Difficult people explained

Whenever I speak about difficult people I am always asked, ‘Why are they so difficult?’ The answer, of course, is that they are 100% pure evil, they cannot help themselves, they gain joy from inflicting suffering on others!

It is tempting to believe these explanations. Although they may help us to feel better about ourselves, such beliefs will greatly affect the way we respond. It can help to find less sinister explanations, if they are there, for the ‘difficult’ people in our life. Here are some of them.

The first explanation for challenges in relationships is due to simple communication breakdowns. We think we have been clear and respectful, but another person perceives it differently. This is often due to the fact that people interpret what we are saying through their own perspective, which is coloured by strong psychological needs and their life experiences.

For example, people who have a strong psychological need for respect or life experiences where they have felt deeply hurt or put-down by others may well misinterpret another’s behaviour as controlling or disrespectful even when this is not the case.

Most people also have sensitivities which can colour their perceptions and cause them to react strongly. But there are three things people tend to be most sensitive about – disrespect, control, and abandonment. For example, a person who has suffered major loss in their life may be very sensitive to being abandoned. When their partner needs time-out, they may misread this as rejection.

While it is tempting to tell such people to go and sort themselves out in therapy, the smarter approach is to adjust ourselves for individuals, so that we can relate to them in ways where we are not inadvertently pushing their buttons. Hopefully, they will return the favour. In some very strained workplace relationships I have worked with, often both parties are caught in a pattern of reciprocal button bushing. It takes maturity by at least one person to change their part of this pattern.

Prolonged stress can also cause us to go to extremes of our own behaviour. Some of us become more intolerant or aggressive whereas others withdraw into themselves. Some talented people manage to do both. But extremes of aggression and avoidance are very harmful to both workplace and personal relationships. The way we cope with stress can also be a complicating factor. Many cope through alcohol or drug use, but this comes with its own cost of lowering our ability to self-control.

People can also behave badly because they are unwell or unhappy. People who are unhappy at work, also tend to be unhappy at home. Perhaps your workplace can help with an Employee Assistance Program. But at the very least, you can know that it is not primarily you causing their unhappiness and can perhaps ‘cut them some slack’.

Mental health problems also can underlie challenging behaviour. We know that 44% of people who are depressed, for example, are prone to angry outbursts. For some, their depression and withdrawing into themselves is a way to keep a lid on their anger. There are also those with diagnosable personality disorders who have a very long history of relationship problems and find change very difficult.

Of course if we ask the difficult person in our lives how they would explain their behaviour, most would tend to say that we are the ones who are being difficult. Here there is a chance that everyone has a valid perspective – that a range of factors are at play including our own, perhaps inadvertent, contribution. Apart from the odd Saint amongst us, we are all someone else’s difficult person at times.

We are all doing the best we know how, including the difficult people in our lives. But we, at least, can take responsibility for changing our part of the pattern. Every difficult person gives us an opportunity – to learn something important about relationships. Whenever I am dealing with a challenging relationship, I try to remember to ask myself, ‘What is it I am meant to learn through this?’


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