Cultivating Self-Respect While Dealing With Difficult People

I think most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have encountered our share of difficult people. They come in the form of the dysregulated, the manipulative, the dramatic, the demanding, and so on. However their difficult nature may present itself, one consistent thing when it comes to dealing with these types of people is how hard it is to maintain your self-respect.

Allow me to explain.

Difficult people became difficult because they learned that it works. Somewhere along the way, the people in their lives taught them that being difficult is an effective strategy for getting what they want. Once they learned that this strategy could work if they have the right people around them, they made meticulous efforts (whether consciously or unconsciously) to surround themselves only with people who were willing to enable—and capitulate to—their difficult behavior. Having established a cohort of people around them who will let them behave in dysregulated and harmful ways, they expect to be able to behave that way with everyone.

And they become very fussy when they discover that some people won’t tolerate it.

It can be so challenging to maintain your sense of self-respect around difficult people. The reason, I’m starting to learn, is that they train you to understand that it is easier to enable, allow, and even co-sign on their bad behavior than to call them out on it. Instead of insisting on mutual respect, consideration, and reciprocity, you find yourself slowly becoming their handler—everything you do in the relationship with the difficult person is to monitor their emotional temperature, serve as their emotional processor, and do whatever it takes to get them back to a stable place.

How can you feel a sense of dignity and self-respect while observing yourself behaving in such self-betraying ways? How can you maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem when you have slowly lost your identity in your relationship with the difficult person?

With time and lots of therapy, I’m learning how to navigate the behaviors of difficult people while cultivating and maintaining a healthy sense of self-respect. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about how difficult people behave and how to respond to their behaviors:

(1) They use conflict as a weapon. People often fear confrontation or upsetting the difficult person because they’ve learned how much conflict will come as a result. Practice assertiveness and communication skills to express needs and boundaries calmly and confidently, showing them that they cannot “behave badly” out of not treating you the way you deserve.

(2) They use manipulation tactics to keep you unbalanced: Difficult people may use manipulation tactics like guilt-tripping or gaslighting to evade boundaries or escape accountability. Stay firm and consistent in enforcing boundaries, and don’t engage in arguments or justification.

(3) They wear you down emotionally: Dealing with difficult people can be emotionally draining, making it harder to maintain boundaries and prioritize your own needs and self-respect. Prioritize self-care practices and seek support from friends, family, or a therapist. Remember that the difficult person cannot be the person who helps you manage your emotions, so you need to find someone else to help you do that.

(4) They hold “access” to them over your head. Playing off your fear of rejection, they threaten withholding access to them if you don’t behave the way they expect you to. Remember that healthy relationships respect boundaries and prioritize mutual understanding and respect. Having access to someone who refuses to treat you that way isn’t someone whose access you should prize.

(5) They engage in boundary blurring. Difficult people will often attempt to blur the line between what they are responsible for, and what others are responsible for. They will attempt to make the people around them feel responsible for their emotional experiences, thus making others feel guilty for the difficult person’s bad behavior. Maintaining a healthy self-esteem means understanding that you are responsible for your feelings and behaviors, and they are responsible for theirs.

(6) They will make you doubt yourself. Through manipulation and control tactics, the difficult person will attempt to make you think that having self-respect and expecting reciprocity is selfish and unkind. Remind yourself that your needs and boundaries are valid, and seek validation and support from trusted individuals.

Purely in my opinion, our goal should be to avoid relationships with difficult people. Once we perceive the pattern, we should make it a priority to exit their lives quickly, as staying in a relationship with them will take a toll on our self-esteem, self-respect, and personal well-being. But if we cannot exit the relationship—if the difficult person is a family member, someone we work with, or someone we simply cannot cut ties with for any reason—we must recognize their behaviors and engage in healthy strategies for maintaining our self-esteem.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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