Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Our family members can certainly be a joy. Except when they’re not.
In the right place at the right moment, even someone you love can seem like a pretty bad person, like when a family member:
Accuses you of not holding up your end of the household chores when you aren’t feeling well.
Tells you to “just think positive” when you try to talk about how you are feeling.
Criticizes you for neglecting some aspect of your self-care without understanding what really happened.
Just plain ignores you.
Dealing with the challenges of a chronic condition can put your emotions on edge. Especially on those days when you don’t feel well, when you’ve had a setback, or when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere.
And when you’re feeling a little vulnerable, a supportive family member can make a positive difference in your life by giving you the encouragement you need to have a better day. A smile, a few caring words, an offer to give you a helping hand…who doesn’t feel better when a little love is tossed in their direction?
When family becomes the problem
On the other hand, some days, family members aren’t able or willing to provide that encouragement and, instead, say something angry, hurtful, or just don't seem to care at all.
“Wow! I thought you loved me!”
So if you are having one of those dark, cloudy days—and so is your family member—the result is like a perfect storm. Everybody’s dark cloud gets darker with nobody quite understanding what’s going on.
When the clouds have settled in, it’s human nature to lose the big picture of your life and replace it with a very narrow lens. But through that narrow lens, something relatively small—like the actions of a family member—may suddenly look very large. So large that, in fact, not only are their actions magnified, but so is the impact of these actions on your day.
What’s important to consider is that turning your loved one into a bad guy doesn’t make you feel any better, or at least not for long. It just gives you a target for your frustration along with an excuse to let your feelings bubble up and boil over while you shove reason and rational thinking off into the corner. You end up feeling that all of that negativity is justified. And that means more suffering and stress for everybody in the house!
Worse yet, making a family member the bad guy can drive a wedge between the two of you. And you risk damaging a relationship with someone who plays an important role in your life!
Tips for handling family troubles
Here are some ideas to consider:
Take a step back to look at the situation objectively. Yes, our loved ones do things that disappoint us or make us mad. But the frustration or anger or disappointment that you are feeling may be part of something much bigger. And the people who are closest to us can also be the closest target for our frustration. Is it your family member, or is something else bothering you?
Try to identify what button is being pushed. When someone isn’t very helpful or is unkind, we can be reminded of all the other times in our life when people weren’t very helpful, treated us poorly, or bullied us. And we may feel that pain again. When we are feeling this way, old resentments that we feel toward a loved one—resentments that we thought we had left in the past—can suddenly bubble up. Do you see the pattern? Is there something that the two of you need to talk about and resolve?
Stand back and get a wider view. Your family member’s current behavior may stick out like a sore thumb, but isn’t there more to the relationship than this moment in time? What do you most value about your relationship? What do you most admire about them? Recall a time when your family member was there when you needed them. Or a fun time that you enjoyed together. Or the loving manner in which they treated you yesterday. In other words, look at the big picture.
Consider the possibility that someone else is also having a bad day. It’s only human to have expectations for the people in our lives who are closest to us. But let’s face it, people don’t always meet our expectations. Your loved one may have something going on that they aren’t ready to share, or don’t know how to share. Is there anything you can do to make their day better?
Time doesn’t always heal all wounds. When someone close to you disappoints or angers you, it is easy to react by cutting them off. But when we stop communicating with someone, our minds have a way of rewriting the story, making the wound that much deeper and turning a misdemeanor into a major crime. Try getting the communication going again. Start out with making a kind gesture of your own or offering to talk things out.
Do what you can to keep the communication going, and accept what you can’t do. Some family members may be unable or unwilling to be supportive, or at least as supportive as we need them to be. Expand your social network by bringing more supportive and caring people into your life.
Let’s give everybody in the house some breathing space, starting with allowing each other to be human. After all, we are all in this together!