats over months and years.1 When this becomes a way of life, there’s work to be done. Positive sentiments and new, productive habits need to overarch negative ones for people to get along.

John Gottman, Ph.D. discovered in his research that criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness unravel relationships.2 Though his work began with couples, these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse aren’t exclusive to romantic matches. Gottman reports that we start up or onboard quite differently constructive comments, delivered as softer, kinder feedback. He also sees defensiveness as an underhanded way of blaming.

The difficult process must change. Over the holidays, extending an invitation, taking your good old time to RSVP, or refusing to be flexible with traditions, menus or schedules comprises process. While it’s wise to re-route drama, pessimism, emotional cutoff, and habits that don’t reflect what you treasure, it’s all in how you do this. Build goodwill using these potential solutions that correspond to cringe-worthy characters and their resulting behavior:

Spoiled Stars have been indulged most of their whims. Now, with high expectations, Stars radiate holiday warmth until it’s not about them, they hear “no” or “what’s up with that?” Question them using caution because they may commit thinking errors that keep a grip on irrational, likely inaccurate beliefs.

Commanders In Chief may seem like Stars but while the latter looks to shine their light, the Commanders manipulate for control, demand their way, and wield power. Both can be nice until something threatens accustomed plans.

Joke around, no matter how collegial or fun-loving, and Stars and Commanders can take well-intended wit as a wound. They're masters at morphing minor things into major. Others tiptoe as if on eggshells. Personalizing is on a list of cognitive distortions, along with emotional reasoning, black and white thinking, overgeneralizing, mind-reading, catastrophizing, and a negative mental filter.3 Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) keeps these in check.

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When difficult people strike, figure out why and try a new strategy.
Source: Shutterstock/L Oberlin

Both Spoiled Stars and Commanders may snub, stonewall, blame, and project, two common defense mechanisms of anger concealers. Controlling Commanders are rule and routine bound. They deem their way the most important. Often, they lack self-confidence when not in charge so they dominate others to exercise control—their comfort at another’s expense.

Healthy adult narcissism means having empathy, creativity, and the ability to delay gratification along with responsibility for oneself and boundaries.4 Stars do not operate in a normal or healthy way.

Solutions: Try to ignore or move away from the know-it-all nature in both characters. It’s not worth getting into an argument. Learn to agree with something. This feeds them a morsel of adulation and steers them from going on and on, or worse, bullying. If you have an idea, highlight how it serves the Spoiled Star and the Commander in Chief.

Praise where they do channel their ego for constructive benefit; i.e., the professor who educates, the surgeon who heals or the business executive who promotes from within the company. Feed them that morsel. Provide Stars tasks that take them out of your presence. “Aunt Ellie, you’re great at setting a table and perfect to help with that” could be a line to use. Achieve harmony with Commanders by allowing them to lead. Ask them to start the holiday carols or organize the dreidel game during Hanukkah.

Be prepared that Stars and Commanders form triangles. They haven’t learned that relationships are like geometry: the closest distance between two points is a straight line. Thus, they tout themselves to third parties yet disrespectfully speak of others. Triangles rarely help a situation so learn to speak directly, using a soft start-up.

Don’t give them anything confidential or proprietary. Stars, in particular, cite others’ opinions as backup and name call in contempt. Resist the temptation to add fuel to that incendiary fire. Sharing your feelings only renders you more vulnerable and hands them how to hurt you.

Cynics act suspicious, paranoid, and unnecessarily competitive, especially around those who have authority or to newcomers in any group or family. We find them at office parties, where sarcasm and cynicism get passed around as quickly as the hors d’oeuvres.

Cynical people rationalize their criticisms as wholly appropriate. In fact, their distrustful nature may appear superficial and their pseudo-intellect may try to compensate for their own lack of understanding or knowledge.

Solutions: Especially when people are new, to any group, office or family, the system must reorient. This is a systems theory tenet worth remembering when anyone enters (new hire, marriage, adoption) or exits (moves away, resigns staff). This simple guideline may remove some competitiveness or discomfort people feel around one another.

