Dealing with family
May 12, 2012 1:11 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with a family member that turns offhand comments into personal attacks against them, as well as putting themselves down.

A close family member has this habit of taking things personally that aren't (anything from another family member being exhausted and short with them after being up all night with their newborn to a stranger on the street giving them a sour face.) They can get pretty wound up about it.

There are also a lot of "everyone think I'm a doormat", "everyone treats me like shit", "everyone thinks I'm stupid", etc type comments.

They also tend to do big overblown acts of kindness that are followed by martyrdom that they were not thanked or thought highly enough in return. They could have easily have written this question.

I don't think I'd have the same issues dealing with this in someone else, but with this relative it's been going on my entire life and the ball of anxiety that bursts in my chest when it happens can set me off edge for hours.

I would love it if I could get them to stop doing it, but fully understand you can't change people. What's the best way to react? Ignoring it and changing the subject has not been working. What can I say?

Advice on how to emotionally handle it just as I would with a stranger on the bus would also be appreciated.
posted by Dynex to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Ask yourself this: "Why should I deal with someone that brings me anxiety and sets me off edge for hours?"

Leave the room when they're acting up.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:53 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Blatcher; toxicity like that just spreads until everyone feels miserable.

You avoid people like that, period.

If because of family obligations you're forced to be near them, I would keep internally repeating, "This is a crazy person. This is a crazy person."
posted by kinetic at 1:56 PM on May 12, 2012

Response by poster: I should add this isn't a constant stream of negativity, it happens maybe twice a week if I have daily contact with them, and when they aren't gleefully diving down a black hole of no self-esteem they are an upbeat and supportive person. They never say anything negative about me, I'm not interested in cutting them out.
posted by Dynex at 2:15 PM on May 12, 2012

Best answer: What worked for me with my auntie was saying "its really hard and hurts me to hear you be so unkind to yourself, so i'm going to go in the other room and let you finish this conversation without me." Then a quick peck on the cheek and play on my iphone. Her behavior stopped around me, but apparently still is in full swing around others.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 2:18 PM on May 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

This thread also seems to be written from the perspective of one of these people (here was my response).

I think it's fine to point out to someone that they're overthinking stuff or making too big of a deal out of something. Most people can handle reminders such as "It's not all about you," or "no one thinks about you as often as you seem to think."

When it comes to the martyrdom, I'd say something like, "Oh, is that why you do nice things? For all the praise and attention you're supposed to get? Huh, good to know."
posted by hermitosis at 2:22 PM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

That used to be me. Note: past tense. I was in therapy and my therapist pointed it out to me, and I chose to work (very hard!) on it and over a few years changed ... into a very upbeat, positive person. This just to show it can be done, but as you noted ... only if the person wants to change.

Also, my SO used to be like this as well (we met after I had changed). Over the ten years we have been together, I point out to him that the world is not against him, nor is the world "all about him" (i.e. most often what someone says is not personal and has nothing to do with him/me etc.). Also I will ask WHO is everyone? He has come a long ways with these occassional (I choose when to say something, not at every instance) prompts. One of the things I do with any loved one when they talk negatively about themselves is say ... with a light tone ... "Hey, don't talk about my (SO/daughter/uncle/friend - whoever is talking) like that!" It is incredibly effective!

However, I have another close family member that likely will never change, or do they see there is any problem with their behaviour, and with this person, I limit contact, and put up with it until I just can't, then I remove myself for awhile to regroup. Since I live a long distance from this person, when I am with them, it is generally 24/7 for a week or two and it is very difficult. I 'try" to ignore, change subject, spend time with them doing something that keeps conversation to a minimum, etc.
posted by batikrose at 2:24 PM on May 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

They sound depressed, not toxic, so being compassionate is always a good thing.

If they say negative things about themselves - "I really don't like hearing you beat yourself up" or "please don't put yourself down".

People often say these things when they think they're not being acknowledged or listened to. This is where the OTT gestures come in as well.

Listen to them, acknowledge what they've said, normally they're very shocked to be seen/heard by someone else and that someone has actually said to them that they care enough about them to not want to hear them keep beating themselves up.

