There are certain people that have brought out the worst in me. After many years, I believe I now have a much healthier approach to dealing with such difficult people and the conflict-ridden relationships that seem to inevitably accompany them.
For me, first I had to learn to deal with the difficult people that were closest to me. In either case, whether in a close or casual relationship, difficult people do not do what I want them to do – either in their actions, their words or their attitudes. Behavior that really pushes my buttons are cruelty, hypocrisy, disrespect, treating others unfairly or narcissism, a list that may differ from yours. To make matters worse, when these difficult folks are close to you, such behavior has a much larger impact on how you feel, what you think, and the choices you make; therefore, being objective is all the more difficult, and their behavior all the more trying.
Ironically, the answer for me crystallized when I looked at myself for my role in the unhappy dynamic. In other words, until I had taken ownership of my role in the conflict, I was going to be forever stuck in blaming someone else and unable to improve. Granted, this was a difficult step, but was critical for me to make any positive change. My big mistake in the dysfunctional dance? Having unrealistic expectations.
My role, thus my responsibility. They were not the “difficult people”, I was the difficult person – and the common denominator. I was a perfectionist, i.e. I had ridiculously high standards for myself, meaning that I was not accepting myself and my imperfect humanity. My subconscious belief was that if I was not always smart, talented, cute, right, then I just wouldn’t be safe, accepted, loved, or approved of. I had to realize, finally, that perfection is not a virtue, it’s a cruel illusion that fosters lack of both authenticity and opportunity for improvement. Importantly, I had to forgive myself for being, well, human. Imperfect. Ripe for growth and development. “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself” (Suzanne Somers) is really true, and the benefits of self-forgiveness are vast, pervasive and unexpected.
Forgiveness of myself for being imperfect also allowed me to forgive others for their humanity and all the times they have disappointed me. Since I have learned to forgive myself for being insensitive, ignorant, selfish, undiplomatic, not loving, argumentative, defensive, I was able to forgive my loved ones for when they were being overly sensitive, know-it-all, demanding, needy, judgmental, hypocritical and critical. I was able to forgive them, since I had already forgiven myself.
Finally, a wise friend (ok, it was my therapist) once told me that I may never have the relationship I want with my loved ones. Wow, that was an epiphany: accepting the person and relationship as it is. In other words, I should release my expectations, not only of myself and my loved ones, but of the relationship too. The lesson of 9/11 also reinforced this notion that control is an illusion. The more we invest in illusions such as control or perfection, the more frustrated, angry, resentful, and exhausted we become when we fail to meet expectation. I’m never going to be perfect, my loved ones will never be perfect, and it’s OK if our relationship is just – OK. Paradoxically the relationship improves when I don’t expect too much of it or my loved one.
Therefore, in the end, I was the source of my own dissatisfaction. I was the difficult person. The problem was my lack of forgiveness, my failure to accept the reality of what was possible or even desirable for myself, others, or my relationships, and my insistence that it was someone else’s responsibility to fix the conflict and my own frustration. I was the only person I could change and I did not have to continue employing an unforgiving, judgmental, and blaming lens to view myself or my relationships. Accepting and forgiving myself and others for what is, rather than what should be, was a relief to my loved ones, but a transformative and loving gift to myself.