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Dealing with Difficult Personalities

Often what makes people difficult is that they have a lack of awareness of the needs of others. They’re not about to adapt to you; they expect you to adapt to them. And depending on your relationship (whether it’s marriage, a colleague, a boss, a child’s teacher), it can be incredibly stressful.

So what do you do?1) Identify the specific behaviors that make this person difficult to deal with.

What you want to ascertain is whether that person is globally difficult (as in, everyone finds him/her challenging) or just very difficult for you specifically.

If everyone has trouble with that person, then the good news is: You don’t have to blame yourself. You can depersonalize, and be strategic.

But even if everyone has trouble, it’s possible that you have more–that the person is pressing your unique emotional buttons (more on that below.)

By being specific and knowing what behaviors really bother you, you’ll be better able to neutralize the impact.

2) Consider how much impact this person really needs to have on your life.

Are you giving them too much power? Are you letting this person steal more of your emotional energy and time than is necessary?

You might be thinking, “It’s my spouse; of course his (or her) behavior becomes all-consuming.” But is it a given? Does it really have to be this way?

If it is your boss, for example, it might be that the actions could have a relatively small impact as long as you wall it off from the rest of your work and your life–as long as you depersonalize and recognize what part is their problem and what part is yours.

3) Know your own triggers.

What gets under your skin the most? And why?

It could be that this person really throws a wrench in your daily activities, that you’re being prevented from doing what you want to do. Or it could be that it’s about your own past sensitivities, perhaps conditioned through childhood experiences.

With greater awareness of your triggers, you  can better protect and insulate yourself. If you know your vulnerabilities, you can gird yourself before you have certain conversations. You can combat the negative effects by surrounding yourself with positive people.

On TV, they used to do something called counter-programming: if one network was showing football, another network showed something soapy. You can counter-program emotionally.

4) Be strategic.

Strategies can include: communication, assertiveness, and coping. It could be that you have more power than you realize, and what you need is to speak up more. It could be that your style is not compatible with the other person’s and you need to learn to speak their language. (You might resent having to do this, but remember: What makes them difficult is that they’re not going to change;  you have to adapt. You might not like it, but better for you to be adaptable than miserable.)

Or it could be that nothing is going to change and you need to work on accepting this. It’s hard to accept what we don’t like, but in the long run, it’s better to do so than to keep fighting a losing battle.

Accentuate the positive; deemphasize the negative. Fill your life with people you prefer to have around. Be kind to yourself.

Those are just a few strategies that could be of benefit. Your job is to find the ones that work best for you, and to have multiple, since nothing works all the time. But something will work. You have more power than your realize.


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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."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2017). Dealing with Difficult Personalities. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2017
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