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People We Don’t Like: When Others Push Our Buttons

Two friends

I have a confession to make: there’s someone I know who I really don’t like.

I know this isn’t exactly front-page news. It’s not like I’m the first person to ever dislike someone else. But this situation has brought me face to face with all my strongest relationship triggers.

I find it incredibly difficult to do all the things I’ve written about when it comes to this person. Let’s call him Harry. (I’ve never in my life met a single person named Harry, but let’s just roll with it.)

I regularly find myself wanting to judge Harry before giving him the benefit of the doubt—even though I know I’d want that courtesy if I did the things he did. But that line of thought brings me back to judgment, because I remind myself, “I would never do the things he does.”

I find it easy to suspect him of poor intentions and conclude that maybe “he’s just a jerk,” even though I know that I get to decide what meaning to give his actions, and I also know that things are rarely black and white.

In dealing with Harry—and perhaps more importantly, my reactions to him—I’ve found myself considering three important questions:

  • We’re always talking about letting go of judgments; is it possible that sometimes, someone is just a jerk?
  • Is it judgmental to decide someone’s actions are “wrong” when you feel strongly opposed to them?
  • Just because we know there are emotional triggers influencing our response to someone, does that mean they shouldn’t be accountable for their actions?

I’ve decided to break these down, one by one, to see what there is to learn in this situation.

We’re always talking about letting go of judgments; is it possible that sometimes, someone is just a jerk?

I’ve wanted to use this label for Harry because of assumptions I’ve formed about his behavior: that he thinks he’s better than other people; that he’s really selfish, despite pretending to be caring and well-intentioned; and that all of this amounts to unfairness.

When I break this down, I realize the “he thinks he’s better than me” assumption goes back to my childhood experiences with being bullied, when I felt inferior to most of my peers—and their actions seemed to reinforce that.

The “he’s selfish” belief is a projection of my own fear that I’m actually a selfish person (something I’ve wrestled with all my life, no matter how giving I try to be).

And the conclusion about “unfairness” relates to my life-long aversion to all things unjust—both a response to my childhood and a natural human reaction.

When I pull it all apart like this, I realize I’m having a strong emotional reaction based on lots of things that aren’t solely related to him.

So my desire to sum my feelings up with one harsh label isn’t only about his actions. It’s also about my past experience.

And when I really think about it, whenever I’ve wanted to label anyone as a “jerk” (or something stronger), I’ve dealt with these same (and other related) triggers.

That doesn’t mean no one has ever done anything to justify my anger. It’s just that usually, when I feel unable to access even a shred of understanding or compassion, it’s because there are strong layers of resistance, reinforced by years of my own pain, in the way.

I suspect that’s true for most of us: the more tempting it feels to give someone one reductionist label, the deeper and more complex the triggers.

This brings me to the next question…

Is it judgmental to decide someone’s actions are “wrong” when you feel strongly opposed to them? 

While I realize there’s a lot more contributing to my feelings than his actions, that doesn’t change that I don’t agree with everything he says and does.

Once I peel away the layers of my complex response to him, I can then objectively ask myself, “Which of the choices he makes don’t feel right for me?”

This isn’t judgment—it’s discernment. It’s forming an assessment without the emotional weight behind it. And it’s essential to maintaining my own moral compass and forming boundaries within my relationships.

That means I don’t need to label him anymore. Instead I can say, “I wouldn’t make the choices as he makes, and I don’t want someone in my life who makes them.”

It’s not about me deciding he’s a “bad person” and, therefore, feeling better than him; it’s about me realizing he’s a bad match for a friendship and then feeling better about the situation.

The positive consequence: I give him far less power over me and my emotions. He’s not wrong—just wrong for me.

And then that brings me to the last question…

Just because we know that someone’s actions trigger us, does that mean they shouldn’t be accountable for their actions? 

