Why You Should Treat Your Family Like Strangers
It’s all too easy to have a short fuse with the ones we love. Time to disarm.
You are the soul of forbearance with the prattling colleague in the next cubicle. You shine thousand-watt charm on the eye-rolling teen who bags your groceries. Then you arrive home. Your son has left the ketchup out. Again. Hellfire rains upon him.
It is a truth universally acknowledged: We are often most impatient, angriest, and least compassionate toward those we should be kindest to—our supposed loved ones. (“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family,” wrote spiritual teacher Ram Dass.) Partners, parents, sibs, kids—all can receive an outsize portion of our ire. “We feel free to be ourselves around those we are closest to,” says Joyce Marter, a Chicago-based psychotherapist with Refresh Mental Health. “But it’s not good when we don’t offer them basic kindness and respect.” After all, snapping may be satisfying in the moment, but a pattern of it can corrode relationships, say experts. And it rarely achieves much. (When was the last time a bitchfest resulted in no more dishes left in the sink ever again?)
It’s not just your imagination: A 2014 review in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science found that those we are closest to are indeed the most common target of our “everyday aggression,” such as yelling, heated confrontations, and hurtful gossip. Why? For starters, “you have a lot more skin in the game,” says Alexandra Solomon, PhD, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the author of Loving Bravely ($15; amazon.com). Your life is so intertwined that their actions affect and thus irk you much more than those of a stranger. “At times we can feel victimized by partners, parents, and kids, and believe they are intentionally doing stuff to us, even if their motivations have nothing to do with us at all,” she says. You perceive their being late as an insult, not a sign that traffic was heavier than usual. Another reason: We feel exposed. “They see all of us, including our worst. That can be scary. We take our vulnerability and turn it into pissiness,” says Solomon.
We may also just stop trying when we’re around them. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compared short interactions between long-term partners to how the same people acted with strangers. Subjects were far more positive and cheerful with the stranger and enjoyed the interactions more. That’s because we rally to put our best face forward with those we don’t know. We don’t waste that charm on our loved ones.
Families are complicated. Sometimes anger is totally justified. But in many cases, a crotchety default has just become a reflex, say experts. “Our behavior with family members is some of the most habitual, and some of these habits may cause problems. And with practice, you can make compassion a habit too,” says Helen Weng, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Learning to pause and react with more kindness in the following common flash points can be a first step in bringing your best self—or at least not your worst self—to your closest relationships. When you do, says John Kim, a licensed therapist and the founder of theangrytherapist.com, “you are not giving the other person a freebie or a gift. Practicing compassion helps you grow.”
This, of course, is not about your missing dress. You see the omission as a symbol for all the times you’ve done way more than your share. His mother clearly waited on him hand and foot! So you may feel like letting it rip. “Anger is an entitled emotion. It says to us, ‘This situation has to be dealt with right now,’” says Solomon. But it’s much more productive to wait until you have calmed down to respond. (A quick reboot: Take a deep breath, then exhale to the count of six. Repeat until steam stops wafting from your ears.) Taking time to decompress activates the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain, so you can react more effectively.
Then try zooming out and thinking about the incident by adopting the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for you both, Solomon advises. Think, “When he forgets, she feels like she is alone with no one to help. He loves her but was totally distracted by a work crisis.” Adopting this viewpoint helps you stop seeing the other person as the warring camp. A kinder, more constructive conversation that may actually lead to change becomes possible.
Though you are old enough to have kids of your own, you still crave your parents’ approval and bristle at their judgment. So even well-intentioned comments may trigger you, says Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Yes, you may itch to blast Dad an eye-peeling reply after he forwards you yet another LinkedIn contact. Instead, ask yourself, “Can I think of a more generous interpretation of his actions? He loves me and is trying his best to be helpful.”
“Assuming the best intentions in others, including your family members, can save you a lot of anxiety,” says Greenberg. That doesn’t mean you have to accept his help if you don’t want it. Redirect his urge by asking for his advice in a more benign arena, she suggests: “Why do you think my car is making that weird sound?” As he peers under the hood, shower him with thanks to make him feel useful and appreciated. This mental switch is easiest when you’re practicing good self-care, says Amie Gordon, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “If you are hungry, tired, or stressed, you may be more likely to interpret other people’s actions negatively. You are vigilant for threats.” This is especially true if you see your loved one mostly on lightning-rod occasions, like at wine-soaked holiday meals. Escape for a walk as needed.
