How Can I Protect Myself From My Family?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

Q. I am looking for some tips about how to protect myself emotionally when I see my family. I would like to know if you have any recommendations for insulating yourself in situations that you know will have a negative impact on your emotional/mental health. I find myself in such a situation at *every* family occasion with my father’s relatives. They are constantly fighting and doing terrible things to one another, including, but not limited to, refusing to attend the funeral of a cousin’s full-term stillborn child (because it is ridiculous to have a funeral for a baby that never lived), hurling objects at people’s faces while at an immediate family member’s wedding, forcing others to choose sides in every feud, as well as personal attacks (“you’re evil”). Additionally, every family occasion seems to bring to light some revelation that I wish I hadn’t known, such as my father, uncle, and grandfather’s unfaithfulness to their wives or that my sibling was an accident. Please note that these are all adults ages 30-90 with successful careers.

Further adding to the stress of these situations is that nearly everyone in my family is divorced (not surprising really when you consider what I mentioned above) — the men, including my father, uncles, and grandfather, are all remarried to younger women and enjoying cushy lives with fancy vacations, powerful jobs, and multiple homes, whereas the women, including my mother and grandmother, are struggling to make ends meet due to the burdens of being a single parent and the limitations to career prospects that come with that. This extends beyond my immediate family to more distant cousins and other relatives and is just generally depressing to be around.

Do you have any advice for how I can better handle the emotional trauma I seem to experience at every birthday, holiday, or other celebration? I find these so upsetting that I usually cry for an hour or more once I get home and away from everyone. I always feel better after some time apart from them, but it starts over again every time I see them, and when I’m stuck seeing them multiple times in a short period it pushes me very close to the edge.

Aside from my family, I’m a generally happy young adult with good friends and a good job. I was in therapy briefly in college, but I found it too depressing to keep talking about my family so I stopped. I’m not interested in seeing a therapist right now, although I’m sure I will need to eventually. I’m hoping that instead you can give me some tips about how to deal with this in the short term.

Please do not suggest that I sit everyone down for a family meeting or something of that sort — what I have described is very much an established pattern of behavior for all parties involved and has been so for years and years before I was even born. They each believe they are doing what any reasonable person would do, and suggesting otherwise would not be to my benefit.

I know you that you receive more requests than you are able to respond to, but I would really appreciate if you would take the time to help me.

If you decide to post this (and I hope you do) please take out or alter the references to specific family members and events — I would be surprised if the details I mentioned could apply to any family other than my own. Thank you in advance.

A. You’re welcome, in advance. Just to be clear, I would never suggest that you have a meeting with your family regarding these matters. I, like you, recognize that their patterns of behavior are long-standing and ingrained and that trying to talk to them about altering their behavior would not only be a waste of time but it would likely be insulting. As you said, they believe what they are doing is what any other person would do and to suggest otherwise might be seen as offensive. You were correct when you thought that was a bad idea.

The tips I have for you are more cerebral, cognitive and even emotional. Even though you seem to recognize that your family is not going to change, their behavior still upsets you. What this may mean is that there is a discrepancy between what you recognize intellectually about your family situation and what you emotionally know to be true them.

Maybe at some level, you still expect your family to be different and when they are not you are disappointed and this upsets you. Perhaps you become upset because you are grieving over how you think your family “should be” or understandably, how you wish they could be.

We have already established that there may be nothing that you can do to change your family and the way they behave but what you can change is the way you react to them. Your reaction is where you should focus your energy.

How you change your reaction to your family is that you understand and become fully aware that your family is “who they are” and that nothing can change this. Yes, you may wish your family situation was different but it is not. Maybe someday when you have a family of your own things will be different and much more pleasant but for now this is your situation. Once you can fully come to terms with who they are, that they are not going to change, and you recognize that both intellectually and emotionally, you may stop becoming upset after each family event.

If it makes you feel any better, many people have similar family situations. They too wish their family life could be different. As the adage goes: you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. I would alter that slightly to say: you can’t choose your family but you can choose your reaction to them. Thanks for writing.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 13 Oct 2008

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2008). How Can I Protect Myself From My Family?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 28, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/10/13/how-can-i-protect-myself-from-my-family/