9 Tips on How to Mindfully Deal with Difficult People (like In-Laws!)

9 Tips on How to Mindfully Deal with Difficult People (like In-Laws!).jpg

Much of our stress in life comes from having to deal with difficult people. Much of my stress comes from having to deal with my in-laws. After 13 years of struggling with them, I knew something had to give. So, this year - thanks to all the studying and mindfulness teacher training - I have finally found a solution to dealing with difficult people and my in-laws in particular. I’ll share it with you in the hope it will help you too.

1. Write out your anger

Anger can be cathartic – it can get the problems out in the open – however, directing your anger towards the difficult person in question will only serve to make them feel threatened and then make them either return your anger or become defensive and withdrawn.

I knew that getting angry with my in-laws would do no good whatsoever. It would create a rift and my anger would be used against me. I also knew that whatever point I brought up would probably be dismissed. (Or misunderstood because they’re French and my grasp of the language, while good, doesn’t leave room for the subtleties of relationship negotiation). So I had to cover up my hurt which then turned into anger which I again had to cover up by simply gritting my teeth. But when your mind is churning with that much anger, you will find absolutely no peace and no solution will present itself. So the best way to get out that anger in a safe way is to put it to paper.

Make sure you have a couple of hours on your own to rant and rage on the page. You can write it in the form of letter to the difficult person (just don’t post it!) or just write about how you feel right now and the hurtful memories you still hold. Rant, rave, cry, shake your fists – go through the anger thoroughly and completely.

Anger shows us there is a problem, and you can use it as part of the solution but only in a controlled way. It’s important to feel it in yourself, to accept it and to recognise it. Perhaps you can identify the feelings on the page with feelings you have experienced in other moments of your life. Is there a pattern there? Does your difficult person trigger feelings from childhood or other times in your past? What are the similarities?

Related article: How Tai Chi Helps With Mindfulness Practice

For the next few days, just allow that anger to come out while breathing deeply. Say hello to the anger when it rises up. Literally say: “Hello Anger. Hello Pain.” Because your anger comes from a place of pain. As you feel it, take deep breaths and allow those feelings of anger to wash over and out of you. Do not turn away from your anger, don’t deny it. Ruminate on it, think about it, go through every facet of it. Read back through your writing and feel it all over again.

Then when you feel like this anger is lessening or you’re getting bored or tired of these feelings, take your piece of paper and rip up the page, burn it, bury it or flush it down the toilet. Start to let go of those angry feelings. You need to flush it out of your system to leave space for the next stages.

2. Create some distance

If you can, try to get some distance between you and the difficult person. If you are able to avoid them for a little while in order for your feelings to settle, try to do that. Don’t go to family events, miss out a visit or two, don’t answer the phone, don’t enter into any high-octane discussions that normally cause friction (politics is to be avoided!) Just hold back a little bit. Make some excuses as to why you need some time to yourself. It helps to get some perspective.

I actually ducked out of being present during one visit by my in-laws. I knew that I was still feeling upset and I didn’t want it to cause more problems. I also felt that by hiding my hurt, I wasn’t being authentic. By plastering a smile across my face and pretending nothing was wrong (and also watching my in-laws being socially polite but all the while rolling their eyes in criticism!) meant that none of us were being truthful about the situation. I realised that I was not being myself, and in doing so I was not living my true authentic life.

So I decided to help all of us to be more truthful in our feelings by creating some distance. I left them to it and went to visit my own family and friends. This allowed them to realise there was a problem but it didn’t create a scene and it didn’t cause a fuss. It diffused any anger and just meant I could catch my breath and create even more space for the healing to begin.

3. Relinquish Control

Next, I had to relinquish control. By being absent from the situation I had started to do that but mindfulness isn’t about turning your back on a problem, it’s about being able to sit with it. I knew that at some point I was going to have to face them. But I needed to do it when I was able to accept their feelings for me.

One mistake I always made with my in-laws was that I tried to control the situation and tried to anticipate their reactions to things. Treating others as you hope to be treated doesn’t always work. In trying to control the situation by anticipating their every whim and need and in hoping that my efforts would be rewarded, I was just setting myself up for a fall.

Related article: What Religion Can Teach Us About Mindfulness

One way to avoid that is to completely accept that we have no real way of changing how people treat us or what they say to us. All of that is totally outside of our control. Trying to change or control someone is a very stressful thing in itself. So one way to take the stress out, is to give up trying to wrestle control of the situation. Stop trying to change the person, stop trying to change the way they think about anything, or their opinions of you. You have no control.

Stop trying to control the way a visit or encounter goes, stop trying to please, stop trying to head off any danger at the pass. Just go with the flow, allow them to make any decisions about how the day goes, let them take responsibility. Shrug off any issues and just say “I’m happy to do whatever.” Relinquish control entirely.