Now that I’ve accepted responsibility for my reaction to him, and acknowledged that his choices can make him “wrong” for a friendship with me without making him universally “wrong,” I no longer need to “hold him accountable.”

But if I were to want to maintain a friendship with him, I’d have two choices: accept him as he is, or share my reactions to his choices and let him into my process.

I know from past experience that people rarely respond well when they feel judged or attacked.

But people sometimes surprise us when we explain how we feel in response to the things they do—not because they’re responsible for our feelings, but because they care about them.

And if they don’t care, well, this brings us back to the first two parts: It doesn’t make them jerks. It just gives us a reason to be discerning about whether or not we want to care about them.

So where has all this left me? I’m going to continue peeling away the layers of my issues around others “being better than me” and my fears of “being selfish.” And I’m going to silently thank Harry for reminding me to continue doing this work.

Then I’m going to stop communicating with him. Because as much as I value the gifts he’s given me, I value myself enough to realize he’s given a lot more that I don’t want to receive.

Have you ever felt a strong reaction to someone else and realized it had a lot to do with your own triggers?

Photo by Ally Mauro

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About Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha Founder Lori Deschene is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series (which includes one free eBook) & co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an eCourse that helps you get unstuck & change your life. She's now seeking stories to include in her next book, 365 Tiny Love Challenges by Tiny Buddha. Click here to share your story! For inspiring posts and wisdom quotes, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter & Facebook.

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  • Khurty Ramudu

    Wow, this blog is truly magical. I truly come across an article that talks about something I am currently struggling with whenever I come here. Thank you, Lori.

  • Debbie

    Often I find if take a “dislike” to someone – it is because they remind me of another person whom I don’t like for a particular reason. Now I realise this – I can work through it and handle it. The issue I’m dealing with is the dislike of a close family member. But as a wise old friend once said – “it is OK not to like your family”. Not easy though.

  • Hanna Cooper

    Lori, thanks for this powerful and honest post about working with feelings most of us don’t even want to admit we have sometimes! Being able to identify what part of any situation is mine, what part is the other person’s, and what if anything do I want or need to do about it is so critical! It’s like our experience with others is like having a holding up a mirror to us – the parts we struggle with in others can reveal something important about ourselves. In terms of giving feedback, I find being able to differentiate between and be clear about facts, observations, feelings and wants can be helpful in not triggering others (or ourselves!) further. You are courageous and brave in looking at this head-on, and being clear about your own needs and boundaries!

  • Alexey Sunly

    Here is an easy way to deal with your immediate negative reactions, ask yourself and the person in question what made them do what they did to upset you. That immediately takes your own focus away from your feelings onto the individuals behaviour by naming it without relying on judgement. When you name the behaviour, you are no longer occupied with individual’s intrinsic qualities but their external perception of the reality. If you are able to use humor even better, but avoid asking questions starting with why. For instance, here is a situation:

    - Harry, can you, please, keep back, this is a new blouse and i am afraid you will spill your tea on me.
    - No worries, Lori, look it’s spill proof! Oooops….

    (After a loud expletive… Lori asks herself why Harry failed to comply with her request this time like many times before, and rephrases the question to not put Harry on defensive but to prompt a change in future such behaviour)
    - Well, that’s great, Harry. Thank you for colouring my blouse… and almost burning me! Harry, how come such things happen so often? I asked you to stay away so you don’t spill the tea on me and you did completely the opposite… Is that because you don’t like me?
    - Lori! I am so sorry… How can I make it up to you.
    - Next time, please, listen to me when I ask you something. Can you promise me you will do that?
    - Lori, you know I did not mean to do that… It was an accident!
    - Harry, please, promise.
    -…
    - Ok, well, you asked what you can do to make it up to me for the blouse. This is it.
    -Ok… I promise :-(

    (Lori in her mind: Yay!)
    - Great, thank you, Harry :-)))) Have a wonderful day!

