Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with this beautiful line: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
I believe that the same can be said of relationships. Healthy relationships are mostly alike. Difficult ones are difficult in their own ways—and few of us will go through life without having to deal with them.
I have my share of difficult relationships. And I know the feelings of frustration, the slivers of optimism when you think you’ve figured them out, and the hopelessness that comes when you realize nothing has really changed. I’ve lived through the emotional drain of walking on egg-shells, the guilt of reacting in ways that weren’t my best, and the sleepless nights of disappointment that follow.
There are a few things I’ve learnt on the way. They may help you if you’re struggling with a negative friend or a toxic colleague at work. Or with a family member who hasn’t yet learnt how to keep their emotions and expectations of others in check.
Lesson # 1: Look After Yourself
To save yourself the downward spiral of negativity that can also lead to guilt and shame over your reactions, be as well resourced as possible. On a physical level, look after your health and wellbeing, especially important if you spend large chucks of your day with the difficult person. It’s practically impossible to be centered if you haven’t eaten or slept, because willpower is a depleting resource that needs regular replenishment. Similarly, be emotionally resourced—a good rule of thumb is to increase the positive emotions in your life when you’re dealing with difficult people by a ratio of at least 3:1. Write down the things that bring you joy and engage in them regularly. Have creative outlets for yourself, spend time in nature and with friends you like being around. Cook, sing, swim, dance—whatever it is that shifts your attention from the negativity you’re surrounded with. At the same time, limit its impact by not ruminating about it. Pluck out angry and resentful thoughts from your mind and commit to treating it like a beautiful garden.
Lesson # 2: Be Less Helpful
As a mother, I’ve found that one of the reasons I get enmeshed in my children’s emotions is that I try and solve their problems for them. This over-helpfulness is part maternal instincts, part a helpful nature and part the fear of losing control. Many of us struggle with this fear—we cannot sit with other people’s emotions while they sort them out by themselves because our own emotional surge overwhelms us. If you tend to feel overly responsible for helping others when you don’t need to, create If/ Then plans for the people and situations that are difficult. For example, IF my colleague is snarky at work, THEN I will remind myself that they need to learn to deal with their challenges. Remember, difficult people are difficult because they’re struggling (sometimes unconsciously) with their own inner world, and our jumping in to rescue them prevents them from taking responsibility for their emotions and behaviors. Being less helpful actually helps them grow up—and sometimes even adults have a lot of growing up to do.
Lesson # 3: Set Clear Boundaries
Clear and consistent boundaries are essential if you want to preserve your core and stay grounded. There’s nothing magnanimous about allowing yourself to be at the receiving end of other people’s negativity. Sooner or later, your suppressed emotions will burst through and create a mess that’s far more difficult to clean up. Trust me, I know—there have been many moments when I’ve lost it over the smallest thing and come across as unreasonable or emotionally volatile. Setting boundaries takes empathy and mutual consent because more than one person exists in the same relational space. Think through to what the boundary will look like and whether it’s reasonable. Distinguish between safeguarding your well-being vs. protecting your insecurities by expecting others to be a certain way. Convey the boundaries to the other person so they know what is expected of them instead of arbitrarily setting it in a moment of frustration. Listen to any grievances or disagreements they express and modify the boundary if needed. And finally, ensure that it’s respected—both by them and by your own self.
If all of this feels like a lot of work and you wish the difficult person would just fix themselves (or leave), remember the wisdom in Eckhart Tolle’s words: Relationships make us conscious. There’s much to be grateful for even in the most difficult ones.