Select Page

DEALING WITH TRICKY FAMILY MEMBERS (1)

Audio Video

When we’re around family members who are more assertive and aggressive than us plus we might view them as authorities or feel burdened by obligations, guilt and fear, their responses when we attempt to speak up and step up for ourselves can be feel quite intimidating, and so if we don’t hear or see what we want and expect the first time we state something or we put it together with our previous experiences of them and predict what we think is likely to happen next, we dilute or even retract the original statement by either explaining, justifying, and rationalising, or just complying with whatever they’re wanting and expecting. We feel afraid, guilty, and start questioning the validity of our needs, expectations, feelings etc, while also now considering it of paramount importance to be pleasing so that we can feel better, i.e. less afraid, guilty, and full of doubt.

These are feelings that we can experience with any person with whom we struggle with boundaries but they’re going to be exacerbated that much more when they’re a family member – history, a sense of hierarchy, obligations especially the faux ones, unmet needs, guilt, fear, concerns about being abandoned or excluded, concerns about causing issues for other family members and the list goes on.

What fuels this situation is the misplaced belief that if our needs, expectations, wants, feelings, and opinions are valid and ‘right’, that people, especially our family members who will feel are supposed to care about, love and support us, will just capitulate to them or even know them without us having to put ourselves out, again. It’s also the assumption that people will look to reach a compromise without us having to assert ourselves and be clear on our own position. We take their reaction personally and use it as a barometer of what our rights and responsibilities are.

My first acupuncturist taught me to use what’s commonly known as Broken Record technique, which not only teaches you to stand behind you and to be more persistent in a calm, respectful way that reinforces your point but it also means that you are in the present, that you’re listening to the other person and that you are recognising that regardless of what they say or do, your answer is still that you cannot meet their request because of your recognition of your own needs, boundaries etc.

Remember that recognising your own needs and boundaries is not selfish. If a person expects you to say yes to something because they feel as if you are not allowed to have a choice about it, that is selfish.

You are most likely to have to use Broken Record with people who habitually attempt to bulldoze you into doing what they want and who may have no shame about tugging on your guilt strings. Yes, that is most likely going to be your family or anyone else who is similar to them.

Broken Record is needed in situations where you give up your rights, where the person seems to think that they have ‘clever’ arguments to distract you from your own needs, expectations etc, and any situation where it’s likely to detract from your self-esteem.

It also helps you to compassionately but firmly deal with somebody who was a very codependent way of engaging with you and so when you try to have a more distinct identity and give them their responsibilities, they dig their heels in and may try to emotionally blackmail you, possibly because they’re doing it consciously but also possibly because they’re entrenched in their learned communication style so don’t recognise habits they’ve adopted to try to get people to take responsibility for their stuff.

With Broken Record, you learn to let what may be the deluge of prodding in the form of ‘whys’ and justifications from the other party that are really there to trigger your guilt so that you comply.

The aim of what you’re doing is to state clearly whatever it is that you need to say in as calm and relaxed a manner as possible, with the end goal being that if it’s an unreasonable request that they listen, accept your answer and back away, and if it’s coming from a respectful source and it’s something that with some further discussion, could respect each of your needs, expectations etc, that you can potentially find a solution you can both live with.

Think of it as mentally drawing a bubble or a box around you that’s recognising that you need to stay in your own space and not take on their stuff.

Two key things to remember:

  • Stick to the point
  • Don’t be distracted by anything that’s ‘off topic’. This is key because often the person who uses clever little arguments or who makes generalisations to guilt you, will bring up old stuff or slip in a sly dig, or drag in what they think are side issues. Stay on topic and stick to what you’re saying and repeat it.

 

EXAMPLE #1

Skyler and her cousin Walt are having a discussion when it takes a sudden twist and Walt makes an assertion that’s wholly inappropriate.

In this situation, you need to do the ‘Why did you say/do….?’ and repeat what they said as closely as possible and be factual about anything that’s been done and then go into Broken Record.

Skyler: Walt! Why did you say __________________________?

Walt: Well, you know what I mean.

Walt gets defensive.

Skyler: No I don’t really know what you mean when you say ____________________. – Use the techniques from Be Factual to explain your position.

Walt now wants to dodge facing what he’s said.

Walt: See this is why I don’t bother talking to you about this stuff because you’re too sensitive.

