Family. Love them or love them not, there’s often a limit to what you can do with the difficult ones. You can’t live with them and you can’t make them join the circus. When there’s a lifetime of emotional investment involved, it’s likely that any response will hurt and will require a huge push, whether it’s walking away or fighting for the relationship.
Even if you decide that the price of being in the relationship is too high, it’s not always easy to leave. Sometimes it’s just not an option. Whether you’re on your way out or bracing for more, here are some ways to protect yourself from the ones who scrape you:
Don’t let anyone else’s behaviour change who you are.
Be dignified. Be brilliant. Be kind. Don’t let anyone reduce the best of you.
Make it clear this isn’t personal.
Insecurity is at the heart of a lot of broken relationships. Insecure people will feel attacked even when no attack is made. If this is a relationship you care about, do whatever you can to help the other person feel safe and secure. Insecurity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are insecure will often respond to the world as though it’s going to hurt them. They’ll be cold, they’ll judge, they’ll take the first strike – all to protect themselves. In response, the world walks away, confirming the insecure person’s view that the world just isn’t safe.
Show them you’re different. Let them know that you don’t mean anything personally, that you appreciate their point of view and that you want to understand how they feel. (You might need to say it a few times!) Whatever you do, don’t blame. If you need to point out something they’re doing wrong, end it by letting them know that the relationship is important to you and you want to work on it. The more positive you can be the better: ‘Every time I see you, you’re pointing out something else you don’t like about me. I really want to have a good relationship with you but it’s really hard when I feel like everything I do is judged harshly by you. Can we try and do things a little differently?’
Now remind yourself not to take it personally.
People will judge you, hurt you, put you down and try to break you – and most often, this will have nothing at all to do with you.
You don’t have to stay around and you don’t have to invest, but if leaving the relationship isn’t an option, seeing someone’s behaviour for what it is – a defence against a world that has hurt them once too many times – will help to protect you from the pain that comes from taking things personally.
Difficult people weren’t born that way. Generally the way they are responding to you is the way they have learned to respond to the world to keep themselves safe. It might be an ‘adversarial’ ‘I’ll get you before you get me,’ response. It might stem from having to control everything in their environment because they’ve learnt (somehow) that unpredictability isn’t safe. Perhaps they have no idea of their impact on people and all they know is that relationships seem to fall like broken toy soldiers around them. Just because it’s painfully clear to you what they do, doesn’t mean it is to them.
There may be little you can do to change the relationship, but you might just be able to change the way it affects you. Feeling compassion is important because of the way it changes things for you. Compassion is an empowering choice you can make when you feel like you don’t have any choice at all.
Hold the space. For them and for you.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for a relationship you care about is to hold steady and give the other person time and space to work out whatever it is they’re going through – while you stand still beside them. This is different to the space people give when they stay away for a while.
Let the person know that you’re not going anywhere, if that’s what they want, and that there doesn’t need to be any resolution for the moment. Do this without judging or criticising. It’s so difficult to be in an uncertain relationship but sometimes that’s exactly what the relationship needs – time to work through the uncertainty without fear of losing the relationship. There’s no need to hurry a relationship worth fighting for.
Accept what is.
One of the greatest sources of unhappiness is the chasm between what we want and what we have. The gap left behind by a family member who hurts you can be immense. What makes it worse is that the pain is often recurring, hitting you every time you’re with them. Who knows why some people have amazing families and some have families that drain them, but not everything makes sense. You don’t deserve a difficult relationship, but don’t allow yourself to be ruined by that. Acknowledge what it is, let go of what it isn’t, and flourish despite it.
You don’t need to convince anyone.
You are not here to win anyone’s approval. None of us are. Run the race you want to run. You don’t need to convince anyone of your reasons, your direction, or why you’re telling some people get out of your way. Just go around them – it’s much easier. That you are silent, still and choose not to engage does not mean they’re right. It means you just don’t have to prove anything anymore. Because you don’t.
It’s okay not to be with them.
They may be your family, but you don’t have to have a relationship with anyone you don’t want to. If it feels too painful, explore what you’re getting out of the relationship by staying. If you choose to have a relationship anyway, let that be a testament to the capacity you have to make your own decisions and act accordingly. Change the way you look at it. If you have to maintain contact, let this be your decision made in strength, not in defeat. Own the decision because it was the best thing to do for you, not because someone else decided it was the decision that needed to be made.
Acknowledge their feelings, but don’t buy into them.
Acknowledging how somebody feels doesn’t mean you agree with them. Saying something as simple as, ‘I understand you’re really angry but I see things differently to you,’ or, ‘I know that’s how you see it and I have no interest in changing that. I have a different view,’ is a way to show that you’ve heard. Letting people know you’ve seen them and heard them is so powerful. Doing it and standing your ground without getting upset is even more so.
Set your boundaries. And protect them fiercely.
We teach people how to treat us. Imagine a visual boundary around yourself. You’ll feel when it’s being stepped over. Your skin might bristle, your chest might ache – it’s different for everyone but get to know what it feels like for you. When it happens, let the other person know. They might not care at all, or they might have no idea they’ve had that impact. If your boundary isn’t respected, walk away until it feels as though it’s been reset. Explain what you’ll tolerate and what you’ll do when that doesn’t happen. ‘I really want us to talk about this but if you’re going to scream at me, I’m going to walk away until you’re ready o stop,’ or, ‘I really want us to work through this but if you just keep telling me that I’m not good enough, I’m going to hang up the phone.’
Is there anything you can do differently?
You might be dealing with the most difficult person in the world, but that doesn’t have to stop you from being open to the things you might be able to change about yourself. Is there any truth at all in what that person is saying? Is there anything you’re doing that’s contributing to the problem? This isn’t about winning or losing but about honesty, learning and growth. Nobody is perfect – thankfully – and the best people to be around are the ones who are constantly open to their impact and their contribution to relationships, good or bad. That doesn’t mean you have to take the blame for the mess, but this might be an opportunity for your own wisdom to flourish. What can you learn from the situation? What can you learn from them? Nobody is all bad or all good. Take advantage of the opportunity. Focus on what you can learn. Ditch the rest.
Leave with love
This is important. If you walk away from family don’t let the final words be angry ones. You never know what the future holds. However angry or hurt you are, death has a way of bringing up guilt and regret in the cleanest of relationships and forever is a long time not to have resolution. Anger is the one emotion that’s never pure. It’s always protecting another, more vulnerable one. Some common ones are fear, grief, insecurity, confusion. Tap into that and speak from there. That way, when you walk away, you’re much more likely to feel as though nothing has been left unsaid. Just because a relationship is ending, doesn’t mean it has to end angry. You don’t want to leave room for regret. Leave it with strength, dignity and love because that’s who you are. Trust me on this.
There will always be those whose love and approval comes abundantly and easily. They’re the keepers. As for the others, if the fight leaves you bruised, you’d have to question whether the relationship is worth it.
There will always be people who try to dim you. Sometimes this will be intentional and sometimes they will have no idea. You can’t change what people do but you can keep yourself safe and strong, just as you deserve to be.