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Coping with Difficult People

Perhaps you’ve got someone in your life that year after year you just can’t get along with. Let’s call this person “Pat”. You might want to ask yourself these questions:

1. Do other people have the same problems with Pat? If some people do not, find out how they get along with Pat, and imitate their approach. If you’re related to Pat as a spouse, a former spouse, a parent, a child, or a business partner, you have special needs of Pat. Your problems are probably more complicated than this column can address, but the insights here may well apply.

2. Do most people who try to get close to Pat (boss, coworkers, customers, parents, spouse, children, friends) have the same type of relationship troubles with Pat? If so, Pat has some kind of psychiatric disorder.

If Pat doesn’t have the symptoms of another type of psychiatric problem such as a psychosis, brain damage, mood or anxiety disorder, or behavioral addiction, he likely is the one person in five who has a “personality disorder.” Like the term implies, folks with personality disorders have “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.”

We keep expecting them to feel, think or act the way most other people do, but they are different somehow. What makes them different is their “character style”, their habitual way of relating to people and emotions. They began to use these coping styles earlier in life to protect them from the full and to them very painful experience of human emotions and close relationships.

They don’t want to get close or feel vulnerable, and they are better at this game than we are.

The first key to getting along with them is God’s answer to our first request in the Serenity Prayer: we learn to accept these character styles that we cannot change.

One type of character style is the Addictive Personality. Folks with this way of relating to life will tend to overdo something, some chemical or activity that gives them a rush. If they shut down or enter recovery for one addiction, they are likely to soon pick up another.

A close relative is the Narcissistic Personality. Like addicts, these folks have an image of themselves as a special person, with some deep expectation or feeling of entitlement to special favors and privileges, like being the center of attention, or getting what they want at others’ expense. They use or manipulate people to get what they feel entitled to.

These addictive and narcissistic types tend to attract and produce another type of personality disorder, the Dependent (or “Codependent”) Personality. These folks tend to play the roles of chumps and suckers who are so preoccupied with the feelings and needs of their significant others that they neglect their own. They draw way too much of their identity, purpose and direction from those they take care of. We keep expecting them to “get a life,” but they don’t feel they can or should until first their significant other feels totally fine.

Three other pairs of personality disorders tend to attract and produce each other. (I won’t define them all here, but you can Google them.) Paranoid, Asocial and Avoidant Personalities (too much fear of closeness) tend to attract and be attracted to Histrionic (hyperdramatic, hypercheerful) Personalities, who have too little.

Aggressive, Defensive, Explosive and Anti-social Personalities (too much anger and too little guilt) tend to attract and be attracted to those with character styles that are Self-defeating (too much guilt, too easily scape-goated) and Passive-aggressive (too little anger and assertiveness).

Overly rigid Obsessive-Compulsive Personalities (too much structure and deliberation) attract and are attracted to folks with too little: Impulsive Personalities who are not motivated to outgrow lifestyles which mimic the symptoms of ADD or ADHD.

Next week I’ll write about ways to get along with these people that don’t aim at changing them but rather at just holding them more responsible for being the way they are. I’ll show you how to keep their personality or character style from getting you down, and avoid the all too natural habit of beating your head against their walls.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.