Dealing with Difficult Family MembersToday we are talking about how to deal with difficult family members. More specifically, we’re talking about what to do when you’re in a situation where you’re trying to make some real changes in your life and it’s causing serious friction with other members of your family.

Some of the most stressful situations we find ourselves in tend to revolve around our relationships with family. No one seems to be able to push our buttons like our family members can. These are the people for whom most of us have been conditioned to show unquestioning loyalty towards. So, when they hurt us, we really tend to feel that pain particularly deeply. We take it very personally, and there is a lot of resentment and feelings of betrayal in there, too.


Where the tension comes from

Now, when you get to that time and place in your life when you start taking real steps towards creating the kind of life that YOU really want, rather than just living your life according to the wishes and expectations of your family, and this can happen at any age, by the way – some people hit that stage when they are teenagers, and some of us don’t get there until much later in life – but when you do get to that stage and start running your life and making decisions from the perspective of what’s best for you, then that tends to get the family up in arms. Especially if you’ve always been the kind of person to listen to the advice and direction of your family, and have always done what you’re told.

When you start standing up for yourself and making your own choices, it’s interpreted as kind of a threat, so a lot of the tension and conflict that you find yourself in, comes from that place of the other person feeling threatened. I’ve talked about this sort of thing before on the blog – I wrote an article awhile back about negative reactions to personal growth, and I talked about how when you start making changes in your own life, that has ripple effects in the lives of the people around you, and that can be downright scary for those other people, and fear can often be a trigger for unpleasant behaviours from people.

3 Strategies for dealing with difficult family members

So, how do you deal with it? Well, the first thing to remember is that you can’t change other people. You can only change yourself. So that’s where you’re going to focus your efforts for coping with your difficult family members – not on them, but on you.

This doesn’t mean that you have to just learn to accept unacceptable behaviour from them. You can’t just squash your needs and accept psychological abuse or domineering behaviour from someone else, because that’s just going to lead to resentment, it’s not good for you, and in the long run it’s not good for your difficult family members either.

So I’ve got three strategies today to help you out with this kind of situation…

1. Reconnect with your touchstones

So my first suggestion is that you take some to really reconnect with what’s important to you. What are your personal values, touchstones or guiding life principles? Not the ones you think you should have, or the ones the rest of your family has, but your personal touchstones. What’s important to you? Now ask yourself if these touchstones are in line with those your family has. Odds are, they don’t. Not anymore.

And you know what? That’s OK. You are allowed to grow. You are allowed to change. You have the right to evolve as an individual. And you have the right to live your life according to your own values. Just because you now have different views and beliefs than your family, does not mean that your views are wrong or any less important than your family’s.

The other thing to remember here is that sometimes people actually do outgrow the family they were born into. It doesn’t mean that you have to cut off ties from them. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore. It doesn’t mean that you can’t see them. But it does mean that you don’t have to maintain a close relationship to them anymore out of some misplaced sense of duty, especially if your relationship with them has become something that is more harmful to you than helpful. You don’t have to be friends with your relatives. Yes, you can still lend a hand when someone needs help, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen to them berate you on the phone or in person every day.

I don’t care about whose DNA has recombined with whose. When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching; they are your family. ~Jim Butcher

Sometimes you need to find your own family and create new connections with people who are on the same page as you; people who share the same values and touchstones that you do and who are working towards their own dreams and goals. These are the people who will understand you and support you, and who will expect and deserve the same from you. Sometimes family becomes who choose rather than who you were born with.

Set your boundaries and enforce them

The next thing to do is set your boundaries and make sure you enforce them. If you have a family member who always sets your teeth on edge, ask yourself if you would put up with their behaviour if it was coming from a non-family member. If the answer is “no”, then you shouldn’t be putting up with it from family, either. No one has the right to be mean and cruel to you, just as you don’t have the right to be mean and cruel to others. If you’re on the receiving end of bad behaviour, it’s because you’re allowing it. So put a stop to it.

If your mother is always dropping by “for coffee” and turning her visits into an excuse to tell you how disappointed she is in you, and how you should have gone to law school when you had the chance, and now you’ll never amount to anything, and why couldn’t you be more like your brother Joe who went to the “right” school and got the “right” job, then you have to put a stop to it. Now.

The next time your mother comes over, make it clear that the conversation is going to centre on the garden, or the kids’ latest artistic masterpiece, or your mother’s quilting circle or any other topic, but that your personal life and career choices are off limits. If she doesn’t comply with your request, don’t get sucked into things – change the topic yourself. If that doesn’t work, then tell her politely, but firmly, that you are not going to discuss it with her and that if she can’t think of anything else to talk about today then perhaps she could come back another day.

“But it’s my mom”, you’re saying “I can’t just toss her out of my house!” Yes, as a matter of fact, you can. And if she can’t behave in a civilized manner, then you should. You can still do it nicely, of course. Thank her, ever so graciously, for coming over, tell her it was lovely to see her again, and then escort her with a smile to her car. But make it clear that the visit is over. Do that every time she crosses the line when she is in your house and eventually she’ll learn that you mean what you say and won’t tolerate that kind of behaviour any longer.

Are you going to get shit from other family members over it? Probably. If so, then toss them out, too, and start screening your calls. If you want to put an end to being treated badly, then you have to step up and make it clear that you have standards as to how you will allow yourself to be treated. Make it clear that abusive behaviour of any kind is not going to be tolerated. And if people aren’t going to live up to those standards, then they won’t be welcome in your life.

Derail the guilt trip before it starts

Obviously, if you start to stand up for yourself, you’re going to get a backlash. You’re making waves and people aren’t going to like it. How dare you grow a spine at this stage of the game! How dare you act as if you have feelings and needs of your own! How dare you stop doing what you’re told and think you have the right to live your own life!

And the first thing you’re going to be subjected to after the initial anger wears off is the guilt trip, that classic manipulative technique and favourite of difficult family members world-wide. It tends to sound something like this:

  • “How could you do this to me? I just want what’s best for you.”
  • “You don’t love me… you never did. You’re so ungrateful.”
  • “You’re breaking mom’s heart! How can you be so selfish?!”
  • “After everything I’ve done for you! I gave up everything so you could have a good life!”
  • “You’ve always gotten all the breaks in life! You’ve never given me anything! Don’t I deserve to get a break now and then, too?”

If they resort to this kind of thing, and they will, then look them in the eye and ask them point-blank: “Are you trying to make me feel guilty?” It’ll go around in circle of course. They’ll say “no” and then come back from another angle with a new attempt at the guilt trip. Each time, respond with something along the lines of “If you’d like to discuss this in a more mature manner without trying to manipulate me with guilt, I’m open to that.” But flat out refuse to get sucked into feeling guilty. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You have the right to live your life your way.

Summing it up

The upshot of this whole thing is that your life is your life. You are the only one who gets to choose how that life is going to be lived. You are the only one who gets to decide which path you’re going to follow and what that journey is going to look like. You decide what your values are. You decide what your touchstones are. You decide the kind of people you want to have in your life. And the kind of people you don’t want to have in your life.

Dealing with difficult family members can be emotionally draining, and is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But standing up for your own rights and being true to who you really are is a necessary part of the journey. The people around you may not like all your changes, but no one, not even your family, has the right to tell you to stop growing. And change is part-and-parcel of growth; it’s part of the process of becoming who you are; it’s part of life. Without growth there is stagnation. You will never be happy by denying who and what you are, by holding back on your biggest dreams, by stifling your natural inclination to flourish and become all that you can. Stand up for yourself. And stand up for your dreams. You deserve it.

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