My personal library is full of books on how to deal with difficult people. Pages in these books are dog-eared so that I can easily find sections in times of crisis. Sentences are underlined multiple times for emphasis, and exclamation marks and notes fill the margins.
The humbling part of reading these books is recognizing that I can be a difficult person. My people-pleasing personality and desire for peace mean I avoid conflict and critical conversations. Unresolved conflict leaves me with repressed anger and passive aggressive behavior patterns. I find myself wanting to end relationships rather than work through them in godly ways. When it comes to fight or flight instincts, my wings begin flapping at the least sign of conflict. I am still in the process of learning how to handle conflict in healthier ways. This includes having the courage to speak the truth in love and the strength to hold clearly defined boundaries.
It is easy to find flaws in others but exonerate myself from guilt. This pattern, however, will create avoidance tendencies in friends and family, leaving me with few meaningful relationships. Acknowledging the areas in which I struggle helps me seek God for his transforming work in my life, which results in allowing me to love God and others well.
All About Me
If I have a strong desire to have my own way, a constant need to be the center of attention, a continual struggle with jealousy, or an easily offended attitude, there is a good chance I am being self-focused. Another way this manifests itself is when I feel a strong need to share my own opinion but do not want to understand another person’s point of view. When thwarted, I may react aggressively by bullying or threatening, or passively by pouting, withdrawing, or manipulating people and circumstances.
If I struggle in this area, I need to ask God to create in me a heart to serve and honor others. Listening to understand another person’s perspective, honoring others without calling attention to myself, and giving up my own desires for the sake of another are simple steps to move away from self-focus.
When my happiness is dependent upon other people, they become idols in my life. When they do not meet my expectations, I am hurt or angry. I must remember that God is my ultimate provider, comforter, and source of peace, joy, and hope.
A helpful practice is to analyze why I feel hurt or angry. Has another person truly sinned against me, or has she simply not met my expectations? God has placed a longing for himself inside each of us. If I try to fill that void with other people, I will be deeply disappointed, and this will lead to relational discord. Relational idolatry creates needy, grasping individuals. If my cravings for relationship are idolatrous, I will drive away the very people I long to be with.
Governor of the World
Difficult people are often controlling people. I might think I can “do it better” than someone else, so I step in and micromanage. Other times I might attempt to manipulate circumstances and people because I simply want my own way. Fear may drive my need to control when life seems like chaos, and I want to bring order. My motive in controlling might be to protect, but even this breeds resentment in others if it is a constant issue.
Controlling people are a catalyst for frustration, insecurity, and anger in others; eventually it will drive people away. Each of us wants to live our own life, and God alone is our ruler. We are called to hold each other accountable, but once I have spoken truth into another person’s life, I must remember that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict and change.
To counter a need to control, I should focus on God’s sovereignty. This God who is creator, sustainer, and redeemer has a plan for each of us, and he will carry it out. He does not need my help. He invites me to be part of his work, but he is not dependent on me. Each of us stands before God and must seek him for guidance. I must trust the sovereign God and relinquish my desire for power and control to him.
Avoiding Critical Conversations
In order for relationships to thrive, I must be transparent and vulnerable. I take the risk of being hurt when I share my heart, but authenticity is essential to healthy relationships. If I avoid critical conversations, hurts fester, relationships are shallow, and deep bonding does not happen. Sometimes I might avoid critical conversations because I am fearful or intimidated, but God is not the author of fear. I must cast my anxieties on the Lord; He calls me to be brave and courageous.
When I am having critical conversations, I must gently speak the truth in love and listen closely to the other person. It is clarifying and shows my genuine desire to understand when I restate what I think the other person is saying and ask them if I am understanding correctly. If the conversation becomes hostile, I need to step back to a safe place and reaffirm my love for the other person. I must ban verbal attacks, name-calling, nagging, manipulation, blaming, and retaliation. My focus is to build bridges of communication and deepen relationship through mutual care and understanding.
People pleasers seem to be the easiest people to get along with because we want to make others happy. There is a difficult side to this though. In order to avoid conflict, I might be less honest than I should be. I may also commit to more than I am capable of accomplishing because I cannot say “no.” I might hide from transparency and authenticity because I fear negative reactions, yet Scripture declares that I should confess my sins to others (James 5:16). Another tendency is to give in to another person’s demands because I want to avoid their anger, frustration, or hurt. When I do this, I fall into enabling patterns to the downfall, not help, of others.
