At some point in the last week I had to deal with one of the most difficult people I’ve ever encountered. I am being purposely vague, because in no way do I want this post to be a public “outing” of this fellow human. Here are a couple of additional relevant details: I have only ever had a few interactions with this person, there is next to no possibility of running into this person in town, and there are very few (if any) future scenarios in which we might have to interface.

By “some point” I mean a fixed time and place, and by “deal with” I mean tried my best not to interact with. I’m mature like that.

Truth is, I am one step too close to Amish and too many steps away from Amish to deal with this person in a way that leaves me totally satisfied. When the Amish have a conflict with another person, they offer to wash that person’s feet as a sign of humility and subservience to a greater love. I am light years away from giving this person a pedicure, but I also do take a pacifist approach: unless there is any reason for our relationship to advance, spending time and energy calling him/her out for rude behavior is not logical nor is it good for the rest of the people around us.

I tend to be a greatest good type of gal.

It is no wonder then, that difficult people bum me out, because in navigating their lives they have at some point decided to try to make life as unpleasant and as difficult as possible for everyone else around them. I am sure we are all difficult in our own quirky ways—at least to the wrong, or right, kinds of people. Yet I think we can all agree that some people are much more difficult than others, and in this case I know for a fact I am not the only person who views this particular human as having difficult/antisocial behavior. Popular opinion is not always correct, but in this case at least I know I am not misjudging behavior.

Some people probably get kicks out of being difficult, and bully for them. That might be the case here. My question is this: What good are you planning on leaving behind you in the universe before you die? Because, like, that’s a very real question for me, man, and I wrestle down and dirty with my own character every day. How we treat others, how kind we are, how open we are to the gifts others have inside of them…that’s pretty darn important.

There is a very, very small list of people I don’t like. And you have to WORK to get on that list. I mean, you’ve got to put in some effort to get on that list. I’m the kind of person who looks for the good in other people, even to the point of being called naive or hanging around in relationships (romantic or just friendly) too long simply because I saw something good shining there once. I also don’t make it a practice to compare myself with others, which means I am never assessing a person’s overall worth or holding it up against mine; I believe we all have worth and value, we all have something to offer, we all have a spark. I tend to let comments roll off my back…for the most part. I know the difference between good hearts and a tactless moment—the good heart goes a long way for me. I know the lady that came off as intimidating and brusque in my philanthropy group had a heart of gold and merely a desire for efficiency, and we became friends. I know the snarky friend from college wants the world to be a better place as much as I do, but that she goes about it using hard words while I use gentle words—but that she is choosing those words deliberately with a philosophy behind it, and not just because she is wildly insecure about herself and wants to beat up on people. Makes a difference. I know the power of harsh love from teachers and mentors and actually thrive under those conditions. I have had numerous conflicts—that we resolved—with parents and students. There are not many people I don’t like or don’t get along with, because I go into relationships assuming that everyone has value and that I am not any smarter/better than they are at being a personI find things to like about nearly everyone.

So what makes me classify someone as difficult?

* Difficult people act as though they think they are smarter than everyone else without having enough experience to know how much they really don’t know. Honestly this is one of my biggest pet peeves. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met live their lives in awe of how much they have left to learn to make any kinds of axioms about the world or knowledge. And they certainly don’t go around belittling others or making disparaging remarks about the intelligence of others. Arrogance-without-perspective…ugh!

* Difficult people do not self-assess for their own dogmatism but do not hesitate to call out others for dogmatic beliefs. Occasionally we call this hypocrisy.

* Difficult people spend more time critiquing others than they do refining their own character/reflecting on their own strengths/weaknesses and trying to improve.

* Difficult people appoint themselves as demi-gods who can make pronouncements about the low worth and lack of value in any scenario. Aaaaaaand, based on what qualifications?

* Difficult people give off a vibe of never being satisfied, not appreciating what they have, never being grateful. Without gratitude there is no humility. Do any of us become what we are just by our own sheer will? I don’t think so. Ergo, humility.

* Difficult people don’t truly like it when others are happy or optimistic. They also have a hard time believing that others are happy even when others say they are. They wait for others to fail. They might be jealous, insecure, or hyper-competitive. Ergo, they are missing precisely all of what I think the point of life is completely. Game over.

* Difficult people want to blame others for what goes wrong and give off a vibe of forever being victims. In turn they overcompensate with all of the behaviors above, plus trying to make people fear them with name-calling, smirking, eye-rolling, etc. They also routinely miss the point, indulging in narcissism: many of us don’t fear you, or think much about you, at all…we simply don’t want to pursue your negative way of being and feel absolutely zero need to be liked by you.

So what do we do about difficult people?

I’m not sure. They are no fun. It is my belief that most difficult people have been truly hurt at some point and that, if we could find their real selves deep deep down, we might see someone vulnerable and, dare I say, possibly lovely. But it is not my business, nor my life’s calling, to get past the defensive walls of difficult people. At a certain age, no matter what has happened to us, we become responsible for what kind of character we present to others and, most importantly, how we behave toward others. Bad behavior is bad behavior—rude is rude—even if you are the kindest, most wonderful child that got hurt a long time ago. I feel empathy for you…to a point. Plus we might be dealing with genetics, also. Personality traits are personality traits. Someone who tends genetically to take a negative view of the world will not ever believe that I am being authentic when I am experiencing joy or seeing a silver lining. It is unlikely, even if I were to penetrate the walls of the difficult person, that we could really ever be on the same wavelength.

I was talking with my cousins about having to go spend time with this difficult person, before I went. Beth was wise, Jocey was a counselor, and Kd called me right out about making sure I kept my own pride in check. (“Oh yeah, I bet you are planning on wearing your favorite outfit, thinking about your comebacks…”) My mom, too, reminded me about being loving toward all people and turning the other cheek.

Yeah. But it is SO hard. How do we show love even at the hardest moments? I can’t say I did a very good job. My strategy was to ignore the heck out of this person’s presence. Give this person no kindling. But with no kindling, no kindness either. Maybe kindness would have been best. Maybe the edge to my voice when this person asked a question s/he should have known better than to ask…maybe I am not all the way proud of that. Because I am just one more in the long line of people, probably, who respond to this person with that tone. Maybe when I saw him/her sitting by himself/herself, I should have humbled myself and tried to talk about the last time s/he was rude to me, and worse, to my family member…and tried to show forgiveness.

But maybe distance is an equally viable and good, or a merely neutral, action. I think much about the Prisoner’s Dilemma here. Has this person played enough rounds that we can safely classify him/her as noncooperative? Or would the game restart if I threw a random move of forgiveness (Forgiving Tit-for-Tat seems to fare better in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, from what I recall from the game theory lesson in my sociobiology class in college).

Or maybe the secret is to take the negative energy from a difficult person and transform it into good energy. I had great running mileage and times right around the time I had to interact with this person. Perhaps optimists have a upper hand here: we know how to work magic on negativity to make something good out of it.

I wish I had a solution. Abraham Lincoln once said something about having no enemies because he could make friends out them. Well, that’s a nice idea… Other times, though, I think we do have to stand for something.  It might be reasonable to require people to work on bettering their behavior before they get to have any more of us/be allowed to peer inside us. It might be reasonable to hold people to a standard of social civility.

Is there hope for those of us who wish to master the art of handling difficult people?  What are your stories? Best solutions?

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