Don’t get me wrong I love my family. In fact, if I won any sort of lottery in life I think it’s the family lottery. My parents are still married, my sister and I get along, and we enjoy each other’s company. There is very little drama and we all have a good time when we get to together. But despite their relative awesomeness, my family can still drive me up the wall.
Families have a way of getting under your skin and triggering your reactivity unlike any other people in your life. In fact you could probably make a list of things your family members does that drives you crazy, but that other people wouldn’t understand.
So why do our families have such an amazing ability to drive us crazy?
Here are a few of them:
1. Families Cause Us to Revert to Old Roles
You’ve spent most of your adult life developing a personality that helps you get along in the world. And in many cases, you have the choice of the role you want to play or the way you’d like to relate to others.
But if you’re like most people, the roles in your families are like deeply worn grooves that have lasted a long time. After all, you’ve been playing a role in your family since your very first breathe. The whole time your brain and personality were literally being shape your role in your family was being recorded.
This means that despite your best efforts to be grown up, your family can often cause you to revert to part of yourself that is way less capable of dealing with the world in a mature way.
2. Families Rub On Old Wounds
Before your first love, you never knew what heartbreak was, before your first pet or grandparent died, you didn’t understand death, and before your sibling or a friend got a toy, you really wanted you never understood envy.
These pains and tragedies that make up some of the most challenging parts of our lives are usually tied to our first experiences of them. No matter how old you get or how far away you move being with your family can often rub these old wounds. This is especially true if you had a mean older sibling, your parents got divorced, or if you suffered any level of physical or emotional abuse.
Even those of us who had ‘stereotypically normal’ families often have primal feelings of fear, longing for acceptance, and anger that are triggered by our families. Even worse, these triggers can occur despite your desire to believe you’ve outgrown these difficult feelings.
What this mean’s is that being around your family can be hard not just because of how they behave now, but because it forces you to deal with a ton of emotional baggage you would prefer just stay in the past.
3. You Cannot Escape Your Family
You can pick your friends, you can pick your job, but you can’t pick your family. Sure, you can choose to not have a relationship with them and you can also choose to adopt a new family made of friends or mentors. But no matter how hard you try, you will always be deeply linked to the people who bore you and raised you.
Whether or not that were angels or devils whomever brought you from hatchling to adolescence and beyond did you an amazing service. Human young left on their own usually die, so they literally saved your life and because of this you are linked to them by powerful biological necessity.
This means that despite any desire your might have to deny or diminish the importance of your family in your life there is a connection there whether you like it or not, which can at times be either wonderful, difficult, or both.
4. Families Touch the Tenderest Parts of Our Hearts
No matter how positive or negative, your relationship with your parents, siblings, or even your extended family these relationships are the primary relationships in your life. I’ve spoken to so many people with parents who’ve let them down. And in most cases these people expressed a deeply held hope that their parents would some day step up and be parents.
Your family is supposed to be the one thing you can depend on. Long before we built big societies with big governments, we depended almost completely on our families and our tribe to survive. It’s wired deep within your brain and biology to long for and be attached to your parents and siblings.
This means this your desire for your family to fulfill the role of nurturing and guidance in your life survives even after it become needed or in some cases even wise.
How to Practice with Your Family
Even though our connections to our families are powerful, it doesn’t mean you have to stay trapped in the same pattern with your family for all eternity. Here are some strategies you can try to help you change your relationships to your family and enjoy the time you spend with them, whether you want to or not.
Habit 1: Focus On Gratitude
There are 1000 things about your family you can choose to get irritated about. But there’s also a 1000 things you can be grateful for.
For example, my sister and brother in law always give me a hard time about my situational vegetarianism. But they’re also willing to let me cook a few vegetarian meals when I go to their house.
If I wanted to I could get all wrapped up in how they don’t understand my lifestyle, but instead I try to focus on the fact that they are open to eating the food I cook, even if it’s not what they normally eat.
