21 Signs and Characteristics of a Difficult Person

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An obnoxious, grumpy old man sits at a table with his friends in a restaurant. For attention, he harasses and belittles the waitstaff without remorse. His behavior appalls everyone who can hear him. He clearly displays characteristics of a difficult person.

At a local grocery store, a woman slowly strolls up and down the aisles picking items from the shelf and then putting them back in the wrong place. Her grimace and characteristics of a difficult person are annoying. An older woman approaches and admonishes her, insisting she put on a smile and stop putting items where they don't belong.

In both instances, it appears both are difficult people. While the old man seems to enjoy the uncomfortableness his behavior is causing, the unhappy woman appears oblivious to everyone else. Furthermore, the underlying causes of their difficult traits could not be more contrasting.

The old man has been this way his entire life, conditioned by his environment and upbringing. The unhappy woman just lost her son in a car accident. She feels lost and disconnected and keeps picking up items her son loved out of habit, only to realize he's not alive anymore.

This article will explain:

  • What a difficult person is
  • The reasons a person might be difficult
  • Temporary negative personality traits
  • Potential ramifications
  • Things you can do to ease the tension
  • Signs and characteristics of a difficult person

It's always helpful to identify the type of personality you may be dealing with to be prepared.

What is a Difficult Person?

A difficult person is someone who nurtures the mindset of combativeness, negativity, elitism, extreme passiveness, depression, anger, bitterness, or lashing out. Although, it is essential to remember that you cannot identify a difficult person by their speech or behavior alone. The context must also be considered whether the person is inherently difficult or a beautiful individual just having a bad day.

For instance, an inherently difficult person is born the way they are. They may have mental challenges like schizophrenia, sociopathy, psychopathy, or childhood trauma. Any of those could have shaped their thinking, communication, and interaction skills. Then again, some people just choose to live on the edge of hell because they feel most comfortable there.

A wonderful person having a bad day is a temporary nosedive into negativity resulting from some harmful trigger. Potential triggers might include those stemming from PTSD, depression, anxiety, stress, worry, or grief. The characteristics are temporary because the person was positive and happy before the life-changing event occurred. With thoughtful care and treatment, the person may regain their positivity.

Personally, I can assure you that losing someone you love, like a child, can temporarily change your personality to one of intense grief, hopelessness, and depression. It can cause you to react negatively even though your inherent traits are positive, joyful, and hopeful. It takes time and hard work to minimize the temporary negative characteristics of such a loss.

Let's take a closer look at why someone might be difficult, some temporary personality traits, the impact of communicating with a difficult person, and things you can do to ease the tension. Can you identify with any of the following characteristics?

Why a Person May be Difficult to Deal With

There is a myriad of reasons why a person may be difficult to deal with. Some are born that way. Others are conditioned by their environment or life experiences.

The human brain is so intricate it is considered the most complex structure in the known universe. There are literally billions of working cells and their transmitters arranged in a specific order within one 3-pound human brain. Each brain is as unique as a person's background of experiences. This is why it's hard to label how any individual brain functions, including the “difficult person” label.

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Certain personality traits can make someone challenging to interact with.

Professor Joshua Miller explains, “Flexible personality is a healthy personality. You want your personality to shift to some degree based on the circumstance. If you cannot shift your personality to meet certain needs, it's a problem. [In other words], if you're difficult in every setting, it could be considered a disorder if the problems are pervasive, persistent, and long-standing.”

These are a few potential causes of a difficult person's behavior:

  • Defensiveness
  • Fear of failure to meet expectations
  • Fear of being the punching bag for others' stress
  • Lack of positive energy
  • Feeling like an outcast
  • Extraordinary traumatic experiences
  • Suppressed anger or bitterness
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Self-preservation
  • Repressed emotions
  • Elitism
  • Sadism
  • Inherent genealogical traits
  • Negative environment

In nearly every circumstance, how a person perceives or interacts with the world around them directly reflects how they feel about themselves. It has nothing to do with anyone else, even you.

