How to Care for Yourself When Dealing with Difficult People.

One of my friends tells her story of growing up with a mother with “issues” rather matter-of-factly, but the details are pretty grim to listen to. “She would stop talking to me for no reason, for days at a time, and put a gift on my bed when she decided she was done being mad at me. We never talked about why she was angry, and most of the time I didn’t know. I just knew not to talk to her until she left something on my bed, and then I’d hold my breath until the next time she got upset about something.” 

My friend’s mother sometimes disappeared for lengths of time without anyone knowing where she went or when (or if) she would return. When she fought with my friend’s father, she frequently brought my friend into the arguments as a mediator, despite her being a child. “Everything was about her,” my friend says. “Even as an adult, forty years later, everything is still about her.”

Whether we are born into families with difficult people, or enter into relationships with them as friends, coworkers, partners, etcetera, it can be challenge to know how to best respond to someone who is emotionally unwell. In order to do so effectively, it is paramount that we understand that the behaviors that are being presented are not our fault, develop firm and clear boundaries about what we will and will not tolerate, and practice asserting ourselves confidently and consistently. 


More times than I can count, I’ve had clients sitting across from me in the therapy room, blaming themselves for the erratic and unacceptable behavior of someone else, and puzzling over what they might have done differently. It sometimes seems as though difficult people have special powers that enable them to sniff out the highly sensitive and empathic among us, and attach themselves to them. Inevitably, those sensitive individuals become sponges for all the negative emotions of their difficult friend, and seek support from a clinician like me, wondering why they just can’t do better. 

The answer is (and trust me, this took ages for me to learn personally, too): You cannot fix a problem that does not belong to you. It’s just not possible. As much as you would like to, as much as you might be a stronger person, or better emotionally equipped, or have supernatural empathic healing powers – if someone does not want to do the work on themselves, then the work simply cannot be done. We cannot work on anybody but ourselves. When we start with the assumption that we are unable to do anything to change the behaviors of those around us, then we create space to make plans to care for ourselves. These plans often begin with identifying our boundaries. 


Once we’ve let go of the notion that we can change or fix the person in question, we can go ahead and set some boundaries. The beauty of this is that there is no right or wrong to setting boundaries – they are truly based on whatever we individually want and need. Do you need to set limits about the frequency and length of visits to a relative? Perfect. Do you need to allow yourself to walk away from conversations that become shaming and/or emotionally abusive? Awesome. Do you need to only see a certain person if you have a support person with you? Go for it. There are a billion ways to design your boundaries, and you can create them based on what your insides are telling you feels safe and right. 

Remember to watch out for “shoulds” here. The “shoulds” get in the way by dictating to us what we “should” be able to do in any given situation, and making us feel bad about it. Some classic “shoulds” include: “You really should be able to deal with this behavior for a few days over the holidays;” “You shouldn’t be so sensitive to that language – they were only joking;” “You should spend time with this person because they are older/related to you/a person in authority.” The problem with the “shoulds” is that they are typically culturally dictated and have little to do with what might be right or wrong for us as individuals. By ignoring our gut instincts and doing what the “shoulds” tell us to, we betray ourselves, and sometimes cause ourselves unnecessary suffering and harm. 

Be kind and stay true to yourself. Don’t let anyone but you dictate your boundaries. 


For many of us, self-assertion is difficult to put into practice. Once we’ve identified our personal boundaries, we have to go about implementing them by saying them to a difficult person, out loud. This can be incredibly challenging. We might be much more comfortable avoiding the subject (forever),  or allowing our feelings to build up until we explode. Truly, self-assertion is a hero’s mission, and we must be gentle with ourselves as we attempt to master this very difficult and hard-won skill. 

I’ve found that seeking support from a good therapist (or a very unbiased friend) can be helpful when beginning to practice self-assertion. It is useful to have an objective party translate one’s boundaries into language that is level, direct, and un-muddied by emotion. Another reasonable option is to begin setting small boundaries, which help us gain traction and build trust and confidence in ourselves. Not ready to call off a visit on Thanksgiving? Set a smaller boundary to stay home for a lower-stakes holiday, and assess how it feels. Baby steps lead to big steps. 


To wrap it all up, let’s acknowledge again that this is hard work, and requires patience, practice and time. Many of us have spent a lifetime walking on eggshells around difficult folks, and the idea of suddenly unleashing a confident boundary seems as likely as running a marathon with no training – anxiety is to be expected. Be patient and compassionate with yourself, and implement your new skills at a pace that feels comfortable to you. As you do, you may notice a greater sense of peace and self-empowerment when dealing with the challenging people in your life. 

Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych To read more, visit

Useful Information

Some frequently asked questions and useful answers.

Online therapy works in the same way as in-office therapy, but is done online, similar to a Skype or FaceTime conversation. Clients are able to have sessions from home, work, or any other convenient location. We meet with clients using a HIPAA-compliant secure platform.

Online therapy allows you to work with us from the comfort of home, or any private location of your choosing. For some, the screen provides an added layer of comfort that makes the challenging work of being vulnerable in therapy a little easier.

Online therapy also creates the unique opportunity for you to work with us without the constraints of proximity! The practice was born in Keene, New Hampshire, but has since grown to service clients anywhere in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, Florida, and New Hampshire.

Online therapy is a great option for clients that travel for work, for college students that go home during the summertime and do not want a break in their sessions, and for anyone with a challenging or inconsistent day-to-day schedule. It is an excellent choice for clients seeking a therapist with a particular specialty that they are unable to find support for locally. Some of our clients report that online therapy makes the vulnerability element of therapy a bit less intimidating.

No. For some clients with more complex symptoms or safety concerns, having a local therapist that is readily available is important in case of crisis or the need for a higher level of care. Online therapy is also a challenge for clients that do not have access to a private, quiet space to be “in session” for the hour, or for those that do not have adequate internet connectivity.

There are several reasons why we don’t accept insurance. The most important are:

Confidentiality. Insurance companies require that your information be shared with them in order to pay for services. We prefer that clients’ information is kept as confidential as possible.

The pressure to diagnose. Insurance companies require that clients are given a mental health diagnosis in order to pay for therapy. We have found that many clients benefit from therapy, but do not meet criteria for a diagnosis. Not using insurance allows clients to access therapy without being given a mental health diagnosis.

Flexibility and freedom. Insurance companies dictate the length and number of sessions they will authorize, as well as when a client is no longer eligible for the benefits of therapy. Because we do not work with insurance panels, you and we can collaborate to determine your individual needs regarding session length, frequency of sessions, and when to terminate therapy.

While we do not accept insurance, many clients choose to submit receipts to their insurance companies to receive reimbursement via out-of-network benefits. We are happy to provide these receipts for you! Please check with your insurance company for details on your benefits.



Read some of our latest testimonials to see why others put their trust in us.

Ready To Get Started?

Get the support you need from anywhere with online therapy.

Enter your email address for special offers, new services, resources and the latest blog posts right to your inbox.