How to deal with a family member when upset?
February 6, 2019 4:37 AM   Subscribe

What I am most concerned about is limiting what harm I can do to the people around me when I get into a state. In a lot of ways I am poorly equipped for it. One person in particular keeps wandering into my vicinity when I'm upset and they are often collateral damage.

"They" are an elderly relative of mine who I live with. It's often easiest to set aside how I feel and just do what's requested before recouping my peace of mind when I'm left alone, but sometimes I'm incapable of holding it together for the time needed. She would start talking to me and I would get irritated with her. It can happen regularly because we see each other every day; avoiding her, even by accident, is unlikely. And it would be disrespectful of me to do so.

I signal poorly for being upset, and part of the reason why is I resisted developing the skills to assert myself, to say I'm upset and need some space, because explaining why I needed that space was often an exercise in frustration. We have different ideas of what degree of it people need in day-to-day living and we are both the most stubborn people on the planet.

I have issues with the way my extended family deals with her by going around her and minimizing her, and rationalizing that it's because she can be intractable at the worst of the times, so needless to say I often want to at least want to give her more of my time and patience than I otherwise would. I'm technically old enough to leave the nest but various factors make that difficult and I feel disinclined to try.

But intent and practise are different things.

My affect tends to be somewhat flat because I can't arrange my face at the same time as I'm processing what's going on. On approach I realize it's very difficult to get a good read on how I'm feeling. And part of that is by design, because I don't want to be read sometimes. I don't want people to notice me, or pay too much attention to me, because I don't want them to have to bother with comforting me or whatever else it is that they want to do. It's just a bother to have to deal with that. It works well enough when my emotional baseline is, well, level. It works a lot less well when I'm about to spillover and have an episode, because no one, not even myself, is able to see it coming, and I often feel unprepared to deal with it.

It doesn't help that she tends to fly under my radar when I relax my guard; being in proximity, she, out of everyone in the house, has the highest chance of interrupting me when I'm in the middle of something. I react very, very poorly to being interrupted. In the sense that sometimes I get a flare of irritation but also in the sense that it takes me more than a moment to shift gears. By the time I've come around and answered her call, she's full of impatience and wondering why I look so tired.

I realize I may need to start setting down some more overt boundaries but I don't quite know how to go about that. What kind of a script could I use to handle her as gently as possible? Is there one?

Secondly, what sort of methods could I use to bottleneck my emotions more effectively until I can deal with them alone? I don't know if I can stomach hearing more about CBT, mindfulness, meditation, and/or exercise; frankly, I'm sick of those, if you'll pardon my language. But I'm open to suggestions.
posted by quiet bayleef to Human Relations (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Gosh, I think it's going to be hard for an elderly person to change her ways. The setting boundaries approach is unlikely to have much effect for very long. So in the spirit of retraining yourself instead, can you just take one breath when you realize you're about to blow, then muster something like: "Hold that for a second, Great Aunt so and so. I think I just heard my phone/forgot something in my room/have to use the bathroom." Then just leave the room for a few minutes until you feel calmer. This is a bit of a Band-aid approach in order to keep the peace in a household where you're stuck for now. If you want something more substantive and long-term, then it is therapy, mindfulness, CBT, etc.

P.S. I remember reading a long time ago that snapping a rubber band on one's wrist can remind someone on the verge of an outburst to stop for a second before erupting. Haven't ever read that on the Green, but maybe you could try that?
posted by Elsie at 5:49 AM on February 6, 2019

Addressing this part: "I may need to start setting down some more overt boundaries but I don't quite know how to go about that." I suggest letting people know clearly What you need exactly. For example, you need no interruptions when conditions are X. Like when you are in your room/work area with door closed, or door closed and "do not disturb" sign up or whatever. But...

