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Jun 05, 2019

How to Deal with a Difficult Person + Tips to Protect Your Mental Health

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

I’m sure you either know someone personally or are related to someone who just seems to keep making the wrong decisions, no matter how much you try to help. I know how frustrating it can be when they just don’t want to listen, and I know annoying it can be when you feel like you are wasting your time! I’ve been there—sometimes you just want to give up! 

In fact, this week’s podcast and blog was inspired by my own personal experiences dealing with someone who just didn’t want to listen. I recently had friend who was talking to me about being frustrated and upset by her current life choices; she is really struggling to deal with the choices she has made and those of her parents. As a result, she is withdrawing from many of her close relationships and is becoming increasingly aggressive when I try reach out, making her quite hard to be around at times. She tends to snap every time she is misunderstood, and relentlessly pushes her point of view on people. In this blog, I am going to walk you through what I did, and am still doing, to help my friend and improve our relationship, and what I did to protect my mental health throughout this process.

1. Don’t be offended or take on a victim mentality:

When it comes to dealing with difficult people that don’t want to listen, it is necessary to let go of any feelings of indignation and hurt, no matter how justified you feel they are.Rather than seeing the situation as “this person is attacking me” and “how can they do this after all I have done for them!”, which will affect your interaction, communication, and will not be helpful in this particular situation because it will be reflected in your body language and behavior, realize that the other person’s thoughts and actions may be distorted because of the toxic mindsets they have (as a result of what is going in their life). This person may not be aware that what they are doing is wrong, or what is going on inside them, or they may not even care. They will just lash out if you react, because the way they perceive the situation is a little distorted. Indeed, they may even be asking for help, but in a really roundabout and confused way. 

To manage a situation like this successfully, you have to bury your pride and the desire to be correct. You do not want to put the other person on the defensive, which will be counterproductive because now you have become the victim and the situation is now about you—this makes it very difficult for you to help them. Rather than focusing on helping this person deal with their inner turmoil, you are focused on your own pain and put the other person on the defense (which will only make the situation worse). I found myself doing this with my friend, and I had to make a decision to stop and choose to reach out in love instead of taking offense. This occurred over a series of different conversations, where I learned to improve the way I reacted to my friend. The first conversation really didn’t go well, but I did learn over time, so don’t give up if you make a mistake—just keep trying and avoid developing a victim mentality! Sometimes, talking to a loved one about the situation can really help; I did this, and it really helped me see the fact that my difficult friend was reaching out to me is an honor because it means that she trusts me, which made it easier to be there for her even when she lashes out.

2. Manage your expectations:

It is important to manage your expectations going into a difficult conversation, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, because if you do not you may not be prepared to face and help the other’s person’s toxic attitude or an unexpected turn in the conversation. 

First, it is important to have realistic expectations, based on facts and not your emotions. Think about the situation and what you hope to achieve, and adjust your outlook accordingly. Be logical. Think about the time commitment you will have to make, and realize that at the beginning you may have to do the brunt of the work to help the other person because they are in a really bad place. Most importantly, recognize that sometimes you will be an emotional “punching bag” (if this turns physical, you obviously need to get out of the situation and find help); conversations will often be one-sided and things will not always be easy with quick solutions. But this is not about you; it is about helping the other person. Separate your emotions from the facts of the situation. This is hard but will really help you. 

Second, you need to remain hopeful about the possibilities of healing, while being realistic about the situation. Due to the mind-body connection, a positive “expectancy mindset”, which I speak about in Think, Learn, Succeedproduces real, neurophysiological outcomes in your body. Expecting that the effort you put into planning for a relationship will succeed can change you mentally and physically, and increase the likelihood of what you hope coming about, preparing your mind and body for success and helping you find the strength to persevere even when that person is difficult! I decided to approach all the conversations I had with my difficult friend choosingto hope for the best, and that was reflected in my body language and eventually made my friend more willing to open up to me. The key here is to never give up hope, but to also confront the brutal realities of the situation.

Third, make sure your expectations are flexible. Don’t be rigid, and be prepared to change. Listen to what that person is saying, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Do not get set on one way of doing something, or one way of helping a person. This will only cause more frustration on your end, and you may miss finding a way of helping this person that is far more effective than anything you planned or imagined. Truly reaching out requires you tuning into the other person, analyzing what they need, and adjusting your words and behavior accordingly.  

Lastly, realize that helping someone is a significant time commitment. Change doesn’t happen overnight—it takes around 63 days just to change one mental habit! Recognize that you may have to have multiple conversations (many of which will be one-sided) and be patient.  

As I teach in my books Switch on Your Brain and The Perfect You, we live in an entangled world—we are designed and created to feel the energy (i.e. photons) from each other’s thoughts and emotions. People can physically sense your expectations! For example, if you are frustrated, judgmental and irritated, this will send out negative energy and put the other person on the defensive, which can cause neurochemical chaos in their mind and they won’t be able to think clearly. As a result, instead of your interaction becoming a constructive time to help a loved one, it may turn into an unhelpful argument. But if you immerse someone in patient, gently love, you help someone see something they may not have been able to see before because you have created a positive environment around the person. 

