Friday, January 27, 2012

On being a difficult person

It is difficult to read self-help/personal development blogs, books, and articles that recommend that one cut negative people from one's life; that one avoid difficult people; that one manage difficult people. As though only easy/positive people read these blogs, books, and articles. As though people were always and to everyone either positive or negative; either easy or difficult.

I am a difficult person. I have been accused of being very negative. Should everyone cut me out of their lives? I suppose it is up to them, but I tend to be happy when people choose not to do so.

Nothing in any of these articles is very helpful for difficult people. The writing assumes that difficult people simply like being difficult, refuse to change in ways that are clearly positive (because the positive people have already so identified them), and require management or a very wide berth. But what is a difficult person to do about her own difficult-ness?

Remember, you positive, easygoing, laidback, cheery, easy to get along with folks: negative, difficult, awkward, uncomfortable people have feelings as raw and real and delicate as your own. In fact, it is possible that the difficult people in your life are even more sensitive to negativity, difficultness, awkwardness than you are. Some of us are hypersensitive to ourselves and to others. This makes us super self-conscious much of the time. It also means that we can go from being a-okay, happy to be around folks and out in the world to being overstimulated, deeply uncomfortable, and shut down or closed off within minutes. This can be triggered by anything--by things that seem like nothing to those around us. It's not our fault. Are we responsible for it? Sure! But what is it you'd like us to do? No response we can make that accounts for our intense discomfort will feel acceptable to you. If we simply leave and retreat to our homes or rooms or beds, refusing to take calls until we feel sufficiently lacquered over to handle company or the world at large again, then you call us selfish, closed off, abrupt and uncomfortable. If we try to wait for the moment to pass (just a little!), taking breaths and smiling weirdly (or not able to smile at all), saying little or nothing and hoping no one will notice until we've collected ourselves a bit before participating again, then you tell us we've shut you out, we're acting weird, you don't know what to say to us, we're changing the energy of the moment, we've made things awkward again. If we tell you we can't be in touch for a bit because we're in a rough spot, then we're not letting you be a friend, we're pushing you away, we're devaluing the relationship. If we try to tell you about our sensitivities as we experience them, sharing what is really hard to share, you often don't understand--that made you upset? That much? Can't you just get over it now that you know? No, no we can't. That's the point. That's what we're trying to say. That's why it feels so hard all the time and it takes so much effort so often just to appear natural. Alternately, you turn our stresses and worries and overwrought feelings into a judgment of your character, or our relationship. When we say "interaction X" left me feeling raw and drained, you take it personally, as though we are accusing you of having done something intentionally hurtful. What hurts is not you or your behavior (much of the time); it is the feeling of outside air on a soul that feels scantily covered. Sometimes a breeze makes its way beyond the insufficient skin and that breeze--delightful to others--can be painful for some of us difficult, highly strung, negative people. And it doesn't stop being painful.

Cut us out of your lives if you must--you do us no favors by remaining in relationship with us if it bothers you that much; remember, we can be highly sensitive and are often keenly aware of your discomfort and of the fact that we can do nothing about it. And if you decide to "let" us stay, do stop trying to manage our difficultness. Part of what makes us so uncomfortable to you is the fact that we don't try to manage your discomfort around us--we aren't able to change ourselves in order to make you feel more comfortable in our presence. Yes, we know you are uncomfortable with our sensitivities, our weirdness, our lack of reliable social grace. And many of us understand just why you are uncomfortable--after all, we make ourselves uncomfortable, too. But we (some of us at least) are able to let you have your discomfort and we can, to varying extents, sit with that discomfort we both feel. Can you do that for us, too? Can you let yourself be uncomfortable with us? For many of us sensitive, difficult folk, that is one of the most longed for expressions of friendship: the ability to acknowledge our discomfort, awkwardness, unease, self-consciousness, and rawness, to sit with it without trying to "fix" it or "cure" us, and to love us anyway, somehow.

Of course we understand that this doesn't look like the kinds of friendship other folks get to enjoy. It looks, well, negative. It looks sparse and chilly. But this is what we need if we are going to share the other parts of our personalities with you. Even those of us who are rather difficult are rarely difficult all the time. We might go through phases--whole years maybe--when it feels that way to you and also to us. But we have moments of pure sunniness. Some of us are quite clever, hilariously funny and entertaining; we can be deeply supportive and we can be creative and warm in the ways in which we show care; we can be or play the part of the outgoing extrovert at times. We can be amazing friends, lovers, and partners. But you won't get to know or experience that unless you are able to love--equally--all of the ways in which we are also difficult.

It would be nice to see any of this addressed in the advice offered for "dealing with" difficult people. (One "deals with" pests, generally; perhaps if you can't think of difficult people in any other terms than having to "deal with" us, then you might take that as a sign that you can't help but see difficult people as the enemy, in which case, yes, avoid us. We will be grateful to you.) As a difficult person myself, I tend to find such advice very depressing. I am difficult but I am not (usually; I, like any "easy" person, have my moments) a jerk. And I don't like being difficult. Very often I wish I could be otherwise. The truth is that I can't. And it hurts to read that one should not share one's dreams with difficult or negative people because they'll just look for ways to bring you down. It hurts to read that folks think that their successes produce negativity in difficult others. Maybe in/for some people it does. But then there must be as many ways of being difficult as there are of being not-difficult. It hurts to read that difficult people need to be "right" all the time. Sure I like being right. I like it a lot. In terms of interpersonal relationships what I need more than being right is acknowledgment that I am not necessarily wrong. Just because my feelings are nothing like what your feelings would or might be doesn't make me any more wrong or right than you. It just makes me and my feelings very different. The more you tell me that I am wrong to feel in some way, the more I will dig in and assert the reality of my experience. It hurts to read advice suggesting that you not respond to someone's negative or difficult attitude. Would you refuse to acknowledge or respond to a friend's sickness if she had, say, a cold? If your friend were missing a leg would you tell her to get over herself and just run a 5k with you? Or would you respect her limitations (whether permanent or temporary) and adjust your responses accordingly?

