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Dealing with Difficult People

While a bear from the wild may be captured to live in a zoo or trained to ride a bike in the circus, for the most part, wild bears do what wild bears do.  

Several years ago, while trying to emphasize a point about how to deal with difficult people, I began to pick on bears. I could have easily picked on some other animal, but bears are an easy target. We’ve all heard horrible stories here and there about a bear somewhere attacking an innocent hiker. More frequently, we hear stories of a bear entering a campground and eating all the camper’s food.

Bears, being bears, do not judge the ethics of their actions.

If you get too close to a mama bear’s cub, she will attack to protect her baby.  If a bear is hungry, it will seek out food and eat whatever is most convenient. The bear does not judge a camper’s goodness or badness. The bear does not care how hard it was for the camper to haul the food to the camp site. The bear is just doing what the bear does.  

The first time a bear eats a camper’s food, the camper may be angry with the bear. But once the camper has learned the bear’s ways, they can hardly be angry with the bear if she does this again. This is why campers often have to hang their food in trees or hide it in bear-proof canisters. There is nothing that will make the bear change its behavior, so a camper must change how he or she manages the campsite and the food.

Like the camper, many of us have people in our lives that do things that hurt or annoy us.

There are people that continually try to rob us of good things in our lives. Our first instinct is to take these behaviors personally and wonder why we have been singled out. We may feel anger at the person and may even make attempts to change their ways.

However, if we begin to think of them as bears, we realize that these problematic people are not just doing these things “to us” — in fact, they probably do these things to everyone; it is just their nature. The bear’s behavior is not a judgment on us because the bear is not taking our value into account at all.

Just as campers must find ways to protect their food from the bear’s attacks, we must find ways to alter our ways when we encounter the “bears” in our lives.

There is not one universal way for dealing with “bears”.  

Often the way we need to respond is dependent on our situation. In some cases, doing whatever the equivalent of hanging our food in a tree is sufficient to protect us from the bear’s attack.

However, as some of my clients have pointed out, there are times when the bears are so persistent that not camping in those areas at all may be necessary.

One client heard me talk about the bears and told me that the “bears” in her life had completely ruined “camping” for her altogether. In this metaphor, we must assume giving up camping is not an option. We cannot allow the actions of some bears to ruin our experience as a whole in the great outdoors.

We cannot let others rob us of the joy of living.

I know sometimes it feels like we should just avoid every situation where there might be bears, but the reality is that bears are everywhere. (I saw a news story this week of bears wrestling in a backyard in Florida.  Who knew there were bears in Florida?)

We cannot change the bears, but we can change how we relate to them.  The bears in our lives can be crafty and sometimes can trick us into letting our guard down, but when we do, we must look at ourselves and how we were deceived and not at the bear, because the deception may be in the bear’s nature.

If we’re picking on bears, I would also say that we cannot avoid every single animal simply because there are bears in the world. Not all animals act like the bears. However, all animals have their own way of relating. And it turns out some of those animals can be quite docile and affectionate.

Most of us have some “bears” in our lives.  

Some “bears” live in our own homes with us and some are people at work, school, or church.  Sometimes figuring out the emotional equivalent of “hanging your food in a tree” can be tricky, but it can usually be done.

“Leaving the woods” or never “camping” are rarely the best options. If you are having difficulty with a “bear” in your life, a good therapist might be helpful. A good and trustworthy friend may often be helpful as well. Just remember that bears will be bears, and you can learn to coexist with them.  

Happy camping.

Chris has been practicing pastoral counseling for over 20 years. He uses spiritual resources as well as psychological understanding to help his clients seek healing and growth. Chris earned a Master of Marriage & Family Therapy from Trevecca Nazarene University (2004) and a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1994).

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