When dealing with difficult people, being kind means being kind to yourself.

For as much as I lost my sense of self when I was married, I never lost sight of my most closely held personal values of honesty, courage, and kindness. In fact, I should probably thank my ex-husband for this: by continually putting me in the position of having to choose between him and my values, he inadvertently helped clarify just how important they are to me.

Now that we are separated, our contact is limited to brief discussions about our son. There isn’t much opportunity for him to test my commitments to honesty and courage during these conversations, but he manages to find a way to test my kindness every time.

These discussions usually begin productively, meaning that he sticks to the child-related topic we agreed to talk about. There is no reason for us to discuss other things. But predictably, as soon as he has a chance, he’ll switch – rather abruptly – to bullying. “Thanks for switching days,” might transition directly into, “Why are you driving us both to financial ruin?”

Oh, yes, my ex-husband tends towards melodrama, and money is a sensitive topic for him. He doesn’t want me to get a penny of the significant appreciation in the family home and calls my legal efforts to do so, “driving us both to financial ruin.” It’s at this point that I know that the productive part of the conversation has reached a close. No matter what I say back to him, he’s just going to push and bully and push some more. It’s his M.O.

The first few times he did this, I let him. I didn’t want to stay on the phone call after that point, but I didn’t know how to end the conversation. I’d try to steer the conversation back on topic. I’d point out that the conversation was no longer productive. But once my ex-husband starts bullying me there is no stopping him.

He’d eventually get it out of his system and hang up, probably feeling pretty good about himself. But I was left feeling terrible. I felt that I was allowing him to continue to abuse me, I felt powerless to stop it, and I felt conflicted. I wanted to be kind, but my interpretation of kindness – not hanging up – felt very unkind towards myself.

It was my therapist who pointed out that in these moments, showing kindness doesn’t mean kindness towards my ex-husband – it means kindness towards myself. Once she gave me permission to do this — I still need permission to put myself first; it’s something I’m working on — interactions with my ex became so much easier. While the idea of showing him kindness created all sorts of inner conflict for me, the idea of showing kindness to myself turned out to be simple.

I put this idea into practice the next time I talked to my ex-husband. As soon as he made the switch from co-parent to abusive ex-spouse I interrupted: “Hey – it seems like we’re done talking about — our son — so I’m going to let you go. Enjoy the rest of your day and we’ll talk soon.” Click. That’s it. No discussion. No giving him an opportunity to respond. It felt weird the first time when I did, but I got used to it ;-)

By the way, my therapist’s advice that “When you don’t know what else to do, be kind to yourself” applies to everyone – I just used it yesterday, in fact. A friend of mine apologized over text for a lame thing he did, and I didn’t text back. This was hard for me – it was passive on my part (which goes against personal value #4: be direct), and I didn’t feel kind. But this friend has hurt me time and time again, and I felt like texting back was just giving him more power to hurt me again. So I remained silent because silence was what being kind to myself looked like.