  • Martha_Brettschneider

    I love the way you’ve dissected the various layers of what goes in to “not liking” someone, Lori. Another way I’ve analyzed this is ask myself if the person is a net producer of positive energy in my life, or a net producer of negative energy. If it’s the latter, I can let go of it more easily, without attaching a lot of emotion to it. Sometimes I’ll let them know why, if I think it will be helpful to them, but often I choose to minimize drama and simply step away from the relationship (if they pursue it, I’m more than happy to communicate further). As I’ve gotten more familiar with the workings of my ego, it’s also become easier to avoid the “he’s a jerk!” response. I know that’s my ego talking (if he’s a jerk, I’m superior). I choose instead to see that person as having a more difficult life journey to navigate. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece!

  • Anne

    This is such a wonderful blog post! I will be sharing it with my 16 year old daughter as well! Thanks!

  • apiratequeen

    Thank you! A GREAT reminder to be more mindful and compassionate.

  • Gemma W.

    The most mutually beneficial way to deal with people we dislike is to do the hardest thing and that is to accept them fully as they are, warts and all whilst maintaining a friendship or relationship with them.

    I’ve personally found that the flaws we perceive in them are often a reflection. therefore our dislike tends to be more about us, than it is about them. We are mirrors. The world is full of reflections. When examined closely, our choices reveal a lot about who we are and, they often highlight our own faults and failings. So it’s important to look in the mirror before judging someone else for anything.

    It isn’t what other people do, say, feel or think that’s important. The choices we make is the most important thing. We can choose to change our perceptions. We can choose how to respond. We are responsible for our choices.

    We have a choice to either focus on the person’s flaws or focus on their qualities. When we focus more on someone’s qualities than their flaws, our overall perception of them remains positive. When we choose to focus on something at the expense of other things, the thing we focus on tends to magnify.

    When we insist on focussing on someone’s flaws, we need to step back, look within and ask ourselves, “why?” We need to be honest with ourselves, and be mindful of the cop-outs our egos come up with.

    Once we have the extra awareness required to make the necessary changes to our own perceptions, we really no longer have any excuse to take the easy way out.

    Yes, people are accountable for their actions when they know better, but that isn’t our problem, nor is it our concern. That’s for them to deal with.

    We should only be concerned with the consequences we face as a result of the choices we make. It’s better to concentrate on being accountable for our actions, thoughts and feelings than to mither about holding someone else accountable.

    The one thing that is commonly overlooked is, no-one can force us to make choices or act in ways that aren’t right for us when we are mindful and assertive.

    It’s also worth considering that people who we find a challenge to get along with are some of our greatest teachers.

    BTW The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz is a wonderful book, and I recommend it. It is an eye-opener.

  • http://www.reflectingalife.com/ Elle

    I’ve reached a point Lori when I recognize we’re all simply outpicturing our consciousness with our behaviour. Myself included. So now I get to say, hmmm what’s in my consciousness that I experience this and what would I rather have? It’s so much easier and feels a heck of a lot better than making someone else responsible for my reactions.

    Plus I keep my power to change in my own hands and don’t hand it over to someone else.

    I especially liked the way you walked your way through your ‘relationship’ with Harry…that’s simple thing to talk about and not always easy to you. So many congrats.

    e-hugs
    Elle

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome Khurty, and thanks so much. =)

  • TNW698

    Wow really great post, I really needed to read this today. Really made me think.. I’ve cut out two people in the past 1.5 years for the same reason. I realized that these were two people that I no longer wanted to associate with because of the toll that they were taking on me. I’ve thought over and over if I should have approached them and voiced why I feel the way I do and why I was deciding to cut off contact but I decided against it because both were very defensive and I didn’t really feel that my message would be heard and it would only serve to make them feel worse.

  • Jack Grabon

    This can be a tough one, Lori. It’s often easiest to do the best thing for us when there isn’t such a strong connection, as opposed to our partners or other important people in our lives.

