17 tips to keep you sane

Use the following strategies to end the emotional tug-of-war, once and for all.

I like to imagine that I’m a kind, patient person. That I embody calm when confronted with prickly personalities. That their aggravations roll off me like water off a duck’s back. But this delusion is quickly dispelled every time I have a run-in with a difficult person.

Take last week: My friend (let’s call her Liz) and I decided to meet at noon for lunch. She’s often late, so I took my time walking over to the cafe. But mid-stroll, I became paranoid that Liz would be punctual for once, so I rushed to be there on the dot.

She was nowhere to be seen. I breathed deeply, rationalizing that now I had some coveted alone time. That lasted all of four minutes. At 12:08, I called Liz on her cell, convinced I’d given her the wrong address. She never picked up. Ten minutes later, she showed up with a big smile and zero apology.

“Oh, don’t be mad at me. You know I’m always late,” she said. “It’s just part of my personality. Besides, haven’t you enjoyed all the great people watching?” My reaction was less like a duck, more like a rabid dog. The worst part was that my emotional equilibrium had been knocked off-kilter. It took me a good 15 minutes to calm down enough to actually enjoy spending time with my friend.

Trying personalities like Liz’s are everywhere — in your home (possibly sharing your bed), at the office, in your book club. They may even be complete strangers. What makes them difficult may be an undisputed character flaw — they’re sycophantic or self-centered or perpetually gloomy — or simply a quirk that rubs you the wrong way. But inevitably, a brush with them leaves you fuming or at least out of sorts.

Instead of devising elaborate avoidance schemes or barbed comebacks, you can change your dynamic with these sanity stealers. Use the following strategies to end the emotional tug-of-war, once and for all.

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Turn the Spotlight on You

“You must change how you react to people before you can change how you interact with them,” says Rick Kirschner, N.D., coauthor of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand. That requires some self-examination.

People who irritate us usually have something to show us about ourselves. “Ask yourself: How is this person holding up the mirror to me?” suggests Sandra Crowe, who authored the book Since Strangling Isn’t an Option. For example, being around my chronically late friend reminds me how quick-tempered and impatient I can be — not my favorite traits. Reminding myself of this may keep me from bouncing off the walls when I find myself waiting for her yet again.

If it’s a good friend or intimate, think, too, about your own behavior in the relationship. Have you contributed to the strain by saying yes instead of no too many times? Did you neglect to signal early on that something was bothering you? “If you don’t look at your own actions, you end up making the other person 100 percent of the problem,” explains Susan Fee, author of Dealing with Difficult People: 83 Ways to Stay Calm, Composed, and in Control. That also puts the solution squarely in her hands — and out of yours.

Delving into the root cause of your frustration can turn up problem-solving insights. Fee provides an example from her own life: “When I first got married, my mother-in-law drove me crazy. She was always hovering and intrusive. But after asking myself again and again why she bothered me so much, I realized what was going on: Her behavior was foreign to me because I never knew what it was like to be mothered — when I was 12, my mom had a debilitating stroke. It became clear that this was just my mother-in-law’s way of showing her love for me. Once I understood that, our relationship improved.”

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