Family Can Be Temperamental: Half Temper, Half Mental

When on personal growth path, we tend to attract others who are similarly focused. The like-minded drive and the support we experience is often crucial to achieving our goals. Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges is not necessarily in making new friends, or even releasing old ones; it is finding a new place in our family.

Recently, my friend April said something to her younger sibling that inadvertently triggered a strong reaction in him. Not wanting to get hooked into the common victim/perpetrator perspective with her brother, she instead apologized for her role in the incident and even endured a scolding from his wife. Her brother, on the other hand, clearly wanted to avoid talking about what happened. That is, until he had a meeting near her neighborhood, and afterward met April for dinner.

During the meal they discussed the triggering event in a mature and polite way, however her brother used the opportunity to tell her all of the things he thought she was doing wrong in her life. He lamented that she was not the April he knew 10 years ago. He expressed his desire that she revert back to that old version of herself — a version that she knew was controlled by fear, anxiety, and turbulent emotions.

Later, April said that, for most of the dinner, she felt outside of her body. The 10 years of personal growth April has undergone allowed her to listen calmly to her brother’s unsolicited advice and objectively evaluate how to respond, agreeing or disagreeing to each statement without any emotional charge. “At one point,” she shared, “I thought, I have nothing in common with this person, except that we have the same parents. If I met him at a cocktail party, I might talk politely with him for 5 minutes before moving on.”

Upon reflection, what troubled April most was not her brother’s judgements or advice. Instead, it was a loneliness. While she did not always fit in with her family before, she realized she now felt like a permanent outsider. She had removed so much familial conditioning, released so much emotional baggage, and reframed so many limiting beliefs that she felt that she had very little in common with any of them.

Family systems are like television shows; we each have a specific role to play. After undergoing personal development, a person begins to rewrite their narrative, and even create a new show for themselves. The rest of the “cast” either accepts the person leaving the “old show” for the new one or attempts to bring the person back into their old series by coercion, manipulation or force.

Rather than continue to take on her old role, April could invite her family into her new show with “guest appearances,” while making it clear that she is no longer interested in continuing her “character” on the old show. After a short brainstorm a few tactics emerged:

  • The Three-Day Rule: Limit in-person time with family members to a maximum of three nights. This is usually enough to cover most of the big holidays. This practice comes out of the concept that after about three days, one’s ability to endure difficult family situations starts to wane. Also, it takes about this long for casual conversation topics to dry up, which increases the risk of loved-one broaching subjects that are more controversial. This rule doesn’t necessarily need one that is expressed to the family directly. It can simply be an unspoken guideline you use for planning your time with family.
  • Avoid trigger topics: Every family has them, but not every family member is aware of which issues are a trigger for others. Start by identifying them for yourself, and then move on to listing other topics that might trigger others. Then do you best to refrain from these topics when conversing with family members.
  • Change the Subject: While you might do this already when conversations begin to go sideways, it’s an excellent tactic to step in consciously and in a subtle way. If this doesn’t work, reduce the subtlety of the subject changing you are attempting.
  • Set Boundaries: If changing the subject doesn’t work, (or if a family member is just oblivious that some topics are undesirable to discuss) address these issues in a direct, non-confrontational way before atmosphere becomes too heated. This can be usually handled by expressing your appreciation for the person and following that up with a statement about how it’s okay if the two of you disagree.
  • Count To Ten and Breathe: Even if someone is rubbing you the wrong way, there’s nothing that says you need to give the person your energy by reacting to it. Instead, take ten (or more ) long, deep breaths until your emotions subside. If you feel the need to step away from the situation to give yourself some space, this can be effective as well, as long as you make a commitment to yourself, to resolve the situation later in a non-confrontational manner.
  • Look at things from their Perspective: Everyone has their reasons for acting the way they do. Often, these strategies were elegant solutions to past problems, but they don’t work for current challenges. As an example, maybe a son struggled to develop a relationship with his dad because his dad wasn’t close with his own father. It may not solve the current challenges you are facing, but understanding someone’s perspective helps make it easier to accept them for who they are.
  • Accept, Don’t Try to Change People: This can be the toughest one, and also the most effective tactic. People are who they are, and until they choose to make changes in their life, we can’t force them to act any differently. Instead, we get a chance to accept people for who they are. When we can embrace this stance, the challenging family interactions that inevitably arise become easier to see objectively, and simpler to handle without as much emotion.

By moving beyond her old “role,” April is pioneering a new frontier for her whole family system. It only takes one person to push the boundaries of what’s possible and provide an example for others to follow. Her growth process could unconsciously inspire her brother, or another family member to move in a similar direction. If in their entire lifetimes they accomplish only 10 percent of what she has, it will still set them up for better outcomes and a future of deeper possibility.

It takes a large amount of strength and independence to move beyond your family system. Yet, the same endurance and perseverance that helps us grow beyond family limitations also can allow us to stay connected and involved with our family members’ lives, even if we don’t relate to them on the levels they wish we did. The same tools that helped us release the layers of our old selves can help us forge new paths with our families, should we choose to stay a part of their lives.

Think back on your recent family interactions. How are you allowing yourself to be pulled back into old paradigms? Where do you feel you’ve moved beyond the role that they expect of you? What might you need to let go of, to be able to connect with them from a new perspective?

“Some of us aren’t meant to belong. Some of us have to turn the world upside down and shake the hell out of it until we make our own place in it.” ― Elizabeth Lowell, Remember Summer

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