It's best if there's an easily transmitted/shared idea of "Why." Not just "I feel the need to have my own time" (though that's perfectly reasonable), but "I'm working at my job from home at this period, and can't be interrupted at work," or "studying for v important exams," or "working on critical, difficult project that requires 100% of my attention when I'm engaged with it." With a partner, it should be easier to negotiate just plain old personal time, but with a family member, etc., especially someone older, you might need a more compelling explanation.

I do work from home, and my husband isn't a problem because he's working on his own stuff in his own area, but my desk is situated in an unfortunate spot in our too-small home, where people coming to see him would normally have to walk through. So I had to set a boundary about this during work time. "No, you need to take them outside and around the back way." It seems rude, but one doesn't traipse random people casually through someone's personal office in their employer's space, and I claim the same privilege. People understand "can't be disturbed because job" pretty well, we find.

It's also best if there's an easily transmitted/shared idea of "When." A regular schedule makes it a lot easier for people to follow the rule. And you should definitely balance this demand by being responsive in other ways. If people are relying on communication about stuff (meals, shopping, planning, help with various issues), you need to be reasonably / easily available for that, so they know that either "before X am and after Y pm," you will be around for whatever needs discussing or participation (or whatever alternative equivalent works best and is easily grasped – ie, preferably not a convoluted schedule with different hours on different days, or always changing parameters).

As with anything, consistency is key. Explain patiently and consistently (using the same language / exposition) as many times as needed the What, Why, and When until it becomes habit for everyone, and do not arbitrarily change expectations or break your own rules to the degree that your guidelines seem arbitrary and capricious (so, give some thought to to your parameters in a way that makes sense for you and is fair to your family / housemates). Keep it up until it's the new regular.

Good luck!
posted by taz at 6:06 AM on February 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

First of all, don’t beat yourself up about this. It sounds like you may be in a caregiving role, and that’s hard work. You’re allowed to feel worn out by it. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your person.

Second, this is not much of an immediate solution, but I wonder whether you would find it useful to practice naming your feelings. I don’t necessarily mean naming them to the person you’re talking to, even just naming them to yourself might help. It reads to me like you’ve spent a lot of time stuffing feelings down as inconvenient vulnerabilities, something that may be used against you. And I’m not sure how well that works in the long run.

I have a young child and I’ve been struck by how much of early childhood education is about teaching kids to name feelings. It’s as though by naming them you can tame them and prevent outbursts (and by all appearances it seems to work, over time). In watching this unfold, I realized I don’t think anyone deliberately taught me this skill, and I think that’s been to my detriment, honestly.
posted by eirias at 6:11 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Can you explain a bit more about what the problem is? You "react very, very poorly to being interrupted." Does that mean at any time doing anything for any reason? Genuine question.

My dad is nearly 90. I am about to go visit him, which is different than your situation. In any case, I do things like:

1. Warn him. Dad, I need to make work calls. I will be in the bedroom. Please don't disturb me. I will come out when I am done.

2. Leave. Sometimes I want to yell. Sometimes I do yell, much against my intentions. Leaving abruptly is better than yelling.

3. Make a joke. Sometimes I have enough mental bandwidth to make a joke. Not always but sometimes.

4. Switch what I am about to say. I am a critical and controlling personality but have become less critical and controlling since I started going to Al-Anon (for the friends and family members of alcoholics). Sometimes I am able to notice that I am about to criticise a loved one courtesy of the many years of training my dad has given me in being critical. What happens is I will say the person's name or title (Kid Bella Donna or Dad), and then I realize that I am about to offer unsolicited advice or vent about some BS that is none of my business or that I cannot change in any way. At that point I have a choice and when I have a choice rather than mindlessly emotionally vomiting on the people I love, I pause and then follow up their name with a true statement such as, "I love you," or "I am so glad I got to visit" or "I am glad I'm your daughter."

I have only been able to make this shift after lots of time and money in therapy, many years in Al-Anon, and even some meditation. I'm not saying you need to do any of those things. That is what I needed to do. Also, I practiced. Like, I practiced a lot doing the alternative thing instead of the thing I usually did that was unkind and made me feel bad. I would say things out loud to myself when I was alone in order to train my brain that it had options other than yell or say shitty mean things or be critical.

