If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read my previous (and first) post in this series on Difficult People.
1. If we can understand why a person is acting as they are, we can reduce the harm inflicted upon us by their assaults and maintain a healthy self-concept.
2. There are numerous strategies we utilize to defend ourselves when attacked including: invalidating the attacker, accepting the blow, and counterattacking.
3.The issue is not that we use these strategies of defense but that we become repeatedly fixed upon one or more of them when they are not the best defense available.
4.Another defense strategy is understanding. If we understand why the person acts as they do we can recognize that their attack is primarily a statement about themselves and only secondarily about us.
5. The understanding approach is not always the healthy approach. We are not excusing the person’s behavior but understanding it. If we venture into excusing we have crossed a dangerous line.
6.Underneath the causes of another’s poor behavior is almost always (or is it always?) fear.
Why Is My Difficult Person So Difficult?
…I’m struggling here. I have written, deleted, and rewritten this post numerous times over a period of weeks…months. In some areas of my life, perfectionism is a great stumbling block, and writing is one of the worse. But I am going to press on, I will publish this post, in spite of knowing that it is not all it could be. Knowing that I have not done the best I could possibly do…This perfectionism is one way in which I am difficult.
Lets talk about why our difficult person is so difficult. If we can understand why they are this way we can deflect more readily the darts they throw at us…and perhaps we may even find ourselves on occasion disarming them.
If we can understand why a person is acting as they are, we can reduce the harm inflicted upon us by their assaults and maintain a healthy self-concept.
When our difficult person says to us,
- “You are ugly.”
- “I hate you.”
- “You ruined my life.”
- “You are stupid.”
- “You are lazy.”
We have to defend ourselves. A dart has thrust – it will wound us – how do we survive? There are numerous coping strategies we utilize such as:
- Invalidating the Attacker – We determine that they are ____ (usually some four-letter word) and thus unworthy of consideration. Anything they say is invalid.
- Accepting the Blow – We picture ourselves as unworthy, inferior, perverted, etc. and thus when a blow strikes we are not surprised by it. It does not hurt sharply because we have already told ourselves that we are as they say we are.
- Counterattacking – We become “righteously” indignant, throwing back insult for insult. We are louder, meaner, faster than they are and we force them to retreat.
There are numerous strategies we utilize to defend ourselves when attacked including: invalidating the attacker, accepting the blow, and counterattacking.
I wouldn’t suggest these are invalid methods of response, sometimes they may be appropriate. What I would warn against is an inflexibility in response. We tend to fall into the same response(s) over and over again. They are easy for us, even if they aren’t the best response for the situation.
The issue is not that we use these strategies of defense but that we become repeatedly fixed upon one or more of them when they are not the best defense available.
I’d also suggest another coping strategy which I believe is oftentimes the best strategy: understanding.
In my experience, when a person treats me unfairly, it is always because of something about them, not me. That isn’t to say I might not have done something unworthy – but rather that the ferocity of the attack comes from a place outside of this immediate interaction.
Another defense strategy is understanding. If we understand why the person acts as they do we can recognize that their attack is primarily a statement about themselves and only secondarily about us.
Let us take the example of a man and his wife. Both went to work one day, but the man stayed late for a unexpected conference call with a client and the wife returned home a little early. When the husband arrives home the wife doesn’t greet him with a kiss and hello but instead says “You are such a jerk, dinner has already gone cold.”
The man could respond with invalidation:
- “She is a horrible wife. She is a horrible person. She is so self-centered. Anything she says is worthless.”
Or he could respond with acceptance:
- “I am a horrible person. I should have been here earlier. I have no excuse for my behavior. I’m not worthy of being married to her.”
Or he could respond with a counter-attack:
- “Maybe if you weren’t such a shrew, I would come home earlier!”
None of these options will provide good, long-term results. The invalidation increases distance and coldness, the acceptance results in an inferiority complex and oftentimes resentment on the part of the attacker, and the counter-attack – well that sets off World War III.
