how to show up to difficult relationships without losing yourself
I just popped down to our house to drop off some ‘door furniture’ (the new knockers and letter flap – its called door furniture! Did you know this? I did not know this #england).
Anyhoo, crossing the road I bumped into our neighbour. Let’s call him Nigel. Nigel and his family have lived in their house for over 30 years. They have not welcomed our renovation project. Somehow, even the most innocuous comment from Nigel feels loaded with sarcasm. You know?
Most of us have a Nigel in our lives.
And while this is a time where ‘cancel culture’ is rife, my own view is that we need to learn how to be better in relationships with difficult people. For our own sake.
In my coaching practice, I help people develop conflict skills rooted in their own personal values. This begins with accepting that most relationships will contain conflict. Lots of people want to fight me on this!
But conflict is just a form of difference, and this is a natural symptom of being an individual with our own preferences, needs and opinions. Of course, how we interpret conflict has huge ramifications for how we feel and how we show up in our relationships.
Here are three key specific ways to deal more effectively with the Nigel’s in your life:
1: Learn to distinguish your guilt as separate from the other person.
Guilt is the emotion you experience when you’ve done something wrong on purpose. It might be lying to your spouse or failing to scan an item at the self-checkout, but your guilt is a specific and distinct emotion with a clear cause.
Notice how easy it is to assume guilt on someone else’s behalf?
It is a subtle emotional error to assume that because something bad happened and we were involved, we’re guilty.
For example: your sister calls and says she’s feeling upset because she had a difficult stressful day, and almost instantly, you feel guilty. Now it’s sad that your sister feels upset. It’s disappointing that had a tough day.
But because you haven’t deliberately done something wrong, any guilt is being given to you by your sister – its not yours.
This is vital for managing problematic relationships because guilt is a primary weapon!
The next time you feel guilty, ask yourself: Does this guilt belong to me? Have I literally done something wrong, or am I feeling sad that something bad or painful is happening to another person?
2: Hope for the best, expect the worst￼￼￼
One of the reasons difficult relationships are difficult is because they’re emotionally exhausting. Just seeing the name of your ex on your caller ID is enough to increase feelings of irritability and tiredness.
Often our exhaustion is rooting in unrealistic expectations.
For example, in addition to getting a little stressed out during kid swap with your ex, you expect that he’ll be reasonable because it’s coming up to Christmas. Goodwill and all that.
When he also wants to discuss changing agreed plans, you experience the stress that goes with interacting with your ex, but you also experience negative emotions from the shock of having your expectations violated.
Lowering our expectations of the people in our lives (even the really difficult relationships) often feels wrong. Like we’ve given up, we’ve failed.
But lowering our expectations just means acknowledging the painful reality that we can’t control what any other person thinks, feels, says or does.
I know it feels like a design flaw to me too.
Support yourself. Before you have contact with a difficult person in your life, check-in with you: am I clear about what this contact is for (small talk over the garden fence, not an opportunity to address an extensive written complaint about builders parking vans in a public street)? Based on past experiences what can I expect from this encounter? How else can I communicate what I need (eg: in writing, or via a third party, ask for time to reflect)?
3: Practice advocating for your needs, opinions and ideas in conflict
When it comes to difficult relationships, those of us with self-doubt can fall into the habit of ‘giving in’ simply to avoid the stress and work of setting good boundaries.
This way nobody speaks and nobody gets hurt. Because what’s the alternative? Actually addressing the conflict! Heck NO.
But this is only a short-term solution. And it tends to make the problem worse in the long run.
When we can’t be with conflict, we accept the consequences for other people’s behaviour (and then blame them for how crappy we feel).
Remember, being with conflict is just accepting that conflict is inevitable. Alongside this, we accept it will create feelings that are temporarily uncomfortable, we accept that we have options and a range of potential ways to respond.
Most of us have a single conflict style that we default to (accommodating, avoiding, aggression, passive-aggression). When we have the courage to try other responses, we expand our capacity to be with conflict and increase our emotional range.
This takes practice! Its an ongoing process of experimenting.
Begin by reflecting on your last experience of conflict: What did you do to take care of yourself in the moment? Is this how you tend to respond? How does this work for you and how is it limiting? What other choices were available to you? What could you try next time?
Is the fear of conflict and criticism an aspect of your self-doubt? Me too! I have a programme especially for folks like us. Courage Under Fire will be opening for enrollment in the new year – register your interest here.
Hello, I'm Sas Petherick. I'm a self-doubt researcher, coach and podcaster who helps thinking humans transcend self-doubt. If you'd like to receive these posts in your inbox please subscribe here (with bonus info and first notice of opportunities to work with me). PS: I totally ♥ Instagram - join me there?