Day 17 – Dealing with Difficult people

7 Ways to Deal with Difficult People

"Not everyone will understand your journey. That's fine. It's not their journey to make sense of. It's yours." - Zero Dean

We spoke before about how other people can help or hinder your Sober Sprint / MOB, and today’s post covers the ‘hinder’ aspect of this in a bit more detail. We’re talking here about people who:

  • Don’t or won’t understand why you want to do a Sober Sprint / MOB.
  • Challenge you about your reasons for doing a MOB.
  • Are unsupportive and inflexible.
  • Pressure you to drink when you’ve said you don’t want to (drinks pushers).

As we’ve said before, your Sober Sprint / MOB is for you, and you don’t need permission to do it. Other people don’t need to understand why you want to do it, or feel that they need to join you in stopping.

It’s nice when people do have our back and are pleased for us, and many of you will have supportive and understanding people in your life who are helping you have a successful Sober Sprint / MOB.

But having repeated conversations about why we want to stop or cut down on our drinking, or trying to justify our decision to other people who are playing devil’s advocate can increase our stress levels. And as stress can be a trigger for alcohol, it’s something we want to minimise if we can.

The same goes for people who are persistent in trying to persuade us to have a drink. Sure, we probably do have the self-control to resist, but we shouldn’t have to constantly be flexing our self-control muscle with people who are supposedly friends or good acquaintances.

So here are our 7 tips and ideas for dealing with difficult people:

  1. Ask nicely and use ‘I’ language

As Laura has often says (in the October 2015 webinars), if we ask for what we want from others they are often put in a better frame of mind. It’s a lot harder to say “no, I will not do that thing you have asked for that would help you”. Who wants to be ‘that’ person? People also like to feel that they can play a part, that they can be of use.

Tell friends and family what you are doing, that it is important to you, and that this is purely a personal journey that you are not expecting them to join you on.

At the same time, let them know that there are ways that they can help you: being on your side, being pleased for you, being open minded about different non-alcohol social activities, accepting it when you order soft drinks, being ok with the fact that you are probably going to want to leave events where everyone else is drinking/drunk earlier than them…etc.

People also have less room to present arguments and feel less threatened or criticised themselves if you use “I” language.

That means speaking about how you feel (“I feel so much more confident about my Sober Sprint / MOB knowing that my family are supportive of what I am trying to do.”), and what you want (“One thing that would really help me is if you could…”), or what your reasons are (“I am taking a Sober Sprint / MOB because I would like to have more energy and feel more in control of my health”).

“You” language (“when you do this, you make me feel like…”, “you need to be more supportive…”, “you make me really stressed”) makes things sound like blame or accusations. You simply won’t get as positive a response using this type of language.

  1. Holes in the story

Sometimes people – even well-meaning close friends – might struggle to understand your motives and reasons for doing a Sober Sprint / MOB, or desire to cut back on alcohol in general. This might be because there are some holes in your alcohol story that they just aren’t aware of: the consequences, the self-hatred, the health scares, the blackouts, the guilt and shame, even the quantity and frequency you drink when you’re not with them.  

There’s no pressure or need to share your private feelings and talk about things you are ashamed of. But recognise that people who do not know the full story might struggle a bit to understand why this is so important to you, especially if you are very good at presenting a confident, organised, healthy, happy facade. Perhaps if you were able to share a bit more of the story with people you trust, it will help them to help and support you.

  1. Step into their shoes

There are all sorts of reasons why people might be less-than-supportive of your Sober Sprint / MOB, or even make it difficult for you and try to sabotage it. For instance, it is common for other people to:

  • Be jealous of your journey of personal improvement, and
  • Envious that they are unable to do what you are doing.
  • Feel ashamed and guilty about their own drinking – which becomes more obvious when there is no one keeping them company.
  • Get annoyed that they don’t have a playmate to drink with.
  • Consider nights out (or you) to be boring if alcohol is not involved.
  • Be worried or concerned that your relationship with them will change or end now that you are not drinking.  

Even people who love and care about you and are pleased for you might experience some of these feelings. Their reactions are about them, and perhaps about their own relationship with alcohol and fears about what it is doing to them. Their reactions are not about you.

Learning try to empathise with how other people might be feeling can help you have more compassion and forgiveness for the ones who seem to be undermining or not supporting you.  

  1. Some people like to play devil’s advocate

Sometimes people like to play devil’s advocate or at least claim that is what they are doing. Conversations about your Sober Sprint / MOB with these people might feel combative, and cause you to feel anxious, angry, frustrated, or upset either because they actually are in opposition with you, or because they set up an opposite argument simply to get you to make a stronger argument to justify your reasons for doing a Sober Sprint / MOB.

‘Devil’s advocate’ describes someone who takes a position in an argument that they do not believe, simply to have a debate and explore an idea from both sides. It can sometimes be important to challenge received wisdom and be a bit more skeptical about new ideas or theories. But it is probably not necessary or helpful for others to be skeptical about your reasons for taking a Sober Sprint / MOB or to question the benefits of drinking less alcohol, or none at all.

Some people genuinely do need to see things from all sides to get a deep understanding of an issue before making up their minds. They aren’t the type of person who will be able to just agree for the sake of it. So they might ask difficult questions or appear to be disagreeing with you, but in fact they just want to learn and understand properly.