    I’ve seen this playing out in others, where they react to you in a certain way because of their own baggage. If you try to point it out and bring it up with them, it doesn’t fly. Others can even vouch for what you’re saying as they may get the same reaction from a person.

    My question to you, Lori is: how do you deal with that, especially if it’s someone that you have to deal with regularly (e.g. family member, coworker, etc.)?

  • alexistech

    If many people say the same thing about a person then it is them. How can so many people have the same responses/thoughts/feelings when interacting with some one that is appearing to push buttons. If there is a pattern there is the answer.

    I’ve learned this when several people separately where warning me that certain people where causing a toxic work environment. They never said their names but then it became obvious who they where talking about.

    If you are the only one having negative feelings then it just might be you.

  • Olivia

    What a great article Lori! Been thinking about this one a lot; as someone who wants to retrain mid-life into a helping profession, I feel this is the missing link, to allow me to explore the parts of myself and others.

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  • Razwana

    I’m with Debbie on this one. I generally don’t have a strong reaction of ‘dislike’ to people I meet and there is one that acutely stands out in my mind.

    After I’d finally stopped hating him with a passion, I stopped and thought about what it was that was making me so angry. His behaviour triggered the same feelings of insecurity and self-loathing I had as a teenager, which were in response to just feeling very controlled and hating rules.

    But even knowing this, I couldn’t ‘just think about things I like about him’ and turn it into a magical positive. Eventually, he was out of my life – it’s ok to do this. It isn’t necessary to accept EVERY person we meet !

    - Razwana

  • Vanessa

    Actually it *is* possible that sometimes, someone is just a jerk :)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Martha, and what a great question! I know with this particular person, he was a net producer of negative energy–both as a result of his actions and my responses to them. And I love what you wrote about seeing that person’s difficult life journey. It certainly helps create a new, less painful perspective.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That is tough Debbie. I think we often assume we “have to” love and/or maintain relationships with family members, which exacerbates the guilt if it seems that’s not the healthiest thing to do. And sometimes, it’s just not. I know a lot of people who are better off for having a lot space from certain relatives.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s definitely tough, because people generally don’t address their own baggage until they’re ready. I often find myself thinking the people around me *should* be open to my observations since they know it’s safe to do it around me (I frequently acknowledge my own shortcomings, I try not to judge, etc). But then i remember how many times in the past I just wasn’t ready to acknowledge something.

    I think really all we can do is show through example what it looks like to be self-aware, try to not to take it personally when others aren’t, and have compassion for where they are. Far more easily said than done, I know!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Elle. I’ve actually had this conversation with myself a few times, so I’m realizing I need to continually remember these triggers and take responsibility for my reactions. I didn’t share the details so I could keep “Harry” anonymous, but I’ve never been triggered so strongly by someone–at least not at this phase of my life. It definitely feels empowering to pull apart the layers of my emotional response!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Can you expand Vanessa? How do you define jerk?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I know what you mean Razwana. I can’t turn “Harry’s” choices and traits into magical positives either, and I feel it’s the wisest choice not to be in contact with him. In my case, I feel “accepting” him is part of realizing I don’t want a friendship with him. Resisting, for me, would mean wanting him to change instead of recognizing he is how he is, and it’s my choice how I respond to it.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Olivia. I’m glad this was helpful to you! What new career are you considering?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s a good point, about patterns. I’ve been on both sides of that fence–encountering someone who lots of people had similar reactions to, and causing similar reactions in lots of people.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I know what that’s like. I’ve found that sometimes things are just better left unsaid. I spent a lot of my younger years trying to force people to acknowledge certain things that I felt were hurtful; then I realized I was hurting myself by expecting them to change instead of making a change.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re welcome Anne. I hope it’s helpful to her!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much Hannah! I’ve definitely found that, about relationships being mirrors. I’ve learned a lot about myself by noticing how I respond to people, what I want from them, what I expect from them, and I fear it means if I don’t receive that.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks for the food for thought Alexey! I’ve decided not to maintain a friendship with “Harry,” so I won’t be able to utilize this process in this particular relationship, but I’m sure this will be helpful in others!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s a great point Gemma, about the people who challenge us being great teachers. I’ve definitely learned a lot in the time I’ve known Harry!