I started by asking what a difficult person is to do about her own difficultness and I haven't even addressed that all. This is amusing as I began by criticizing other authors for not addressing just that question. I've not come up with any ways of becoming any less difficult myself, for example. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that being difficult is itself a problem. There are many things we value because they are difficult--running marathons, climbing mountains, earning advanced degrees, performing brain surgery. I suppose I am trying to learn to value the ways in which I am difficult, which is itself a difficult thing to do. I invite others who are not difficult, or who are less difficult, or who are differently difficult to challenge themselves to learn to value difficultness in the relationships of which they are a part, too.


omphaloskeptic said...

Hey, was just going to let you know that I appreciated this post and will continue thinking about it. But I was listening to this album after reading your post and parts of this song resonated, so I thought I would share it. Look forward to seeing you soon!

philosophotarian said...

thanks, friend. And thanks for the link to the song--I haven't listened to this one in ages. It does feel different having written this post. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think an important distinction needs to be made between people who are "difficult" in the way you describe, and people who actively (intentionally or not) bring one down, make one feel bad about him or herself, and inhibit the person's ability to grow and overcome their own issues. "Difficult" in the way you describe is simply a personality type, and all things being equal I do not see why one would want to cut them out of one's life. This, however, is completely different from the person who inhibits one's growth as a person. Those are the people one, when other means fail, should avoid.

But don't worry about being a "difficult" person as your describe it. If they can't handle you, that's too bad for them.

philosophotarian said...

I think you are right about that distinction and this post was prompted, in large part, by my disappointment in not seeing that distinction made in other blogs or magazines or books that talk about difficult people. Some of the discussion does focus on folks who have a nasty streak and who do undermine other people's growth. But some of the discussion also seems to include (intentionally or not) within the category of such difficult people sensitive, highly strung folks who don't want to undermine their friends' growth.

Perhaps there is some overlap between the mean people and the very sensitive people. Or perhaps distinguishing between us might not always be easy in real time. It seems at least possible that that is the case. This can be frustrating for those of us who don't want to be mean but who come off as being cold or aloof or emotionally absent sometimes, and who want to be better friends to our friends (and to ourselves!) to learn how to do so. Then again, perhaps that should teach me to look for such advice in the casual fora of the internet...!

Denise said...

I appreciate your post! I have been labelled a "difficult" person/parent. I refuse to accept the status quo and I do not simply follow the way things are done for the simple reason of "because it is so". I am logical and honest and am a believer in things that are moral, good, and fair. When things aren't right I speak up and want to set things right. I don't intentionally hurt peoples feelings or cause trouble but I believe that things should change, and there is always good use of feedback and improvements. I have been searching the internet on how to put a positive spin on being difficult. I don't want to feel bad or ashamed of being difficult. Without difficult people who challenge the status quo there would never be change. There would still be slavery and women would be considered a second class to men.....However the only articles online are those on "how to deal with/handle difficult people".....In my opinion it seems like these are written by sensitive people who are whining about being I'm going to continue my quest pursuing a list of famous difficult people, and how our world would be much worse without us! Cheers!

Lance & Amber S said...

I loved reading this, thank you. The classifications of difficult people should be emphasized in our society, yes. There are those who fall more under the category of narcissism, and the rest of us which I would classify more as Highly Sensitive People, than this term "difficult people". Ugh, sometimes it feels that non highly sensitive people are simply unable to handle anyone past a certain level of depth.
I know I am a difficult person for many, except for the very best of them I always say. I in turn live a very remote existence because frankly I am too sensitive to have any sour run-ins. Takes me a long time to get through mishaps, so I do what I can to avoid them. Even little things will bug people, for instance I have a bit of a phobia when it comes to having my food wrapped in aluminum. If I eat at a restaurant that does this and I request no aluminum, I will see people in line behind me scoffing and rolling their eyes as if I am taking up so much more time by skipping this step. It is as though people hold an adversion towards anyone who doesn't follow the herd.
I must say it was a delight to read your thoughts on the matter of difficult people, very refreshing perspective to say the least. So thank you again for taking the time, as I can see a lot of your personal time was invested to shine some light on the subject.
I think too often we as a society view things in black and white, this way or that. When there are all these beautiful grey areas to examine which go undiscovered by people who give limited options and no wiggle room.
Keep writing, I see you, and so do the best of them!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your post about so-called "difficult people." I ask questions and express doubts about policies at work. It seems like people who probe and want to know "why" things are done in a certain way are sometimes labelled "difficult." Also, I agree with the person who correlated being "difficult" (with a lower case "d") with being highly sensitive. There's too much emphasis in our society on impression management. I think "difficult" people challenge this trend by being more openly vulnerable and doubting than "positive" people. I sometimes wonder if we actually have less freedom now than in days gone by to be eccentric or skeptical.