Skyler: But the point is Walt, the issue is not me being sensitive, it’s that you said _______________.

Walt brings up something else irrelevant.

Skyler: That’s not the main issue here Walt. The issue is ______________. You said _____________.

Walt brings up another side issue.

Skyler: Like I said before, I asked you about that and yes, I was a bit taken aback because you said _______________________.

Walt: Well that’s not what I meant when I said that.

Skyler: OK Walt but you still haven’t said what you did mean when you said ______________.

Walt: Well, what’s the point? You’re not going to listen to me anyway.

Skyler: I am listening to you Walt and I hope that you’re listening to me. As I said before, the reason why I was taken aback was because you said _______________.

Now this may go on for some time if they’re used to doing this until you cave but stick to your guns and if after several attempts to stick to the main point, they refuse to, suggest that you pick up this conversation when you’ve both had a bit of time. See the Be Factual Approach for more guidance.

EXAMPLE #2

You originally did something as a one-off favour for your sister that has now happened multiple times

Sister: Can you lend me £100?

You: I’m sorry. I won’t be able to lend you money this time.

Sister: But I really need it! I promise I’ll pay it back / I promise I’ll pay it back with the other money.

You: I hear you but I can’t lend you the money. You will have to get it from someone else.

Sister: But you earn more than I do and I really need it!

You: I understand {showing empathy} but I have my own commitments and I’m not going to be able to loan you the money.

Sister: You’re supposed to be my sister.

You: We are sisters but that doesn’t mean that I have to loan you this money. I’m not going to be able to loan you the money. OR We are sisters and I’ve loaned you money before but this time, I’m not going to be able to.

Note – this is an example of a situation where the person focuses on the one time you are not doing something and fails to acknowledge all of the previous times. In a situation like this, you can say stuff like, “I’m your sister whether I loan you money or not” or “It’s not fair for you to imply that because I’m unable to loan you money on this occasion that I’m not your sister. I understand that you’re annoyed because you had expected that I would say yes but I do find it hurtful that you’re inferring that because I’m not useful on this occasion then I’m not your sister. That’s not fair”.

 

EXAMPLE #3

Father: You’re going to have to cancel your plans this weekend as I need your help with bla bla bla.

You: I understand {empathy} that you’re ______________ but I won’t be able to.

Father: But I really need you to do this stuff!

You: I’m sorry mum but it can’t happen this weekend.

Father: Maxine’s (her neighbour) daughter is always dropping whatever she’s doing to help her out. Why can’t you be like that?

You: Father, I’ve dropped things on many occasions to help you out {clarification of the facts instead of drowning in guilt}. In fact, this is the first time I can ever recall saying no to you {factual assertion of the true state of affairs and acknowledgment that they’re being unreasonable}. I can’t help you out this weekend {restating your boundary i.e. turning down the request}.

Father: I bet what you’re doing isn’t even that important! I suppose I’ll have to ask your brother.

You: I’ve made plans father and I’m not going to argue with you about how important they are. I think it’s a great idea that you ask him! {suggesting an alternative which is a form of negotiation – you will get to have your weekend and she will still get her objective met – getting those tasks done.}

You can also pre-empt future requests by making future boundaries clear.

You: I appreciate that you might feel annoyed (or whatever emotion you think that they’re feeling) because you’re used to me dropping everything and always saying yes. I hold my hands up and take ownership of creating that expectation but I can’t do that anymore. While of course there are going to be genuine emergency situations, if you can ask me at least a few days in advance, it would be really helpful. If you ask me at the last moment, I’m very likely to have already made plans. If I’m unable to do something, I’ll let you know straight away so that you have time to organise someone else.

And stick to your guns. Don’t cancel plans, don’t go round there grudgingly – this is back to not positively reinforcing what you know doesn’t work and setting boundaries by following up what you say with what you’re showing. If they repeat what you’ve already said isn’t possible:

You: As I said the last time when there was the issue of me not being able to cancel my plans, I need you to ask me in good time. I’m not saying that this means that I’ll always be able to but at least we both have more options when this happens.

 

EXAMPLE #4

Your mother and you have established a routine over time where she has deferred everything to you, expecting you to fulfil partner role, daughter, everything. While there are certain things that she cannot do, there’s plenty that she can but she has now gotten so used to putting it on you, guilting you, and you complying, that she is very resistant to change that would make your relationship less codependent. You’re now in a situation where she wants you to do something that she is capable of doing.
Mother: I don’t know why you can’t just get on with this. You know I’m old and that I can’t do this stuff.

