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Face the Shark... and Don’t Get Eaten

Nina Kaweblum, LCSW

Whatever type of difficult personality you’re dealing with, here are some pointers on how to transform negative interactions into calm, cooperative conversations

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

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GOT CHANGE? A difficult relationship can improve — but the change usually has to start with you. This is where Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) comes in. It’s a research-backed, widely acclaimed therapy that helps people identify and change negative thinking patterns, and make positive changes in the way we interact with — or react to — the people around us

I f you met Rivky, you’d never guess what she’s going through at home. In public, she’s lively, warm, a listening ear for all. But when she walks through her front door, she tenses up, afraid of what she’ll do “wrong” this time.

“My husband continually criticizes how I do things — how I cook for Shabbos, how I speak with his sister, how I deal with my boss,” Rivky says. “He tells me I spoil the children, that I don’t clean the house properly. I try to defend myself, but that just gets him angrier and more critical.”

Shira’s relationship with her husband is great — it’s her sister whom she struggles with. “She’s always dragging me into some family argument. Just last week, she called me up, telling me how terrible our mother is for not watching her kids so she and her husband could go on vacation. When I tried to explain to her that Mommy isn’t feeling well, my sister hung up abruptly and keeps texting me that I don’t care about her at all. There’s never a real dialogue — if I don’t 100 percent agree with her, she lashes out or explodes.”

Few things are more frustrating or anxiety-provoking than having to deal with someone difficult. Even more challenging is when you can’t end the relationship because this person is in your family or immediate circle. In an ideal world, the hypercritical or hyperreactive people in our lives would go to therapy, but the fact is, difficult people usually don’t seek help, leaving the rest of us to deal with them.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the relationship will never improve. It can — but the change usually has to start with you. This is where Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) comes in. It’s a research-backed, widely acclaimed therapy that helps people identify and change negative thinking patterns (the ones that lead us to act impulsively or destructively) and make positive changes in the way we interact with — or react to — the people around us.

Inner Work

If we want to come out emotionally intact from exchanges with difficult people, we have to first take a step back and look at what’s going on inside of us. That way, we’ll be able to choose how we respond versus acting on autopilot. When someone treats us unfairly or harshly, there are usually three things that occur internally:

Intense feelings: When people we care about criticize or are upset with us, it naturally hurts. But the hurt is increased when dealing with a difficult person because we can’t explain our side, can’t compromise, and certainly can’t get them to understand our feelings or their role in the situation.


This can trigger a host of intense emotions, such as feeling out of control, sad, anxious, insecure, confused, depleted, guilty — and most of all, helpless. Sometimes we get drawn into the other person’s emotions and become angry and fight back, making things worse.

Painful thoughts: Difficult people usually aren’t difficult all of the time. In fact, sometimes they’re very sensitive and giving. This dual persona can make made us doubt our feelings and even our sanity. There’s often a painful cycle where we vacillate between staying in the relationship and leaving it, between blaming them and blaming ourselves. Sometimes we might try the route of taking all responsibility. For instance, you might think, If I just stay calm, she will, too. Or, I upset him by asking too much of him, so I’ll apologize and it’ll all be better. 

Or, I’ll just do what she asks so that she’ll be happy and won’t get mad at me. When these ideas don’t work — for example, the person gets angry and lashes out anyway — you might blame yourself, which ultimately leads to resentment and anger. There is also the painful thought of Something must be wrong with me for letting them treat me this way. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 566)

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