Life Would Be Easy… If It Weren’t for DIFFICULT People

UPDATED: February 1, 2008
PUBLISHED: February 1, 2008

Go on, it’s okay. Admit it! We all know that life would be a whole lot easier if we didn’t have to deal with those few (or many) difficult people we just can’t seem to avoid. I think you know who I’m talking about.

What’s not okay is to give up something you need, want or deserve because of their rude, obnoxious, sullen and apathetic habits. Yes, I do mean “habits.” If you’re tired of playing their game, take charge of your life by taking a good look at yourself! You cannot change them, but you can change what you do and how you act around them—and ultimately how they affect your life.

The Good News… and the Bad News

Difficult people have been trained and taught to act the way they do since they were children. In fact, they have been rewarded for their negative behavior throughout their entire lives. Difficult behavior worked for them as children—and more importantly, it continues to work for them as adults.

I believe that most of us are born with the capacity and desire to love and be loved. As we grow, we learn to respond to verbal and visual cues and we begin to adjust our behavior to obtain the positive responses we want. Children who can manipulate their parents soon learn to enjoy feelings of power and control over others.

The game of life is basically about “getting our needs met.” And you certainly do play a part! We reward difficult people by giving in to their needs. Think about it. If someone’s behavior is consistently inappropriate or unacceptable toward you, ask yourself if in any way you are rewarding their negative behavior.

For example, Helen gets upset every time Harry mentions that he wants to play golf. Rather than face a two-hour lecture he usually finds it easier to just stay home. One day, however, he gets angry and accuses her of being a nag who never understands him. Instead of answering back, Helen gets her feelings hurt, stomps off and gives him the silent treatment. Harry takes advantage of her cold shoulder and plays a few holes of golf!

Jennifer wins the same reward at her new school. Few of the kids would talk to her and some were even making fun of her. She asked to stay in during recess, but the teacher said no. Eventually she gets into a fight and pushes another girl down. The teacher tells Jennifer that fighting is against the rules and she will have to stay inside. What did Jennifer learn? Ask the teacher respectfully and you will not get what you want. Push someone and you can avoid recess!

We have three choices each time we respond to another person: 1. Be positive; 2. Be negative; and 3. Avoid or ignore them. Difficult people see avoidance as a positive response. When we ignore unacceptable, inappropriate behavior, it will usually happen again because our avoidance tells the difficult person that we are willing to accept their behavior.

What Do They Really Want?

Difficult people want to do their own thing, in their own time, in their own way, without interference. In addition, they expect everyone around them to cooperate—even work extra hard—to ensure that this happens. And they do not see anything unreasonable about these expectations. There is little in their experience to signal them that their actions are inappropriate. They also have little (if any) desire or motivation to change their habits.

What Can I Do About It?

We learn a lot from difficult people. We tolerate their behavior and attitudes as “part of life.” We hold back our feelings and swallow our words. We make concessions even when we do not receive anything in return. We compromise even when it is 90/10 instead of 50/50. We may even question our own ability to relate and communicate with others reasoning that “Maybe it’s me.”

Since we cannot change difficult people, we can only change our selves and our reactions to their behavior. They need our cooperation and our permission to intimidate, control and repeatedly manipulate us to get their way. In most relationships, we are treated exactly the way we allow ourselves to be treated.

The good news is that because we are partly responsible, there is something we can do to create and maintain relationships where we are treated respectfully. That’s great news! By focusing on ourselves and the changes we can make in our own behaviors and reactions, we can begin to take control of how other people treat us—today!

Take Action!

Think about two difficult people in your life.
Identify the behaviors of these difficult people.
Ask yourself if you could possibly be rewarding these difficult people.
Would they describe you as the difficult person? If so, what would they say?

Connie Podesta is a board-certified therapist, licensed professional counselor, comedian and author of several books, including the popular series, Life Would Be Easy If It Weren't For Other People. Podesta is a well-known speaker providing positive and inspiring messages to hundreds of companies and more than 2 million people.