Every spring, many of my young adult psychotherapy clients go home to reconnect with their families over the Passover or Easter holidays, and return with more or less the same question: “How to do I maintain my peace of mind and self-respect and still remain connected to my family (who either don’t understand/accept me or whose behavior I find challenging)?”
From a psychological perspective, it’s one of the most important questions a person can ask, and one that some people spend their whole lives trying to answer, especially if they come from dysfunctional families. Staying true to ourselves while negotiating significant relationships with people who don’t always share our ideas or values is the key to getting along with others, whether among our intimate circles or society at large. And coming to terms with our family relationships affects all our other relationships.
When the stress of relating with family is too much to bear, people generally cope in one of two ways. Either they distance themselves, emotionally and/or physically, or they suppress who they are to avoid rocking the boat.
Neither of these solutions really works in the long-term. Distancers often perpetuate this pattern in other intimate relationships, checking out when times are tough. Alternatively, suppressers remain developmentally stunted so long as they are unable to know or express what they truly think and feel, and often lose themselves in intimate relationships.
Because family bonds are so psychically powerful, successfully navigating them means being able to distinguish the ties that constrain from those that connect. Sometimes it may be necessary to distance yourself from toxic family members, but generally it’s better to remain connected, even if by a thread. Here are four tips to help you cope with the most important people in your life:
Take a personal inventory. Get in touch with your best self. Think about who you are and how you feel when you are loved, acknowledged and really shine. Focusing your mind this way will help prevent you from taking comments too personally or feeling that your family is a reflection of, or on, you.
Set boundaries. Get clear on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Distinguish between the little annoyances you can let slide and the larger issues that may require you to speak up for yourself. Know there’s a difference between taking a stand and making a scene. Sometimes you can just say, “I’m uncomfortable with your tone.” Keep boundaries loose enough to allow for positive mutual exchanges.
Explore your assumptions. Instead of being focused on how you are perceived by your family, consider whether you are seeing who they really are. Often, we may be tempted to demonize certain family members. This makes it easier for us to justify our victimhood, instead of taking a long, hard, honest look at how our own prejudices, assumptions, expectations and vulnerabilities may be contributing to the conflict.
Try to keep a sense of humor. When all else fails, consider the words of author Anne Lamott, who said it best in a recent Facebook post: “Families; hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. … Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.”