A couple of days after Thanksgiving, I commented that the group in the room next door was playing “angry music.” My friend responded “that’s probably because they just had to spend a whole day with their family and it put them in a really bad mood.”
At first I laughed, but as I started to think about it, I realized just how right he was in so many cases. Many of my life coaching clients ask for help during the holidays on how to “survive” a day or two with their families. Some absolutely dread having to spend time with the family, but feel as though they have no choice but to go.
Now if your family gatherings are happy, respectful and peaceful then this article might not be for you, although these techniques can be used in dealing with other than just toxic family members. Perhaps there is someone at work who makes you feel impotent, controlled and worthless. These techniques will work just as well in other settings.
Accept your part in the problem.
You have to accept that people treat you the way they do because you let them. Perhaps you had no choice in the matter when you were a child, but now it’s different. You’re an adult and change starts by accepting your role in the toxic communication and verbal violence that has been going on for years. It’s time to start taking charge and making adult choices.
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Many times, parents and families don’t know any other way of communicating other than in a toxic way. You can actually be the catalyst to change this. With some simple but non-confrontational techniques, you can alter the way family members interact with each other. And what would be a more loving gift to give them than peace.
Take charge and make a different choice.
You actually don’t have to spend the holidays, or any days for that matter, with your family. If your family doesn’t treat you respectfully, then respectfully decline invitations to spend time with them. If they ask why, explain that spending time with them doesn’t make you feel loved and respected and you choose to only spend time with people who do. “But my father / mother would be so hurt if I didn’t show...” is usually the response I get to this suggestion. And yes, they will work to make you feel guilty for “leaving them.” Just realize that you are not leaving them, you're setting a healthy boundary. If they truly want you around, they’ll learn to treat you as you deserve to be treated.
Release the need to be right.
It’s not your job to change your family members' opinions on anything. You have no more right to force your opinions on them than they have on you. The best any of us can do in a civil society is to offer up our thoughts and give the others a chance to reflect on them. Change happens slowly; it can’t be forced. Part of respectful communication is letting others have opinions that differ from your own.
Take away the power of their words.
Stating opinions as fact is an age-old tactic used by many. Statements like the following are used to start arguments, keep you under control, and “put you in your place.” You’ll never amount to much of anything, will you?” “Gay marriage is an abomination!” “You still have that sissy job as a male nurse?” “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”
A simple way to take the edge off these words is by calling them what they are — opinions. One person’s opinions that have no more weight than yours or anyone else's. Remove the assumption of fact from the statement by saying “That’s an interesting opinion” and just leave it at that. You could even divert the conversation more by following up with “Have you seen any good movies lately?” or similar.
If they don’t take the hint and persist in trying to stir up an argument, thank them for the invitation and the time you’ve spent so far and walk right out the door. You’ve got to teach them that there is certain behavior you simply will not tolerate and that it’s non-negotiable. This isn’t being rude or bitchy, it’s setting a healthy boundary.
Don’t give up.
Don’t give up if you try one or more of these ideas and they don’t work right away. You’ve probably spent a long time training the people around you that it was OK to treat you as they are. They won’t want to give up the sense of power and control they have over you too easily. Just as a child ramps up the temper tantrums when you finally stop giving in to them, so too will adults escalate the negative behavior until they’re certain you’re not going to back down. It will tend to get a little worse before it gets better. But the sense of self-esteem and confidence you’ll receive in the end are more than worth it.