People can also say these things so many times that they don't even realize they're saying them - telling them you don't like it when they talk about themselves in that way might make them realize they're actually saying it and cause them to confront the reality of what they're saying. You might not need to do anything else beyond that.

Be the one person who actually listens to them and acknowledges them. It might help to diffuse it.
posted by mleigh at 5:06 PM on May 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding Nickel Pickle. For more language, this is I think one of the few cases "I'm really sorry you feel that way!" isn't a passive-aggressive construct. (Tone counts.) You are in fact sorry that they are carrying all this negativity. (Maybe that's a better way to put it: I'm sorry to hear such negativity about yourself/that you got burnt out on the event/etc.)

I understand you don't want to cut them off. But if possible, first and foremost, only hang out with them when you know you are feeling grounded; when you have exercised the day before or whatever. Don't walk in the day you are getting a cold and the bus was late and something happened at work that threw you off, if you know what I mean.

Exercising afterwards can help with the anxious/fight or flight feeling if it does occur.

Second if you can come up with a light label for it and just say to yourself "oh, Aunt Daisy has a case of the "As Good As It Gets" syndrome again" that may help you dial down your internal response; sort of a little koan.

Also: Shorter visits may help, especially at the times this is going on.
posted by Zen_warrior at 6:00 PM on May 12, 2012

Best answer: I think the lower somebody's self-esteem, the greater their self-focus; as the former goes down the latter goes up. People with low self-esteem are obsessed with the idea that there's something wrong with them, and they try to build self-esteem from the outside in. This makes other people's opinions and reactions to them seem very important. Furthermore, they constantly, unconsciously, look for evidence of their worthlessness in the environment; if someone mistreats them it proves that they're no good. As they're hypersensitive and hypervigilant to other people's reactions, they may also see dislike where there isn't any. Low self-esteem can be a kind of reverse narcissism where the person sees everything as being about them. They expect to be disliked so it always seems like the most obvious explanation for anyone's behaviour. Sometimes they really are disliked because their behaviour acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Doing huge favours for people rarely works because it's obvious the favours are coming from a place of insecurity. It's obvious that the person is trying to buy people's affections by doing things for them. The person doesn't believe that they're good enough to be liked just for themselves - and it may come across like trying to trap people in an invisible contract - 'I did x for you so now you have to like me'.

Of course this is exhausting for you because you may feel like you have to tiptoe around on eggshells, afraid to say anything unless it's misinterpreted.

You could try being honest with him (diplomatically). You could recommend he read a book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There's also a book about low self-esteem by Marilyn Sorensen which he would probably really identify with (particularly if he doesn't have much self-awareness about how his thought processes cause the problem).
posted by Fairisle at 6:01 PM on May 12, 2012 [9 favorites]

For some reason I assumed your relative was a he, sorry!
posted by Fairisle at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2012

unless it's misinterpreted.

*in case*
posted by Fairisle at 6:14 PM on May 12, 2012

Best answer: Um..those are not statements about being hard on oneself -- they are complaints about how one is being treated by others..

Being hard on oneself is making statements like "I'm such an idiot."

I think what you're struggling with is the overwhelming feeling like its your responsibility to make the person feel better -- at least, that's what I often feel when this happens in my family. It took me fifteen years to realize the person was right -- everyone does treat her poorly. I always felt like her taking things personally and being hard on herself was why we shut her out. Turns out that when she criticized herself, she was preempting what she thought others were thinking. She's kind of right.

I heard a comedienne say once, about her own depression, that it took a number of years of therapy to realize that the depression was basically saying "I'm a piece of shit. AROUND WHICH THE ENTIRE WORLD REVOLVES." I think someone else's depression pulls me into a helpless situation and I resent it. It's the depression, though, not the person.

I've been working on changing my relationship with my family member, and it's gratifying to find a way to stop taking responsibility for her well of loneliness and not run away from it. We're both practicing.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:06 AM on May 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, that was extremely helpful.
posted by Dynex at 7:06 PM on May 14, 2012

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