Unfortunately, other people will use the ‘oh, I’m just being devil’s advocate’ excuse to justify their opposing point of view (e.g., they do actually disagree with you). Others might not have a strong opinion either way about an issue, but they like the ‘sport’ of devil’s advocacy. Both can be extremely annoying when it comes to getting support for changes we want to make in our own lives, including a Sober Sprint / MOB. Assuming you have already asked nicely for support during your Sober Sprint / MOB:

  • Enquire about their motives: “I am getting a sense that you disagree with me, but I know that might not be the case. Can I just check, are you asking these questions because you want to learn more, or do you genuinely disagree with the idea of me doing a Sober Sprint / MOB?”
    This question helps you work out whether the person is someone who just likes to know everything before making up their mind, someone who genuinely disagrees with you, or someone who is just playing with you and has no strong opinions either way.
  • If the person just likes to be very well-informed: “I really appreciate that you want to know more about my Sober Sprint / MOB and the decision-making behind it. Could you let me know exactly what more you would like to know now, so that we can move on and talk about other things?”
    The person might not be someone you actually want to share all the ins and outs with, but at least you put the ball in their court and once they have told you exactly what else they need to know, you can draw a line under this line of enquiry!
  • If the person genuinely disagrees with you: Remind them that you have already decided to do a Sober Sprint / MOB and you aren’t seeking anyone else’s agreement that it is a good idea for you, and you certainly aren’t suggesting that this is something anyone else needs to do for themselves. Ask nicely again: “I understand and respect the fact that you disagree with me, and I don’t want to spend more time trying to persuade you otherwise because it doesn’t matter that we disagree. I hope that you can support me anyway.”
  • If the person is just playing with you and is not particularly attached to their argument against the Sober Sprint / MOB: “It is not very helpful for me to spend time justifying my decision or reasons for doing a Sober Sprint / MOB, and it would be great if you could support me. Hopefully as you aren’t particularly interested anyway, we can drop this conversation and talk about something more interesting?”
  1. White lies

Let’s face it, we don’t always want to be an ambassador or spokesperson for Sober Sprints / MOBs or sobriety, and fending off questions or talking all night about alcohol and our reasons for stopping with people who are still drinking won’t necessarily help us avoid thoughts and urges of alcohol and might spoil our night a bit. Other people can find the topic interesting, but we may just want a break from it! (I feel the same when people want to pick my brains about psychology all night at a social gathering – I love what I do and find it interesting and it’s nice when other people are interested too, but it IS still work to me, and I can’t always be switched on to work-related topics or I would never relax).

This might go against some people’s belief system or personal moral code but if it doesn’t, white lies can sometimes be part of the solution with some people in some situations – especially to get you through nights or events where you really aren’t in the mood to spend the entire time explaining yourself, or with people who don’t really ‘need to know’ the full story.

Some of my clients’ favourite and most useful white lies have included:

  • “I like to take a month off alcohol every year.” (As the DryJanuary/GoSober movement has taken off, booze breaks are becoming more acceptable and understood now so this is a good one to trot out, even if you are intending to remain sober for longer).
  • “I’m…trying to lose weight/doing the paleo diet/on a sugar detox/doing an elimination programme to establish the cause of dietary allergies…etc.”
  • “I got absolutely hammered last night, I’ll throw up if I have another drink.”
  • The classic “I’m on antibiotics.”
  • “I’ve got the car with me tonight.” (this could be for real or a white lie).
  • “I’m waiting for a call from someone who might need picking up from the airport/station so I might need to drive later.”
  • “I’ve just started on some new medication and my GP told me alcohol stops it working properly.”
  1. Fake it

This is my personal least favourite thing to do – probably because if I need to do this it means I am with some serious drinks pushers who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer (and then I begin to be critical of myself for even knowing such people or being ‘too weak’ to respond in any of the above ways). But sometimes needs must.

For some of my clients this is the only way they can control what they drink even on nights they are actually drinking, because the crowd they socialise with drinks to excess (as an endurance sport).

Faking it can involve drinking what appears to be alcohol, but isn’t (e.g., tonic water with ice and a slice looks like a G&T). When you’re in a bar it’s only really possible to do this if you are buying your own drinks, so this could be combined with a white lie about being a bit broke so telling people you won’t join in rounds or put into the whip. If people are coming to your house, you might be able to hide non-alcohol wine or beer in plain sight, by transferring it into regular bottles.

You might also accept drinks that are offered (e.g., if someone pushes a tray of shots on everyone) then find ways to discard them (wandering off to the toilet or smoking area and leaving it there, sipping without it actually going into your mouth then gradually tipping it away etc.).

This strategy requires a lot of subterfuge, sleight of hand, and effort, and is not an especially relaxing way to spend a night. Not recommended!

  1. Avoidance

This is your Sober Sprint / MOB and your life, and if some people make it harder for you to achieve the relationship with alcohol that you want to have, then you owe it to yourself to take steps to protect yourself. You might decide that you need to temporarily, maybe even permanently, avoid some people. If you can’t do that you can at least avoid being alone with them and avoid extended time in their company.  

If you have a difficult person in your life, and you consider that person to be a close friend or good acquaintance, it might be time to reconsider what that relationship really is to you, or at least what you are to the other person. Are they just a fairweather friend? Do you have anything in common or a good time if you are sober, or if you both are? What kind of person are they if they can’t respect your choices and support this positive change you are making?

If you need to keep that person in your life or it is difficult to keep them at a distance, but asking nicely and being assertive about your needs hasn’t worked, then for a while maybe white lies or faking it are your only workable options. However, this is not going to make you feel good long-term, and it can get complicated and stressful to keep up this type of strategy.

Perhaps when you step inside and try to empathise with that person, you will recognise that they also have a problem with alcohol – or something else – but are not yet ready to deal with it. Maybe observing you make positive change (even though they are outwardly resistant to it) will help them further down the line.

You can be, and are, a positive influence on people around you even when those people aren’t supporting what you are doing.

For more on dealing with persistent friends, watch this video from the October 2015 MOB.

Off topic but interesting

Today’s other post is all about teeth, and what alcohol can do to them.

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