Dealing with people’s unhealthy nonsense can be draining and exhausting — I really get it.
One of the hardest things to do is setting boundaries, and maintaining them, especially when managing a relationship with someone who can be manipulative, controlling, abusive, toxic, or unempathetic.
While it would be nice to have more of an ability to simply remove such folks from our lives, sometimes it is impossible to do so — the in-law you can’t get rid of, the smarmy coworker you’re forced to be on a team with, the neighbor who continually complains to you about all of life’s woes — yes, even them. You’re gonna deal with these people, and see them around, so how can we deal with it??
An important suggestion when dealing with difficult people is the grey rock method, so named after boring, unremarkable grey rocks because its purpose is for the practitioner to also portray themselves as — boring and unremarkable, yes, we’re doing this!
Grey rocking, as we call it, involves not folding oneself up as an origami piece to overaccommodate someone else (sound familiar?), but rather, continuing to take up space while also giving as little of a reaction as possible.
This means that when Brad tries to strike up a conversation at the copier about the team drama that’s unfolding, you play it cool, and act uninterested. Grey rocking is great for managing and dealing with people who thrive on drama, because we’re going to stop feeding them. Grey rocking means cosplaying as the most boring person in the room, so as to avoid the spotlight and attention of a toxic person attempting to enmesh you in said drama.
“Did you hear about what Matt and Roxanne were up to last night?”
“No, I mean, it’s crazy, that they’re doing this even though we all work together, right?”
“I guess so.”
“What do you think of it all?”
“What? Oh, sorry. I guess I don’t have an opinion on them either way.”
This technique is also useful for managing toxic and manipulative people. When Aunt Sheila tries to bait you into having a conversation about politics that will make you feel bad and look bad in front of the family, giving her as little as possible to work with forces her to move on from you as a target.
“But then all this with the vaccines! Uncle Greg was telling me you’re one of those people that believes xyz??”
“Nah, I guess I don’t really care about politics.”
“Well what have you made of the way these people are talking about race lately?”
“Huh, I guess I haven’t thought of it much.”
When dealing with a person like a parent or ex who may have a history of manipulation used against you, or things held over your head, changing the tune with grey rocking can help you to get back in the driver’s seat of your life, and stop fearing others’ over-the-top reactions to you simply living your own life or having your own reactions. That is to say, we are not suppressing who we really are around others, rather, we are choosing how much we are allowing others in to our own personal lives. Setting boundaries about what you choose to share with others is empowering. Deciding who gets to know the “real” you and all their associated reactions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, is within your grasp to control and manage.
“Hey, I know you said you didn’t want to talk anymore, but I am still worried about you. You always made me worried, because I’m afraid of you hurting yourself. You were always a little clumsy and young at heart. How have you been since we last spoke?”
(I mean, you could also ignore this, but if you must respond…)
“Hey. I’ve been fine. No need to reach out, thanks.”
It is OK to get used to offering nothing to toxic people in your life: not a reaction, not information, not an update. It is OK to have boundaries around who you are and your personal space. And it is OK to control personal information about your life. It is OK to be vague.
You can follow through with your body language too. Absent eye contact, boring facial expression, emotionless tone, all are on the table to give the most uninteresting response to a person that might thrive on drama or use your own words or opinions against you in some way. Look at your phone, glance across the room, don’t look up from your computer screen while still typing as you release your boring-ass “Hmm.” when said person asks you how you feel about a controversial new work policy. Keep your responses short, boring, and vague.
Disengaging with others is hard. It’s OK for this to feel difficult, and to feel guilty for not providing others with what they want. Noticing and honoring these feelings can be helpful as a step on the way of moving forward from them.
Feeling guilty for not giving to others that are difficult to manage might be a sign that you practicing grey rocking is a helpful and useful endeavor, in fact. Giving less to others that take from you, harm you, or stress you out can be helpful, despite the initial (or continuing) stress. By saving your emotional energy and attention for other tasks (read: those important to you), you reinvigorate your own life while also deterring and disengaging from manipulative or toxic people in your life.
That said, recall that grey rocking is a technique to use when dealing with a person you’d rather not. It’s OK to continue living your vibrant life full of opinions, thoughts, and emotions, full communication and expression — just not in the wake of folks that are tough to deal with. We’re not advocating for a total lifestyle change where you just dress in grey tones and never speak your mind again — just that, in certain moments of stress, and with certain stressful or toxic audiences, we may camouflage into the environment so that they may move forward from you to another, more appealing target (or ideally, learn that their behavior is not great and change and adapt it — but hey, our job here is just self-preservation, not fixing other people).