What to Do When a Family Member (or anyone, really) Treats You With Contempt
You get to choose your friends, but not your family. With friends, you pick people who are supportive, interesting, and help you grow. But with your family, you have no choice. So you often find yourself stuck with people you’d never befriend. You feel a duty to see them—especially around the holidays or special events—even when you’d rather avoid them.
AVOIDANCE IS AN OPTION, BUT SO IS SPENDING TIME WITH THEM
Of course avoidance is one choice. As a psychotherapist, I do sometimes recommend cutting off relationships that are truly toxic—violent, threatening, or incessantly demeaning. If you don’t want to go to that extreme, at least exercise caution with difficult family members. Make sure you never have contact with them when you’re extremely worn down or stressed out and feel you won’t be able to regulate your own mood or behavior.
Absent those conditions, however, I usually recommend to my patients that they not avoid contact. On the contrary, I advise them to initiate contact from time to time—not because it’s fun, but because it’s an amazing opportunity to grow emotionally.
I know … it sounds crazy. But here’s how it works. Every human being needs love and validation. So far so good. But when you explore the dark recesses of the human soul, you find something fascinating. Deep down, we tend to want love and validation even more from people who withhold it than from people who give it to us freely. Some perverse part of us doesn’t value “free” love as highly as love we have to work for. Which means the more difficult a person is, the more we’re drawn to winning love from them.
That suggests a first step you can take to grow beyond this painful dynamic. Even if you’re not sure of this, assume that deep down, there’s part of you that secretly hopes you can win them over. That gives them a lot of power. You go into every encounter hoping they’ll be different, and they crush your hope every time with their contempt. It’s like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown—you fall for it every time.
CRUSH YOUR OWN HOPES IN ADVANCE
Here’s a way to do that. It’s called “renunciation.” Prior to initiating contact with a toxic family member, sit yourself down and get real. Actively crush your false hopes. Put this in your own words, but the message you want to send to yourself is: “There’s a babyish part of me that still hopes for love, approval, validation—things I’m never going to get. It’s time for me to grow up. I renounce all hope of ever receiving anything positive from this person, now and forever.”
If you’re doing this with real sincerity, you should feel a sense of loss. That’s understandable. You’re giving up something you thought you could get. But remember: if you don’t give it up, you’ll keep subjecting yourself to abuse and hurt. No matter how painful it is, repeat this ritual “renunciation” as often as you can. You’ll see, over time, not only will the pain dissipate, you’ll have a much easier time dealing with the problem person.
ALSO TRY THE PROJECTION DISSOLVING TOOL
Without realizing it, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about what to say and not to say to this person. They end up taking up a lot of space in your head. Whenever you notice yourself thinking about the difficult person, whether it’s before, during, or after the family get together, use this tool. It’s called Projection Dissolving:
Close your eyes and see that person as larger than life—gigantic and shimmering with power, like an actor in a spotlight. Experience yourself as a small, scared child trying to placate, avoid, fight with, or (if you’re really honest with yourself) win their approval.
Imagine there’s something in your heart that has projected all this energy onto them, like a movie projector shows an image on a screen. Suck all of the energy back into your heart. This should feel physical, as if you’re sucking a substance back inside yourself. The person will deflate down to normal size, like a balloon losing all its air. Now he/she is just a normal human being – unpleasant to be around, but without any real power. All of the energy you were projecting outward is now inside you. You feel expanded inside. From this place, the other person is no longer a threat.
Look at the now-deflated image of the other person and apologize (to the image, not the actual person). Most people are surprised at this step. After all, the other person is the offender, so why apologize to them? You apologize because the dynamic isn’t good for either one of you. It’s not good for you to give them that much power because it leaves you feeling weak, and it’s not good for them to have that much power over you—it brings out the worst in them.
This tool is the ultimate answer to dealing with anyone in your life who invalidates you because it nullifies their power to do so!
This article originally appeared on Quora in answer to the question, “Which Tool can I use with family members who consistently invalidate me with contempt?