During this Holy Week, we are reminded of the ways that Jesus confronted and responded to those who antagonized him. We can use His example to help us effectively respond to the antagonistic people in our life, but that may look different than you would expect.
Theology Of The Body (TOB) reminds us that every person has dignity and deserves to be treated with love–including the people who we experience as antagonistic and unsupportive. But TOB also reminds us that loving people doesn’t mean letting them treat us however they want. Loving someone means working for their good. We aren’t working for another person’s good if we allow them to demean themselves by behaving in a cruel, abusive, disrespectful, antagonistic, or unkind manner. We can’t just do whatever comes naturally–whether that means avoiding conflict or enflaming it. Instead, when we feel attacked, we have to ask God to help us make a response that serves the ultimate good of everyone involved.
Jesus modeled two ways of confronting abusive behavior. Sometimes, when he was clear about the greater good being served–for instance, the salvation of humankind–he patiently bore the wrongs committed against him. But other times, when the greater good required it,–for instance, when the Pharisees intentionally tried to twist his meanings, confuse his message, or undermine his mission–he confronted them. Like Our Lord, we must always respond to antagonistic people with the greater good in mind. Rather than simply reacting, we must bring our emotions to God and ask him to teach us how to respond in a manner that will glorify him, help us be our best selves, and lovingly challenge the antagonistic person to be better. Sometimes that will require us to give them the space they need to self-correct, and other times it will mean being more direct. With prayer and practice, we can learn to deal gracefully with even the most antagonistic, unsupportive people.
Let’s look at a few practical steps to deal with the antagonistic people in our lives:
1. Take a Step Back--TOB reminds us that, in all things, we are obliged to be loving; that is, to work for the other’s good. But that means different things in different situations. Sometimes, when a person is really working hard to be kind and loving, but they have a momentary lapse, the most loving thing we can do is bear that wrong patiently–to make it safe to make a mistake and self-correct. Other times, when a person is habitually behaving in a manner that undermines their dignity or ours, the most loving thing to do is to admonish them–to set limits that address their offensive behavior. But we can’t always immediately know the right thing to do. That’s why it’s our job to cultivate receptivity. That is, at all times, it’s our job as Christians to step back from the situation we’re in and ask, “What choice does God want me to make that will see to both my wellbeing and the wellbeing of this other person?” The better we can be at asking this question in the moment and responding accordingly, the better we will be at cooperating with God’s grace and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us through difficult relationship situations.
2. Hold Up A Mirror–People are often unaware of how they are coming across. We might experience someone as antagonistic, or selfish, or hostile, but they might see themselves in an entirely different light. Instead of just reacting out of our perception of a person, we have to first hold up a mirror so they can see how they are coming across. Before you react, say something like this, “Listen, there’s just something about the way you’re coming across that feels really X (hurtful, antagonistic, unsupportive, etc). Is that what you’re trying to do or am I missing something?” Saying this allows the other person a glimpse of how they are coming across so they can either clarify or change their approach. Doing this is one way we can “bear wrongs patiently” without reducing ourselves to a doormat.
3. Reassess the Relationship–If a person who is close to us persists in being hurtful or offensive, despite our efforts to address the situation charitably, it may be time to reassess the relationship. Ask yourself, “In what situations, or what contexts do I feel safe with this person?” Then limit your relationship accordingly. For instance, what level of service can you continue providing without feeling like you are being treated as an object? Scale back your service to that level. Or, in what contexts does this person tend to behave themselves? (When they’re in public? When they are on the phone? For an hour or two but not 10?) Restrict the relationship to those contexts where they can handle themselves in a manner that doesn’t undermine their dignity or yours. This way, you aren’t cutting them out of your life–unless there is simply no safe way to be around them–but you are working for your mutual good even though you are having to set a limit. If they complain about the boundary you’ve imposed, simply tell them that you would be happy to remove the boundary as soon as they are willing to take the concerns you’ve expressed to them seriously and change their behavior. What happens next is up to them (whether you maintain the boundaries, or you feel safe to adjust the boundaries). God does not ask us to make relationships work all on our own regardless of how the other person treats us. He merely asks us to be charitable in all we do and make sure that whatever we do is done prayerfully, and with the intention to work for the overall good of the other person, our relationship with them, and ourselves.
If you would like more support dealing with the antagonistic or difficult people in our life, contact us at CatholicCounselors.com.