  • Alexey Sunly

    I am sure Harry will be very disappointed to learn that! :-)

  • James

    I agree with your conclusion/decision: “I’m going to stop communicating
    with him.” I had a similar experience with someone, and when I sucked it
    in and took the “high road,” I ended up eventually getting the same
    treatment. Even if one takes a deterministic approach and gives him a
    “free pass” based on that, I decided that not only “once burned, twice
    shy,” but “twice burned, goodbye.” So, I terminated communication with
    him, as well as with others who condemn his behavior behind his back,
    but continue to support/enable him in co-dependent relationships.. I
    haven’t missed the drama at all (except in a good way!).

  • Adele

    Thanks for this. I wonder what to do when it’s more subtle. For example I just ran into a situation where someone had done a favor for me, and I said I was willing to do a certain task for this person in return. But when I realized what I was expected to do for her, it was way out of whack with what I had originally envisaged. In other words, it took more time and energy and I felt resentful. But had the person pulled a bait and switch on me, or did I walk into it being unrealistic? I can’t help feeling bad about it.

    This goes along with other feelings I have about the person, like “She doesn’t really like me, she just wanted something from me.” It wouldn’t surprise me if this person actually feels the same way about me… As it is, I don’t necessarily see what she did as “wrong,” but she certainly had an agenda/expectation for what I would do for her that was bigger than what I asked her to do for me. And we are not close friends. I am being deliberately vague here, but I wonder if this resonates for anyone else.

    I am trying to let it go, but what I learned from this is that my time is valuable and I should have made clear early on what I could/couldn’t do. Or what I was comfortable with. But it’s hard to do. I felt flattered/manipulated into doing more than I wanted to, and I hate that. I did express my discomfort afterward but it just felt like I was whining. The only plus is that I’m pretty sure she won’t ask me to do it again!

    I used to be quite naive and got used a lot, and this brings up those feelings again. So now I feel a strong lack of trust in this person and my intuition is that I should steer clear of any more “trades” with her even if she might present it as mutually beneficial…

  • Kate

    Hello Lori

    “Have you ever felt a strong reaction to someone else and realized it had a lot to do with your own triggers?”

    Oh yes! Last week I read an article that contained a general, highly critical assessment of my countrymen (racism, in other words) and it really pushed some buttons in me. Once I allowed myself to feel hurt about it, rather than masking the hurt with anger (I was embarrassed initially that a complete stranger’s comments could so thoroughly destabilise me), I remembered how judged I felt in my formative years and how powerless I was to change those unfair, destructive assessments of my very character. After allowing myself to grieve that early abuse (an ongoing, possibly lifelong process), I felt less caught up in the comments in the article because I could see, and feel, that this wasn’t about his views. I could also see that his comments were about him, not me.

    It still stings, but I think it’s giving me an insight into an unhelpful view of myself that I can change through grieving and then revising my self image.

    It was so helpful to read your post and to see how you managed the situation. It showed me that I have some tools to do the same, that I’m not at the mercy of ‘other people’s opinions’ and that I can move on from hurt, in time.

    I’m so grateful to you, Lori, for this site and for your consistently wise counsel. Thank you very much. With all best wishes. Kate

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I read your comment and immediately thought, “I doubt it!” because I’ve assumed Harry really doesn’t care. But you’ve given me reason to consider that perhaps he does; he just hasn’t said or shown it. Thank you again!

  • Alexey Sunly

    Assume the best, and realize that the worst only exists in your mind!

