10 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Family Members

You’re sitting around the Christmas tree, or the Menorah, or the fruitcake and bottle of scotch, with your family. Everyone’s in a great mood, grateful for this time together. The glimmer of holiday lights reflects off the blanket of white, fluffy snow. 

Alternating scents of pine and apple pie waft thorough the house. Your family is telling funny stories from the past and lamenting the fact that you don’t get to spend time together like this more often.

Or, maybe not.

If this isn’t your typical holiday experience, read on—this one’s for you. If love and laughter by the fire are sometimes replaced with tension and resentment, or the feeling that you can’t really be yourself, you’re not alone.

If passive-aggressive comments—or worse, aggressive-aggressive comments—are shared more than funny childhood stories, the holidays probably don’t feel like the happiest time of the year.

Here are 10 tips to help you survive the holiday season, or any season, with difficult family members.

Disclaimer: This is a very Enlightened way to deal with difficult family members. Most likely, you aren’t going to be able to all of these things all of the time without a ton of practice. I certainly can’t do them all, all the time. Not even close.

Please don’t strive for perfection. There is a huge range of possible outcomes between expressing love by the fire and throwing insults and turkey at each other for two days.

Strive to land closer to the former than the latter, and you’ll be doing great. Use these tips to feel better than you do now, not to feel  completely content and fulfilled by your family.

10 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Family Members

1. Work on accepting them exactly as they are. Number 1 for a reason. It’s at the root of everything, and it’s also probably the most difficult thing on the list. A gigantic proportion of your frustration comes from wanting others to be different than they are. You know you can’t change them—wishing for them to act the way you would act only drives you crazy.

When you accept them exactly as they are, your resistance and inner battle dies down. Acceptance doesn’t = approving of or condoning what they do. It just means you stop expecting them to be different than they are.

2. Don’t take things so personally; it’s really not about you. It’s not—their stuff is about them, not you. If they disapprove of the date you brought, start pressuring you to find a job, don’t thank you for the gift you spent hours picking out…that’s about them. They get to choose their behaviors, and what they choose is always more a function of their experiences and their worldview than it is about you.

So they’re the kind of person who asks rude questions or doesn’t appreciate gifts. Fine. It has nothing to do with you.

3. Choose your battles when it comes to addressing things that bother you. Of course there are exceptions and there may be times you desperately need to speak up for yourself or leave the situation. But by and large, family time during the holidays is relatively short and infrequent. Remind yourself that you’re leaving town tomorrow and take the high road by letting things go.

4. Guard your energy. It’s easy to let your energy be influenced by others, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable. When tension is high, you can literally feel the energy in a room shift. Don’t let your energy be hijacked by anyone else. Decide how you want to feel and consciously, purposely set about to feel that way. Your own calm energy is your best asset, hands down.

5. Visualize. How can you guard your energy? My favorite visualization is what I call BOT (Big, Old Tree). Imagine yourself as a huge, tall, old tree with roots spreading deep into the ground and lots of branches and leaves extending out around you. Your roots and your thick, strong trunk are your true self, the part of you that can’t be affected by others. The only impact others might have is on your branches and leaves. They may come through like a storm and ruffle your leaves, but the ‘damage’ is superficial, temporary, and minimal. Your basic roots and trunk—who you really are—are not affected. When there is tension in the room, I like to visualize it fluttering around in the space around me (where my imaginary leaves would be), but never actually reaching me.

6. Take responsibility. Look at yourself and your actions. It’s natural to dive into defensiveness when you’re challenged or attacked, but try examining yourself from their point of view. If you’ve done something that isn’t the highest expression of who you want to be, acknowledge and apologize for it. No blame, no justification or explanation necessary. Simply and sincerely apologize for any role you may have played in the disagreement so that you can put it behind you and move on. That’s Enlightened.

7. Ask: How is this situation perfect? You’ve heard it before—difficult people are your greatest teachers. They challenge you, they bring up your stuff, and they test your limits. But they also shape who you are, especially when those difficult people are family members.

I believe that everyone in your life is here on purpose; they’re all part of a rotating cast of characters perfectly chosen to help you become more of Who You Really Are. With that perspective, how is your current family situation perfect? What is it teaching you that you desperately want to learn? How will you grow from the conflict? How can you use this situation to improve your other relationships or help someone in a similar situation?

8. Don’t compare your family to others. No family is perfect. The ones that look perfect only appear so from your outside perspective. Everyone’s dealing with something in life; if it’s not family drama, it’s something else.

Comparing your family to others’ is the opposite of accepting them exactly as they are. That’s why it hurts to do it. The more you compare, the worse you feel, period.

9. Choose being happy over being right. You know how you’re 100% confident that you’re right and they’re wrong? Well, I have news for you. They’re just as sure that they’re right and you’re wrong.

Since you aren’t going to change their mind, why not decide that it’s enough that you know you’re right and leave it at that. Choose peace and happiness over righteousness.

10. Practice compassion. Although it’s hard to give difficult people love, they’re the ones who need it most. No one wants to be snarky or envious or fearful. Any action that’s not based in love is based in fear.

Everyone has a story. If you knew their story, you’d have compassion for them. Try to remember that, especially when it’s so easy to judge them for being difficult. Practice compassion for your family. If they knew better, they’d do better. Plus, by offering compassion to them, you’re generating it in yourself. Win-win.

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