To me, the most fascinating subject one could study has been the “why” behind human behavior. This fascination hasn’t served me as well as it might have, though. When I was involved with difficult people in my personal and professional lives, I was more interested in understanding what made them tick than I was in moving away from the relationships’ harmful effects. It’s easy to get stuck when you want to understand and empathize, instead of cutting your losses and moving on.
Understanding is an essential first step to disassociating from a difficult person like a narcissist or a bully. People we find difficult to deal with often develop their behaviors out of their perceived need to self-protect. They see themselves as vulnerable, and they decide that the best defense is a good offense. Whether it’s a narcissist who can’t let anyone see beyond the false self they’re projecting, or a garden-variety jerk who is making your life miserable, understanding what motivates behavior is a good first step toward effective dealings. Unfortunately, some of us get “paralysis by analysis” and find ourselves caught up in a destructive cycle instead of moving safely away.
Many difficult behaviors manifest from feelings of inferiority. Paradoxically, narcissists who project their superiority at every opportunity are coming from a place deep down where they view themselves as unworthy. Bullies elevate themselves by putting people down. Folks who are involved with difficult people often realize this and take pity. They see the difficult person’s potential, they may focus on what they perceive as the person’s good qualities, and they may even take up the difficult person’s banner in attempts to convince others that the person just needs a break or is misunderstood.
Taming the outward monster to uncover the tortured, simpatico soul underneath is a time-worn ideal. These Beauty and The Beast scenarios play out in homes and businesses, online and offline, day in and day out. Many difficult people learn to optimize their appealing tendencies, using tactics that exploit good intentions in others for even more gain. The result can be confusing and emotionally draining.
The only way to extract yourself from these types of interactions is to disassociate. This means you have to lessen your investment in the relationship. You must really be indifferent about what happens to the person after you’ve minimized or eliminated your involvement with them. Easy to say, tough to do – especially when we’ve been taught since childhood to turn the other cheek, to seek the good in everyone, and that forgiveness and sympathy are preferable.
Cutting your losses, throwing in the towel, knowing when to fold – all require fine tuning and awareness of your own standards and value. More importantly, you must accept that you cannot change or fix anything but the way in which you respond. You may be able to access or possibly extract an admission or acknowledgment from the difficult person that their behavior is inappropriate. But you’re not going to change them.
Understanding a difficult person should ultimately lead you to relatively fewer expectations of them. A narcissist isn’t going to empathize with you or engage in any sort of long-term emotional reciprocation. They just can’t. They’re too busy maintaining their carefully-constructed facade. Likewise, a workplace bully concerned with protecting his turf, an interfering family member motivated by a need for control, and a high-maintenance person who can’t be there for you are all manipulating relationships to their advantage, not yours.
It’s hard to cut your losses when you’re still invested in a relationship. Getting to a place where you can disassociate can be a lot of work, especially if you’re the type who doesn’t give up easily. It’s easy to be blindsided by and mourn what could have been, instead of what is. But if you’re ever going to move on, you can’t care about all that. You need to care about yourself more. When you do, moving on is a much simpler prospect.
Have you ever had a “lightbulb moment” when you realized you were spinning your wheels in a relationship with a difficult person?
Are there key components to a process that can help to emotionally distance yourself from a destructive relationship?
If you haven’t already downloaded Lori Hoeck‘s and my e-book, The Narcissist: A User’s Guide, you will find more strategies and tips toward understanding and disassociating from what we think is one of the most difficult and potentially harmful personality types one can encounter.