November 22, 2005

How to Deal with Difficult Family Members

By Leonard Felder, Ph.D.

As a psychologist who helps people deal with their more difficult relatives, I've found that at holiday time these stresses and personality clashes with certain family members come out more strongly than at other times of the year. To make sure your family gatherings are more harmonious this year than in the past, there are specific--and spiritual--things you can do.

1. Say a silent prayer or meditate silently right at the moment when your family is acting up. The prayer can be, "Please God (or Spirit), give me strength to be patient with the difficult members of my family and open me up to the possibility that I will have a few sacred moments of connection with those family I love and whom I don't get to see often enough." Or, humorously, it can be, "Thank you God (or Spirit) that I don't have to see these people 24/7."

2. Choose to bless your most troubled or difficult family member rather than cursing this person. In most spiritual traditions there are blessings you can say to regain your peace of mind and your ability to speak respectfully to even the most unpleasant individuals. For example, if you silently say to yourself, "May God bless and keep this person," it gives you an extra 10 seconds of impulse control so that you can negotiate calmly with this difficult individual rather than erupting in anger or insults. Instead of provoking a war with this person, you can silently bless him or her and then say respectfully out loud, "Let's work together to figure out how to improve the way we interact at these holiday gatherings. You go first, and I'll listen to your ideas. Then I'll go second, and I hope you'll listen to my ideas, too."

3. Look for the wounded soul that is often hidden deeply under this person's toxic comments and personality traits. You may need to do some informal research ahead of the next visit to find out from aunts, uncles, cousins, or others when and how this difficult family member changed from being a kind soul into an angry or self-absorbed individual. That doesn't mean you need to whitewash or minimize the hurtful things he or she does, but rather it will give you the compassion and perspective to realize this person's woundedness is old and deep, having nothing to do with you.

4. Experience gratitude for each small grain of progress. Rather than hoping your difficult relative will become perfect or stress-free, you can seek to notice each small moment of connection or decency that occurs between you. If last year you could only stand this person for 5 minutes and this year you successfully enjoyed 10 quality minutes with this troubled individual, that is a huge improvement.

5. Recognize the growth that this person stirs up in you. In the 23rd Psalm, there is a mysterious statement that "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." Some spiritual teachers suggest that just as an oyster needs sand to irritate, polish and create a fine pearl, so does life give us difficult relatives who force us to grow and learn more about patience, compassion, kindness, limit-setting, strength, and the release of expectations. If it weren't for your difficult relatives, would you have ever been forced to work so hard at becoming the kind of person you are today? If it weren't for the unpleasant ways you were treated by certain members of your family, would you have known to be so careful so as not to mistreat your spouse, your kids, your friends, or your co-workers? Rather than dreading your encounters with your toughest or most insensitive relatives, you can view each current and future interaction as another chance to be tested and see how far you have come on your personal journey. You don't need to be perfect, but you can remind yourself to stay open to what each stressful situation with your family is trying to teach you.

6. When you're feeling trapped, call a "lifeline." You can regain your sense of humor and your inner strength by phoning a supportive friend and saying, "Could you please remind me if I'm a worthwhile human being...I'm with my relatives right now and I've completely forgotten." Just that one sentence of ironic humor can snap you out of the feelings of victimization and aloneness that could cause you to shut down, overeat, or drink too much at family gatherings.

From Beliefnet's Inspiration Newsletter.

1 comment: said...

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.