Over the course of time that I have been in private practice, which will be 16 years this April, I have been asked many questions related to managing the triggers of internal stress that are immovable in life. Among these questions, the one that is asked most often is how to navigate difficult family relationships. There are always 2 choices: first, to write the offending family member(s) off completely, with no further contact, thus eliminating the stressor entirely (and perhaps substituting another in its place, but that might be another blog post…). The second is to find a way to re frame the interactions between yourself and this family member, so that you have a new, significantly less painful point of reference with which to understand your interactions with him or her.
In my experience, most people choose the second option.
In my experience, most people choose the second option.
So how do you deal with a difficult person that isn’t going to leave your life any time soon?
Of the many strategies out there to deal with the immovable, the one I have experienced that works the most effectively is the hardest one to achieve, which is the practice of non judgment.
Non judgment is the art of letting someone else have whatever reaction that they may have, in any interaction, without letting it mean anything about you. It is, admittedly, a difficult art form to master, but once you are able to, the benefits are endlessly worth it.
It begins with a shift in your ability to have compassion for a person on a deeper level than you may be used to. It is realizing, with your whole heart, that others have many battles they are contending with, many that you might never know. It is getting around your anger at the person, removing yourself from the connection and looking at it with the least amount of emotion that you can, as neutrally as possible. I realize that this isn’t easy; on the contrary, it may feel like the most difficult thing you have ever done, especially with someone with whom you have so much history with. (It does, however, get easier and easier with time and practice.) This works best when you begin this practice outside of an argument, of course…but sit quietly, when you are relaxed and calm, and think about the other person as neutrally as possible. With as little emotion as you can manage, think about what the person may be experiencing in his or her life. Even if it is something that you, yourself would not have an issue with (i.e. your sister is obsessed with her weight and your own weight is the last thing you would ever spend time thinking about..), think about the issues that could be causing the other pain and distress. For as long as it takes, work on letting your heart eventually give them compassion for their struggle. This can take some practice, but as I said, it will eventually become easier and easier.
The next step is to realize that the struggles that a person goes through may not allow them to act towards you with a full set of interpersonal tools, so to speak. This is so important because when you get to this step, you can see that, although it may feel very personal, it really isn’t. For example, a person who is competitive subconsciously gravitates towards someone to compete with; someone who is insecure looks for someone to be better than. In both of these examples, this person is drawn to the perfect counterpart to enter into a drama vortex that isn’t so much about the other person as it is about sustaining a cycle of drama and unfinished emotional business. When you realize this, it follows that the most effective course of action is to figure out how to effectively disengage from feeling victimized by the bad behavior, and move into the understanding that although it may feel like it is you that is targeted, this person would target anyone that filled the unconscious need they have to perpetuate their dysfunctional belief system.
So you have all this down, what next? What constitutes practical application of these new, healthier realizations and understandings?
The last and final step is to find out what your window of time is with this person before they start behaving in a way that used to make you feel badly. This may be days or it may even be hours. Everyone is different. This last step is critical in allowing you to navigate meetings and events with this person that have more ease for you than you may have ever thought possible. Find out your particular amount of time and be very clear with yourself: this is the approximate amount of time you have to (eventually) enjoy your time with this person, before it is in your best interests to gracefully make your leave. Stick to this window as best you can. If an altercation begins before your expected window of time to leave, circulate, wait about half an hour, if you can, and then, with a smile, begin to make your goodbyes. A good friend came up with this idea, as a way to avoid engaging an altercation at the time, while still respecting yourself enough to put your emotional well being before anyone else’s need for conflict. The less you engage the negativity in the moment, the happier you will be in the longer term.
When you realize that you don’t have to choose between keeping a family member in your life and sacrificing your own sense of peace and joy to another’s need for conflict, you will realize what true empowerment is all about. And this non judgment thing might be something you decide to apply to other areas of your life. Yourself, perhaps? The results of that would be even more impressive..
Lots of love to you..