3. Don’t judge a book by its cover: 

It is always important to realize there is a deeper message below someone’s outward actions and words. Focus on this, rather than “so and so did this”. Keep in mind the bigger picture: why do you care about helping this person? Think about the love you have for your friend or family member. Remind yourself that you want to help them get free. Remember there is this deeper message behind their actions! 

In my situation, I just kept reminding myself of the bigger picture: my friend really just wanted me to help her, and trusted me enough to let everything out in the open (even the toxic stuff!).

4. Build up trust: 

Sometimes, you actually have to be silent about the elephant in the room. This does not mean you ignore the issue; rather, you go into a conversation or interaction wanting to engage with that person on topics that interests them, building up trust, which is the foundation for true change. Doing this will actually help facilitate deep and meaningful conversations in the future, and can make the person more receptive to what you have to say (you don’t want what you are saying to feel like a sudden intervention).  

Indeed, engaging in what this person likes shows you care and can create a safe space, which makes it easier for that person to be open about what they are going through. They will really feel like you are tuning into them as a person, which helps the mind-brain connection work more effectively. But make sure to do so without judgment or dishonesty! People can sense when someone is being overly nice or “fake”, and this can create a greater divide in your relationship. It is also important not to use examples from your own life unless asked by that person, otherwise he or she may feel that you are making this situation about you and not their issue. Look for cues like “have you ever experienced anything like this?” This will honor that person’s story and where they are coming from. 

5. Embrace empathy:

When you start to talk about the major issue/problem, practice empathy and avoid slipping into a victim mentality. This means getting down in the dirt with people, trying to see the situation from their perspective and showing true concern. This doesn’t mean that you fully comprehend what they are going through; rather, it validates their experiences and acknowledges that their pain is real. Doing this changes the resilience in the brain (through a genetic switch), which can help that person see their problems in a new light and start sorting through their issues. 

Remember, you are NOT giving them a solution to all their issues (although you can have some suggestions available for the right time, if you feel like they are appropriate). Do NOT just bring up comparisons from your own life or talk about how you feel. Frame everything as “I may be wrong but” or “I could be reading you wrong” and so on. Listen more than talk, and avoid defensive language. This is especially true when speaking with a young adult—don’t not compare your life to theirs or say “when I was young”. And, most importantly, understand that when you tell someone something they may not want to hear it, and they may get very defensive. Remain calm and just LISTEN. Give them a safe space to vent.

6. Protect yourself:

Throughout this whole process, you need to remember to protect your own mental health because these kinds of situations can be tough. How can you do this? Make sure you have a designated person you can talk to to help you process difficult situations and emotions. 

Where applicable, use technology to your advantage: if the person calls and you need a rest, let it go to voicemail and text them that you will call later. Sometimes, it is better to text rather than call, which can help you think clearly before responding in a reactive and emotional way. Indeed, always take the time to think before you respond—never react impulsively! And when you do feel attacked, imagine a shield of armor around your mind protecting you from the “arrows” of their nasty words—this can help you divorce your own emotions from the issue and give your mind a break from the pain by reminding yourself it is just their pain speaking and it is not a direct attack on you.

It is always important to set definitive boundaries. I personally love to use my time in the sauna as a mental health break, which is incredibly important, even if you are not trying to help someone who won’t listen! In fact, when we go into a directed rest state (that is when we are intentional about relaxing and giving our minds a break), we enhance and increase the effectiveness of our thinking, which allows us to be more helpful when we are reaching out to someone in need. This, in turn, will reduce our anxiety levels, helping protect our mental health in the process. This is why it is so important to incorporate “thinker moments” into our daily schedule, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, SucceedThese moments help you switch off to the external and switch on to the internal, giving your brain a rest and allowing it to reboot by letting your mind wander and daydream, which increases your clarity of mind and ability to problem-solve. Be intentional about creating mental health breaks throughout your day, especially when you are dealing with difficult people! 

My new app Switch is also a great tool for helping you protect and mainatain your own mental health. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you build a healthy new, thinking habits on a daily basis that protect your mental wellbeing and increase your clarity of thought, enabling you to deal with the challenges of life (including difficult relationships!). 

Of course, in the end I cannot give you exact answers to all your problems because I don’t know you or the situation personally. However, although I cannot give you exact solutions to all your problems, my books and online programs have great information in them that you can learn and share, just like these blogs. And know that, at the end of the day, if you are persistent and protect your own mental health, it will get better! I have consistently seen this in my life, my family and patients! 

If you would like to learn more about this topic, how to help adults and teens with their mental health, and get even more practical training join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit this December in Dallas, TX! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here.

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