I must find my self-worth and value in God alone. When I seek the approval of others, I live in anxiety because I cannot live up to everyone’s expectations. When I focus on obeying God, basking in his unconditional love and seeking him for wisdom, my soul finds rest. As a result, I am able to say “no” to the constant demands that exhaust me. I am then able to find time to abide deeply in God, and he gives me the wisdom and strength to do what is best.
Razor Edged Words
The book of James claims that with our words we bless God and curse people. My words have the power to destroy relationships and drive people away from me, particularly when they are fueled by pride and anger. This is not always as blatant as name-calling, lying, or slander. It may be twisting the truth to support my point of view or wielding cutting remarks and then playing them off as humor.
The opposite of this, however, is also destructive. If I refuse to discuss difficult issues, I shut down relational healing. Withdrawing, silent treatments, and avoidance are also damaging to relationships.
Scripture says to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). This requires humility and wisdom that comes from God alone. I must choose words carefully in critical conversations, and focus on understanding rather than on being understood. This way I am able to demonstrate genuine interest. Safe people allow others to speak their minds without returning a verbal attack. I must speak the truth in love with the motivation to edify.
Critical and Negative Naysayers
Negativity and undue criticism hurtle people into avoidance patterns. Root causes of overly critical attitudes are ungratefulness and a lack of understanding of my own need for grace. Changing this pattern requires a change of perspective.
When I find myself being unduly negative and critical, I need to refocus, capture my thoughts, and replace them with thoughts that are positive. I dwell on things that I am thankful for or that offer me joy. I meditate on truth and hope, and look for the best in people instead of the worst. My heart’s attitude needs to offer grace and praise rather than cursing. Giving thanks and joy are intertwined. When I dwell in thanks, my joy increases. When my joy is abundant, my heart overflows in thankfulness.
When another person hurts me, I must address the pain or bitterness will take root. Bitterness and resentment breed sarcasm, passive aggressive attacks, and revenge. The first thing I must analyze is if the hurt is because someone sinned against me or because I did not get my own way. If I simply did not get my own way, I must deal with my own self-centeredness. If someone sinned against me, I must confront the person and seek reconciliation.
It is important to remember that forgiveness and trust are not the same. Forgiveness is essential to our relationship with God and our own emotional and spiritual health, but trust is earned. Rebuilding relationships is the heart of God, but in grievous sin, this rebuilding takes time. Repentance and behavior change are essential to rebuilding trust in a relationship after someone has sinned against me. If the other person does not repent and change, I cast my burdens on the Lord and seek him for justice. I must never repay evil for evil. I remember to leave room for God to work; vengeance belongs to him.
Being easily offended creates barriers in relationships because my loved ones are afraid of upsetting me even when no malice is intended. Communication breaks down, and friends and family withdraw. 1 Corinthians 13 says love is not easily provoked. When I hold onto slights that were not even intended or get angry when my expectations are not met, I am breaking the law of love.
Ducks spread oil over their feathers to keep themselves dry. They float, dive, and splash while the water rolls off their backs. Similarly, I can insulate myself from the hurt of others by covering myself in God’s grace. I choose not to let small offenses create major hurts. If I learn to offer grace instead of demanding perfection, harmony flourishes.
Practically Perfect in Every Way
“Own your 5%,” Gary Chapman says. In other words, even if the other person is mostly to blame, I take responsibility for my part of relationship difficulties. As a young mom, I watched my children’s anger visibly diffuse when I apologized. Their hunched shoulders would release, facial muscles would relax, and their arms would open wide in hugs of forgiveness. Confessing parents, even if they have poor parenting skills, have better relationships with their children than “good” parents who never acknowledge their sin or admit they are wrong. If I never admit I am wrong, it is guaranteed that I am a difficult person!
The purpose of acknowledging areas where I might be “difficult” is to foster a deeper relationship with God, family, and friends. By God’s grace, I can become more and more like Christ, and in the process forge deep and lasting relationships.