You: I appreciate that these things are important to you but there are some things here that you are able to do. {empathy & responsibility}

Mother: No, I can’t. Why do you have to be so difficult? Haven’t I suffered enough in life? What kind of daughter won’t do things for her mother? I could be dying here and you wouldn’t care. You know all of my problems.

You: Mom, that really isn’t fair. You are using a guilt trip to try to get me to do what you want and you know what mom? I have done what you want many times but each time you use guilt to make me do what you want, it causes resentment and because I do love you and do not want our relationship to be filled with resentment, you need to recognise that the guilt trip is causing resentment to build. It is not because I’m a bad daughter; I feel this way because you keep using guilt to oblige me in to doing what you want. I’m not saying that I’m not going to help you; I’m saying that I’m going to do the stuff that you’re unable to do. {bringing the guilt communication out in to the open}

Mother: How can you speak to your own mother like that? I’m so hurt.

You: I’m sorry that you’re hurt and I appreciate that it’s not easy for you to hear what I’m saying here and you know what? I own my part in not saying something sooner to you. I’ve not wanted to cause upset or for it to descend into an argument but I cannot continue feeling like this. I truly do value our relationship. I know that you have not had an easy life but I am concerned about how our relationship is becoming built on a foundation of guilt and resentment. {empathy, responsibility and acknowledging value of the relationship}

Mother: I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I can’t believe my own daughter is speaking to me this way.

You: Mom, what I’m saying to you here is exactly because I love you and it’s also because I want to spend time with you and do things for you without being guilted. You don’t need to guilt me in order to ask me to do something – just ask me and respect my decisions when I’m unable to. I will often do what you want if you just come out straight with it. {compassionately stating the boundary}

Mom: All I’ve been trying to do is get you to help me.

You: But mom, I have been helping you all of these years so there is no reason to say all of the stuff that you do or to get so angry with me when I’m unable to comply. Instead of telling me about what a bad daughter I am or bringing up lots of stuff from the past when I say no to something or I ask you to do things that you can, hear my no. When you know and I know that you’ve guilted me and even shamed in to doing what you want, it doesn’t feel good for either of us. What you can be sure of if we cut down all of this guilt and resentment is that when I do say yes, you know I’m doing so wholeheartedly.

This is not a one-shot discussion – you will likely have to do several reminders. Do it from a compassionate and patient place because getting exasperated will only feed the dynamic that you’re trying to step away from. It will take time for them to get used to the change plus it will also take time for you. Be consistent and use action to make your boundaries clear.

 

The TAKEAWAY

  • Use the Broken Record technique when saying ‘no’ once is not enough, when people use guilt to trigger your conscience so that you can feel obliged, and when turning down unreasonable requests.
  • We need to be more persistent in representing ourselves instead of giving up at the first sign of discomfort.
  • If you sound exasperated or angry, it will become aggressive communication instead of assertive communication.
  • Empathy, clarification, and owning your own part in an issue means that you avoid using language that solely focuses on the negative aspects.
  • You can state your boundaries without judging – you make clear what is unhealthy about your interaction and how you want it to be.
  • Remember: It’s about it being unreasonable to you. People who don’t have good boundaries don’t know their own line never mind yours so you must show it.
  • Remember: Assertiveness is not about looking to rule the other person or make them ‘give in’ first.
  • Remember that it’s difficult to find a healthy compromise – a solution you can both live with that respects each of you – if you don’t know and haven’t vocalised your own position.
  • Also note that people who are more assertive and aggressive, especially if you’ve already been quite passive with them, don’t tend to take your first no seriously.

 

Journal PromptJOURNALING: Can you see how if you do things out of guilt, that you are guaranteed to feel resentful? Thinking about any relationships where guilt and obligation has played a part, can you see how backing down and complying has only made things worse? How do you feel about bringing guilt trips out in to the open but also sticking to your guns so that you can establish a healthier relationship?

taskTASK: Write out your own example dialogue using Broken Record. Tweak any of the examples above to make it sound more like you and the TFM. Remember that the key is that you don’t get drawn in to what they’re saying and you stick to your no / position.