Temporary Personality Traits Often Mistaken for a Difficult Person

Temporary personality traits often mistaken for a difficult person's personality are common. It occurs when a normally positive, outgoing, and happy person momentarily turns dark, negative, and difficult. It is usually brought on by traumatic events that leave the person reeling for an appropriate response to others. Unfortunately, this results in defensiveness and combativeness.

The human brain relies on certain chemicals, hormones, and nutrients to power its functions. When there is an imbalance, personality changes may occur.

For instance, overwhelming or extended stress causes the brain to release an overabundance of cortisol into the body. The cortisol then wreaks havoc on your immune system and major organs and causes diseases such as cancer. It also affects your personality.

Imbalances like this are often temporary. A person can usually return to their “normal self” once the imbalance is corrected. Because the human brain is super complex, science is only beginning to understand its inner workings.

The following are a few causes of temporary or permanent personality shifts:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Any type of grief
  • Frustration
  • Isolation
  • Medication
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Head or brain injury
  • Extraordinary stress
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Neurodivergence
  • Pain
  • Lyme disease
  • Menopause
  • Miscarriage
  • Loss of a loved one
  • PTSD

21 Signs and Characteristics of a Difficult Person

Communication is understood by verbal and body language. You need to discern the following signs and characteristics of a difficult person to determine your approach and responses. Don't forget that context and circumstances play key roles when considering these personality traits.

1. A Callousness Toward Others.

Callousness is an insensitive, unsympathetic disregard for others or their wellbeing. It is often referred to as “thick-skinned” or “hardness of heart.”

2. A Grandiose Demeanor.

Grandiosity is the pompous, arrogant appearance of being important, impressive, or dominating.

3. Aggressiveness.

Aggressiveness pertains to the ill-mannered behavior of belligerence, combativeness, or hostility.

4. A Suspicious Attitude.

Suspicion refers to a feeling that something has or will happen, whether true or not.

5. Manipulativeness.

The manipulative quality applies to words or actions intended to influence or control someone else. The cold shoulder and silent treatment are also manipulative tactics.

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The manipulative aspect refers to using words or actions with the intention of exerting influence or control over another person.

6. A Propensity for Dominance.

Dominance relates to the attitude of having power or influence over others who are less superior.

7. Risk-taking Nature.

Risk-taking is a personality trait that is willing to face unnecessary danger or risks to prove something or achieve an end goal.

8. Argumentative Demeanor.

An argumentative demeanor is a hostile trait or stance of provoking or expressing an opposing viewpoint with angry undertones.

9. A Repetitive Insistence for Competition.

Insisting on competition in an aggressive, antagonistic way when it is not necessary is a difficult person trait.

10. An Accusatory Temperament.

Accusing others without reason or facts or attacking another's reputation or person with unsubstantiated blame is yet another difficult person trait.

11. A Judgmental Attitude.

A judgmental attitude is a classic characteristic of a difficult person that involves expressing an overly critical point of view without having the facts or knowing the other person.

12. No Room for Compromise.

A difficult person may have no room for compromise, which denotes an unwillingness to “meet in the middle” on just about any topic.

13. A Tendency for Angry Outbursts.

Angry outbursts are unexpected, violent eruptions of negative and damaging emotions. They often cause property damage or bodily injury and should be taken very seriously.

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Angry outbursts are unexpected, violent eruptions of negative and damaging emotions.

14. Close-mindedness.

Close-mindedness is similar to having no room for compromise, with one small exception. A closed-minded person will not even consider listening to another perspective, let alone lay any ground for compromise.

15. Demeaning and Belittling Behaviors.

The negative personality trait of demeaning someone means creating a situation where the victim loses their dignity and respect for other people. Belittling refers to crushing someone with hateful remarks.

16. The Act of Displaying Enjoyment of Others' Pain or Uncomfortableness.

A difficult person may make remarks and then display signs of enjoyment at the cost of someone else's pain, humiliation, ridicule, or uncomfortableness.

17. Disagreeableness.

Disagreeableness relates to a difficult person's inability to agree on anything.

18. Erratic Body Language.

Erratic body language, such as waving the hands or arms or tapping the feet, hands, or fingers, may indicate a difficult person's dismay, anger, or pretentious thoughts.

