I was talking with a friend this week who was telling me about some encounters with her mother.
My friend is one of the kindest, most loving, self-aware people on the planet. But her mother treats her atrociously. I can’t get over how anyone who knows my friend could treat her poorly, but dang — her own mom??!!
Of course it is extremely painful for my friend. She has spent a lifetime trying to win her mother’s love and approval, but her efforts are consistently met with coldness and disapproval.
I have another friend whose father had a borderline mental illness. He was sane enough that he appeared “normal” — but he really had the emotional maturity of a teenager. He was manipulative, self-absorbed, and often inappropriate. My friend could barely stand to be in his presence.
My own father (now deceased) could be a very difficult person. He had very poor relational skills, resorted to passive aggressive behaviors, and couldn’t communicate his feelings well. Sometimes he resorted to anger and stomping around the house in a grown-up version of a toddler tantrum.
As a teenager and young adult, I couldn’t understand why there was such a disconnect between us and why our relationship was so superficial. Trying to connect with him was like jumping in a pool with only 6 inches of water.
I know there must have been more in there, but God love him, he couldn’t express it, and neither myself, my siblings, nor my mother could reach it.
I’m sure as you’re reading, you’re thinking about people in your own family who fall on the spectrum of difficult. They can be just plain mean and nasty or somewhere else on the scale of disagreeable due to low emotional intelligence, poor self-esteem, bad upbringing, or just a wanky or narcissistic personality type.
And of course, I don’t need to tell you that when your family member behaves this way with you, it has very little (or more likely nothing) to do with you personally. It’s all about them, who they are, their past experiences, their unmet needs, their inability to communicate in healthy ways, their fears, etc.
Intellectually, that’s all fine and good. But if that difficult person is your mother, your father, your sibling, your child, or God forbid, your spouse, it’s hard to just remember it’s all about them and calmly let it roll of your back.
We have far too much emotional investment and history with these people to be able to disengage without being deeply wounded in the process. And sadly, these relationships tend to bring out the worst in us, regardless of how evolved and self-aware we might be.
We have far too much emotional investment and history with these people to be able to disengage without being deeply wounded in the process.
I mean really, if your own mother doesn’t show you love or treats you like a child when you’re 45 or tries to sabotage you in some way — how can you not want to fall on the floor in a heap and cry your eyes out?
Or if your father is still disappointed in you because you didn’t live up to his expectations or can’t show you an ounce of tenderness or never has any time or interest in your life, why wouldn’t you want to scream, “I hate you!” just like a petulant teenager?
These are the people who are supposed to love us unconditionally and support us in good times and bad. If one or both of our parents is toxic, not supportive, hypercritical, narcissistic, resentful, controlling, unloving, or mentally ill — it can infect your entire life and turn you from an emotionally mature adult into a wounded, infuriated child.
As you grow into adulthood and realize how difficult and hurtful your parent was when you were a child — when you couldn’t understand their behavior — you’ll have buckets of your own anger and resentment to sort through. It is extremely difficult to release these painful feelings in healthy ways with your parent, especially if they are received with more bad behavior or rejection.
Issues with difficult siblings can also disrupt your life and cause you pain, although generally they don’t cause the turmoil that a difficult parent can create. And depending on the dynamics and interactions of your own extended family, you can have other difficult family members (cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents) who are regularly in your life making you miserable.
(I’m going to leave spousal relationships and relationships with your own children for another discussion, as they are your primary family unit and problems here must be handled differently.)
So how can you cope with and manage these family members who are so difficult and disruptive? And more importantly, how can you protect yourself from being continually hurt and disrupted by their behavior?
Here are some thoughts that might be helpful:
Seek to understand and have compassion
As I mentioned before, most of the bad behaviors with these difficult people stem from their own issues. Perhaps they had difficult childhoods or never learned how to express their feelings, pain, and anger in appropriate and mature ways.
Maybe they are lacking in self-esteem, they are coping with their own bitterness and regret, or they don’t have the emotional strength or motivation to create positive change in their lives. Or it could be they have some kind of mental illness — like depression, a personality disorder, or narcissism.
When you understand the pain and experiences of your difficult family member, you will often have more compassion for them. When you have compassion, their difficult behaviors might still annoy or offend you, but they won’t cause you as much pain because it redirects your focus from yourself to them.
If the behaviors are so bad and the wounds so deep, it is hard to genuinely feel compassion. If you can intellectually understand the source of your family member’s behaviors, then make an intellectual decision about how you want to treat this person in spite of their behaviors.
