Difficult Behaviors vs. Difficult People

I got a really good question after my last masterclass, “Three Essential Skills for Badass Boundaries with Difficult People”. A participant commented, “ I don’t like labeling people. I don’t wanna call people ‘difficult’. I want to talk about difficult behaviors because it makes me uncomfortable when we start labeling people. I’m afraid it means we’re throwing people away.”

First, I just wanna say how moved I am that folks are thinking in these ways. It is a deep principle that I carry that we all are capable of healing and growing. I use that language of difficult people specifically because overachieving trauma survivors tend to move with a growth mindset. We tend to think it can be fixed, it can be changed, it can be grown. And that capacity can be a tremendous gift – the capacity to see what’s possible beyond the hard moments.

I see over and over again people struggling in relationships and struggling to know when it is time to put down the striving, the fighting, the efforting. It can be hard to know when it’s okay to quit. So in talking about relationships with difficult people or boundaries with difficult people, I make a distinction between:

  • Those situations where someone is engaging in difficult behaviors but they’re willing to know about it. They’re willing to know about their impact. They’re interested in changing and growing. They may not know yet how to do it differently. They might not even know that the thing they’re doing is problematic. But there’s a willingness to to really learn and to care about your experience.
  • Those situations with someone, who maybe has the capacity to learn over time, but you notice that you are unable to impact them. No matter how much you bring your concerns, needs, hurts or desires to the table, you find yourself being dismissed, blamed or minimized. Your attempts to talk about the things that are hard are constantly deflected. You leave conversations feeling hurt and confused, and rarely feel a sense or progress. Somehow, you’re always the one who’s wrong, the one responsible for fixing things. And the other rarely, if ever, takes responsibility for their impact, and and doesn’t seem to be changing or growing despite endless attempts to address what’s not working.

Maybe those people are growing in some ways. But in this arena, when you try to set your boundaries over and over again, you find yourself unable to make an impact or feel heard or understood. In fact, you may feel bad, you may feel belittled.

Then you may be dealing not just with a difficult behavior, but a overall personality pattern that you as an individual may not be able to impact in the ways that you want. I invite folks to hold these distinction, particularly overachieving trauma survivors, because it’s important for us to know when it’s time to stop efforting.

It’s important for us to know that everything is not up to us to change and transform. We can believe in the possibility of growth and change, and we can hold standards for inclusion and equity – honoring that everyone has a place in community– while still having personal boundaries for how much effort we’re willing to put forth.

We can learn to recognize quickly and efficiently when it’s time to conserve our energies.

In my next post, I’ll answer the next most common question I received, “But what if I’M the one who’s difficult?”

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About the Author

About the Author: Sonya Brewer, MA, is a body-centered psychotherapist, somatic coach and relationship specialist in Albany, CA, where she specializes in creative life and relationship design for “out the box” thinkers (and “feelers”). She loves helping quirky people find their creative voice and express their unique ways of being so that they can feel more alive, connected and authentic in their lives and relationships, while also bringing their gifts to the world. Sonya brings over twenty years of experience, backed by in-depth training in somatic psychology, relational psychotherapy, relationship therapy and somatic coaching as taught by Generative Somatics and the Strozzi Institute, as well as training in trauma recovery through the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Somatic Experiencing Institutes. Sonya's body-based work is also deeply influenced by a lifetime of experience as a dancer, years of mindfulness meditation practice, and training and experience as a professional bodyworker. To learn more, visit www.sonyabrewer.com. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #89901 .


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