It’s that time of the year again. ‘Tis the season of family vacations, holiday parties, and awkward celebratory work functions. And whenever large groups of us are forced to share the same space for too long, especially after hours when alcohol and exhaustion are factored in, there’s a fairly high potential for unnecessary drama.
I was reminded of this today when a new course student emailed me saying:
“I have difficult people in my family and social circles that I have to deal with at various holiday-related gatherings over the next several weeks, and just thinking about it drives me crazy. What can I do when these difficult people start getting on my nerves—which is inevitable? How do I shield myself from their negative behavior so I can keep my cool? And what if I can’t completely get away from them? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.”
Truly, it’s a super-common emotion to feel stressed out and annoyed by other people, especially those family, friends and coworkers with the closest ties to us. But even when our feelings are justifiable, we don’t want anyone else’s presence or behavior to bring us down. And we certainly don’t want to add to the drama around us.
So, what can we do when someone close to us is being annoying, irritating, rude or just generally difficult?
Well, assuming we’re not in any sort of real danger and we don’t need to physically protect ourselves, the best choice is often a simple mindset shift. Rather than trying to change the other person, we change our response to them.
I know that suggestion can be frustrating for some people. Why should we have to make a change when it’s the other person who’s misbehaving?
The key, though, is to understand that with a few simple mindset shifts you can find a lot more peace around just about anyone. But if you try to shift the behavior of others, you’re only going to drive yourself crazy. This is well-illustrated by a metaphor Angel and I heard yesterday from an instructor in a group meditation class:
“Where could I find enough rubber to cover the rocky surface of the world? With just the rubber on the soles of my shoes. Think about it. It’s as if the whole world were covered as I walk. Likewise, I am unable to control external life situations, but I shall control my own mind. What need is there to control anyone or anything else?”
That simple metaphor conveys the truth: the surface of the Earth is rocky and hard to walk on in most places. So, we can try to find a covering for the whole world—which is obviously impossible—or we can simply cover our own feet with rubber-soled shoes, and then walk around peacefully wherever we please.
Similarly, we can either try to control the difficult people around us—another impossibility—or we can control our responses to them.
Simple Practices that Bring Peace
If you’ve nodded your head to anything you’ve just read, it’s time to…
1. Notice the story you’re telling yourself about the other person.
Whenever you find yourself stressed out and irritated by how someone else is behaving, first notice that your mind starts to create a story of anger and resentment about them. It’s about how they always behave in this irritating way, and how you are absolutely sick of them! This story is harmful. It immediately stresses you out, it keeps you exclusively focused on the negative qualities of the other person, and it ultimately makes you someone you probably don’t want to be.
So, do you best to see this story for what it is.
2. Interpret their negative behavior less personally.
When you sense negativity coming at you, give it a small push back with a thought like, “That remark (or gesture, or whatever) is not really about me, it’s about you (or the world at large).” Remember that all people have emotional issues they’re dealing with (just like you), and it makes them rude and downright thoughtless sometimes. They are doing the best they can, or they’re not even aware of their issues.
In any case, you can learn not to interpret their behaviors as personal attacks, and instead see them as non-personal encounters (like the rocky ground under your feet) that you can either respond to effectively when necessary (by putting your figurative shoes on), or not respond to at all.
3. Take positive control of negative conversations.
It’s okay to change the topic, talk about something positive, or steer conversations away from pity parties, drama, and self-absorbed sagas. Be willing to disagree with difficult people and deal with the momentary consequences. Some people really don’t recognize their own difficult tendencies or their inconsiderate behavior.
You can actually tell a person, “I feel like I’m being criticized.” You can also be honest if their overly negative attitude is what’s driving you away: “I’m trying to focus on positive things. What’s something good we can talk about?” It may work and it may not, but your honesty will help ensure that any communication that continues forward is built on mutually beneficial ground.
4. Model the behavior you hope to see.
When someone insists on foisting their drama on you, be an example of a pure existence. Disregard their antics and focus on compassion. Communicate and express yourself from a place of peace, from a place of love, with the best intentions. Use your voice for good, to inspire, to encourage, to educate, and to spread the type of behavior you want to see in others.
All of this, of course, is easier said than done. It takes practice. Even with decades of practice behind me, I sometimes catch myself being rude to people who are rude to me—I behave badly because they behaved badly. And even if the situation is absolutely their fault, my behavior only escalates the situation. So, I do my best to take a deep breath and set a good example of how to cope with anger and frustration. I try to be patient and compassionate with them—to demonstrate a positive way of handling difficult people. And doing so always brings me peace, even if it’s not instantaneous. (Note: Angel and I discuss this practice in detail in our NY Times best seller, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs.)
More Healthy Ways to Handle Difficult Relationship Issues
Although the four foundational practices above can work wonders by themselves, Angel and I also put this short video together for you (recorded live at our annual seminar) to further clarify and expand on the intricacies of handling difficult relationships:
Afterthoughts on Letting Go of Judging Others
I want to wrap up this post by giving you an example of how Angel and I apply some of the aforementioned practices and strategies for handling the difficult people in our own lives. A big key for us has been our deliberate and consistent efforts to let go of judging others. Yes, one of the most astonishing changes we have made in our lives, which has undoubtedly made us happier and better able to cope with the “difficult” people around us, is simply learning to NOT judge the people around us.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that we don’t ever make impulsive judgments about people; we all have a tendency to do so by default—it’s an innate human instinct. So, Angel and I are not the exception here. But we have learned to catch ourselves.
And today, I challenge you to catch yourself, too.
First and foremost, you must bring awareness to the fact that you’re judging (think about that story we discussed above in point #1). There are two crystal-clear signs to look for in yourself:
- You feel irritated, annoyed, angry or dismissive of someone
- You’re complaining or gossiping about someone
After you catch yourself judging, pause and take a deep breath. Don’t berate yourself, but simply ask yourself a few questions:
- Why are you judging this person right now?
- What kinds of unjustified expectations do you have of this person?
- Can you put yourself in this person’s shoes?
- What might this person be going through?
- Can you learn more about their story?
- What’s something small you can appreciate about this person right now?
Once you’ve done that, offer your kindness and compassion (think about what we discussed above in point #4). Perhaps they just need someone to hear them, someone to not judge them, someone to not control them, someone to be present without an agenda…
But in any case, remind yourself that you can’t help them at all from a position of judgment. And you can’t help yourself either—because judging people all the time is awfully stressful and difficult in its own right.
Now, it’s your turn…
What did you think of this article (and the video)?
How have difficult people, or difficult relationship issues, affected you in recent times? Do you have any additional thoughts or insights to share?
Angel and I would love to hear from YOU. Please leave a reply below.
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