Attempting to punish them with your anger or retribution won’t change their behavior if they are so entrenched in their own “stuff.” Make a rational decision about who you want to be around this person, and practice being that person even if you don’t feel it right away.
Try to communicate — with or without mediation
If the difficult family shows some willingness or ability to improve the relationship and you are motivated to try to improve it, then initiate a conversation or series of conversations to discuss your own boundaries, listen to theirs, and to try to negotiate for better behavior.
This can be a tricky conversation when someone is defensive, sensitive, or angry. It’s always good to begin these conversations with something positive. You can mention how much you value them and the relationship. You can discuss how much you care about them and how motivated you are to improve the relationship.
As you express your frustrations, communicate with them by telling your family member how they make YOU feel rather than blaming them or pointing out how immature or unpleasant their behaviors are. For example, you could say something like, “When you are critical, it really hurts me deeply because I value your good opinion and want to have a mutually supportive relationship. Would you be willing to focus on the best in me rather than criticizing?”
If you find these conversations quickly devolve into blaming and recriminations, then seek the assistance of a counselor to mediate the discussion and work with both of you on healthy communication skills. More often than not, a third party can mitigate the desire to lash out or walk away.
Examine your own involvement
Even if it is crystal clear your family member is the difficult person in the relationship, be open to looking at yourself and what you may have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to the problem. And ask yourself if there is any truth, even the tiniest shred, related to what they are saying to or about you.
If you are angry and hurt by this person, you will likely have lashed out in response or at least hurled a few zingers their way. Of course this only further inflames the problem. Try to remember to be the person you want to be in spite of the other person’s behavior.
Sometimes these relationships with difficult family members can be an opportunity for the greatest learning about ourselves. They can hold a mirror up to our deepest fears, wounds, and longings. Have the courage to look in the mirror and use what you see to work on your own growth and development.
Manage your reactions
I’ve found it’s helpful to have very little or no reaction when a difficult family member tries to engage in bad behavior. If they try to ensnare you in a verbal argument, give them nothing in response except a non-committal reply like, “that’s interesting,” or “you might be right,” or just “hmm.”
If they are defensive, petulant, passive-aggressive, or critical, simply smile or excuse yourself from the room. Your lack of reaction will throw them off-center and eventually they will realize their behavior doesn’t work with you.
Manage your interactions
My friend with the difficult father ultimately decided she could only spend an hour or so with him every few months. She realized she could not include him in family events or have him interact with her children. She had to create very strict personal and emotional boundaries with him.
You may find you need to limit your interactions with the difficult family member. This may cause some backlash from them or others in your family, but you are the only person who can take care of your feelings and emotional energy. You may need to back off, skip some family gatherings, or stay for shorter periods of time.
If you see texts or phone calls come in from the difficult person, simply don’t answer them and only reply to messages that are kind or neutral.
In some families, the dynamic is so dysfunctional that the individual members take sides. There is a camp for you and one against you, headed up by the difficult family member. Do your best not to contribute to gossip or attempt to justify or undermine any members of your family. Ultimately, the healthy-minded people in your family will gravitate toward you and your more mature and measured behavior.
Allow yourself to grieve
Having a parent who doesn’t behave like a loving, mature, and supportive parent is extremely painful. Having a sibling who creates problems or treats you poorly is also painful. When you don’t have family members who behave the way family is supposed to behave, it is a huge loss. Everyone desires a close and loving relationship with their family. When you don’t have that, it can feel like a huge rejection or even a death.
If the pain of this is debilitating, work with a counselor to help you process the feelings and grief associated with your loss of your “dream family.” Acknowledge to yourself that is ISN’T okay to have this difficult relationship, but that your CHOOSE to thrive in spite of it. Acknowledge your pain, cry over it, share it with someone, and then choose to live happily anyway.
Living under the negative specter of a mean-spirited, unpleasant family member can cause real upheaval and pain in your life. Feeling unloved, misunderstood, unduly criticized, manipulated, or victimized can wreck havoc with your self-esteem and general contentment in life.
As difficult as the situation may be, you do have control over your own reactions and decisions around this relationship. Don’t give away more time and energy than is absolutely necessary to a person (even a person who happens to be your parent or sibling) than absolutely necessary.
Do you have a difficult family member in your life? How are you managing your relationship with this person? How have they made you feel? Please share your thoughts in the comments.