One of my daughters has been the target of a couple of harsh encounters with a kid in her school. He even got a little physical with her one morning after loudly insulting her as we walked in. As her mama, I was pretty disturbed.
After that encounter my daughter simply whispered to me “that wasn’t very nice” and then casually walked away and went about her morning activities, seemingly undisturbed. Since then, whenever I talk to her about him, she never has a bad word to say. In fact, she only mentions nice things.
Her attitude has left me baffled.
I discussed the encounters with her teacher and mentioned my daughter’s forgiving demeanor. Her teacher responded:
“Isn’t that amazing, even though this boy did these harsh things, your daughter is able to see that he is more than his mistakes. Isn’t that what we’d all want? We’re all here being human and making mistakes. What a gift it is when people can see beyond our mistakes to find the good in us. Your daughter is somehow able to do that so easily.”
I was floored by her response. My emotions quickly cycled between concern and relief, worry and awe, and I didn’t know which ones to trust.
But I did know that I was damn proud of the strength my little girl seems to embody, and I figured I could learn a thing or two from her.
We all have to come face to face with people we consider difficult. People we perceive as rude. People who belittle, who push boundaries, who do nothing but criticize. People who never have one kind thing to say. People who seem to only care about themselves.
While all encounters vary in extremity, we can learn simple ways to deal with difficult people without losing ourselves in the process.
Hold Tight to Who You Are
It’s so easy to lose ourselves around button pushing people. We can get so enraged by their unfair and harsh words that suddenly we’re acting as callous and volatile as we perceive them to be. I’ve definitely been there and the emotional hangover and regret is merciless.
Know who you are. Are you someone who is kind, compassionate and encouraging? Or are you someone who is quick-tempered, angry and demeaning? If you’re the former, don’t allow someone else to drag you into the latter. That’s their territory, not yours, and you will feel dirty if you visit it.
If someone pushes your buttons, pause and mindfully think about how you should respond, before following your initial impulse to react.
Let Go of What You Can’t Control
You cannot control other people’s words, actions or perspectives. Their life experiences have created their story and personality. Their life is not ours to judge.
Only focus on what you can control – how you speak, talk and act. Be the best version of yourself you can be. We all make mistakes, we all put our worst foot forward at times.
The best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to know who we are and who we strive to be, and act in accordance with those values.
Map Out Your Boundaries
If you know you need to interact with a difficult person, prepare your boundaries ahead of time. In fact, you should always have a good sense of what your boundaries are.
Perhaps you need physical boundaries (e.g., no close hugging) or boundaries around what topics you’re willing to discuss (e.g., avoid X, Y and Z topics at all costs). Perhaps you need time boundaries that you can clearly articulate from the very beginning (“I can only stay for one hour…”). Perhaps you simply need a visual boundary that helps you to feel protected (like envisioning yourself surrounded by a protective bubble).
No matter who the person you’re dealing with is, always remember that you are in complete control of how much of yourself you’re willing to give and what you’re willing to share and discuss.
Empower yourself by clearly mapping out and committing to your physical, mental and emotional boundaries. With the right boundaries in place, your buttons will not get pushed.
Make Safety Your First Priority
As much as I admire my daughter’s strength and forgiving attitude, I do remind her that if someone ever makes her feel unsafe, she must get away from them and ask for help. Safety must always be her first priority.
There was a time in my life when I put up with people who made me feel unsafe. I didn’t know how to create boundaries or how to use my voice back then. I’m not even sure I fully respected the difference between difficult people and unsafe people and I didn’t have enough trust in myself to follow my instincts.
No matter what, always make safety your top priority. Never engage with a difficult person if your safety might be at risk or if you feel you’re being physically violated in any way.
Fill Your Emotional Well
No matter what you’ve been through in life, you can fill up your inner well with self-love and compassion. Love yourself enough to take care of yourself as you would others. Give yourself as much respect as you do to those you hold in high esteem.
You are here, you are alive, you are trying your best, and so you are worthy.
Own your self-worth and others won’t be able to penetrate you with their harsh words or antagonizing comments – there is simply no room in your well for that. People treat others cruelly when they are lacking something. And so they try to steal the joy from others to fill whatever is empty inside of them.
Know that you are in control of your inner well ~ your happiness and self-worth are not for anyone’s taking.
Take Advantage of Your Empathy
My daughter is fortunate enough to attend a school that focuses on teaching children empathy as much as it teaches skills like reading and math, and I find myself learning right along with her. Just as we should have empathy for those perceive as victims, we can also have empathy for those we perceive as difficult. Not always easy to do, but viewing things from that perspective can be very empowering.
What has this person experienced in life? How are they feeling? In what ways might they be struggling? The answers to such questions don’t excuse their behavior or make it okay, but it does help us to take a step back and realize that their behavior is not all about us.
When I saw the harsh encounter between this child and my daughter, my initial instinct was the to label him as a problem and treat my daughter as a victim. But maybe that wasn’t the whole story. What was he going through that caused him to lash out? Why was he really so angry? And was my daughter truly victimized? She certainly wasn’t acting like a victim. Can we be victimized by harsh words if we’re filled with self-worth? I’m honestly not sure.
What I do know is that the more we use our empathy, the less we take on others’ negativity as a reflection of our worth. The more we can see that things are not all about us, the less personally we take them.
You Are in Control
No matter how difficult the person you’re dealing with is, you are in control of how you respond. You can lose yourself in their negativity or you can stand strong in who you are. Create strong boundaries, fill your inner well with self-love and compassion, use your empathetic nature.
And know deep inside your core that other people’s words or actions need not define you ~ neither their praise nor their criticism.
It has become my mission in life to instill confidence into my little girls. The world needs more girls and women who deeply believe in themselves. We need girls who are not conditioned to rely on praise or “likes” to define their worth. Girls who can walk away from a demeaning person with their confidence in tact. I’m doing my best to raise two of them.
I don’t know if I always approach this mission perfectly, but I find myself fighting for it every day. And watching my daughter’s casual and unshaken response to her mini antagonizer, gives me hope that we might be on the right path. I’m honestly not sure, but maybe…
What I do know is that we all get confronted with difficult people. And with the right tools and mindset, we can stop them from getting the best of us.
Have you ever struggled with your reactions to difficult people?
Challenge: Take a few minutes and visualize what it would look like to gracefully remain in control of your reactions around a particularly difficult person. If you were full of self-worth, how would you respond? In what ways would you engage? What would you do to gracefully protect yourself from their comments or actions? The more you visualize what your ideal response would be, the more you’ll embody it when the time comes.
Overcoming Cruel Words Cheat Sheet
Never allow cruel, belittling or condescending words to steal your self-esteem again. Use this cheat sheet to quickly heal and turn those words into something empowering.