Home » Blogs » Bonding Time » Dealing with Difficult Personalities

Dealing with Difficult Personalities

capI’ve been spending a good percentage of my sessions with clients this past week talking about how they will deal with their families when they all get together for the holidays.  While in theory the holidays are about good tidings and cheer, in practice for some people, they’re about stress and difficult personalities.  I’ve got some suggestions for how to cope.First, look at why you’re so deeply affected by certain people.

There’s a great anecdote about a master therapist (I can’t recall which one, sorry!) who once had a client ask him why her parents continued to affect her so much.  “Why can they always push my buttons, even though I’m a grown woman now?”  The therapist replied, “Because they installed the buttons.”

I think that’s an instructive story for a couple of reasons.  It explains why so many of us are still impacted well into adulthood by our family members, but also teaches self-compassion.  We don’t need to be frustrated or upset with ourselves for being affected; we need to just recognize why we are, and from there, we can decide what to do about it.

And that’s my next suggestion.  Before you’re in the situation, do a dress rehearsal.  Imagine the kinds of things that certain people say (go back to previous holidays, for example).  Think of the categories of comments that tend to bother you.  Then think why they affect you.  Review how you’ve responded in the past, and how you’d like to respond in the future.  Because past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, we often tend to repeat the same cycles of interaction.  It takes mindfulness and concerted effort to change this.  It takes a game plan.

Enlist the help of others in order to formulate and then to execute the game plan.  What I mean is, your partner can be a great ally.  He or she can run interference with certain family members, or prod you to remember how you want to respond.  Maybe they can just take your hand and remind you to breathe deep, it’ll be over soon.

A lot of pain can come from personalizing the way we’re treated by others.  If you realize that you’re dealing with a difficult personality (one who is widely acknowledged as such), it can help to remember this.  It’s not you, it’s them, and many people say so.  This can mute the effect they have on you.

I realize these are just general guidelines, and each family is its own complicated ecosystem.  But hopefully, this provides a jumping off point to help you weather (and maybe even enjoy) family gatherings.

Family image available from Shutterstock.

Dealing with Difficult Personalities

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). Dealing with Difficult Personalities. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Dec 2013
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.