Dealing with challenging people

We all have that person (or people) in our families who challenge us. Maybe it’s our spouse, our brother in law, our father in law, or even our parents. They seem to know exactly how to say and act that just triggers us to feel angry, irritated, disappointed, offended, or annoyed, maybe even horrified! 

And as we know, the holidays can be the perfect storm when it comes to dealing with challenging family, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about how to handle those situations, so that you can have a holiday full of love and joy, instead of drama and bad feelings.

So what can we do to get to a place of confidence and peace when dealing with this difficult person?

Gain Awareness

The first step is to become aware of how we think about this person. This awareness helps us to regain control and power by recognizing that our thoughts about this person are the problem, not what the person is doing or saying.

Crazy right?

It’s easy to list the reasons why this person is wrong, or shouldn’t act the way they are acting, or is hurting you, but instead, focus on becoming curious about what thoughts you are having about that person that might be causing you pain.

In order to gain this awareness, we need to put all the thoughts about this person down on a piece of paper without filter and while being compassionate to yourself in this process. Then imagine what would you say about this person if you had to summarize it in one sentence.

Can you relate to any of these issues that I hear from my clients?

My mother in law is critical and judgemental and I always feel bad about myself when I’m around her.

My husband doesn’t help around the house enough.

My brother is always fighting with his wife and it makes me uncomfortable.

My brother in law and sister in law don’t have control over their kids and they cause chaos when they come over.

My dad is awkward and says things that are embarrassing and rude.

My kids don’t respect me because they talk back and don’t listen.

It’s not them, it’s us. And that’s really good news.

Most of us think we want is for the other person to stop behaving they way they are behaving and our problem will be solved.

We think want our mother in law to say nice things, for our in laws to stop fighting, for our kids to start behaving or for our husbands to be cleaning machines. 

But what we really want is to feel better around that person.

We don’t want to feel annoyed, frustrated, angry or hurt around them. And we think that if that person would change or act different, then we would get to feel better. But since we know it’s not possible to or change other people, then how can we get to a place where we feel better, no matter how they behave?

First, think about all the ways you want this person to behave and what exactly you want them to do. Now, let’s imagine they magically started behaving that way.

What would you believe or think about them then? What would you allow yourself to feel?

Let’s imagine that your mother in law stopped criticizing your parenting and started being kind and caring without judgement.

Now, what would you give yourself permission to think and feel about her? What would you now allow yourself to think about your parenting?

Most likely, you would feel confident as a parent, you would feel love, and you would think “I am a doing good job with my kids, and I love my mother in law.” Right?

Let’s try it with your brother in law. Let’s say he stopped fighting with your sister in law around you during the holidays and instead they showed up as happy, peaceful and patient people. Then what would you allow yourself to feel? How would you believe about them?

Probably you would think, “I really enjoy being around them, and I love them so much.” Maybe you would stop worrying about their marriage or their stress levels, or the damage you think they were causing each other and the family. You would think, “Their marriage is good and I feel comfortable around them.”

So, in reality, what we really want is to believe those thoughts that we allowed ourselves to believe when we imagined our family member behaving according to our manual for them. A manual is a conscious or unconscious guide we have for every person in our lives. Sometimes these people don’t even know what’s in our manual. Sometimes we don’t even know what’s in it. Yet, we still expect them to magically live by it.

For example, your manual for your husband may say that he should always know what chores need to be done around the house and to just do them efficiently and without being told. And if he doesn’t do them, your mind makes it mean that he doesn’t care about you enough to help out, so he must not love you, and you might as well just give up on the marriage. 

Can you see how damaging a manual can be on relationships? Can you imagine how tempting it would be to try to change and manipulate the other person, just so you could feel good about your marriage, and happy with your husband?

Trying to make people live according to our manual, or our instruction book for them, only causes us more pain and causes us to want to control them so we can feel better. As a result, the relationships that are governed by a manual are not as healthy as they could be. 

The good news is, once we have become aware of the manual we have for others, we can learn to drop it. First we need to write down exactly how we want this person to behave if you could control their every move (our manual for them). Next, write down all the thoughts you would have about your challenging family member if they magically behaved this way. What would you believe about them? About you?

Dropping the manual and loving the person exactly as the are – it’s possible!

You’re probably thinking, but can we still want our family members to change? Am I just supposed to let everyone walk all over me while I hold my tongue or not teach my kids how to behave?

Of course not! We can still make requests of others, we can still hold our kids accountable, we can still set expectations and boundaries, but the difference is that we shouldn’t base how we think and feel on how they act or respond to our requests. This is how we can learn to drop the manual. If my husband doesn’t do the chores without me asking him, I can decide that that doesn’t mean anything about me or our marriage, but instead gives me good information about him. Maybe he struggles with focus. Maybe he wants to please me and would rather I tell him what I want him to do. Maybe he has confidence issues and needs a little encouragement. 

We should also still do our job and hold our kids accountable with they don’t behave, but when they act up, we don’t make it mean anything about us or how we think or feel about them. We can ask our husbands to help out around the house, but when he doesn’t help out in the way we want, we can still decide that’s it’s just more information about him. When our in laws start fighting, we can imagine that they must be in pain, and feel compassion for them.

When we operate from the emotions of love, peace and acceptance, we show up more open and compassionate then when we are coming from frustration, annoyance, shame or fear and that feels amazing. If we can drop our manual for others, we take back the power of how we feel around them!

So in order to get what we want around these challenging people, which is to feel better, we need to start believing thoughts that get us to feeling peace, acceptance and love, the thoughts we had when they behaved according to our manual.

Take a look at the thoughts you wrote down when you imagined that person followed your manual, and see which of those thoughts you can adopt right now, even if they don’t change at all. You might have to alter some of them a bit, but in reality, those beliefs are available to you now.

For example, if your mother in law stopped criticizing your parenting, you would believe that you were doing a good job as a parent. That’s what you really want to think. But what if you could believe that right now, without your mother in law doing anything different? Then how would you feel and act around her?

In regards to your fighting in laws, could you believe that they are lovable and supposed to be experiencing exactly what they are experiencing in their marriage right now? How much better would you feel if you just felt love for them when they were struggling? How much better would you show up for them?

I am challenging you this holiday season not to shy away from the difficult situations or people in your life. Instead, use this time with family to practice becoming aware of your thoughts, and of your manual for others, and even work towards allowing yourself to believe the thoughts you want to about them. What we practice, we get good at.

Dropping the manual you have for others will improve every relationship you have in your life. And it feels so much better!


If you have someone in your life that is challenging to deal with, sign up for a FREE 20 minute coaching call! On this call we will address how to feel better in any relationship. 

And in case you are feeling overwhelmed by all you have to get done, don’t forget to download my Holiday Planning Worksheet!

This post was influenced by Jody Moore and Pam Howard

Please follow and like us: