Do you have a difficult relative? Here is how to detoxify the relationship and know when to call it quits…
How do I deal with my mom? One of our clients asked me. I have given her umpteen chances, and she always blows it.
As I know this client and her family dynamics well and have seen it play out numerous times. In fact I’d seen it play out at a funeral for one of the in-laws. The mom had always been a narcissist and that somber day was no different. Instead of supporting her grieving daughter, she glommed onto mourners, yelled questions across the crowd and insistently ask our client whey she hadn’t called lately.
She was humiliated. Though she had learned to take her mother in small does, she still needed a strategy for managing such outburst. She asked me recently if there was any way to see her mom without the mom driving her nuts.
The answer is yes – maybe. Some simple steps could help you change the way a toxic person makes you feel. There is not psychiatric diagnosis of “toxic personality”. A problematic person could be narcissistic, paranoid or just pathologically needy. Most toxic people are blaming, complaining or draining.
Never go head-to-head with someone like this, because they will not rest until they get the better of you. Brain scientist have identified how such people do it: by subverting the way your brain makes decisions. Strong emotions actually short-circuit the brain’s rational thought processes. So before you see your problem relative, prepare yourself. When they push your buttons, what will you do to stay calm? Take deep breaths? Decide on a strategy and practice it.
Then, when the person hurts or disappoints you, stay rational to transform the situation. Gently tell them immediately that you are hurt and let them know what you would prefer they do in the future. Focusing on the future, which no one has messed up yet, is always preferable to rehashing something that has already happened.
If that softball approach hasn’t working in the past, you can try what I call the Clint Eastwood method. Take a deep breath, let it go, look them in the eye and then….pause. Next, say something that will make them reflect. It can be as simple as, “huh?”
You won’t cure them by channeling Clint Eastwood, but you can defuse the kind of situation that used to lead to a fight, just by refusing to engage.
In the case of this clients’ mother at the funeral, of course, no such interaction was possible. So how do you keep a relative from embarrassing you?
The secret is knowing what drives the behavior. I’ve learned that most toxic people think the world doesn’t respect them. So to get their cooperation, give them an important job. At future gatherings, this client could ask her mom to serve as a cohost, greeting guest and making them feel comfortable. This will give her the attention she craves, but in a more helpful way and also keep her out of your hair.
Sometimes a family member is so damage or cruel that no coping mechanism will make them bearable. If you have tried every avenue and still need to distance yourself, very calmly tell the person exactly which behavior you cannot tolerate and say you need to take a break. Handling them in a gracious way shows you haven’t been infected with their toxicity.
My mother-in-law was extremely toxic until the day she died…. No technique helped defuse her… since I had to deal with her occasionally, I made nicey, nice… and played the avoidance game… sometimes, you just have to do that….
Whew, all those memories blasted back at me…. Breathe Diane… breathe…. Ah, now some coffee….