How to Deal with Difficult Family Members
Everybody has a difficult family member. It could be a toxic mother-in-law, a domineering father, a manipulative cousin, or even your own bratty child. But no matter who they are, they know how to push your buttons and just drive you crazy.
The bad news is, you can’t get rid of these people completely; they are family. The good news is, learning to deal with difficult people is a considerable advantage in life, and can be valuable in any number of situations. So here are a few things to keep in mind.
They are who they are.
Remember that myth about the scorpion and the frog? A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across the river. The frog refuses at first, but the scorpion reassures him that he won’t sting him, so the frog agrees. Halfway through the river the scorpion stings the frog, and as they’re both drowning, the frog asks, “Why did you do this? Now we’re both going to die.”
“I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature,” the scorpion replies.
The moral of the story is, people are who they are. You can’t expect someone with, say, a narcissistic personality disorder to act with empathy and kindness. You can’t expect a scorpion not to sting, even if it hurts itself.
Difficult family members are notorious for their inability to self-reflect and admit when they’re wrong. Their game is to blame everyone else, so be a smart frog. Don’t expect of them more than they are capable of, and you won’t be disappointed or hurt.
It’s not about you.
This advice is difficult to follow when you’re dealing with family — everything seems personal. But the truth is it’s not about you.
In his classic, The Four Agreements Don Miguel Ruiz says:
Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in.
There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.
Mastering the exquisite art of not taking it personally is a lifelong journey, but it’s worth taking. Start by reminding yourself that what people do and say about you is the product of who they are, not who you are.
Don’t fall into the guilt trap.
Using guilt is a form of emotional abuse, one that aims to control another individual by manipulating their emotions.
What difficult family members do so well is make you feel guilty for something you did or didn’t do. The implication is that you’re a bad person if you don’t do something they ask, or that you don’t care about the family. Don’t fall for it. If you’re starting to feel like you’re being lured into a guilt trap, calmly tell them that you don’t appreciate being emotionally manipulated, and you won’t tolerate it from anyone. Manipulators don’t like being called out on their dirty tricks. So now they’re on the defensive.
If they’re continuing with the guilt trip, reiterate that you can’t do what they’re asking you to do this time, and that you need them to respect your decisions.
Look for the positive.
For some reason, we pay way more attention to the behavior of difficult family members versus the ones we like and get along with, and we spend an appalling amount of time trying to understand the reasons why certain people don’t like us, as if there is an answer that can possibly be satisfying. In other words, we tend to ignore the positive and dwell on the negative.
The truth is, even the most eventful family gatherings can’t be all bad. As tempting as it is to fall into a victim state, don’t let someone ruin your mood and overshadow all the positive experiences you’ve had with your family. As the law of attraction states, “You draw into your life whatever you focus on.” So shift your attention to the sunny side.
Be direct, calm and assertive.
If you decide to confront a difficult family member, be direct and true to yourself. Stick to the facts and use “I” statements (i.e., “I feel like my words don’t matter to you when you constantly interrupt me” or “I don’t appreciate when you make my decisions for me”).
Remember: manipulative people are not known for their empathy. They will try to confuse you, go on the offensive, or assume the role of a victim — a familiar disguise that’s like second skin to them. Stay calm, stay polite, but assertive. Don’t let them bully you into submission. Your goal is to be honest about your feelings, and to make it clear that you won’t tolerate certain behaviors.
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Zakinov, L. (2018). How to Deal with Difficult Family Members. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-difficult-family-members/