What I Think I Know About Difficult People

TL;DR:

I want to share what I know about difficult people and how to interact with them in a series of posts. There are several basic principles that are foundational to this discussion:

 

0. I know one thing: that I know nothing.

1. We are all difficult people. The amount to which we are difficult tends to increase in parallel to the length of sustained involvement with another person.

2. To be difficult is to fail to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons.

3. Individuals who are unwilling or unable to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons are extremely difficult people.

4. Extremely difficult people can be intentionally or unintentionally destructive. The severity of injury to you is generally more severe when it occurs intentionally, but the cumulative power of the unintentionally destructive should not be underestimated.

 

I greatly covet your interaction with my thoughts here – comments, suggestions, criticisms.

Introduction

I think I know something about difficult people, not least because I have been and am one. I am writing this for those who are dealing with difficult people (and that difficult person could be me!).

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I write what I think I know, because, while I do not pretend to have the wisdom of Socrates, I hold to the statement ascribed to him,

I know one thing: that I know nothing.1Yes, I consider myself to be postmodern in my thinking, though I also believe in absolute truth. Am I allowed to combine the two?

[This will be a series of posts, I am unsure how many. I hope that you will interact with what I say so that I can refine my understanding and come to know more fully what is true.]

Who is a Difficult Person?

I am. You are. We are.

[Pour out your patience upon me and bear with me for a few minutes more…I’m trying not to recycle old truisms…this should become evident by the end of this post, but along the way you may feel a bit of nausea set in.]

This brings me to a first principle:

We are all difficult people. The amount to which we are difficult tends to increase in parallel to the length of sustained involvement with another person.

In other words, many of us are nice, normal people in everyday casual interactions with coworkers, neighbors, friends, and so on. But as the length of our involvement with another individual extends over a sustained period it reaches a point where nice and normal become overwhelming burdens and we transition to being difficult.

This is why spouses can rip each other apart while treating everyone else so well. It is why children, especially teenagers, can relate so well to other adults but are at complete odds with their parents.

[We will come back to this topic at a future time.]

What Does It Mean to Be Difficult?

This brings me to a second principle:

To be difficult is to fail to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons.

[Right now we are not going to delve into the source of this contract (e.g., internal, cultural, external (e.g., natural, supernatural) nor the exact conditions of this contract (e.g., patience, empathy). ]

This occurs when our strength to maintain the social contract is exhausted – and this occurs due to the length of sustained involvement with another. It is important to note here that the reason why we explode at our good friend almost immediately instead of the stranger who just chewed us out for a period of time is because we have had sustained involvement with an individual who has utilized our strength for sustaining the social contract and thus, even though we have not been in sustained involvement with our friend, the least episode can trigger us because we have already exhausted our strength.2In other words, we have a finite amount of strength for maintaining the social contract. This is exhausted by various interactions and events throughout our days/weeks/months/years. We do not get a fresh dose of strength for each social interaction.

But Are There Extra Difficult People?

We are all difficult, but surely we are not as difficult as that person?! Correct. This leads me to a third principle:

Individuals who are unwilling or unable to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons are extremely difficult people.

You probably have several difficult people in your life right now. These individuals can be frustrating, infuriating, or blatantly destructive, even deadly. Which leads me to a fourth principle:

Extremely difficult people can be intentionally or incidentally destructive. The severity of injury to you is generally more severe when it occurs intentionally, but the cumulative destructive power of the incidentally destructive should not be underestimated.

Example of Intentionally Destructive Person:

An individual who utilizes physical force to ensure their control over a situation. While the individual may regret their action after the incident is over they choose in the instant to do something which they know will result in harm.

Another example would be the individual who uses verbal and non-verbal communication in order to ensure their control over a situation. We think of this most frequently in the use of harsh, guilt-inducing, shaming words but it can also include non-verbal messages that arise in a wide variety of forms – such as the use of body language to indicate anger, aggression, or disgust.

Example of Incidentally Destruction Person:

The talker may be the first person to offer to help you out in a pinch, may be of understanding of your quirks and weaknesses, but when it comes to conversation they are unable or unwilling to follow the basic social contract principle of give-and-take when it comes to conversation.

Relationships cannot be based upon an exact balance of giving and taking but should operate on a dynamic flow of give-and-take which over time becomes roughly equivalent. That is, the roles of giver and taker should be shared between the individuals in a relationship.

One time an individual may do all the talking, perhaps several times, but at some point there must be some reciprocity. One cannot offer unending monologues to another without being a difficult person.

Another example is the giver. The giver insists on giving but will not receive. They will help you out in a tight spot, listen to you when you need to talk, etc., but when it comes to sharing about themselves – when it comes to allowing you to help them out of a tight spot or sharing with you in conversation about their needs – there is no reciprocity.

[I will explain in a future post how something that appears so good (being a giver) can in fact be destructive.]

Where Am I Going?

Conciseness has never been my gift. What am I trying to say? Where am I going with all of this? I’ve attempted to lay down here some basic groundwork which will allow us in future posts to discuss topics such as:

  • How should I interact with the difficult people in my life?
  • Why are some people more difficult than others?
  • How can I protect myself from the injuries others can inflict upon me?
  • How can I help difficult people while protecting myself?
  • Am I an extremely difficult person?
  • What should I do if I am an extremely difficult person?

And so on…

Questions and Comments Please!

It would be greatly helpful to me if you were to provide me with questions, comments, and even criticisms on the above. Help me keep from straying down rabbit trails that aren’t interesting. Help me touch upon the topics that are interesting. Help me learn as I share what I think I know.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Yes, I consider myself to be postmodern in my thinking, though I also believe in absolute truth. Am I allowed to combine the two?
2. In other words, we have a finite amount of strength for maintaining the social contract. This is exhausted by various interactions and events throughout our days/weeks/months/years. We do not get a fresh dose of strength for each social interaction.
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4 Comments

  1. AWESOME post, Dave. Very interesting and very applicable, especially as someone who has to deal with hundreds of difficult, irritable, road raged people each day at work. I’m so excited for your future posts, especially the one on how only being a taker can actually be harmful.

  2. People *expect* you to contribute to conversations, or else you’re branded “weird” or “uncooperative” or worse, “stupid”. And when I begin talking, my thoughts very quickly become intense and hyper-analytical, much moreso than when I do not speak, I am sure there is a neurobiological explanation). I have no way of stopping them, or of knowing what pieces of information are more important than others to be chosen to be said. It takes longer to discern what is important and unimportant than to actually say all of it, so I do the latter. I find most people oversimplistic and stupid, so the feeling of alienation is really mutual.

    • Arianna – It sounds to me like you don’t like small talk. Would that be a correct assumption? This attribute is common among introverts and making small talk is often considered a necessary social grace by others. I’m an introvert and struggle with small talk. 🙂

      Is the reason your thoughts become intense and hyper-analytical when you verbalize them because it causes you to focus on those thoughts for a longer period of time? e.g., when we do our processing internally, oftentimes our minds can wander, so we don’t remain on the same topic for long (unless we struggle with rumination)…whereas when we verbalize we bring concentration to the fore. As someone with ADD, I find my mind often wanders when internally processing, hopping from one topic to the next.

      I may step on your toes with this – but I think that almost always when we find people oversimplistic and stupid it is because we are not perceiving them fully. Can I challenge you, the next time you are with someone who you feel is simplistic/stupid, to try to see them deeply.

      I know it seems trite, but simple questions can spur fascinating conversations. Ask and really want to know where a person grew up, what they do, what they think – find something you can identify with or that interests you and pursue.

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