We all have difficult people in our lives. We’re probably related to one or two. Maybe they live under our roof. God calls us to love, but like I wrote in my recent post, How Can We be Loving Without Being Manipulated, love doesn’t always look like chocolate pudding and red hearts. Sometimes it looks like broccoli and liver.
I often solve problems by dumping my brain on paper so I can make sense of things. This is just a brain dump. It doesn’t mean I do all these things all the time. (Difficult people can make your eyeballs pop out of your head.) It just means I want to, and I try, and I think these are good things to work on and ask for God’s grace to implement consistently. You can, no doubt, come up with more ideas, and I hope you’ll dump your brain in the comments section for the rest of us.
This doesn’t mean you have to believe them (some can be deceptive), it just means you give them part of your time and attention. This also doesn’t mean you have to listen every time they want to dump their stuff on you. Don’t let them monopolize your life. Set some guidelines for yourself on when and how much, and honor yourself while honoring them.
2. Tell the Truth
This is tough love. It’s painful for the other person, and it’s painful for you. It means that you risk setting yourself up for anger, accusations, and, in some cases, all out temper tantrums. (If you are married to a man who strikes out at you physically when you tell the truth, I encourage you to call an abuse hotline like the National Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.)
If you have an emotionally destructive marriage, you may be able to tell your spouse the truth in the presence of a third party who will be able to observe and help absorb any negative responses that will shift the blame to you. Be sure you select someone who understands what emotional abuse is. Many well meaning friends and family have no idea and could actually make things far more complicated and harmful for you.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a third party if it’s a destructive friend or an adult child you need to talk to. My 12 yo is in counseling now, and I’m able to talk to her about things there that she would never hear me on if it were just her and me. Telling the truth is important. It’s what Jesus did, and it honors God. Lying, pretending, and covering things up eventually wreaks havoc on our brains and bodies and spirits. We can get physically and mentally sick over time under these conditions. We were not made to lie and pretend. That is a satanic tactic of survival, and it ultimately destroys everyone involved.
Sometimes we need help to know what the Truth IS. I recommend reading good resources like the ones at the bottom of this page. Talk things through with a counselor, mentor, or wise friend. Telling the Truth to yourself and getting it straight in your own head will come in handy when it comes time to tell someone else.
3. Practice Empathy
The Truth is hard to hear sometimes, even for healthy folks. But manipulative people really struggle with having a mirror held up to them. When they fall apart and blame you, it’s important to empathize with their angst while standing your ground on the Truth of what you shared. This takes Herculean strength, and frankly, I’m not very good at it. I feel disgusted and repulsed by this kind of behavior. I’m triggered all over the place. But – I want to grow in this. So I’m writing it down and publicly committing to it.
So empathy doesn’t mean taking back what you said; it means understanding how the other person felt when you said it, and caring about their heart.
Here’s how I think it might look: when you’ve told the other person the Truth and he/she is making excuses, denying, or turning the tables on you by accusing you of things either related or unrelated (you can get dragged down so many rabbit trails it makes your head spin), stay calm, take a deep breath, and say, “I can see that what I shared is uncomfortable and even painful. It’s hard to look at ourselves in a mirror sometimes. But I know that if you could really see this and work on it, you could grow as a person and have healthier relationships with me and others. I want that for you. I care about you, and that’s why I shared what I did. I may have shared it imperfectly, and I’m sorry for that. I have things to work on too, as you can see. But I can’t work on your stuff, and I hope that you will choose to work on it so we can have a good relationship.”
If they continue to spin you in circles and drag you down rabbit trails, just excuse yourself (I have gotten better at this “Yikes, you’re freaking me out – gotta run!”) and say (in a more mature fashion), “I can see this conversation isn’t going anywhere good. I don’t want to dishonor you or myself by saying things in anger, and I can tell I’m getting upset. I need to leave now. I hope you’ll consider what I shared though.”
Then run for your life.
I’ve got one child who will follow me wherever I go, screaming and clawing at me. I’ve had to physically leave the house until she calms down. Do what you need to do to maintain sanity.
4. Set Limits for Yourself
Limit your time with them. Limit what you give to them. Limit your exposure to their toxic words and actions. Let them know what you will and won’t do. When they cross the line, tell them you are done. Learn to say “no.”
To do this well, you’ll need to come up with those limits and have them clear in your own mind first before you can communicate them clearly to the other person. If it’s a child, you may want to post it somewhere so that nobody can say, “But, but, but, YOU NEVER TOLD ME!”
5. Allow them to Reap Consequences
When they experience natural consequences for their behavior, let them. Don’t protect them from those consequences. That’s how they will learn. Sometimes you will need to come up with a consequence that will be uncomfortable for them and for you. When you do that, there may be people who will disapprove, which brings me to my last point:
6. Tolerate Disapproval
Once we’ve accepted the fact that some folks disapprove for a living, we can settle back and grow our tolerance muscles. I’ve been working out on this exact thing consciously for over two years, and I’m just now seeing a little definition when I flex. I have hope I’ll be a heavy weight by the time I kick the bucket.
7. Pray for Them
When we pray for people, we invest something precious in their lives. We can’t change them, but God can. Does that mean He will? No. He gives people choices. However, I do believe that God goes to work in their lives, giving them the best chance at repenting and following Him. Praying for them also helps us. It helps keep our heart soft toward them.
When we actively show a healthy kind of love to the difficult people in our lives, we keep ourselves intact emotionally and spiritually while knowing that we are doing our part to help that person grow up to be all that God created him/her to be.
Bold Love by Dan Allender
Love is a Choice: Letting Go of Unhealthy Relationships by Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier
Character Disturbance: The Phenomenon of our Age by George Simon