Based on the book, Overcoming Your Difficult Family
In my book Overcoming Your Difficult Family, I teach eight skills that can help you survive — and even thrive — in any family situation. For example, maybe you find yourself in a family situation where some family members are sad and others are anxious. How might you employ the eight skills? In the following ways:
• Be smart. Both sadness and anxiety are part of the human picture and the human condition: these twin demons are not leaving our species any time soon. It is smart to accept their reality and to resolve that you will deal with them openly and honestly. Being smart in this context isn’t about high intelligence or book smarts but about being savvy, honest and mature.
• Be strong. Sadness and anxiety in your family weaken all family members, who likely find themselves tiptoeing around, muffling their energy, and dimming their passion. To counteract this tendency, practice your strength skills every day, just as if you were in training for a marathon or an Olympic event. It takes real strength to manifest your energy, passion and desire when the people around you are always worried or always singing the blues!
• Be calm. If you’re dealing with a family made up of anxious people whose jitters and never-ending worries color your days, then you have the job of not falling into line with their anxious natures and of being diligent about practicing calmness in the midst of all that upsetting energy. If anxiety surrounds you, no skill is more important to practice than being calm.
• Be clear. Take the time to educate yourself about the current controversies in the mental health field. For example, it will make a huge difference in your life whether you conclude that you and other family members are experiencing a biological malfunction of some sort or whether their feelings are their natural reactions to life experiences. This clarity is vital, because what helps is very different depending on which scenario is true.
• Be aware. Notice what’s really going on around you. If your mother takes to her bed with some unnamed ailment, be aware that it may be despair and not illness sending her there. If your brother starts complaining about his teachers, be aware that he may be sad and despondent about a decline in his grades. If your grandmother begins to make excuses about why she can’t visit very often, look for the anxiety about traveling that creeps in as people age. Sadness and anxiety may be lurking or hiding in your family life much more often than you think!
• Be brave. If your mother or your brother is despairing, but that despair hasn’t been named or acknowledged, you might want to bravely be the one to say to your mom, “You are so sad, you must try something,” or to your brother, “Jack, I know how unhappy you are. Can we please talk about it?” It takes courage to say this, especially if the sadness is a family secret, but you can do it if you manifest your bravery.
• Be present. It is hard to be present in the midst of anxiety. Our first reaction to finding ourselves in an environment permeated by anxiety is to flee. If your family gives off anxious vibes, it will take some real effort to stay present, centered and grounded when you’re around them. When you notice that you want to flee your family, say to yourself, “I can stay here and be present, even though they are making me feel anxious!”
• Be resilient. If sadness and anxiety have infiltrated your system and are now a part of your formed personality, or if they are part of your original personality, then they will keep returning to challenge you — and you will need resilience to deal with them. Remember: a truly resilient you can deal with the challenge of sadness and anxiety returning!
This particular set of eight skills is needed in order for you to deal successfully with family life. Each of these eight — smarts, strength, calmness, clarity, awareness, courage, presence and resilience — is important in its own right, and getting better at any one of them helps a lot. Ideally, you might want to practice all eight, since each is really valuable. But realistically, maybe you can pick a skill or two that seem most important to you or where you feel you need the most work and practice those.
These skills are also valuable everywhere in life, so mastering them will not only help you deal with difficult family members but will also help you deal with all of life’s challenges. Where would a carpenter or a plumber be without his tools? We need tools, too, because family life can be really difficult. Countless families have an addicted family member, a severely anxious family member, a rigid, controlling family member, an explosive family member, a seriously unhappy family member, and so on — and this adds up to genuine family unpleasantness.
If you find yourself in a troubled family, mastering the skills I describe can make all the difference!