Difficult People

The customer who gets under your skin. The co-worker or boss whose deeds stay with you even when you’re home around loved ones. The neighbor you can’t stand. The spouse, partner, or friend you can’t live with but can’t live without either.

Whoever it is you’re close to that manages to find and press buttons you didn’t even know you had.

We’ve all had people like this in our lives, at some point or another. And we’re also highly likely to be identified as one of those people at some point by those close to us.

What’s going on here? And what can we do about it?

To be frank, many of these situations are perfect candidates for a consultation from a trained professional we tend to call coaching, counseling, or psychotherapy.

Executives avail themselves of this all the time; there’s no reason those who work with or for them shouldn’t have access to that resource as well. Parents, partners, police and other professionals all call for backup when they’ve reached the limit of their own imagination, effort, or even motivation.

The help of a trained professional is especially in order when anyone’s safety or well-being is at stake. For the purpose of this essay, let’s assume the only thing being risked is your peace of mind.


I’m a firm believer that a better understanding of what’s going on goes a long way towards helping us stand up, find our balance, and identify the necessary moves for a particular situation.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the kind of understanding I’m talking about is that it’s purely theoretical. On the contrary — effective understanding identifies, demands, and clears the way for effective action to address the problem. As such, it’s both a “head” and “heart” affair, as well as a full-body experience.

True understanding is a radical affair. When you understand something, you get to the bottom of things, to their root. And then a funny thing happens. You and the thing change, often but not always by your own hand.

That’s why I call any grasp on things that doesn’t change them and you in the process “knowledge” instead of understanding.

How does understanding happen? Well, by thoughtful immersion in the thing you’re trying to understand. You pick it up, look at it, and interrogate it. What’s it trying to say? What might it be trying to tell you?

If this were a story, who are the characters? What would the moral be? And what would count as a satisfying ending?

Sometimes a deeper understanding won’t come until some important change is made first. Sometimes the change can’t happen until there’s a better understanding. Sometimes effective, catalytic understanding takes time to evolve and develop, sometimes it’s quick and clear.

Projective Identification

So what’s going on with difficult people? Clearly, none of the trouble would be possible without the twin facts of relationship and bad feeling. So one step is to say “difficult relationships” instead of difficult people. The next is find out: what kind of relationship is this and what kind(s) of feeling(s) is/are being engendered?

The psychoanalytic concept of projective identification goes a long way towards sorting this out. For me, it’s one of the best theoretical contributions ever to the healing of individuals who suffer in or because of relationships.

There are many ways to understand projective identification. Some call it a “botched projection,” which is quite true from the standpoint of emotional metabolism. But from the standpoint of cementing a particular kind of object relationship, projective identification is probably the most successful mortar around.

Think of chewing gum. What do you like to do when you’re done? (“Swallow” is the wrong answer here.) You want to discard the used gum, of course.

Now most of us find some way — tissues, wet fingers, and the like — to dispose of the gum in a receptacle. Let’s call that “effective emotional metabolism.”

But suppose we don’t have or find a place to put it and want someone else to feel the pain of our predicament. Then we might be inclined to stick it on someone else and walk away.

For good measure, we might pretend the gum was never ours but theirs the whole time, and could even accuse them of wearing gum on their nose. Let’s call this process projection.

Technical aside: I don’t like to call any of these things “defenses.” I’m as much of a conflict theorist as the next person, but that doesn’t mean we have to treat the unconscious like an adversary. I like to call them adaptations instead. Brings in the environment, just a little.

Now suppose we want to get rid of our gum but forget to lick our fingers or find some paper before taking it out of our mouth. Then, when we stick it on someone else, it sticks to our fingers as well. Whoops.

We can’t get rid of the gum, we can’t quite let it go, and for whatever reason (I’ll call this “valency” in a minute) it won’t come off the other person, either. If you’re counting, there’s three things here: you, them, and the gum.

All three stuck are in a very odd but tight dance, choreographed for us by and through milennia of evolution. The gum spitter’s furiously trying to get rid of the gum, which is this case involves trying to sell someone on the idea of being a good gum wearer. “You would if you cared / loved me / were a man / grown woman / good soldier!”

The gum wearer, on the other hand, is trying to respond to the request (“whiskey – tango – foxtrot?”) as well as to the situation (i.e., gum on their nose).

When the gum wearer can’t distinguish between the two — between what happened and what the gum spitter wants to happen — they’re especially vulnerable to feeling like a gum wearer. That’s when self-esteem has been compromised; in emotional terms, the victim may feel they earned the gum-wearing label because someone was able to put gum on their nose without their noticing or being quick (or skilled) enough to stop it.

