How do you deal with difficult people? Are you bothered by conflicts, rejections, or negative opinions of others? Most of us are. Somehow, it's hard to stay detached and let go. Some of us spend much time reflecting on past conversations, thinking of what was said, and how it was said, and what it meant.
I notice how my 4-year-old daughter is learning her social skills. When she comes back from her playschool, she now likes to talk about who her friend is and who isn't, and who is "mad" at whom. Their friendships and preferences come and go, and their little disagreements and disappointments with one another are easily forgotten. It's all light-hearted at this point. Interestingly, it is in this tender age, before our cognition is fully developed, when we form many of our subconscious brain maps and beliefs. And as we grow, these subconscious beliefs may make it more difficult for us to forget, forgive, and move on.
The good news is that we can change our reactive patterns. We cannot control other people's behavior, so the best approach is to learn to manage our own responses. It becomes easier if we understand how our brain responds to perceived threats. Because so many of our beliefs are subconscious, as adults, we may not even be aware of what pushes our buttons and why. We may just notice that we become defensive, stressed, or self-critical. If the brain recognizes something as a threat, it activates the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system of the brain, responsible for the emotional control and memory of our emotional reactions. The limbic system can process something as a threat even before the stimulus reaches conscious awareness, triggering the "fight or flight" response. Our body is then flooded with cortisol, and the decision-making and rational parts of the brain shut down to mobilize our resourced for the attack or retreat.
In addition, the brain evolved to be sensitive to status and authority, i.e. how we look relative to someone else. As a result, we tend to worry about what others think of us.
Sometimes, just understanding these "quirks" of the brain and becoming aware of what's happening to us in the moments when our buttons are pushed can be helpful. Reframing the situation to lessen the threat is also helpful. We can change the brain's processing of our usual triggers if we consciously choose a behavior different from what we tend to do. In other words, we can create new neural pathways in the brain with better responses. So, once we become aware of what's happening, it helps to switch our mind to something that produces positive emotions fast and can reward the brain with the "feel good" molecules, like dopamine. The quicker we can replace the negative reaction with a positive one and the longer we can sustain the positive, the easier it will be for the brain to rewire itself.
Next time you have to deal with negative reactions, difficult people, or explosive situations, start practicing this "reframe-switch-sustain" approach. A similar process was used by psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder patients and described in his book "Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior." The consistent application of his neuroplasticity-based technique helped the patients improve their OCD symptoms and caused the corresponding physical changes in the brain, which were confirmed by brain scans. This practice can also help us with our everyday worries and anxieties.
Finally, it's good to remember that our brains are social and mirror emotional responses. We have the power to manage our own reactions and help others step out of their trigger points if we engage with love, kindness, fairness, and support.