“Our kids mirror back to us who we were at that age, so our own issues from the past get kicked up,” says Solomon. “You might think, ‘I was never allowed to do that!’ or ‘OMG, she is going down the same road I did!’” Before you start barking, realize there’s the situation—then there’s the story you are telling yourself about it. It is the story that’s likely inflaming you. “In your mind, she is next going to get full sleeve tattoos, she will never be able to get a job, and you will only see her during visiting hours on Sundays,” says Marter.
To cool down and react with more kindness, try some cognitive reframing. Assess what the facts of the immediate situation are, right here, right now. “She got one piercing. That is normal: Teenagers are breaking away and becoming their own person, experimenting with self-expression.” Changing your thoughts can change your emotions, allowing you to approach her with more calm. Try discussing her choice with real curiosity: “I’m interested why you did that.” And remember how hard it was to be a teen—she may have done it to look cool to her judgy peers. Says Marter: “Empathy is the magic wand in relationships. Feeling understood defuses conflict of all kinds.”
First, remember she is not doing this just to make you feel trapped in a bad remake of Groundhog Day. “It is extremely trying to have someone ask you the same question over and over. That’s a very common behavior in dementia. Understand she is doing so because she has no memory of asking you the first time,” says Jo McCord, a family consultant at the Family Caregiver Alliance at the National Center on Caregiving. Your frustration can also spring from your own feelings of grief: “It can be very painful to see someone you used to have wonderful conversations with so diminished. This can make your own reaction more intense,” says McCord.
If you’re losing it, retreat to that unimpeachable sanctuary, the bathroom, for a few minutes to regroup, she suggests (just make sure your relative is safe and knows you’re stepping away for a moment). Other techniques: “If she can still read, you can write the menu or the doctor’s appointment time on a whiteboard and point to it when she asks. Or distract her to get her off her train of thought: ‘Let’s have some nice tea!’”
If you’re feeling guilty about not being Mother Teresa in this tough situation, start by showing yourself some kindness. “Practice self-compassion first,” says Susan Piver, a Buddhist teacher and the author of The Four Noble Truths of Love ($14; amazon.com). “Talk to yourself as you would a friend. It can be as simple as saying to yourself out loud when you are feeling overwhelmed, ‘I am with you.’ When you soften to yourself in that way, you naturally soften to others.”
It is also much easier to react with compassion when you can find commonality with the other person. “Ask yourself, ‘Have I ever been needy? Have I ever asked too much of someone? Well, yeah!’” says Piver. “That stops making the situation feel like an us versus them.” Gordon suggests having a go-to mantra for moments when you’re feeling your most impatient. “I use ‘Am I being kind in this moment?’ It can help make a gentler response more automatic.”
“With siblings, we regress. We become 12 years old again and feel the same conflicts. You may remember feeling unseen or being in her shadow,” says Greenberg. Resist shooting her a string of frown emojis. “You maybe have a vision of how you think a sister should act,” says Kim (like the idea that a good big sister should be your closest confidant). “Try to take that label off the relationship. Being more compassionate is about appreciating people for who they actually are.” She may not crave the same level of day-to-day closeness, but she was the first one there for your last true emergency. “It helps me to think of people as unique species,” says Kim. “Some of us are giraffes. Some of us are lions. You can’t expect a giraffe to act like a lion. They are very different creatures.” To take some pressure off so you feel kinder, think about how you can get those needs met somewhere else, suggests Weng. If you hoped for a sister who could always be a shoulder to lean on, for example, can you find that support in a close friend?
Even in imperfect relationships (and aren’t they all?), there is still room for gratitude, says clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, PhD, a senior editor at PsychAlive. “In looking for slights and failings, we often forget to scan our loved ones for what they are doing right or tell them what we do appreciate about them,” she says. Doing so is a powerful way to boost compassion. So think about a wonderful memory you have had with her—then go ahead and text her some heart-eye emojis.