Difficult people are like the termites of the human spirit. They can be eating away at the tender parts of you for months on end before you notice, and then, suddenly, at a work meeting or a family dinner, you lose it. You might scream something unkind or have a temper tantrum much like the two-year-old on Nanny 911, or even do something drastic like start binge drinking again after a few years of sobriety. Unfortunately, living on earth as a homo sapien requires dealing with other homo sapiens — unless you want to isolate yourself and watch Dr. Phil all day long. So having some techniques in mind, especially during the holidays and other times of vulnerability, can help you arrest their damage before your structure crumbles.
1. Identify Your Landing Pads for Difficult People
Termites don’t eat healthy wood. Depending on the kind of termite, they either like moist, soft fibers or dry, parched wood. If you think about it, difficult people like to go for the damaged spots as well — not intentionally, of course (most of the time). We all have weak areas: tender patches that haven’t been fully healed from traumatic events or hurtful conversations, or remnants of childhood baggage. Those holes provide the landing pads for difficult people. But if we are aware of our own vulnerabilities, then we can relax around our coworker who degrades us at company meetings, or our brother-in-law who makes fun of our diet — because we know it’s not really about them. It’s about our own insecurities.
The other day, when I was I was fighting through a terrible case of stuck thoughtstriggered by a difficult person, it occurred to me that it wasn’t about her at all. A comment she made simply fell into the chasm opened up by my biggest childhood wound that is still rather exposed — that if I don’t “fix” a person, or make her feel good about herself, something terrible is going to happen to me. That was the message I got back when my brain was forming synapses as a kid, so whenever I feel as though I’ve disappointed someone or caused him or her pain, I experience a peculiar kind of anxiety and OCD — remnants of childhood baggage still left in the front hall.
2. Stretch and Breathe Through Your Weak Spots
At yoga last week, the instructor told the class that the more difficult the pose, the more we need to do it because the discomfort signals that healing needs to happen. So if you’re experiencing repetitive pain from dealing with a certain person, youcould consider your encounters with the annoying sucker as an opportunity to get out a journal and write out WHAT specifically is causing you the pain. Is it the way he says something, the inflection in his voice, how often he says it, or the expression on his face as he’s delivering the grenade? Visit it over and over again in your head, and break it apart. Where, exactly, does your body become uncomfortablee? Do your shoulders lift in tension, and does your neck get stiff? Then, when you identify the hurt — the spot of penetration — breathe through it. Breathe in to a count of five, hold it for two counts, breath out to a count of five, and hold it for two more. Repeat that a few times. You might even try stretching your body in a certain way as you revisit what ticked you off so badly, always continuing to breathe.
3. Visualize Them as Children or Running Water
One technique that helped me a lot when I was in the midst of a two-year suicidal depression and was surrounded by an army of folks who were anti-medication and anti-Western medicine was to visualize them as children. Whenever someone was in the middle of telling me that antidepressants were a cop-out, and depression can only be cured through mind control, I would take a deep breath and visualize my son’s head on that person. I couldn’t expect my two year old to understand the complexities of mood disorders and to say anything intelligent about mental health, right? So visualizing whoever was giving me expert opinions on the Law of Attraction or Scientology as a cute two year old helped mitigate the hurt.
At other times, whenever someone would try to give me opinions about what I was doing wrong in my recovery, I would visualize myself as a water wall, like the famous one in Houston: Whatever babble emerging from the person’s mouth in front of me was water, rushing down my wall. It didn’t change my wall, because my wall was firm. So I could let whatever she had to say run down without altering my essence or getting me too upset.
4. Write Out the Script
This one takes a bit of preparation. But for holiday gatherings or any type of occasion when you predict substantial drama, it’s worth the time investment. Take a pad of paper and list all the people who tend to land on your soft spots — or who poke knives there. What are the questions or conversations that are the most loaded for you? Where do you usually get stuck?
For me, one of the questions that irritates me at family gatherings — which I can expect to hear twice at Thanksgiving and twice at Christmas — is whether or not I get paid to blog. Now I realize that most people DON’T get paid to write. That’s the sad truth about this business. But it’s insulting to me nonetheless, because blogging is my profession, not my hobby. Could you imagine the reaction if I asked the same question back to these people, “When you work on people as a radiologist and look through all those scans and stuff, do you get paid?” So I jot down this question along with my response, which is, “Yes, I am employed just like you are.” Then I follow it up with something that diverts us from the topic, like, “And how old are your children now?” Or “Is it snowing yet up where you are?” Or “What is your favorite thing about the holidays?” I list about five alternative places I can go.
Sometimes, if I’m in a delicate place in my life, I write out an entire script for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner and list over 20 different conversation starters I can throw out before someone weighs in about my depression or my “hobby,” or if I find the dialogue heading toward my soft spots. The weather is always good, but you can be creative with this if you put some effort into it. As you’re driving to the party, remember how old everyone’s kids are — that’s always good fodder — where they live, and what their occupations are (and hobbies, but try to know the difference).
5. Choose Your Seat
If you’re going to a sit-down dinner, don’t wait until the last minute to pick your seat.Put your drink down next to a plate early into the evening, as soon as you have a good idea of who is going where. Better yet, recruit someone you like over to the table and say, “Hey. Sit here with me. I haven’t talked to you in awhile and would like to catch up.” Exercise as much control as possible over the seating chart so you are next to someone safe. If I’m feeling extra vulnerable, I plop myself down at the kids’ table. I would much rather talk about poop than the Law of Attraction or Scientology.
6. Send the Person Loving Kindness
I know this is the last thing you want to do, but the science is in: By participating in aloving-kindness meditation — where we offer “metta” or loving kindness not only to people we admire, but also to those we have difficulties with — we increase our positive emotions and release the negative ones. In the fourth stage of the meditation, you call to mind someone you’re in a state of conflict with, and you wish them well. Or you could simply pray for the person. I do that when I’m really desperate to shed the bad feelings, and it does work.
7. Have Excuses Ready
There’s always the walk-away method, too. You don’t HAVE to talk to this person, you know. Compile a list of handy excuses that you can fire away when you see him approaching: your bladder just got full, your dog needs to be let out, your coffee is in the microwave, your appendix just exploded (you can only use that once) … the options are endless. Like the conversation starters of the last point, you can even have some fun as you come up with ways to protect yourself from negativity.