I will note that if you haven't known about the existence of boundaries until recently or never attempted them before, it will take some time to feel comfortable with making and having boundaries. I was in my 50s before I understood that the existence of boundaries within a family or couple was a sign of health. I was awkward and uncomfortable at first, but I basically saved my life by taking boundaries seriously once I discovered them. You don't have to be perfect to deserve to have boundaries, to create them, or to benefit from them.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:16 AM on February 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

As calmly as you can, say "I need some alone time." Retreat to the privacy of your room.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:27 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

You and I have a lot in common. Here are two very specific things that have helped me a lot.

1) It is very tiring to be in a one-sided relationship where you always give, give, give - even when it's someone you love! No wonder you are frustrated and snappy. What you need is to re-balance the relationship where you spend some quality time together. Set a regular time and place to hang out with your elderly relative, for example, Tuesday evenings you take them to the neighborhood coffee shop for an hour or so. If nothing else, it will minimize their constant bids for attention.

2) I've always found the cultural messaging around how to treat your elderly relatives - or the elderly in general - very confusing and frustrating. You are bad if you treat them as though they are less-than-equal/children, and you are bad if you don't. What's helped me is to realize that a person's age is neither here nor there and to think in terms of disability instead. If your relative is elderly but physically and cognitively they are fine then you don't need to accommodate them in any way. But if they have physical or cognitive disabilities then you need to make reasonable disability accommodations specific to their disability, just like an employer would. For me personally, it's much easier to process mentally and emotionally.

My mother has early Alzheimer's which can make her "intractable" to say the least, and I used to get really frustrated and snappy with her, and the two things above helped me and her immensely.
posted by rada at 7:57 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm also curious about the circumstances here -- there's virtually never a time when I'm not in the middle of something, be it working or playing a video game or watching something on TV or whatever, and for me, my reaction to being interrupted varies greatly depending on what it is that I'm doing. If I'm doing work, or engaged in something that requires a fair amount of my concentration, I'm going to be more irritated at being interrupted than I would be if I was just watching TV. And my irritation will be much greater if the person interrupting me KNOWS that I am working or trying to concentrate, and/or the interruptions are very frequent.
posted by sarcasticah at 8:27 AM on February 6, 2019

Hmmm. I don't think it's possible to entirely bottle emotions - the more you try the more diminishing the returns. Mindfulness is noticing them, and is a long ass process to cultivate, I don't blame you for feeling skeptical. Anyway, maybe this is me projecting - I have a difficult somewhat dependent relative of my own who is a real piece of work and who didn't just start being difficult and emotionally abusive when she got older - but/and .. there's an undercurrent in what you wrote that gives me a humch that if we were friends and i knew you beyond this post, and you were telling me about this, I might end up saying something like "is there a chance this isn't about you ? A chance that your affect is fine the way it is sans trouble shooting? A chance that even a saint or the dalai lama would be driven mad by the situation you're dealing with, because you're living with someone who - whether intentionally or not - is just crazy-making, and would be for anyone?" Were you raised by this person you are cohabitating with? Are you super sure the problem is you, and not some ideas a about yourself that this older difficult person has made you believe (eg "my resting face affect is not ok?")

What you wrote about not wanting to be read, noticed, or comforted .. was ..pretty deep and raised my suspicion that you've maybe been through some stuff. That sort of hypervigilance and being so hard on yourself that you find being comforted to be .. undesirable (?) is a lot to live with. I have noticed that these sorts of things seem to arrise from some adverse childhood or life experiences.. If you've had those, as others have said, give yourself a break. Well, even if you think you haven't, or just plain haven't, had those, still give yourself a break .. There's probably no way to be in your relative's life and not have intense emotions. There might be a limited degree to which you can, or should, expect equanimity in the face of all this from yourself. I'm really sorry you're going through this, it's not for the faint of heart.
posted by elgee at 9:12 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Dude, there are a lot of words here about how you want to not have feelings, express feelings, or be bothered by people who don't seem to have any way to deal with your feelings.

