How to Deal with a Difficult Person…without Becoming Part of the Problem

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One of my extended family members died recently. When people offered their condolences, without hesitation I found myself replying, “It’s the kind of death that is a blessing.” I didn’t mean that she was relieved of suffering, either related to a disease or treatment for it. I meant that her death was a relief from her life … and relief for the family members that had struggled for decades to help her get to a better place in life and health.

My relative weighed 600 pounds when she died. She could not sit up and existed the last few years of her life lying on her right side. As her weight and associated health issues increased over the decades, so did her resolve and refusal to be cared for in a nursing home.

Although there were many wakeup calls and second chances, she didn’t manage to take advantage of them. Over 10 years ago, a 60-pound mucinous ovarian tumor was removed at University of Louisville Hospital. No cancer, no chemotherapy. Life went back to “normal” for her.

My relative did not make it easy for people to provide care for her. Her “give her an inch and she’ll take a mile” approach to relationships left those around her frustrated, resentful, and often exhausted.

In their attempt to be caring, responsible family members, my relatives complied with her insistence that she could manage at home … until it was too late and the only option was a $5000 ambulance ride to a private pay facility in Illinois.

But that’s the way it is with enabling. You think you’re helping. It feels like helping, and even thinking about doing anything else feels terribly wrong.

In other words, you’re no longer solving the problem — you’ve become part of it.

Chronically difficult people and situations can make us feel crazy — doing the same things over and over again, but expecting different results.

So how do people stop enabling, when it so feels like the right thing, the only thing to do?

The Alternative to Head-Banging

So why do people keep banging their heads against the same wall? I’ll tell you why — doing something different is even harder.

Acknowledging the reality of a difficult situation involves some very unfamiliar, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Most of us don’t like discomfort. We avoid it as much as possible.

Once you’re in touch with that (usually painful) reality, you’re kind of obligated to do something about it. Sometimes you’d rather just keep your head in the sand.

But life and relationships have this annoying way of continually giving us opportunities to learn, grow, and do better.

A Change of Heart, Mind, and Behavior — Yours

Here’s a typical CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) exchange on the road from crazy to control of your life:

CLIENT: “They’re the problem! Why do I have to be the one to change?”

ME: Because they’re the dysfunctional person. You’re the mentally healthier person … aren’t you?” Therefore, you’re the one with the most capacity to influence and possibly improve the situation.

CLIENT: “But it’s not fair. Why do I have to be the one do all the work?”

ME: “Because you’re the one with the most incentive. You’re the one experiencing the most negative effects. The difficult person is okay — at least more okay than you are — with letting things stay as they are. Why should they do anything different when they have little or no incentive?”

CLIENT: “What if all my effort doesn’t do any good?”

ME: “I can pretty much guarantee that your effort will do you good. The energy you previously used to try to change the difficult person is now freed up to get you moving. You start thinking more clearly and objectively. Your creative problem-solving skills kick in and you find yourself thinking outside the box.

“Your internal dialogue sounds something like this: ‘The difficult person in my life does not think and act like me … It’s unlikely they will ever understand how I see things or agree with how I think things should be handled. Accepting that reality, what is the next right step for me to take?’”

CLIENT: “But what if it doesn’t work? What if they don’t change?”

ME: “It’s very seldom that I don’t see at least some improvement in the situation. There are no guarantees, but doing your own work not only benefits you, it also creates the best possible odds that the other person will respond better.”

CLIENT: “Those are pretty good odds.”

ME: “That’s as good as it gets. Ready to get started?”