Because the only thing we really have any control over in our life is our own thoughts. So instead you have to focus on yourself and say: “How can I change the way I think about this person?”

Never forget you have a choice in this matter. We can choose to be irritated, disappointed or stressed by these difficult people. We can let their criticisms upset us. We can let their rudeness pierce our hearts.

We can also choose to ignore them completely or cut them out of our lives entirely. But again, this is just a form of denial and not mindful at all.

Or you can go the mindful route which is to actually send them love.

The best example of this is from Nelson Mandela. When he was imprisoned, he realised he had no control over his terrible situation and he had no control over the way the guards treated him. But instead of hating his guards, he chose to say kind words to them, and to treat them with loving kindness. He thought kind thoughts about them and asked them about their lives. He tried to make connections with them instead of isolating himself. Not only did this make his imprisonment more bearable, but in the end the guards developed such a loyalty to him that when he was released one of the guards actually became his personal bodyguard. That is a magnificent example of having no control except for feelings, and choosing loving kindness in that instance. Because when you are consistently kind and unrelentingly pleasant to people, it becomes much harder for them to be nasty to you. You are appealing to their better nature. You are being your best self, and in doing so, you are leaving the way open for them to do the same.

In Christian terms this kind of idea would be called loving your enemy. In Buddhism it is called sending “metta” or “loving kindness” to someone. (There is a very effective practice called “metta bhavana” to help you with this which I’ll outline for you later.)

4. Stop bitching about them

When we talk in a negative way about someone, we are allowing negative feelings to bloom and multiply. There are times when we feel we need to get these feelings off our chests by speaking about them to someone sympathetic to us. But not only does this do absolutely no good, it also makes us feel justified and self-righteous (not a pretty stance) and also, in all probability, bores the hell out of other people. Going over the same old stuff again and again – even if your difficult person seems to come up with new ways to torture you – is never going to do anything other than give precious time and space to unpleasant feelings. If we constantly talk about them to friends and family and ruminate over why they behave in such surprising and incomprehensible ways it only creates pressure, upset and more pain. It’s like picking a scab. It feels satisfying at the time but it means the wound keeps bleeding. At some point you have to let the scab alone, so the wound can heal.

5. Stop Judging

Mindfulness means “moment to moment non-judgemental awareness”. That means leaving the past behind, not worrying about the future, just being aware of what is happening in the present moment and not judging yourself or other people. We are all guilty of judgement at some point, and when someone does not share our values it’s really hard not to let that element of judgement come creeping in.

Related article: The Science of Happiness - Buddha’s Brain

However, thinking kindly towards them and wondering about what may have happened to them in their pasts to make them act that way, allows you to have some compassion for them. Seeing them as a person who is just like you – who perhaps had a difficult childhood and who is struggling and trying to find their way in the world – allows you to feel emotions other than anger or resentment. Try not to let that compassion tip over into pity (as that has a condescending element to it) but just open your heart to let in some positive aspects of their personalities shine through.

List their good qualities and focus on them. Breathe deeply as you bring to mind their smiling faces. Remember a joyful moment with them and capture that like a polaroid picture in your mind.

We all have our faults, we have all made mistakes. So now is the time to start letting some forgiveness in for them. Think about how we are all actually connected – we are all made of star-stuff, the same matter that came from the Big Bang created us all. We are all fragile creatures and we all deserve love. Even the difficult ones.

6. Change your Expression

There’s the old adage that whatever you give, you get back tenfold. And very often when we deal with difficult people we can’t help but come at them in either an aggressive or defensive manner – either consciously or subconsciously. When people feel they are being attacked or threatened, a natural reaction is to give as good as they get. So just think to yourself: “How does my face look when I see this person?” If you know your face is tense or scowling, then the difficult person will automatically pick up on that and just mirror your expression.

We are such sensitive creatures that even micro-expressions can be picked up by humans. A slight wince, or a grimace instead of a smile, can be detected immediately. So you may have to “fake it till you make it” at first and employ all your acting abilities to make sure your face is showing a glowing, welcoming expression.

Then see how they react back. They might be surprised at first. But just keep at it and maybe back up your expression with an authentic compliment. See how you can change the atmosphere by keeping it light and full of smiles.

7. Don’t Expect Anything Back

I once heard the comedian Simon Amstell say an incredibly wise thing about dealing with relatives. He said that he got on much better with his parents once he realised he needed to stop expecting them to be any different from the last time he saw them.

We all want to think people are capable of change, that one day they will wake up and be the people we want them to be or need them to be. But once you make your peace with the fact that there are some people in life who are never going to change, who will never realise the mistakes they’ve made or apologise to you, then you can start from a place of wisdom and peace. Never expect a visit to go any better – no matter how much you hope and wish and pray and prepare for it.