This is how we come to ingest the toxic emotional overflow of another who’s having a hard time digesting it themselves. What they want is for us to process the emotion(s) for them, because they lack the enzymes and presume (rightly or wrongly) that we have them.

Two Ways of Communicating

That’s more or less the standard way of looking at projective identification. Here’s another.

Let’s say humans have two ways of communicating feelings with one another: sharing them and inflicting them. I like to call the first form of communication discursive and the other inductive.

When I share a bad feeling with you, I put it into words and hand it over to you across the interpersonal space. That is to say, I know it’s me over here and you over there, and that this is my feeling which I’m holding up for you to look at and taste a little bit.

Here there is no question that the feeling in question is mine and mine alone. You may participate in it after I’m done, but I’m still the original and proper owner, and I take full responsibility for it. That is to say, it’s not your fault I feel this way.

Here I use words to tell you what happened to me in such a way that you can imagine, from a comfortable distance, how I feel.

When I inflict a feeling, I may or may not rely on words to do so. I might be able to do it all with just a stare or other body language. Most importantly, I behave in such a way as to get you to feel what I’m feeling.

And since what I’m feeling is most often quite intense or uncomfortable, there isn’t any you and me anymore, or any space between us. All you know is that both of us are caught up in some kind of storm bigger than both of us, for which I blame you alone.

And depending on who you are and/or how your were raised, you may or may not take the bait.

Instead of sharing a feeling, I beat you over the head with it or try to rub your nose in it. When it’s done right, you’re left wondering what hit you. You were feeling OK a moment ago and now you feel awful. Why?

The more effective bandits in this regard have already left the room (this delays, but does not prevent their eventual detection). The most skilled of these artists (for artists they have to be) can put an awful feeling in your gut from a distance: through e-mail, office memo, or even the words of a third party.

Movies, good books, and works of art straddle the line between sharing and inflicting feelings. The word I use for them is engendering: you get the feeling the artist wants you to have, but you know both its previous as well as current address. That is to say, you know where it came from, where it is now, and how it got there.

Most often, it’s unpleasant feelings that are selected for inductive communication. But feelings of joy, as well as other forms of pleasure, are also know to travel this way.

Why Go The Inductive Rather Than Discursive Route?

So why communicate this way, if it’s often so painful to the victim? Well, for lots of reasons.

Probably the most common is that some emotional contents are too hot to handle. They’re the kind of feeling someone’s not used to feeling, or it’s a familiar one but so intense as to overload the system. They may involve great pain, intense joy, sexual arousal, grief, the memories of abuse, or any number of other awkward, overwhelming feelings.

Such feelings are hard even for seasoned veterans to send along a discursive route. So they get sent inductively, but also for another reason.

Induction is a much more intimate way of communicating than discursive conversation. When any part of the message involves the need to bring someone closer, then projective identification is the way to go. Think “misery loves company” and “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Induction is also lightning-fast. Your partner or spouse walks in the room, and within seconds you’re not feeling the way you were but the way they need you to. Bad day at the office? Now it’s yours too!

This sets aside the need for discursive tasks such as waiting, finding the right words, timing them correctly, and monitoring their effect on your interlocutor moment-to-moment.

So induction’s nature’s way of communicating a tremendous amount of intense feeling in as short a time as possible. This is why all of us do it from time to time simply because we’re in close relationships with others. Put another way, put two people together in the same space long enough, and they’re bound to get on one another’s nerves at some point.

But there’s another reason some people use, abuse, or over-rely on induction.

For a lot of people, discursive works as a great strategy for communicating; but when it comes to relating, induction’s the way to go. Why? Well, because when it comes down to relating to friends, workmates, and romantic partners, discursive means feel unreliable, thin, woefully insufficient, or just fake. Here induction not only feels like the most suitable or real but the only legitimate way to relate.

And then there are those who just don’t know any other way to connect with others other than through induction. They may never have been taught (adequately) to put their feelings into words, or they may identify with someone who over-relied on induction to get their point across.

All their emotional communications are high-volume, high-intensity affairs, with the net result that most people cover their (emotional) ears or leave the premises immediately. Those that cover their ears but don’t leave get treated to a symphony at even higher volume.

Very often in these instances the message is: “I hate you, don’t you (dare) leave me!”

All of us want to connect with others, be heard, validated, be appreciated for our efforts, feel we matter, and be loved. When discursive means are available and reliable ways to make these things happen, those trains run just fine. On time, clean, and there’s always a seat available for you and your belongings.

But when inductive means are the only way to feel emotionally effective — that your feelings have the ability to reach others, affect them, and change your world in meaningful ways — then you get a lot of that, regardless of the audience. Hot, sticky, intense, stomach-churning, heart-wrenching.

