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5 Tips to Deal With Difficult Family Members

Summer is here, school will be out soon, and perhaps you are planning a family vacation.  You want to go on vacation, but you remember all too well what happened last year.   You came back from vacation feeling like you needed another vacation!  How? Why?  Perhaps your grandmother couldn’t resist finding every opportunity possible to remind you that you look just like your no good father, or your cousin told you that you always mess everything up for everyone else, or there was an entire day where no one wanted to talk to you or spend time with you and you still cooked a 3 course meal that night for them which they didn’t even appreciate.  Even when surrounded by family you still felt utterly alone.  Well, you probably spent the entire time on your last vacation being angry, defensive, hurt and feeling like you were a child again who had no control.  There is a strong possibility that you could be dealing with unhealthy loyalty and that you are responding to unresolved issues.  To many the concept of loyalty means only something positive and yes, loyalty can be positive and healthy.  However, unhealthy loyalty also exists and thrives at that.  So how does unhealthy loyalty come about and who is dealing with it?

We can be loyal to people, country, places, things, ect.  and loyalty is considered to be a devotion to these.  If you grew up with dysfunction around you, trauma, abuse or neglect, no matter how little or how much, you are at risk for developing unhealthy loyalty.  The formation of unhealthy loyalty is done through control and force and is not a conscious choice you make.  It is fostered by the unhealthy people around you using threats, put downs, isolation, secrets, lies, distortion of reality and/or perceptions and requirements. This produces dependency in people which later will manifest itself as codependency.  This then results in disbelief in the world, in Self and in other people and you may feel a constant sense of emptiness, have lack of emotion, loneliness, numbness.  Therefore, you are not able to validate yourself and you need and seek external validation and you end up always seeking to fulfill other’s expectations.  You probably also engage in self sabotaging behaviors ranging from not completing things you start to entering and staying in relationships you don’t want to be in to putting yourself in potentially harmful or obviously harmful situations. You more than likely judge yourself very harshly without realizing that these judgments aren’t even yours, they were taught to you.

When you go on vacation with family or others for that matter, you are constantly responding to whatever unhealthy loyalties you have.  Here are 6 tips to help you so you don’t have to feel like your family is making you crazy.

  1. It’s not about you.  I know, it sure feels that way, but it isn’t.  When your family starts questioning your choice of career, when they disapprove of your choice of partner, when they don’t appreciate what you do for them, when they make judging remarks about the way you look or behave…. that’s about them! They all choose their behaviors and their behaviors are a direct result of their own experiences and their worldview which you had nothing to do with creating. Don’t take things so personally, they are looking for a specific reaction from you; if they no longer get it they move on.
  2. Work on accepting them as they are.  This is not easy to do.  You can’t make other people change; they have to want to change.  So, you need to change your expectations of them or you will be forever frustrated.  If you are able to accept them as they are and have realistic expectations of them you will feel calmer on the inside.  Remember too, that acceptance does not mean that you agree with their behavior or that you have to like it; it only means that you no longer expect them to be different than they are.
  3. Pick your battles.  You may have an endless laundry list regarding your family and what is bothering you, but while on vacation is probably not the best time to address all of them.  Of course you need to set and maintain healthy boundaries and stand up for yourself when you need to or remove yourself from the situation.  Remind yourself that vacation time is temporary and do the best you can to take the high road by letting some of the things go.  So stop and think before speaking.  If everyone would just wait a couple of seconds before spewing toxic emotions and impulsive comments out, tons of conflict could be avoided.  Your neurons make that essential leap from the amygdale (or fear center of the brain) in those seconds that you pause; this processes stimuli to the more evolved and sophisticated part of your brain and you will respond differently.  This allows you to not add to an already compromised situation.
  4. Have a plan and know what triggers you.  It is important to anticipate your own reactions to your family and specific situations.  For the most part you will know how each family member behaves and what situations might come up.  So practice how you would like to respond, come up with a many scenarios as you can think of that could be problematic and play them out.  This will help you feel in control.
  5. Allow time to recover.  You may have been fairly successful in setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, picking your battles, letting things go, not reacting to things that are not about you and working on acceptance, but you can still come back from your time with family feeling deflated and hurt.  You are human and that is normal!  Just because you anticipate what might happen and prepare yourself for it doesn’t mean that you won’t feel anything.  When people are mean to you, it still hurts.  So be sure to build in some time for yourself when you come home from vacation.

Whether you are spending an evening, a few days or a week with your family you can set yourself up for success or failure.  If you find that you just can’t seem to adapt these 5 tips you may want to seriously consider finding a professional who can help you identify your loyalties and work on them.  You don’t have to continue living according to unhealthy loyalty and expectations.

Susanne R. Mealer, LCSW, CHt