This article speaks to that painful situation where someone in your group/company/organisation is being very difficult in most interactions, as illustrated by this question I received:
“How do I get the message through to her that she’s doing things that really don’t work for me when I know it will bring out in her all the behaviours I least enjoy?”
If you have regular contact with difficult-to-stomach behaviour, you have my sincere commiserations!
It’s so so hard (going on for depressing) to be interacting with someone you have no idea how to talk to without things going wrong.
Well, not wrong as in right/wrong (moralising harms more than it ever helps) but you know what I mean: you just so don’t want it!!!
Except that there it is and you’re tired of being at war with the reality of it. Now what?
What can you do that makes any difference?
Clues from Hans (Christian Andersen)
Sometimes, the clues we need come from surprising places and for this query, I see them in the well known children’s story: ‘The Ugly Duckling’.
Far from being ‘just for kids’, Clarissa Pinkola Estes* calls this allegory “a psychological and spiritual root story”.
The set up is the same: group interactions that are confusing and tormenting.
You may have coped in similar ways too.
Tried but were not able to fit in with them?
Walked off for sanity?
Tried and been tried by looking for a better company elsewhere?
You may have also at times felt spared from contact with that person.
If yes, you’re facing a similar challenge, namely your character is being forged through difference.
Now, what led the ugly duckling to the happy ending? Two things:
- Refusal/inability to adopt what wasn’t his way of living.
- Growing awareness of his own nature.
Good news and a learning curve
The first part is challenging but ultimately it’s also a gift that comes with sensitivity. With your high receptivity, you almost cannot sell out.
But the other thing… sensitive people can struggle with. We are prone to overstimulation. It can be harder for us to hold our own, to have spaciousness enough inside to “hold out for the right medicine” as C P Estes puts it.
How did the ugly duckling cope?
You’ll hate to hear it but it’s still true: he took on the bruises rather than selling out for peace of mind. He didn’t give up his longing for something kinder and more beautiful.
What helped him persevere?
He learned from his experiences over time. He understood what distressed him and when it wasn’t a good idea to expect someone to get him.
What distresses YOU?
The liberating insight from the ugly duckling story is that you cannot lose the integrity of who you are whatever others are doing or not doing.
The difference between the cygnet suffering and being grateful for encounters in his life was self-perception and time to get a better view.
Note, that his breakthrough did not come through influencing others to be there for him. The moment he stepped out of self-doubt those who could, naturally wanted to give to him and he was no longer hoping to be fed by those who – in the moment – couldn’t.
What this shows about transforming relationship distress is that you need to give yourself time to find out what painful assumptions are distorting your view of yourself and/or the other person and what’s important to attend to instead.
If you want to see a happier way to proceed, you need time to discover better news
Now, it’s very hard to stop for a better perspective when you’re already in the momentum of intense feelings, needing something that you don’t know how to access.
Therefore, you need to find out, when not triggered, what is so absent when you’re with that person that you go into distress without it.
While at it, figure out too what your earliest signs of depletion are so you are able to pause and top up with the energy you need before intensity makes productive time out impossible.
Focusing on your response may sound too simple a solution if you’ve had a long and complicated history with somebody. But, you have a right and innate capacity to attend to your needs whoever you’re with. Awareness of your distress will help you do that, whatever the other does.
When to switch your ‘provider’
Let’s walk you through using awareness of your distress as a guide to when it’s best to pause and find a better in-the-moment ‘provider’ (i.e. strategy) for your needs.
As always, you’ll learn best by practising on a concrete situation rather than speculating about things in general. Can you recall a recent incident of being distressed talking to someone?
Take a moment to extract better news from that situation by answering the four questions here.
They won’t help you to immediately be able to turn things around with ‘live’ distress. But, they will make it easier over time to remain centred with your ‘difficult person’. The key is to answer them after each incident for a while!
1. What exact words/actions of mine were in fact NOT landing with the other person?
Example: I said: “How can you not get it??!”, in a tense voice, I guess and hands gesturing. Hm.
2. What was I needing given the behaviour change I was seeking from the other person and the message I was trying to convey?
Example: To experience acknowledgement that I have a point, that I know what I’m talking about and it has value. So, in terms of energy state… a sense of feeling seen and loved as me.
3. What additional needs did I have in the face of the person’s reaction to my words?
Example: Space for my energy and contribution!
4. What’s a better, more available way I can experience the needs/qualities I identified in question 2 and 3, starting right now?
Example: Hm… I’ll be better off not trying to contribute the volume of love that she isn’t open to in the moment. Perhaps direct it to self, instead, as empathy for my frustration?
How would you like to process distress this way?
*C P Estes, “Women Who Run With the Wolves”