How to not be traumatized by the difficult people in your life
It is amazing what we as humans can deal with when we see things in different perspectives. Imagine that you chose to work at a camp for helping Down’s Syndrome kids. Imagine that at some point, a big teenage DS boy walks up to you in the cafeteria and touched you in a sexually inappropriate way. How would you respond? Note that in another situation… at the grocery store, etc… if a big teenager did that, it would be an extreme and traumatic situation that might involve screaming, pepper spray, calling for police, etc! The trauma might take weeks or months to recover from. However, in the camp, you would probably gently remove the boy’s hands and say something like “Now, Jimmy, we don’t touch like that.”
No police. No self-defense. Why? Because you understood going into the situation that sometimes DS kids touch inappropriately, and you understood how to deal with it. You knew what you were getting into.
Now, think of the person that is tough to deal with emotionally in your life. Doesn’t it make sense that if you know that they are constantly critical or ravingly insecure or self-absorbed, or just mean, that you could engage with them the same way?
If you know that you are going to interact with a narcissistic person and they behave in a self-serving and egocentric way, why be traumatized by it? (I am not excusing the character flaws or sins of others, but talking about how we can engage with them). Why be surprised by it? Why expect or even look for anything else? Don’t you know what you are getting into?
A rule I live by is: Don’t look for healthy behavior from an unhealthy person.
This doesn’t make all of the consequences of what the person did suddenly go away, but it allows me to take it less personally! It isn’t about me. If a client with a fragile ego and an anger problem cusses me out and storms out, can’t I just think “well, of course they did – they have a fragile ego and an anger problem!” If an egocentric family member changes plans on me in such a way that would send them crashing if I did it to them, what should I do? Yes, the consequences of their decision is still there – a sudden change in plans. Gotta deal with that.
But I don’t have to take it personally. Didn’t I already mention that they were egocentric? Of course they did what was convenient to them. I knew what I was getting into. I don’t think I have to or need to be shocked. “Yep, that is what it means to love a Down’s Syndrome person – sometimes they touch inappropriately.”
“Yes, that is what it means to love a perfectionist – they are going to criticize whenever they feel insecure”. “Yep, that is what it means to have a relationship with a pessimist – they are going to be constantly bringing up the negatives.”
Again, whether personality quirks or character flaws, I am not explaining away or minimizing the consequences… nor am I cutting someone a blank check… but I am saying that no matter how close, we can accept that it is about them and not be surprised or traumatized when it happens. Their immorality is still theirs… but I don’t have to bear the emotional weight of it when it shows each time.
Now, also knowing the truth about someone allows us to draw healthy boundaries with them. If someone lies, we aren’t required to accept everything they say as the truth. Just like we wouldn’t accept math advice from someone with a math learning disability, why should we take identity, value, or emotional advice from an emotionally dysfunctional person?
When the difficult person is family
I know that this is especially hard with family – and especially with parents. Parents naturally speak identity into us, and from infancy, we learn to label whatever they do as “love.” However, there comes a day when we have to put childish ways behind us and accept their limitations – again (must I say this again), not “excuse” them or pretend they aren’t real… but predict that they will act according to the character that we know about already! I am also not advocating stopping loving someone because they are damaging – exactly the opposite! However, that isn’t possible with where so many are…
One final consequence of this issue is this: I believe many people are hurt when they are mistreated, especially by family, because they are in denial of who their family members really are. I had a young man tell me what a great dad he had, but by the time we were done talking, it was clear that his dad was an immoral slap of a human! Why the self-deception? I am sure it was self-protective. Rather than have to love dad – the unfaithful, philandering, angry adolescent – the dad he actually had…
– Created a dad much easier to love – but who didn’t exist – and loved him instead.
– It wasn’t satisfactory.
– First, because it meant he kept being surprised when his awesome dad acted like an idiot.
– Second, because it also meant he didn’t love his dad.
So, instead, we talked about learning to love the real dad – not excuse him – but love him. Then he didn’t have to be re-traumatized every time dad turned out not to be the fake image he had created… (this did not change dad’s behavior, by the way… he was still the same slap as always).