And that brings me to the last point, which is a commonality between discursive and inductive modes of relating: they’re both ways of letting you know how someone’s feeling. The tricky thing with induction, when and where it’s successful, is you end up feeling awful and thinking it’s your fault, you deserve it, or the feeling is yours and your alone.

Truth is, it came from someone else, and retracing the mail route is often the first step towards getting some relief from the process.

Why Me?

So why are you the one who feels all the anxiety about a proposed venture instead of your spouse or boss, who seems so irritated by your concern? How come you’re the one who feels the need to be critical, even contemptuous, of the organization you work for when you’re the nicest guy / gal you know? Why do you always fall for people who make you feel bad?

How does Debbie Downer manage to bring us down every time?

Well, there are a lot of complicated answers to any one of those questions. But from the standpoint of projective identification, “why me” can be answered in this way: for some reason(s) this kind of gum sticks better to you than others.

This is the notion of valency – that some people are better at holding certain feelings for others than everybody else. If you grew up in a house where you had to be the grownup, expect to find yourself constantly surrounded by (more or less adult) children. Or you might just constitutionally have a knack for dealing with certain feelings that others lack.

If you have a soft spot for a particular kind of trouble, situation, or person, expect to be pulled by that heartstring on a regular basis, by more or less well-meaning people.

So What Do I Do?

Again, if emotional health, physical safety, or just saving time, heartache, and money (think of the time you spend obsessing about this relationship you could be devoting instead to your happiness or career) is a concern, see a professional immediately. But assuming it’s not, the first order of business is to just notice what’s happening.

When is it that you feel the gravitational pull of another person’s stuff? Under what conditions? Are you more vulnerable in particular places and times (e.g., upon waking, coming home, racing to get somewhere, behind the wheel, before your morning coffee)?

That’s often your first step to identifying the perpetrator. But you may know who s/he is already, when shit happens, and how it affects you.

If you don’t, try tracking your self-esteem from 1 to 10 on a regular basis (e.g., 10 = you feel great; 5 = you feel ok; 1 = you feel like shit). Or, if you like, think of your self-esteem as the liquid inside a cup.

Notice fluctuations in self-esteem as they occur during the day. Do particular things or people give you a rush? Do some people or situations cause you to leak, even bleed self-esteem? Check out both places from the comfort of a safe, quiet, secure location.

The next line of psychic self-defense is to say to yourself, “stop, this isn’t me, it’s him/her. I have been this person’s toxic waste system for far too long, and I have my own life to live. I can relate to them perfectly well — better, even — if I don’t have to chew their emotional food for them.”

Now you know who’s the perpetrator and a whole lot more about how they make you feel. Then you go about setting limits. This is basically done in order to detach your self-esteem from their behavior.

This is also often the trickiest part, as your perpetrator’s often set up quite the alarm system around their racket, and the littlest thing may trip it. Expect car or smoke alarms to go off. They may cry, rage, or pout. You may or may not need backup. Again, a trusted friend or professional will help you work through the thought experiment in advance.

The perpetrator will often immediately sense what’s going on and try to stop you. Guilt and shame work especially well here.

Ideally with the support of others, you then get very precise. Keep a diary if it helps to note times, places, words, and actions. Tell them, in a calm, respectful tone, what it is that they do that you don’t like, and that you’d like them to stop.

Many times you’ll be called to justify or legitimate your feelings, as if you’re in the wrong for being hurt or offended. Don’t take the bait and feel the need to legitimate your feelings. You feel the way you do, and that’s that. It’s a simple request you’re making, one that thoughtful and respectful people make of one another all the time, that’s all.

And no matter what you (or they) do, keep your comments focused on the other person’s behavior, and away from their character, personality, or moral nature. You may feel they’re evil, and you may even sometimes be right.

Much more often than not, however, whether or not the perpetrator is evil, they’re in a lot of pain. In fact, that’s probably yet another reason why you’re feeling and dealing with it: because you have the words, the health, and the courage to do the right thing with the letter. And that is: return to sender, and graciously and respectfully as possible.

But as with cases of genuine bigotry, even when you’re right, being right and rubbing this in the face of someone already emotionally compromised is almost always the end of the conversation. So do whatever you have to — deep breathing, a bathroom break — to keep your comments to their behavior instead of their person.

After all, you don’t know them, and everybody was somebody’s baby once.

Here’s another far more sophisticated guide to help you on your way.

For me, the best defense of all is to find the humor in the situation. That’s what the actors manage to do inadvertently in this Debbie Downer.

Anyway, here’s hoping this little theoretical romp is of some use in helping you untangle yourself from unwanted projections. Enjoy.


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