19. Negative Facial Movements.

Negative facial movements may also indicate the same.

20. Temper Tantrums.

Temper tantrums by a difficult person are notable because they are disruptive, attention-getting, and manipulative tactics.

21. Loud or Obnoxious Verbal Language or Cues.

Loud or obnoxious verbal language and cues are highly offensive and distasteful behaviors also designed to be disruptive, attention-getting, and manipulative.

What to Do if You Encounter a Difficult Person

While researching this article, I came across numerous sources recommending that you put difficult people “in their place” or react to their behavior with more negative behavior. Neither of these responses will result in a positive resolution. Negative plus negative never equals a positive.

Remember the Law of Attraction? The energy you put out will be the energy you attract back. Negative reactions will not help you or the other person. Let's take a different trek down this road and choose positivity to counter the negative characteristics of a difficult person.

The following list provides positive responses that could turn the difficult person's thought processes around, even if only momentarily:

  • Remain calm and positive. This benefits you as much as the other person.
  • Be a role model. You never know who is watching.
  • Give the difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
  • Be cautious about judging others.
  • Keep your emotions in check.
  • Remember, it isn't about you. Don’t take it personally.
  • Take a conflict resolution course. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.
  • Show compassion. You don’t know their whole story.

Whether the individual you are dealing with is an inherently difficult person or a temporary one, you will benefit from understanding why they are the way they are and their expectations. First, you'll need to know the signs and characteristics they exhibit. Let's take a look.

Potential Ramifications of Dealing with a Difficult Person

As in all human communication, there are risks associated with dealing with a difficult person. The difficult person's combativeness, egoism, or audacity could damage the other person's trust. In turn, it eliminates a degree of confidence and further interaction. By doing this, the difficult person hurts others, but not as much as they hurt themselves, because they've closed the door to positive change.

More consequences of dealing with a difficult person are:

  • Feeling like your energy is drained
  • An elevated level of stress in your own life
  • A decrease in your positivity
  • Your productivity wanes
  • Your self-esteem takes a dive
  • Apathy slowly replaces your zeal for living
  • Depression sets in
  • Hopelessness replaces self-confidence

Any of the above can be dangerous if you don't take immediate steps to recover. Be sure to take care of yourself and keep all things in proper perspective. Own emotions that are yours and reject those that aren't.

How to Counter the Negative Effects of Dealing with a Difficult Person

Here are a few quick tips to help you recover from dealing with a difficult person:

  • Give yourself self-care daily.
  • Reclaim your power.
  • Limit the time you spend with a difficult person.
  • Know your limits.
  • Purposely choose your attitude for the day when you wake up each morning.
  • Focus your thoughts.
  • Meditate on the positive.
  • Get therapy if needed.
  • Always respond to others with compassion.
  • Spend quality time with positive people.
  • Choose the life you want to live.

You are now ready to deal with a difficult person and still maintain happiness, peace, love, and joy in your own life. Your vivacious thirst for life just may be the role model that influences and improves someone else's perspective. You've got this!

Final Thoughts on Signs and Characteristics of a Difficult Person

Among all the signs and characteristics of a difficult person, there is a common foundation of pain and turmoil underneath. Whether the traits are inherent or temporary, the fact remains that a difficult person's communications affect others negatively.

Compassion and empathy are the best way to deal with such an individual. You cannot understand what may have made them the way they are or the suffering inside their souls.

The only thing you can control is yourself and your response. Everyone deserves compassion, and you have the positive vibes to change it all around.

Check out 13 Steps to Get Along with Difficult People to gain more insight into forming appropriate responses.

And if you're looking for more articles about relationships, be sure to check out these blog posts:

Finally, if you want to identify YOUR personality type, then take one of these 11 personality tests to better understand what makes you tick.

Rain Story is an author and screenwriter. She is an alumna of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Kentucky. She earned two B.A.s and four years of graduate studies in literature, languages, and creative writing before personal tragedies pulled her away from her graduate work. She is also a Donaghey Scholar and fellow of the William G. Cooper, Jr. Honors Program in English.

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