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Sarcasm, criticism all signs of hidden anger that hurt your relationships
Source: Shutterstock/L Oberlin

When dealing with difficult people, the DEBUG steps come in as handy as the mnemonic.5 DEBUG stands for: Do ignore. Exit or move away when possible. Be friendly. Use firm language (assertiveness) if necessary, standing up for oneself but never hurting or diminishing another person. It can’t be stressed enough that firm language is not mean, contemptuous or disrespectful. Get help, if the prior steps haven't worked. Counseling, the employee assistance program or human resources may help with other options and coping.

To refute anything with a cynic, use statistics, quotes, and facts to counter the negativity. Best not to take on the boss, co-workers, or extended family unless the benefits outweigh the costs or risks.

While this gloom and doom becomes draining, work hard to remain positive around Cynics. Be polite. Genuinely smile. Resist lobbing more sarcasm and pessimism, which becomes a never-ending cycle that everyone dreads in the office or at the next family gathering.

Mutes give far too many free passes to the Stars, Commanders, and Cynics. They ignore, avoid and deny behavior when it’s meaningful to do the opposite. When the going gets tough, the mute turns quiet. Even when pressed for an answer, Mutes clam up and provide none.

Of course, in a civilized world, not everything must be said or confronted; however, we’re talking about people who implode on a regular basis, swallowing their true feelings. Many Mutes end up exploding if they have remained silent past the point of usefulness. While they may wish to avoid being hurt, their continued silence runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stars, whose behavior Mutes have overlooked, only become bigger legends in their own minds if muted voices don’t speak up.

Sad Sacks resemble Mutes in that they exhibit similar traits, but add in moaning, whining, or the victim stance. There’s a definite glass half empty, woe-is-me mentality that’s self-sabotaging. Whereas Mutes adopt silence, Sad Sacks remain passive yet vocalize their complaints.

Solutions: Rather than avoid or bite back responses, Mutes need to respectfully speak up or take a position. We can encourage them to share feelings, their voice, more than they do now. It could be that like other passive-aggressors, they grew up in homes where open communication got tamped down. They may have no model or paid a price for sharing. Empathy for them can make a difference.

Point out the perils of people-pleasing and fence-sitting, too afraid of alienating folks on either side. Often the person intent upon currying favor and making another happy turns out ultimately to be more frustrated and angry.

Sad Sacks need to tone down the protests and grumble less. If we pay attention to these negative behaviors, we will likely see them more. That’s where the DEBUG steps assist because we don’t wish to positively reinforce silence, stonewalling, whining, or pessimism.

Refuse to take on the Sad Sack’s tasks or caretake of them. Even if the motive is to aid, doing more will hinder not help them. Remember that it’s rarely true assistance if we do for people what they can do independently.

Once again, the key to identifying particular patterns and difficult traits in a vast array of characters is to watch how they play out over time. Do you identify with any of these behaviors? We can all hide our anger periodically or say something sarcastic or indirect. The more it happens, the more ingrained the problem becomes—for others and ourselves.

Let’s vow this holiday season and throughout the New Year to be more positive, less pessimistic and manage our own reactions. No one can push our buttons unless we let them. Yes, it’s harder to manage when we're annoyed. Sometimes doing quite the opposite puts deposits into a relationship’s bank account and pays huge dividends for our own happiness.

Copyright @ 2019 by Loriann Oberlin. All rights reserved.

Part Two of this Blog: Dealing With Difficult People



1. T. Murphy and L. Oberlin, Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness (Boston: DaCapo Press, 2016).

2. J. M. Gottman and N. Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 2nd ed. (New York: Crown Publishing, 2015).

3. E.I. Foreman and C. Pollard, CBT: Your Toolkit to Modify Mood, Overcome Obstructions and Improve Your Life (London: Icon Books, Ltd., 2016).

4. N. Brown, Working with The Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities On the Job (Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 2008).

5. KidsPost, “Debugging the Situation: Students Learn How to Apologize and Ways to Get Along With Others,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2007.

4. N. Brown, Working with The Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities On the Job (Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 2008).

5. KidsPost, “Debugging the Situation: Students Learn How to Apologize and Ways to Get Along With Others,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2007.

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