Do you know anyone who gets under your skin, that you’d love to just avoid, but can’t? Feel like you just want to shake them, get them to understand that what they’re doing isn’t right? Get them around to your point of view? It’s often people you didn’t pick for yourself, but somehow got landed with by the circumstances of life – family members, flatmates, lovers, work colleagues.
With Christmas coming up, many people dread encountering the difficult people in our families, but it could equally be a friend or flatmate that circumstances force us to spend more time with. You might normally cope with them by avoiding their company, but suddenly the holidays, your upcoming thesis submission, or the advent of an ex-hurricane puts you in the same place for an extended period of time.
Most of us fall into the trap of thinking we can get the difficult people in our lives to change, and then we’d all get along. If only they’d stop being… them, and be more like us!
The truth is: The only person you can change is yourself. Frustrating as that is, reaching this realisation increases your chances of success.
Quite often, we mentally prepare to spend time with our difficult people by remembering all the bad times we spent with them, and reassuring ourselves that they are the cause of our frustration. Because of this, we exude disapproval, criticism and resentment when we’re around them. Understandable as those feelings are, it doesn’t exactly help our interactions with them that we’re going in armed to the teeth with rejecting anger.
If you think about it, it makes complete sense: Coating your irritation with a transparent veneer of fake niceness and a dangerously thin sheet of patience is hardly conducive to a good time. They sense your resentment, and become even more rigid and defensive.
However, there is hope! It just requires a lot of maturity and a healthy dose of self-soothing (and possibly a few gingerbread cookies):
You might have to admit to yourself that while the other person doesn’t behave ideally, they are not responsible for your negative feelings.
They are just different than you. They go against the rules you have set up for how it’s acceptable to be in the world, and they don’t live up to your expectations. It’s important to realise that to them, the world may look vastly different than it does to you. With other goals, dangers, and rules than the ones you enter their presence with. Your way MAY be better, but you can’t force it on others.
Instead of reacting, take a deep breath and a candy cane. Detaching yourself emotionally from the situation, and watching it from above, you might see what’s happening, and disagree with it. But you can decide not rise to the occasion, or take to heart every abrasive thing they say or do.
That does NOT mean allowing all kinds of rude and unacceptable behaviour from them, but it does mean dealing with it in a calm and collected way: You need to leave the other person with the consequences of their behaviour, and not take it personally or try to sort it out.
Too often we end up suffering more from our own angry and outraged responses than from the direct impact of the rude or obnoxious behaviour of others. Your mind is your own, and you don’t have to take their prompts to go down the route of ruminating on past transgressions or imagining future run-ins.
The way to manage your own feelings is to accept completely what is in front of you – your family member, flatmate or friend/partner is behaving badly. That’s not good, but neither is it necessarily a disaster. It’s inconvenient and unpleasant. But you can survive it. You are (hopefully!) with them for a limited period of time, and they are the way they are. Ideally, they wouldn’t be this way, but a lot of things in the world aren’t quite right. It’s not your job to fix it, or to fight against reality.
Once you accept the facts, and stop engaging with your inner judgement about the situation (“they shouldn’t act this way”/”how dare they”/”it can’t be right that I have to deal with them”), you are freed up to use your intelligence to decide how you want to handle the situation.
You can decide to just think “that’s unfortunate. How can I make the most of this situation?” Is there anything they have or do that’s useful or interesting for you? In the case of family, maybe they’ve cooked a nice dinner, or remember interesting family stories. They don’t get to ruin your Christmas – but stepping back and protecting your own space of mind is your responsibility. And it will make you a stronger person in the long run.
Remember as a kid, having to wait to open your presents, and just itching to run down the stairs before it was time? Holding back from reacting to difficult people is the same. When you’ve coped with your share of difficult people over the holidays, don’t forget to reward yourself for your efforts with some good company and Christmas cheer!
And remember: Emotional maturity is hard-earned, but highly valuable. It might be your gift to yourself this year.