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How To Deal with Dysfunctional People — And Not Go Crazy Yourself


27May 2007

Last posting I described dysfunctional people and what behavior patterns characterize them. That is really the easy part.  The tough part is learning how to deal with dysfunctional people in our lives — whether they are family members, coworkers, employees, or neighbors — and to do so in a way that doesn’t make us go crazy (or so we don’t commit murder!)

The first clue to dealing effectively with dysfunctional individuals is to give up the expectation that they will respond in a healthy way (to whatever action you choose to take).  Usually, no matter what you do, you will feel blamed and they will be angry — it is the classic example of “damned if do, damned if you don’t.” If you talk to them, they are angry.  If you don’t talk to them, they are offended.  If you have somebody else talk to them, you’ll be in trouble, too. So, really — you have to give it up — typically, you will not be able to fix the situation.  At best, you may be able to do “damage control”.

Accepting that you cannot change the other person (their thoughts, viewpoint, ways of behaving or their choices) is the second step.  No matter what you say, what you offer, or what you do — you will not be able to change how they are approaching the situation (the exception to this is to totally “give in” to them and give them what they want. But this will just buy you a short period of peace, until they want something else from you.  And “giving in” doesn’t change them, it just reinforces their actions.)  You may be “right” in your position.  You may have the wisdom of Solomon.  Your life may be in a lot better shape than theirs.  It doesn’t matter.  They are not going to listen to you.

Probably the most important step that many people fail to complete is to set boundaries around what you are and what you are not willing to do. Most of us try to change the other person. When that fails, we either “give in” to their demands (just to calm them down) or we totally distance ourselves from them; in essence, we break off the relationship (quit our job; refuse to talk to them anymore).  However, there is middle ground — although it is difficult to successful “walk in”.  This is telling them (after deliberating on what the options are and their potential consequences) what you are willing to do in the situation (give them x amount of money one last time [don’t loan it to them, because they will never repay it anyway]) and what you are not willing to do (give or loan them 3 times x amount — which is how much they are asking for.)  The problem is — they will hound you and badger you, blame you, accuse you of being insensitive and greedy, trying to get you to change your mind. Often, it is easier to “give in”.  But if you do, you are just continuing the dysfuctional pattern.

There are a number of interrelated steps that are critical to being able to follow through when setting boundaries with others.

1) Realize that the current “crisis” is probably not a crisis (you could see it coming a long time ago) and they will be able to live through it.

2) Remember that if you “help them out” this time, you will be expected to help them out again (because the issue is really their misbeliefs about life and the resulting poor choices they make, and they will continue to do so.)

3) Do not accept false guilt from the dysfunctional person. The whole problem is not your fault and it is not your responsibility to fix the problem or rescue them.

4) Talk with and get support from others whom you believe are functional. You need affirmation that you are thinking clearly and responding appropriately to the situation.  Otherwise, you will start to second-guess yourself and may “give in”, thinking “just this once won’t hurt.”

Now all of this can sound rather hopeless — can’t people change?  Yes, they can.  But they have to decide they want to change.  And often, individuals with severely unhealthy patterns have to “hit the wall” of reality — that their beliefs about life and their way of living doesn’t really work because they don’t match the way the world really works.  Continuing to “help them out” only prolongs their dysfuctional patterns because they are not experiencing the true (and usually hard) consequences of their approach to life.  So the best way to help them is to not “help” them.

One thing is probably certain — they will not be happy with you or your choice — possibly for several months or years, unless they finally “get it”.  Then they may come back and thank you for forcing them to take a honest look at themselves and starting to take responsibility for the choices they make.  But don’t hold your breath.

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