7 behaviors of difficult people who have a heart of gold, according to psychology

We all assume that we can spot kindness a mile away…but the thing is, we often really can’t.

We have biases on top of our preferences, and we unconsciously discriminate fairly often, too. 

But the person who seems unfriendly can be a far kinder person than the person who’s always smiling.

And your “critic” may actually have your best interests at heart far more than your “supportive” BFF.

This just means that some people we judge as “difficult” can actually have a heart of gold!

How to spot them?

Here are 7 behaviors to look for.

1) They’re not “nice” but they pay extra attention to others

We live in a society where being polite and cheerful instantly earns kindness points.

And if you’re the opposite—say, you don’t sound so welcoming and you have resting b*tch face—people will automatically think you’re difficult.

While some of these “difficult” people may seem scary, many of them actually have a heart of gold.

How to tell?

Well, they give people their undivided attention.

According to psychology, attention and active listening has a profound impact on people and relationships. And the “difficult” but kind person knows this.

While the talkers win popularity contests, it’s the ones who actively listen and value your thoughts and feelings that are actually significantly enhancing relationship satisfaction. 

This was probably what French philosopher Simone Weil meant when she said  “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

2) They have rules, but they’re not set in stone

They set rules like “Don’t call me on weekends” or “No junk food in the house.”

And because they have these rules, people automatically think of them as “too rigid” and “difficult.”

But setting standards and setting boundaries isn’t a bad thing.

Most of all, advocating for one’s happiness isn’t selfish!

You can tell that someone has a heart of gold even if they set so many rules when they’re actually fine that you break them from time to time.

Let’s say you really have to call them that Saturday because you have a problem. They won’t just slap you with their “No calls on weekends policy”.

Of course they’ll answer your call and even rush to your side to help you.

3) They ask a lot of questions, but they give their full support once they’re convinced

Many of us don’t like people who ask a lot of questions because it often makes us feel like we’re being questioned, doubted, or misunderstood.

And so people who ask a lot of questions are often perceived as difficult Debbie Downers.

But really—what’s wrong with curiosity and a bit of skepticism?

Questions actually signal interest!

Working with nonprofits, I’ve come to appreciate skeptics.

For example, the skeptic who asked about our religious background, methodologies, and activities was the one who volunteered with us every single mission.

According to psychology, if you are able to answer a skeptic’s questions and concerns, most of them are very​​ open and welcoming to evidence.

You’d know that one is a genuinely kind skeptic when the moment they’re convinced, they won’t hesitate to help you.

They’re the ones who’d raise an eyebrow when a charity approaches them…but once they know enough about the cause, they’d donate a thousand bucks without batting an eyelash.

They’ll give you their time, energy, and expertise and even help you win over potential donors. 

4) They raise concerns, but only because they care

Everyone’s wary of the person who raises concerns. 

If that’s not bad enough, these people also raise their concerns in person, with other people around. In fact, you can’t help but think that they’re indeed just shaming you.

Trust me, they may be difficult on the surface, but they’re not as difficult as the passive-aggressive person who pretends everything’s alright but deep down, they’re marinating their anger.

The expression of  negative feelings, thoughts, and opinions is actually what good communication looks like and it’s essential for a healthy relationship.

How do you know they have a heart of gold?

If you can look beyond taking it personally, you might actually see that they’re helping you improve.

On a team, I’d rather have someone who raises concerns than a ‘yes man’ because I know that someone else will keep me from overlooking critical concerns.

And if they’re your friend, they raise concerns because they won’t let you fail miserably.

In other words, they truly care for you.

5) They’re tough on you, but they got your back

phrases you can use to handle difficult people in a firm but tactful way 7 behaviors of difficult people who have a heart of gold, according to psychology

Sometimes, due to trauma and other reasons, tough love is the only kind of love people know and how they safeguard their well-being and yours, too.

I once had a boss who watched me agonize over a project and only gave what I perceived as criticism.  

All the while I thought I was on my own but they had food delivered to make sure I’d eat.

And the day before the deadline, they were working with me to perfect it.

I realized that because I was new, they were giving me the time and space to work it out.

They will always be ‘difficult’ and never easy to please for me, but I know their heart is in the right place.

How do you know that they have a heart of gold? 

When they won’t let you crash on your own. 

They’re there for you even when they won’t do it all for you. 

They will let you struggle because life isn’t easy, but they won’t needlessly add onto it.

They’ll be very strict on you, but you know they still got your back in the end.

Of course, there’s limits to this. When they get verbally abusive and manipulative, that’s a different thing. 

6) They’re brutally honest, but they’ll help you come up with solutions

Some people say exactly what’s on their mind. They neither mince it nor add flowery words just to be nice.

But how do you differentiate the “brutally honest” jerks and the ones with the heart of gold?

According to CEO coach, author and TEDx speaker Kim Scott who coined Radical Candor,“They care personally, and challenge directly.”

They’d say “I think your house has serious design flaws!”

And then they’ll add “I can offer you my interior design service advice, no need to pay me.”

Rather than not shutting up for fear of offending someone, tell them what they need to know to be better off in the long run.

While many people say “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” it isn’t really useful nor productive especially if you work together. 

The person who practices radical candor will say, “I believe investing our resources here is a mistake…” and offers their insight without pushing that it’s the only version of truth.

They’ll say, “I noticed you misused this term at the meeting earlier, here’s what it actually means…” 

While it will make you cringe, doesn’t it feel better that unlike the other people who were probably talking about it behind your back, someone actually told you?

7) They appear aloof, but they actually care for everyone’s wellbeing

There are so many “nice” people when times are great, but few when you actually need them.

And there are so many “cold” and “difficult” people who seem like they don’t care but are always present when things get tough.

Sure, they may look like Anna Wintour or Cruella de Vil—and they likely detest hugs too— but they’re actually very concerned about the feelings and wellbeing of others.

According to psychology, we’re all a bit superficial and judgmental.

We judge people based on their appearances, and if a person looks standoffish, we automatically think they have despicable traits, too.

But genuine kindness is all about consideration of others well-being, not just being cordial.

Final thoughts

Unless you’re a people-pleaser, the chances that you’ll be perceived as difficult at one point or another is quite high.

But unless someone is severely lacking in empathy and has no concern for others’ well-being, being a “difficult person” isn’t actually a bad thing.

In the home, a parent who doesn’t always say “yes” sets boundaries for their children.

In the workplace, it maintains standards of competence and integrity.

So welcome the difficult people into your life, just as long as they come with a heart of gold, too!

Picture of Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash has years of experience writing relationship articles for single females looking for love. After being single for years with no hope of meeting Mr. Right, she finally managed to get married to the love of her life. Now that she’s settled down and happier than she’s ever been in her life, she's passionate about sharing all the wisdom she's learned over the journey. Pearl is also an accredited astrologer and publishes Hack Spirit's daily horoscope.

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