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Who are the difficult people in your world?



Each of us, I am certain, has at least one relationship that is fraught with tension, discomfort, or insecurity.


Today I'm going to let you in on a secret about difficult people.


Earlier this week, I helped a client think through an issue with one of her medical students. He’s scheduled to work with her weekly and she does not enjoy their time together – he isn't responsive to feedback, is awkward with patients, and doesn’t seem to be invested in his learning. My client was finding herself dreading each session ahead of time and then ruminating about how frustrating it was for days afterwards. This student was taking a tremendous amount of space, time, and emotional energy in my client’s brain – and 100% of it was negative! But here’s the secret.


People themselves are not “difficult” or “pleasant” or “kind” or “selfish” (or any other adjective) – they are labeled that way (by you!) simply because of your thoughts about them.


Other people in this student’s life likely have very different thoughts about him - and therefore very different labels. He is (hopefully) not considered “difficult” by his family and friends. It is even possible that other attendings perceive him as hard working, dedicated, and personable – who knows!


Our relationship with any other person is simply our thoughts about that other person.


Even your most intimate relationships with your partner or children are not distinctive entities that exist outside of your brain – your relationship with your partner IS simply your thoughts about your partner. And your partner’s relationship with you is simply THEIR thoughts about you.


Our thoughts about other people are largely dependent on our expectations of them, and how well they’re meeting those expectations. This is complicated by the fact that most of the time, these expectations are unwritten, unspoken, and hidden (both from others AND sometimes from our own awareness!) I call these sets of rules manuals.


We believe that we need other people to follow our manuals in order for us to be happy. This looks like:


“Medical students should let me know that they’ve heard my feedback”. “My friend should call me back when I call her”. “My brother should remember my birthday”. “My husband should put his dirty dishes into the dishwasher instead of the sink”. “My boss should give me feedback”. “My job should pay me more”.


This is hugely problematic. Because adults have free will; they can do whatever they want. And you will waste a tremendous amount of energy and cause yourself a tremendous amount of pain trying to get others to behave in a specific manner.


When you create instructions for how you want someone else to behave so that you can feel good, you have handed your power over to them.


So, what do we do? I have a few recommendations.

  1. Start uncovering your manuals. When you find myself angry or disappointed start noticing – This is because my manual says that a good medical student asks thoughtful questions. Or that a good boss should never send an email with that tone. Or that a respectful spouse always puts the toilet seat down.

  2. Start questioning your manuals. Is it true that medical students who don’t ask questions don’t care? Is it true that good bosses never use that tone? Is leaving the toilet seat up really a sign of disrespect? Get curious.

  3. Remember that you are in charge of your feelings. If you want to feel valued at work, you can either change the circumstances of your job, change your thoughts about work, or decide that you don’t need work to create a feeling of value – YOU can give yourself that feeling.

  4. Utilize requests and boundaries. I am in NO way advocating we become doormats and let others do whatever they’re going to do and then we adjust and deal with it. Instead, we can (and should!) make requests and set boundaries that protect our own best interests. (I’ll share more about requests and boundaries in my next post – stay tuned!)

In the end, my client was able to see that her unwritten, unspoken manual about what makes a “good” medical student was problematic – when she started examining it, she realized that her manual included all sorts of ideas and assumptions that she did not actually believe. She still has reservations about some of the behaviors that she sees, and she still has concerns about his knowledge and skills, but she has allowed herself to drop the story that this student is 100% “difficult”.


Ironically, dropping the story doesn’t impact the student himself – it is debatable whether or not he was ever aware of my client’s feelings about him. But dropping the story has given my client incredible peace – she dreads upcoming sessions less, engages professionally with him during their sessions, and has freed up her brain space and energy after the sessions for more pleasurable topics.


Who are the difficult people in your world? What are your manuals for them? And do you want to keep those manuals or are you ready to drop the story?