Difficult People: How Did They Get This Way?
All of us have to handle difficult people. We can come away from them feeling frustrated, irritated or angry. When this happens, we try to work out why this happens. Mostly, that explanation focuses on the other person and why they make us feel this way. It might be an aspect of their personality, or maybe it's the way that they do things. We may think that they just aren't listening or they aren't taking the time to understand. We might think they are just arrogant or self absorbed. However, would it change things if we knew that difficult people are often also traumatised people?
Trauma: symptoms and behaviour
Traumatised people exhibit a number of symptoms. According to Briere and Scott (2015) these symptoms include major depression, anxiety and panic, stress disorders including PTSD, dissociation, psychosis, substance use problems as well as somatic symptoms and related disorders. In other words, trauma can result in a wide range of different symptoms, and these symptoms can then translate into even more diverse behaviour.
This behaviour can often be at odds with what we consider normal behaviour. More importantly, it can look very much like what see as the behaviour of difficult people.
Two ways of seeing the world
It can seem that there are two ways of viewing traumatised people. From one perspective, most people are doing just fine but sometimes have difficult circumstances based upon what happens in their life. In this view of the world, there are a few people who are traumatised but these people are obvious and visible. Because they are visible, their trauma is known and handled by mental health professionals.
In the second view of traumatised people, a large number of people have been through difficult experiences. These difficult experiences have affected them in ways which we sometimes can't see. Many people are reluctant to see their own experiences as being traumatic; they just think that their life is like anybody else's. However, the word ‘trauma' would fit their experiences.
Sorting it out
There is no doubt that there are a number of people who behave like traumatised people. From the outside, all we get to see is the inability to hold onto work, difficulty in studying or in having close relationships. Rather than being open-minded, we tend to stubbornly treat those people as just being wilfully difficult. However, if we knew their circumstances, we would likely be empathic towards them.
A different approach – from ‘handling' to ‘helping' difficult people
A good starting point is to be open minded in working with everybody. This includes acknowledging that the difficult behaviour is actually result of a traumatic history. This doesn't mean rushing in and trying to discover and resolve the trauma for them. However we do need to be open-minded and be patient – strike when the iron is cold. We need to remember that it takes time to heal from trauma.
If we then react from this open-mindedness, we can be compassionate and understanding in the face of their difficult behaviour. We shouldn't let ourselves become pushovers, but rather that we start from curiosity not judgement.
This approach is that it's likely to result in better outcomes whether the other person is traumatised or not. People generally respond well to being treated well. However not all people do, and this is where we need to be boundaried. What doesn't work is trying to be more difficult than they are.
One of our responsibilities to ourselves is to maintain our own boundaries. If we find ourselves saying that we ‘bent over backwards' for the person or we ‘went out on a limb', we need to remember that both of these actions are choices. Further, neither of these choices is something that we should do unless we really consider the risks. If we do consider the risks and take the action anyway, we need to be responsible for that. No one else should be responsible for our over-extension.
Another one of our responsibilities is to ask. We should give people the opportunity to say if they need to be treated in a particular way, or if they have sensitivities that it would help us to understand. This is in contrast to just assuming that we should treat them like anybody else. If a person says that they have a particular sensitivity to particular situation, then perhaps we can construct things so that their exposure is minimised. A colleague, Clinton Power, has also written about why we keep difficult people in our lives.
We might never know for sure that the difficult people in our life are actually traumatised. However, being open-minded, treating them with respect and giving them the benefit of the doubt are reasonable ways to treat anybody.
Let me know what you think in the comments. Here's a couple of blog posts on related issues – When the Truth Comes Roaring In and How to Understand and Deal with Passive-Aggressive Behaviour.
Reference: Briere, J., & Scott, C. (2015). Principles of trauma therapy: a guide to symptoms, evaluations, and treatment (2nd edition). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.