When you find yourself getting annoyed with your family instead of focusing on the things that drive you crazy, try to think of at least 3 things to be grateful for. It might just save you a few old fights that you know will end the same way they always do.
Habit 2: Let Go of Expectations
You may know your family longer than you’ve known anyone else. But somehow this doesn’t stop you from expecting them to be very different people then they actually are.
For example, I had a client whose mother always complained about money. Every time it happened, she would become upset and anxious. She tried everything she knew to get her mother to break this pattern, but nothing seemed to work. But the problem wasn’t that she hadn’t tried the right technique the problem was that she expected her mother to change.
People do change, but rarely in the way or at the pace you would like them to. Once I pointed this out, she realized how this expectation was not only unrealistic, but that it was also poisoning her relationship with her mom.
She discovered that if instead of getting upset, she just listened to her mother and then changed the subject she was able to deal with her mothers money mindset with way less drama.
The next time someone in your family acts in a way that bugs you remember that there is probably some reason they’re behaving this way even if you don’t know why. Then instead of getting upset turn your attention to something positive about the interaction. They more you can let go of expectations around your family the much happier you will be.
(Note: There are of course some situations or behaviors that you just can’t ignore. In the cases of really damaging behavior, it’s important to express yourself clearly and draw clear boundaries about what you will and will not put up with. Of course, it’s up to you to know the difference between your family’s harmless quirks and behavior that is truly damaging.)
Habit 3 Listen and Reflect
At this point your communication pattern with your family is likely pretty set. And while this can be comforting, it can also cause to rounds of reactive conversations that lead to frustration and overwhelm.
One of the best things you can learn to ease your relationship with your family is how to listen and reflect.
For example, a friend of mine has a brother in law who is somewhat bigoted. He often makes comments about minorities and immigrants that my friend finds offensive. But whenever this happens she doesn’t know what to do. If she disagrees with him, it just causes him to become more irritated and abrasive. On the other hand, if she just nods along she feels like her integrity is in danger.
So I suggested that she simply try to listen and reflect what he is saying back to him. He might complain about the immigration problem and she would just reflect, “Oh so you feel nervous because of what you’ve been hearing on the news.” By doing this she is able to interact with him when she has to, without having to agree with what he has to say.
This simple powerful technique can be used for any conversation that normally leads to an argument especially when the comments are made specifically to bate you.
Whenever you notice yourself wanting to react to something a family member said, instead of picking a fight try to just reflect what they said back to them with as little judgment as possible. This will save you a ton of fights and will also make your family feel really cared for by you.
An Extra Habit for Dysfunctional Families
This last habit is effective for anyone’s family, but can be especially helpful if you have a somewhat negative relationship with your parents or siblings.
Habit 4: Limit Time/Contact
Some people love their families but they drive them crazy while other people fear interacting with their families because of the damage they can cause.
If you want to be in touch with your family but find that you feel trapped whenever you interact with them, one of the best things to do is limit time or contact with them. By limiting your time or contact with them you can work to stay compassionate and present even with your most difficult relatives.
For example if talking to your mother is very triggering, but you don’t want to cut off contact completely you can call her, but begin the conversation by saying you only have 5 – 10 mins to talk because you have somewhere you have to be.
Then stick to your time limit no matter what. If she wants to talk more just tell her you’ll have to call her back later.
But isn’t that lying? Well that depends. When I’ve used this technique with difficult people, (no one in my family) I would only make the calls 10 – 15 mins before an appointment so that I didn’t have to lie. But it’s really up to you to weigh these competing values for yourself.
Final Thought on Families
Families, just like all the other RELATIONSHIPS in your life are a great opportunity for practice. The reason is that families, just like romantic partners, or even work relationships force you to deal with parts of yourself you often avoid. This is one of the reasons families can be such a powerful catalyst for change in your life.
I believe that if you have the opportunity and are willing to invest the energy that developing a strong and positive relationship with your family can be one of the most deeply healing and satisfying processes you can go through. Doing this has certainly helped me be a much happier person and I hope it will do the same for you.