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There are times in life when you’ve encountered people who are difficult. Maybe their way of being really clashes with yours, or maybe they challenge and cross your boundaries, or they’re emotionally, mentally and even physically taxing.

When you experience people like this, you may feel increasingly wary of spending time with them or even be afraid. When you like aspects of their personality and have ‘good times’, it can cause you to rationalise or even deny the trickier aspects of engaging with them. A lot of the time though, especially if you’re exposed to this person over an extended period of time or they remind you of someone else who behaves this way, you personalise their behaviour to such a degree that you are unable to be boundaried, or you over-empathise and deny, rationalise and minimise their behaviour or its impact.

When it’s somebody you don’t know or someone you feel you can choose whether or not to be around, it can be easier to have perspective and to even walk away. When this person is someone you’ve known all of your life because of your blood connection, it’s not so easy and you might in fact regard it as very difficult or even impossible due to the love you feel for them, your concept of family and wanting to hold on to it, loyalty, being entrenched in your own habits, repercussions on you or other family members if you do, or quite simply not wanting to.

Contemplating changing painful dynamics brings up fear of abandonment.

Sometimes a tricky (difficult, impossible, toxic) family member has always been this way and sometimes, issues have only really become clear or come about in adulthood. They may have good intentions and love you but don’t recognise that they have an unhealthy or incompatible style of relating (or they do but don’t want to adapt or have problems that get in the way of this) or, they really don’t have good intentions, engaging in destructive behaviour in order to get people to serve their own aims. Jealousy, envy, hoarding grudges or a family member feeling that they’re owed something, can bring out the pleaser in you. You might have hoped that they would change but it’s becoming clear that they’re not.

You might be experiencing a tricky family member who overwhelms you in ways because they expect so much of you. You might feel smothered but then when you try to step back, they ramp up their efforts and you feel guilty. You might feel as if you’re responsible for their feelings and behaviour and even though logically you know you’re not, your emotions (and theirs) get the better of you.

Whatever the situation, the net result is that this person is difficult to deal with and your well-being is compromised.

It might be one or both of your parents, a sibling, a grandparent, your child, extended family— no family member is exempt from being difficult and it can cause an incredible amount of pain and grief.

It might be more than one family member so it can result in a feeling of being ganged upon, or them closing rank, or it even having a touch of Tony Soprano, “You will respect the family!” vibe about it. They may all communicate similarly or have a leader with followers looking for validation, fearing disapproval, or living in denial. You might feel as if you’re The Black Sheep, The Truth Bearer or The Scapegoat.

You might have inherited this person because they’re a relative of your partner (in-laws) and sometimes, depending on your culture, they’re not even blood relatives but you’ve been calling them ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ etc all of your life.

A Tricky Family Member (TFM) is somebody with whom you’re experiencing difficulties on an ongoing basis or, who even if you’re no longer engaging with them, the way that you’re thinking and feeling about them is hogging up your mental and emotional resources and impacting on your sense of self, your choices, and even your other relationships.

Any person who you come out the exchange with feeling less than, drained, resentful, victimised, watch out.

If you think and act like a child around a person even though you’re no longer one, or they expect you to fill a child role so that they can disrespect your boundaries under the guise of ‘authority’, beware.

If a TFM brings up feelings of guilt, fear, obligation, blame, shame or throws it on you— something’s up in funky town.

All on their terms, tend to want something from you, have a habit of soaping you up in an effort to prime you for slipping their latest inappropriate request or expectation of you? Yep, they’re tricky.

When you look at the way in which you engage with or think about a TFM, you will notice that you have been thinking and doing certain things in order to cope with the fact that they’re difficult, impossible at times, or even toxic.

T1000There’s toxic as in draining, dragging you down with their unhealthy style of behaviour and there’s toxic as in shady and downright abusive.

A TFM is either so predictable that you’re almost bracing yourself for what you’ve come to expect from them, near draining yourself with guilt and resentment in advance or, they’re hard to predict in terms of what shenanigans they’ll get up to next— they’re like T1000 in Terminator 2 (left), shapeshifting and just keep coming back for more.

Whatever your situation, it cannot continue. You’re either going to have to engage differently (i.e. being boundaried) and/or spend less time around them (which will ease stress and resentment), or put some distance between you (gain objectivity and recognise limitations of this relationship), or opt out temporarily or permanently.


  • There’s a massive difference between being conscientious and having to pussyfoot around and edit and shave you down due to recognising how difficult a person is – it’s time to recognise what you’ve been dealing with.
  • You do not have to lose yourself in order to keep a person in your life. Abandoning you to avoid abandonment elsewhere will become intolerable.
  • A one-sided or imbalanced relationship is set up to hurt and fail.
  • TFM situations take a toll on you and you have got to stop sacrificing your well-being in disruptive, draining or abusive relationships. You will not earn stickers, stripes or brownie points for doing so.
  • Much as you may love this person, resentment on one or both sides will choke the life out of the relationship.
  • It’s important to open up an ongoing conversation with you about what you have been experiencing – don’t whitewash unfair, unreasonable or abusive behaviour.
  • You can’t be around this person day in day out or keep engaging with them in the same way or keep holding out hope that they’re going to change. You are the only person you can control so in order to feel better, you’re going to have to change the way that you engage by using self-care and healthy boundaries.
  • This not a simple situation, I know this, believe me I do as I have lived it for 38 years and many have lived it for longer, but you do have options and none of them involve you having to continue being impacted in the way that you are or have been.
  • It’s time to recognise your rights and responsibilities and also acknowledge theirs – you can care about others and care about you too.
  • You are not selfish, disloyal, uppity, stupid, uncaring, or anything else they (or you) have been saying about you or your desire for things to be different or to have more boundaries. Wanting to have more loving relationships or to at the very least, limit the impact of unhealthy ones, is a loving desire that benefits all parties, even the ones who can’t see past their nose to recognise it.

Journal PromptJOURNALING: What have you been thinking, feeling and doing in order to cope with dealing with a tricky family member? Write down the beliefs, write down the recurring feelings, write down your concerns and write down what you’ve been doing in order to manage this relationship? What have you been criticising you about? What have you (if anything – you’d be surprised how a lot of us target the bulk of the criticism at ourselves)

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