When I speak about having positive people in your life, I often get asked how to deal with negative family members?
Google ‘Toxic Relationships’ and you’ll find yourself confronted with dozens of blogs and advice on how to rid yourself of so-called ‘energy vampires’- you know the sort; those people who’s very energy is so negative and draining that you end up being sucked into the vortex. These people can be anyone from hardcore pessimists, narcissists, or those suffering from a serious dose of Main Character Syndrome (look it up, it’s fascinating).
And whatever it is about the personality of these individuals that make them ‘toxic’, the general advice is to cut and run; get them out of your life and move on.
Easy with casual acquaintances…less so with friends…and as for family? – well, for some of us, it’s near on impossible.
There aren’t many people who feel that they’re able to take the step of cutting out negative family members and so, for most of us, dealing with them is simply one of those dreaded tasks we have to undertake from time to time. But how DO you deal with flesh and blood that is ungrateful, unreliable, draining, dramatic and narcissistic?
Is it even possible to have strategies in place that mean you can actually enjoy family time (when you have to!) without wanting to punch these negative Nancy’s lights out?
It is, but the first thing you need to do is stop thinking about ways that you can change their behaviour in order to make things more pleasant for yourself. Because you can’t. It’s impossible. Trying to change how someone else acts is just a waste of your time, so, if you have a family member who is, shall we say, ‘difficult’ to be around, all you can do is focus on the only person’s reaction and actions that you CAN control: yours.
Yep, this is going to be about you doing some work on yourself rather than them.
So, first thing’s first:
1. Think Of The Positives
Ok, so you’re going to meet with THAT family member, and it never ends well. This time, before you go, don’t focus on all the shitty things about them that you don’t like and that make spending time with them a horrible experience. Focus instead on the qualities you do like about them and then try to separate in your mind who they are as a person from their negative behaviour.
This will prepare you better for dealing with the things they do that annoy you, and because you won’t be stressed to buggery from thinking about how awful they are before you meet up with them, it will be much easier for you to interact with them in a calm manner.
2. Try A Little Empathy
No one was born being a miserable git; negative people are created over time through a combination of nature and nurture, so empathy can be a useful tool when dealing with difficult family members. Try hard to see things from their perspective. Have they had a horrible past? A terrible run of bad luck? Non-stop health problems?
While these aren’t excuses for being a dick to other people, they might go some way to helping you understand why it’s hard for them to see the good in life and in those around them. Again, use these meetings as an opportunity to work on yourself and your skills of self-reflection, emotional intelligence and personal growth.
3. Use ‘I’ Statements
If you’re dealing with a negative person who has a tendency to instantly become defensive no matter what you say, it can be helpful to use ‘I’ statements to get your point across when you’re talking about how they’re making you feel. This takes the blame off them and means they’re less likely to attack you for your opinion.
If you’re feeling threatened or offended, make the feelings about you rather than them. For example: ‘I feel upset by those comments’ rather than ‘You’re upsetting me with those comments’.
It sounds like a small thing, but it can make a world of difference when it comes to preventing conversations with a negative person from spiralling out of control.
4. Know Your Conversation Limits
Using ‘I’ statements is a great start, and you can bolster this technique’s effectiveness by setting limits for what you’ll accept and won’t during conversations with your negative family members, and making them clear. Follow up statements like ‘I feel uncomfortable when you shout’ with something like ‘Let’s carry on this conversation when we’re both feeling calmer’.
It’s always going to be better to leave a conversation that’s turning sour than to carry it on and for the whole thing to just become unproductive. Make it clear that you won’t continue to engage in a nasty or negative conversation, and be consistent in enforcing that boundary.
5. “What Do You Think I Said?”
Got a family member who deliberately misinterprets the things you say and then uses it to start an argument? If that starts happening and you find yourself getting ready to bite, take a breath and ask them (calmly!) exactly what it is that they think you said. This forces them to break momentum, which can stop an argument before it starts, and gives you a chance to regain control of the conversation.
6. Avoid The ‘Hot Button’ Topics
If you know for sure what discussion topics are sure to end in a heated debate, your very best bet is to avoid that subject altogether. If the family member in question is a real piece of work and insists on trying to continue the discussion because they know it pushes your buttons, don’t give them the satisfaction. Instead, try changing the subject as soon as it’s hinted at.
If they’re really persistent, leave the room if necessary. Like with most of these tips, this one’s all about assertiveness; “I don’t want to talk about this.” It’s as simple as that.
7. Don’t Take Part In The Drama
We all tend to be related to someone who’s over-dramatic – maybe even more than one. You know the type – the person who loves to gossip about other people and who makes up lies just to get attention.
The biggest tip I can give you here is that no matter what fantastical stories come out of their mouth – don’t react.
Dramatic people live for big reactions, and by giving them exactly what they want you’re just reinforcing the behaviour. It’s also futile to try reasoning with them or changing their mind – attempting to rationalise with the irrational is just going to result in you getting sucked into their toxic drama.
8. Remember That Their Negativity Is Their Problem, Not Yours
This one can be quite a tough one because negativity can certainly be infectious – but remember to be yourself, and if you aren’t a negative person by nature, don’t become one just to fit in with them.
It’s also pointless trying to problem-solve when you’re dealing with someone inherently negative – it’s not really what they want to be honest, and they probably won’t respond well to it, in fact they’re bound to find nothing but more problems with our solutions and drag you down with them into their well of despair.
9. Let Them Be The Star – Just For A Moment
Negative and toxic people really believe that the world should revolve around them – and one reason for their obnoxious behaviour comes from knowing deep down that, for other people at least, it doesn’t. If you have to spend time with a family member who thinks this way, let them have a small moment to shine – normally easiest to do this at the very beginning of the conversation.
If they have your undivided attention right from the get-go, it could calm them down a bit. Once they’ve had their moment, steer things back to neutral ground and reign them in calmly if they start to go too far. It’s best to plan quieter, more independent activities with these types of family members so that you can still spend time with them, without having to interact too much – like going to the cinema or watching TV together for example.
10. Know When To Disconnect
There are a lot of negative behaviours that your family members could be guilty of, but toxic behaviour is the worst, and the hardest to continue to be a part of. All you can really do when you’re related to someone like this is recognise that toxicity and know when it’s best to just disconnect from them altogether.
I’m not just talking here about people who are gossips, drama queens or ‘Debbie Downers’ who are emotionally exhausting to be around, I’m talking about family members who are causing you emotional, mental or physical distress. And that’s a whole different ball game.
Family members who have been or still are abusive, critical, controlling, and who never apologise for their behaviour are the ones who should be cut out of your life. But if you’re not ready for that, you can minimise the distress they cause you by mentally deciding what your relationship boundaries are (you don’t need to tell them!), turn down invitations if you feel you need to and be conscious of what information you share with them.
Of course, there are licensed therapists out there who can help you to deal with family issues if you feel that you need it.
I think it’s safe to say that no one has a perfect family, but if you have one that’s more Eastenders than the Waltons, give some of these tips a try and see how you get on!