Do you have a difficult family member? Me too! Let’s talk

Do you have a difficult family member?  Me too!  Let’s talk

Now is the time of year that my practice is inundated with questions about how to handle the holidays and that one difficult family member.  You know the one!  They are the one that is abrasive and cranky, or ridiculously picky, or boastful, or relentlessly critical.  The one that manipulates everyone and yet still complains.  The one that talks politics, when the family rule is “no politics at the dinner table.”  The one that gets drunk and loud.  The one that gives those creepy hugs.  We’ve all got some version of the difficult family member.  Some of my clients would assure you that they have a whole collection of these people in their family.  Yikes!  

The first question to ask is why do we all have people like this in our lives? 

The short answer is because that is how life works.  We are continuously getting handed a series of positive, neutral and negative experiences.  All. The. Time.  This applies to work, to home, to relationships, even to our own inner environments of thoughts and feelings.  There is a mixture of good, not so good and neutral 365 days a year.  Accepting this variety is a first step to successfully navigating the variety.  If we are spending time and energy resisting reality, life becomes harder.  

The next question to ask is how do we deal with that difficult person? 

I have been using the “Three A’s of Acceptance” as taught by Dr. Russ Harris, the fabulous Australian Acceptance and Commitment Therapy expert to field this question.  

  • A #1: Acknowledge
  • A #2: Allow
  • A #3: Accommodate

First we acknowledge the reality of the difficult person(s). 

They really are in our family or extended family, they really are in our workplace, they really are one of child’s teachers, or one of our ex’s.  They really do exist and they are difficult.  Notice that this is more of a factual thing than a judgement.  They are real and not fun to deal with, full stop. 

Next, we allow the space for them to exist. 

Because they do.  Not because we want them to, just because they do.  We make room in our minds and hearts and lives for the variety of influences we field, including this difficult person.  This is not approving of them or their behavior, it is just allowing the reality to exist without fighting it.  

Finally, we get to determine at what level do we accommodate them. 

Does cranky Uncle Phil still get invited to Thanksgiving?  Should mean Aunt Michelle still come over on Christmas?  Here is where you get to set some limits, while also refusing to continue either trying to change someone else (typically futile), or to get steamrolled by someone else’s bad behavior (no you don’t have to hug the creeper). 

Practicing acceptance of difficult people is a terrific way to decrease angst and frustration.  When you give up the struggle and allow the range of experiences in life, including in relationships and families, then that range becomes less of a problem.  You are no longer surprised by someone’s difficult behavior, and you can stay out of outrage and instead be in acceptance, set boundaries and decide what the best way is to proceed.