Dealing with people is a many-layered, complicated thing, but one of the problems I think we often create is not digging deep enough. I know that in the past I have often seen surface-level behavior and then labeled a person based on that. I think most of the time when we do that, we not only misunderstand people and their problems, we also usually make it worse.
One example I’ve heard when thinking about this is to think about your car. If your engine light comes on, you don’t rush to go cut the wire to that light. That would be silly. It might stop you from seeing the symptom, but it doesn’t fix anything. People’s behavior is often just like that warning light, a signal to something deeper that’s actually wrong.
One example that I’ve dealt with is the obnoxiously arrogant person. On the surface, it seems like that person has too much confidence. They think their stuff doesn’t stink and so they spend all their time telling everyone how much smarter they are or better they are than someone else (or you). What was my first reaction to this kind of person? “I need to take this guy down a peg or two” was my natural reaction. If he’s going to tell everyone how great he is, I’ll show him how he isn’t so great.
The problem with that is I didn’t dig deep enough. Every attempt I made to take them down a peg resulted in worse and worse behavior. Why is that? Because you have to think about what the real reason for the behavior is. That person wasn’t arrogant because they thought they were better than everyone else, they were arrogant because they thought they were worse than everyone else. They felt they couldn’t measure up to other people’s standards or hadn’t measured up to someone specific’s standards and therefore had to prove to the world that they were good enough. If you’ve read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” then you may also recognize this as a symptom of a fixed mindset.
That combination of believing that they weren’t good enough and believing that they couldn’t get better with effort created a person who felt they had to constantly prove to the world that they were good enough. It created a person who refused to admit to their mistakes for fear that making mistakes would prove they really weren’t good enough.
So how do you deal with that kind of person? How do you heal the heartbreak of believing that they weren’t good enough and never would be? You start by doing the opposite of what I did. Instead of trying to take them down a peg, you start to build them up. If they don’t believe they are enough, tell them they are enough. If they don’t think they’re worthy of being loved, tell them you love them no matter what. If they try to prove they’re better than everyone else, let them know that everyone is doing a great job and it doesn’t matter who’s best. If they believe that their lot in life is fixed, show them examples of people who improved and changed.
As you have probably gathered by now, this is not the easy way out. It is difficult. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes putting up with some abuse that won’t be fun. However, you can do it.