Everyone has one in their lives- someone who just will not behave, but life circumstances force you to be together. Here are some ideas for dealing with dysfunction, that will help you maintain your own sanity.
First let’s define dysfunction: The dysfunction we are referring to here is limited to a person who repeatedly belittles you, provokes you and/or flies off the handle without provocation. They misinterpret what was said and done, sometimes on purpose, for reasons yet to be discovered. Ideally, they would do well with counseling, but they are not at a point where they will receive it. Interactions with the person are affecting your behavior and your mental health.
1. Be honest with yourself.
Too often we tell ourselves to just forget it, that we don’t know why we let them get to us, that we really should be able to handle things better etc. The fact is that words do hurt. If David, the mighty warrior, and Job, the mature, successful businessman (before the catastrophe) had cause to complain about the words of others, so will you. Words hurt, and some people use words in ways that wound. It is healthier in the long run to deal with reality rather than to deny it. The person you are having trouble with says things that are abusive and like any other form of abuse it really does affect you. So how will this help? By admitting you do hurt, (or become upset, angered etc in response to them) you can now take steps to prevent or lessen their effect on your life.
2. Set boundaries.
Since words do hurt you are going to require strategies for minimizing the damage. Some suggestions are: When dealing with a potentially explosive person, schedule positive things before and after the time you must meet with them. Set time limits on your meetings by arranging other appointments you need to go to, and do not allow yourself to become trapped or under the dysfunctional person’s authority. If you need to arrange for a hotel room instead of staying in their home do so. Will they like the boundaries? No, that is the problem with people who are dysfunctional, they do not respect the rights of others, but they are going to be upset with something sometime anyways, so it might as well be something they can vent about while you are away. Being a trapped audience to their insanity is not helping either one of you.
3. Be clear.
Do not allow yourself to be dragged into their neurosis. Dysfunctional people love to go off topic, and typically stretch the truth while doing so. The topic will typically include why you are such a bad person, and involve many accusations that have only a limited amount of truth (enough so the people around them can ‘see their point’ and be sucked in as well). Do not engage in this. When it become obvious that the person is not looking for a solution, but instead has some other hurtful agenda, steer the conversation back to whatever originally needed to be discussed, make a clear decision and then end the encounter. Likely you were trying to be nice and tried to allow them to have a say in something, but they have proven incapable of having that discussion. Since they have proven themselves to be incapable the ball is now in your court, and the decision is yours to make. Make it and be done.
4. Realize that anger begets anger.
When a person has become irrational and is now spurting accusations that have nothing to do with the topic at hand there is a very good chance you will begin to do the same. Nothing will be accomplished if you too sink to this level. There are a few ways of dealing with this. Since the person has clearly lost it, you must now consider what your relationship to the person is to determine how you wish to proceed. If it is a close relationship, you may want to get close. Though the person is obviously not handling life well, and is intent on hurting you at this moment, what they may really be saying is, ‘I don’t believe you love me.’ If this is the case, shut up and hug them. If this is not the case, and the person is behaves like this at random with everyone, disengage and leave as soon as possible. You, like everyone else, have limits. Do not allow yourself to get caught up in the drama and do, or say, something you will later regret. Disengage before this happens. (This does not mean you get to walk out on every argument you aren’t enjoying. This advice is only for dealing with people who routinely lose control and who cannot be reasoned with. For all other situations, toughing it out and actually solving the problem yields the best results.)
5. Do not allow the angry person to control your life.
Too often we become obsessed with the fact that someone is upset with us. We allow the argument to consume our thoughts, and ruminate on the many ways we are going to solve it. When it becomes obvious that this is a pattern, and not a solvable situation, stop. There are other people in your life who are not unreasonable, and who need and deserve your attention. Stop fixating on the person who is being unreasonable (You have tried and they have proven that they need more help than you can give.) and start intentionally putting your efforts into people who will receive what you have to offer. Too often families suffer because mom or dad is caught up in a drama with an adult relative who simply will not behave. Your spouse and children deserve more than this. Try to settle the dispute, and when it becomes obvious it will not be settled in the near future, disengage. You will need to deal with the problem at times, but it should not be the focus of your life.
So here it is in review:
When dealing with an unreasonable person:
1. Admit that it is tough, and plan for it by surrounding yourself with uplifting people or activities before and after you encounter the person known for tearing you down. Tough emotional situations are times you want to look and feel your best, and then allow yourself time to de-stress before you take your angst and transfer it inappropriately to someone you who does not deserve it.
2. Set time limits on every meeting with the dysfunctional person.
3. Do not get caught up in senseless arguments, but return to the topic at hand. It will be tempting to defend yourself; don’t. Name-calling behavior is never based on reality and you will only reinforce their feeling of being right to abuse you when you stoop to acting as they do.
4. End the argument by loving or leaving. Sometimes the argument is a cry for affirmation, other times it is a hostile life pattern. Decide which it is, then act. If the hug doesn’t work, or is inappropriate, exit and if necessary, try again when they have calmed down.
5. Stop thinking about it. (Easier said than done.) This one takes practice. You must remind yourself that there are more important things in life and focus on what is currently in front of you. People who know how to behave should not lose out because of those who don’t.
I hope this helps. The most freeing thing in my life has been the realization that some people are not going to be nice and there is nothing I can do about it. I try to help, but when the abuse continues, there is not much left for me to do. It is not my fault they misbehave (I did not raise them.) and there is not much I can do about it. But I can limit my exposure so that I too do not become an emotional train wreck as a result of the interaction. Words do hurt, and I am as vulnerable as the next person to emotional abuse. The difference between someone who handles these situations well and those who don’t is often the boundaries they allow themselves to set. Spending 24/7 ruminating on an abusive situation will not allow you to look at the situation with clarity and function as a sane, rational human being. Some things are not for you to solve, and some solutions come when the person realizes people will no longer stand for their behavior.
Photo by Matija Barrett