  • Kirk

    Lori – I have a person like this in my life at I work and therefore cannot ‘escape’ or end the relationship that easy (& I have sucessfully ridded my life of toxic friendships). I have reflected and ‘peeled’ back so many layers and have some sucesses and then this person falls back in to ‘old patterns’ of nastiness etc – I feel I have nothing else to give….what to do when it is a work relationship and I cannot end it? (And I like my job!)

  • Matchykoi

    I recently came from an out of town nature trek this weekend and there’s a person in the group who teased me a lot since i’m a slow trekker. I got a bad knee and balance and every time she sees me struggling, this person teases me out loud to the embarrassment of the whole group. That pissed the hell out of me and it triggered me to stay silent during the whole trip. I was just like her, critical of everyone else and when I saw that as a reflection of me in her I learned to let go and forgive. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    This has definitely been something I’ve struggled with. In the past, I’ve assumed that to be compassionate, non-judgmental, AND aware of my own “stuff” that I bring to relationships, I’ve had to maintain relationships with people who didn’t treat me the way I wanted to be treated.

    Now I realize that walking away is sometimes a very good decision, and not a sign that I’m not evolved, kind, or anything else I want to be!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I think this is an example of the very thing I was talking about. You saw yourself in her actions–but at the same time, what she was doing wasn’t very kind. Perhaps she didn’t realize just how hurtful and embarrassing it can be to tease someone publicly. That’s wonderful that you’ve chosen to let go and forgive. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Kirk~ Have you talked to this person about the issues that bother you? I know it’s tough to consider doing that, since s/he may just get defensive, which would make things worse. But maybe you could bring it up in a calm, non-accusatory way to start a constructive conversation…

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome Kate. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! It’s always helpful and comforting to realize how many of us deal with the same things. I feel the same, about the lifelong process of grieving early abuse. So many of the same triggers still come up in me, but I realize that, over time, I’ve learned to respond to them in healthier, more self-aware, more constructive ways, and it seems like you’re doing the same!

  • Anjel

    How do you deal with someone like a sister inlaw who you just don’t connect with or like? My hubby bullied me because of her and I have resentment towards both of them and anger as well. My sister inlaw had addittude towards me and I felt like she was never genuine , she basically was nice to me cause she had to be and I felt like I had tried to be friends but there was no response. After 6 years I’m still struggling to not have a dislike towards her.

  • LH

    i can’t (yet i can) believe that I just found this post. This is basically what I’ve been struggling with for the past week or so. I’ve been noticing my harsh judgement of a girl that I don’t even know. It bothers me that I have so many negative feelings about her and I’ve been so critical. It’s been such a struggle because I NOTICE myself having these feelings and I don’t like it because that is not how I want to live my life. Now, when I am open and honest with myself it is because I see me in her. I see so many similarities and I see that I may be a little jealous of where she is at in her life. I just pray when we do meet, which will be soon, that I will be a loving, accepting person. Maybe she is around to help me, or I, her. Thank you Lori!

  • wandy

    Hi Lori…
    Your site is an absolute blessing! God bless you for that!
    And regarding this post…I have experienced the same thing with different people a number of times… I realized that I continued meeting the same people and ended up with the same consequences because I was always trying hard to resist everything and letting it get to me too much…So I’ve decided to channelize my energy in something good…I just think about concentrating on my breathing whenever I catch myself thinking about all that…And it really helps…!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much Wandy. I’m glad you’ve found the site helpful! And I think that’s a wonderful approach with concentrating on your breathing. I have a couple of breathing techniques that I use whenever I get caught up in my head, and they help a great deal!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Have you talked to your husband about his part in this? Perhaps the resentment comes more in response to him bullying you…

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I think the noticing is something to be proud of. A lot of times, we aren’t aware of our internal triggers/instinctive responses (I know I haven’t always been). But once we see what’s going on, we’re well on our way to healing it–and feeling better both about the other people and ourselves.

  • David Morris

    Really enjoyed reading this article Lori – great job breaking down something as complex as this into a clear and easy to read format!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much David. I’m glad you enjoyed it!