All you can do is expect the best from yourself. And never expect to get anything back.

8. Loving Kindness Practice

This practice is a Buddhist exercise called “metta bhavana” that can really help us to encourage feelings of loving kindness towards a difficult person. So as well as thinking of the difficult person in your life, you also need to think of one friend that you love dearly, and also one neutral person that you don’t know very well. Perhaps the postman, or a shopkeeper or a teacher. Someone who is an acquaintance but no more.

So have you got those three people in your head? Let’s begin:

Sit in a comfortable and relaxed manner. Take two or three deep breaths with slow, long and complete exhalations. Let go of any concerns or preoccupations. For a few minutes, feel or imagine the breath moving through the center of your chest - in the area of your heart.

Metta is first practiced toward oneself, since we often have difficulty loving others without first loving ourselves. Sitting quietly, mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, the following or similar phrases:

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful.

While you say these phrases, allow yourself to sink into the intentions they express. Loving-kindness meditation consists primarily of connecting to the intention of wishing ourselves or others happiness. However, if feelings of warmth, friendliness, or love arise in the body or mind, connect to them, allowing them to grow as you repeat the phrases. As an aid to the meditation, you might hold an image of yourself in your mind's eye. This helps reinforce the intentions expressed in the phrases.

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful

Just feel that deeply.

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful

So now after a period of directing loving-kindness toward yourself (which I hope feels good for you and it would be good for you to remember that), bring to mind a friend or someone in your life who has deeply cared for you. Then slowly repeat phrases of loving-kindness toward them:

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

As you say these phrases, again sink into their intention or heartfelt meaning. And, if any feelings of loving-kindness arise, connect the feelings with the phrases so that the feelings may become stronger as you repeat the words.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

Think of your friend, keep them in your mind’s eye and send all those good wishes out to them.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

So now I’d like you to bring to mind an acquaintance – someone you don’t know that well – but just repeat those phrases while you think of them.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

Feel the phrases in your heart and in your chest as if you’re pushing out all those good wishes from yourself and sending them to that person.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

Take a few deep breaths, and just connect with these feelings of loving kindness that you’re cultivating. Think about how good this feels. How calming and relaxing. How soothing, how pleasant. Wouldn’t it be good to feel this towards ourselves and our friends and to every person we meet?

So now, with those pleasant feelings in mind, I’d like you to bring to mind the person you have difficulty with.

Sometimes during this section, opposite feelings such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these to be signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there. And with whatever patience, acceptance, and kindness you can muster for such feelings—direct loving-kindness toward these feelings first of all. Above all, remember that there is no need to judge yourself for having these feelings. Just blast these negative feelings with kindness and just feel them soften. Be mindful of how your body is reacting – if you’re suddenly tensing then just try and relax those tense parts of yourself – unclench your jaw or fists and relax your shoulders down. Just let yourself feel those feelings and watch them flow through you and away. Accept them and let them pass.

Here we are meeting our ill-will head on. Metta, or lovingkindness, is the emotional opposite of ill will, and so we are consciously evoking the image of someone we usually respond to with feelings of aversion in order that we can overcome them.

So now I want you to repeat the following phrases while keeping that difficult person in your mind’s eye.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

Just keep repeating it until you feel yourself softening. All those feelings are releasing. And leaving only kindness in it’s place.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful.

Take a few last deep breaths, just soaking in that loving kindness for a few more moments. And then release.

How did that feel? Do you feel differently towards them? Do you feel calmer? If you try this practice again, think about expanding that loving kindness to all the people in your street, all the people in your town, in your county, country and all over the world – including all beings and creatures and animals too. For an excellent audio on loving kindness, take a listen at this link: https://www.wildmind.org/metta/metta-four

9. Forgive

Because at the end of the day, there is nothing left to do but forgive. Showing forgiveness towards someone who has hurt you is a beautiful gesture. It opens the way for true meaningful healing to come about. It’s not easy, but just making the effort can create enough of a shift in your relationship to make a significant change in the way you view them. In turn that may help them to view you differently too, but it might not. All you can know is that having loving, kind and forgiving feelings in your heart is a whole lot better than having a bunch of negative, angry ones. It’s your choice.

If you need a little meditation to help you on your way to forgiveness, below is our own Forgiveness Meditation. It starts off helping you to relax and then goes into helping you focus forgiving feelings towards a difficult person. And for one-to-one mindfulness sessions, take a look at our mindfulness page or for online practical advice, free audios and tip sheets and expert help on mindfulness for anxiety and depression from a senior psychiatric nurse, click here to go to the LightHearts UK FREE online 10-week mental wellbeing course.

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Katya JezzardComment