But what if he used the understanding approach? In this case he would try to understand why his wife was acting as she was. It would be easy to assume that she was intentionally and maliciously being hurtful – but are there any other possibilities?
- Perhaps he had been getting home a little too late. That didn’t mean that he was a worthless person, and calling him a jerk wasn’t appropriate, but he would make a renewed effort to be on time because it mattered to her.
- Perhaps she has had a bad day at work – her boss yelled at her, she made a mistake, a coworker dissed her, etc. – she had been looking forward to having him there to comfort her.
- Perhaps she burnt her finger cooking dinner and then waited thirty minutes with that aching finger for her husband to arrive home.
- Perhaps her father was always on-time and she sees being on-time as one of the primary ways in which one expresses love.
In these cases, if he takes the time to understand, he can see that there is a source outside of himself for this ferocity and can deflect the dart by understanding that this is not objectively what his wife means. He is also now empowered to pursue her with love rather than defend with animosity.
Let us consider another example. Perhaps there is a father and a daughter. The father was absent during her childhood, criticized much more than he complimented, and rarely lifted a finger to help her with any expenses (though he was able) – even when she was injured in a car accident and had large medical bills.
The daughter has similar opportunities to the husband above in responding to this behavior by her father.
- “My father is a worthless human being. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself.” (Invalidation)
- “I am such a horrible person. I don’t deserve any attention or care from my father.” (Acceptance)
- “Dad, I never want to talk to you again! You are such a piece of trash! You are the worst father that has ever been!” (Counterattack)
We see similar results when the daughter uses these approaches: the father and daughter’s relationship becomes more distant and cold (Invalidation); the daughter’s perception of herself is as a worthless person and she treats herself as such (Acceptance); a war erupts with vicious words that cut deeply on both sides (Counterattack).
What would taking an understanding approach look like? In this case the daughter would attempt to understand why her father was acting as he was. In so doing, she, like the husband above, is able to deflect the dart and perhaps even engage her father in a meaningful way. But what possibilities could there be to explain his behavior?
- His father was always absent and as such he never learned to be present for his own children.
- He has a deep, underlying depression which saps all the life and energy from him.
- He feels ashamed of how he has acted towards her, too ashamed to even apologize.
- He had to pull himself up by the bootstraps and so he insists everyone else do the same.
None of these, nor all of these put together, excuse the poor behavior of the father. But they do allow the daughter to deflect the dart by recognizing that her father’s behavior is not primarily a response to her (and her inherent worth) but instead towards himself and his own burdens.
She might even pursue him by talking to him about his life. What was it like for him as a child? As an adult? What were some of the biggest challenges he experienced?
…I struggle to be healthy in my interactions with others. While many are too quick to judge, too quick to anger – I struggle in the opposite direction. I continue to give, I resent the person for taking, I enable the person in their poor behavior.
The understanding approach is not the end-all, it is a starting point. It enables us to interact with wisdom in a difficult situation. But it does not excuse the poor behavior nor can it be the end-all in our toolbox.
The understanding approach is not always the healthy approach. We are not excusing the person’s behavior but understanding it. If we venture into excusing we have crossed a dangerous line.
What I have been unable to elucidate properly above is the worth of finding the emotion behind the behavior. What is the person feeling that causes them to act in such a manner? In almost every situation I find the answer is fear. It may be masked by anger or selfishness or pride – but under it all is fear:
- Fear of our darkest secrets being revealed to the light.
- Fear of doing something we will regret for the rest of our lives.
- Fear of standing out and failing in front of everyone.
- Fear of being abandoned.
- Fear of being loved so deeply we cease to exist as ourselves.
- Fear that we will never be loved.
- Fear that our desires will never be satiated.
- Fear that another will take advantage of us.
Thus we see a cause (e.g., absent father) of another’s behavior – but this is not looking deep enough. What is beneath this? A fear of being smothering? A fear of spoiling? A fear of doing something different? A fear of having more asked if we give more?
Underneath the causes of another’s poor behavior is almost always (or is it always?) fear.