And then there are two sort of unspecific phrases, one of which is "harm I can do to the people around me when I get into a state" and "I'm about to spillover and have an episode, because no one, not even myself, is able to see it coming" that are kind of clarion bells here to me.

You're totally right that these things are related and it sounds like you bottle things up until they explode. That's a terrible way to live for you, never mind for the "collateral damage." The solution is not to get a thicker or better bottle, that just means a bigger explosion at some point. I think, from this short post, that you actually do get that on some level but you don't feel like there are any alternatives. I am here to tell you there are but you do have to commit to them.

I'm about to tell you a story of my day on Monday. I was working in an office next to an after-school program and I got the call that one of our kids, a child who has some diagnoses involving spectrums, was melting down. Indeed he was, and as I got to him, he was kicking a table a fairly impressive distance away from himself. My program is a martial arts focused program and so although I did briefly have to restrain him, I took him into one of our martial arts classrooms and gave him a training bag to hit.

At first, he was wildly out of control, and then gradually he was able to hit when I said "go hard" and slow down when I said "now aim slowly." After 5 or so minutes of whaling at things and testing some limits like lying on top of the bag, he had a bit more control, so we did some actual martial arts patterns together. After another few minutes, he was able to sit down and talk about what happened.

Now that's great, but last Friday he was able to come out of the room and say "I'm about to melt down" and then he went and did the bag thing before the meltdown.

And yesterday, he came in off the bus and said "I had a bad day can I sit in the office for a few minutes where it is quiet."

Not all days will be the same for him or for you but here is what you need to do, and I apologize, there is a bit of something like exercise in it.

1. You do need to establish quiet times for yourself. If you cannot have them at home, then I highly recommend you find a library, museum, park, coffee shop, or other location that you can visit at least a few times a week and have an hour or two where you can experience the calm and lack of interruption that you need. OR you need a lock on your door and noise cancelling headphones. But you need not minutes, but hours a week where you can have some peace.

You also need other activities that feed your well. For me, honest to god, watching comedies and laughing helps a lot. For other people it might be solving math problems. But you need to find a way to meet your needs. It sounds like people around you have sucked and keep sucking at helping.

2. You need to learn to walk away earlier if possible. There are lots of ways to do this. For me, when I was a more out-of-control person, I had to approach it from the vantage point of ethics which was that I had to establish that being about to be mean/scream/whatever was an emergency and I had to kind of establish mental smoke detectors and just - not get there. It's hard and it took me some serious work. I did have the space of living with someone that was able to learn that when I said "back off please" they would.

One trick for getting control when you are on the edge of losing it is to (as said above) name the feeling. I can yell "I'm GOING TO LOSE IT BECAUSE I'M SO FRUSTRATED" and somehow, that helps more than "AAAAAUUUUGH."

3. You need to expend that stress and energy that you have just by living where you live. And yeah, that could look like running/swimming/hitting things/yoga or it could look like axe throwing or smashing bricks, bowling, kneading bread, I dunno. But our bodies are wired in certain ways and if our bodies sense that we are living among tigers, and we are storing stress and anger and rage in our bodies, our bodies can be a way to get it out safely. I get that you are tired of hearing this, but it's biochemistry which is why people keep saying it. Exercise isn't a moral anything, it's a way of spending adrenaline.

I am using the word "need" deliberately under the assumption that what lurks in your phrases is something really out of control. You can do this, it's fully possible. But it's not possible to just bottle up. That's not control, it's containment, and it's a really different thing.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:31 AM on February 6, 2019 [11 favorites]

1. Is there anything you can do to give yourself more ability to cope? More sleep, more protein, less caffeine, more time with your friends?

