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How to Deal with Difficult Family

by Debbie Mandel

We choose our friends, or they choose us, but family is a hand-me-down. If we outgrow friendships, or choose to end them because they have turned toxic, even though the process is difficult, we close those doors and move on with our lives. However, how do we handle family members who are negative, critical, unfeeling and domineering? After all, for some of us this is the only family we have!

An only child looks with wondrous eyes at families who have siblings. In contrast, some siblings wish that they were only children. Sometimes siblings perceive the other as playing the villainous Cain to the innocent Abel. A drastic response would be to cut all ties to the offending relationship. While that might yield sweet revenge for the moment, eventually Cain would be missed; there would be a void in the heart for that missing genetic link. Relationships keep us alive and give us meaning. Even though that relative might be a thorn in your side, he or she could serve as a stimulus for growth.

Relatives push our buttons. They awaken the old childhood patterns which linger into midlife and even our golden years. What power the same old story has over our self-esteem, our hopes and dreams and our ability to move forward! One would think that by now we would recognize the familiar plot and character development and not play the same, limiting role! Here is how to get along with Cain to create a more peaceful ending:

  • What you see is what you get! Therefore change what you see. Perceive the good side of your family member. Focus on the redeeming quality. Don’t plan on changing anyone. Instead change your own actions and reactions.
  • View his or her shortcomings with compassion. You would if it were someone else’s family. For example, if a relative is trying to control you, perhaps the reason is because she feels like she has no control in her life.
  • Think about who you are really angry at - does your relative mirror a quality in yourself that you don’t like? Does the criticism contain a grain of truth? Take an honest inventory. Work on your internal self to be better.
  • Most of the time you are angry at a family member because you have compromised your own true feelings, or did something you didn’t want to do in the first place. You fell right into that same old pattern and are now angry at yourself for doing so. Next time, don’t commit to what you don’t want to do. Be honest and express what’s in your heart.
  • Meet your family member in a setting that is neutral, comfortable for you. For example, if a brother irritates you by keeping you waiting for hours, then don’t meet him in a restaurant or museum; instead have him come to your place where you can relax or be busy doing other things until he arrives.
  • If you are experiencing a painful time in your life and your sister does not seem to care or show you any empathy, then be there for yourself! Be your own best friend. Perhaps, your sister is in denial about your crisis, or has created a wall around herself not to feel because she feels too deeply. Accept the relationship as is and seek help from other sources: positive friends or support groups.
  • If you feel that a family member trivializes you and is condescending, respond with dignity, hold your head up high and make eye contact. Act as if… Find your center and keep your balance. If you need to explode, leave the room and go to the bathroom. Take five minutes to take deep breaths, relax your heart and think more clearly. No one can reduce your self-esteem, but you. Similarly all the compliments in the world won’t validate you if you don’t know who you are and what you offer. Redirect the conversation to a more interesting topic or anecdote. Come prepared with a magazine, photo, or CD. Be prepared!

Debbie Mandel, MA is the author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-reduction specialist, motivational speaker, a personal trainer and mind/body lecturer. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WHLI 1100AM in New York City , produces a weekly wellness newsletter, and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: