Three readers have commented on my most recent post, “Family Conflicts and Rifts.” Echo wonders what to do when family members repeatedly turn her honest feedback about hurt feelings against her. Julia asks for more on how to hold your ground without arguing and Kelly, whose anger got me to thinking about the issue in the first place, describes how she is working on understanding her family members’ limitations and forgiving them.
I think we all have a right, if not a duty, to protect ourselves. Offering oneself up to be hurt over and over, as Kelly originally described, does no one any good. It actually adds to the guilt of those who can’t stop themselves from hurting. In fact, making oneself vulnerable presents a temptation that some people simply can’t resist. Even worse, each new injury adds to a long list and can only contribute further to anger and resentment. When it is time to let go, there is that much more hurt to write off.
With people who are able to be responsive, the healthy thing to do is certainly the kind of response described by Echo, honest sharing of one’s feelings. Healthy people will be able to empathize and will be motivated to change their behavior. When they repeatedly fail this test, then it seems safe to conclude that they do not have the ability to feel and be moved by another’s distress. At that point, I think it is fair to consider our own feelings as precious personal property that we would not put in the hands of people who don’t know its value. It is like giving antique porcelain figurines to someone who has no idea of their value or meaning.
So, responding to Julia and Echo, what middle ground might there be? One possibility would be to say, “I’m sorry you can’t help yourself, but name calling is still painful, and I will not chose to stay if it continues.” Unfortunately, this gives the name-caller a new opportunity to label one as “too sensitive” or “misguided,” as happened with the family described in the earlier post. When the hurtful people feel obligated to have the last word, then, sadly, this approach won’t work to bring about any immediate change.
On the other hand, if you are prepared to let go of the relationship, then telling the truth is a way of affirming your dignity. As I indicated in my original post, the pull of family bonds is such that taking a stand without accusing the others or trying to change their minds may eventually motivate the hurtful ones to soften their stance. I have seen this happen on many occasions, even when the immediate response was not at all positive. The key is willingness to lose the relationship. This does not work as a ploy or manipulation, but only if your are genuinely at the point of unwillingness to participate in a hurtful relationship.
Another middle ground approach is “behavior modification.” This means that when they say hurtful things, you quietly disappear. If you give an explanation, it is not the real one. “I have some things to take care of.” The real explanation would be fodder for more abuse. This bit of dishonesty is warranted, in my view, because the hurtful ones have disqualified themselves from receiving the full truth. If the approach works, then over time, the hurtful person may change without having to acknowledge any imperfection. Having grown up in such a family, you may not realize how much the hurtful ones actually depend on the connection with you. They would deny it, but a temporary absence sends a powerful non-verbal message to the mammalian brain.
Does anyone have another approach? Sadly, I think the next step is to disengage and distance. (See my post, “The Rule of Disengagement,” as well as Anne-Sophie’s, “Is it Time to Break Up with Your Family?”)
Once again, as in my original post, Kelly’s goal of working through her anger and finding compassion is perhaps more important than weighing different strategies. After facing one’s feelings, deciding what to do will naturally become clearer.