2. Tell the elderly relative each time before you need no interruptions, and ask if they need anything first?
9am: "Elderly relative, I am about to start doing something that I need no interruptions during between 9am and 12 noon. Before I get started, is there anything that you need help with? Okay, I'll check in with you again at noon. Unless you're bleeding or something is on fire, please don't talk to me until 12 noon."

and then repeat at 12 noon, 3pm etc as necessary.

3. Make sure the elderly relative has a pen and a pad of paper handy.
So at 9am you can say:
"If you think of anything you want to tell me while I am working, write it down, and you can tell me at 12 noon."
posted by Murderbot at 3:30 PM on February 6, 2019

... you people are far too gentle with me. The upset that motivated this ask meant I wasn't all that clear-headed when I posted it, so it's not as well-described as it could have been.

I had a response much longer than this one typed up earlier. But I realized I had started telling my life's story and I don't know that that would be particularly helpful.

I'll at least dispel a few things before I go through some of your suggestions. If it isn't too much to ask, please bear with me as I clarify things a little (or a lot, I suppose).

I didn't have a particularly challenging childhood; at worst, I may have been overlooked, often by necessity, but my physical needs were met, and I grew up in a relatively secure environment. My parents weren't always around so that elderly relative of mine comes into the picture here. I knew I was loved, but I also got the sense that everyone was busy trying to keep things running, to make sure by the end of the day we still had financial security, so I should be as unobtrusive as possible.

Interruptions are a source of anxiety for me, partly because of a past fixation on ways to avoid it and history of hyper awareness of the presence of people. Avoiding it sometimes meant not being in the middle of anything when even just one other person was in my vicinity, because I felt I had to be able to adequately respond to them if they needed me for whatever reason. If had allowed my thoughts to wander and was interrupted, that was a failure on my part to pay attention.

On the other hand, interruptions make me lose my train of thought, and if I'm not expecting it I'm also quite unprepared to deal with whatever the interruption is. It's not quite the same thing, but bright lights and loud noises can bother me in much the same way. And when I'm not in a level state of mind, it's harder get back to where I can respond. It used to be that I had a much harder time keeping to task, because I was constantly distracted, by both my own thoughts and my surroundings, to the point that it was simply overwhelmingly impossible to cope without becoming an almost entirely passive participant of events.

I'm better at staying on task these days but the underlying fear I'll be unable to do something as basic as reliably fulfilling a previously-agreed-upon task is something that goes into nearly all my daily calculations.

I'm not in a caregiving role; I merely live in the same house. She generally doesn't ask very much of me, just tasks like helping her with things she no longer can reach, reading things she can't read; tasks that require precision; small tasks like that. Her stature in the extended family is less than it was so she can be needy in other ways, and sometimes I end up stonewalling her because I'm afraid of the potential of being too relied upon for her mental well-being. The problem is, I'm not the only person doing the stonewalling, and being the one who is most easily accessible to her, at least in a physical sense, it's ... hard to watch.

I spoke of boundaries before, but now I'm wondering if my problem is that I had too many in the first place. But I really do need a space to unwind and recharge, and that space is often my room, behind a locked door. In her view, the whole house should be treated like a common room; personal space should be shared. She generally respects that we, the other inhabitants, disagree with her on this. I've known all along that this is her preference, but I can't keep my door open all the time; it makes me feel exposed. I can't fully disconnect from that part of me that wants to head off every potential interruption with nothing less than my full wits until I'm alone.

It has taken time for her to trust that I'll be there when she calls for me, and I'm reluctant to lose her because of an upset on my part. When I'm upset, the way she inadvertently comes to irritate me is that she intrudes on my ability to finish processing my emotions.

I'm sorry, I've read all your comments, but I think I'll have to respond to your suggestions tomorrow. Though I don't know, maybe I'm not taking the right approach to this. Your suggestions are all very useful for me to have read them, and the fact that you took the time to post them is appreciated. Given the poor wording of my ask, not all of it is relevant, but... Thank you.
posted by quiet bayleef at 12:48 AM on February 10, 2019

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