By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about family – how to establish healthy relationships with your family and how to manage dysfunctional relationships for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version.
There’s an old saying that goes “you can’t choose your family” and let me say from personal experience that truer words have never been spoken! When it comes to family – both our immediate family and our extended family – everybody’s experience is completely unique. Yours might be great, they might be just okay, or they might be downright challenging (or they might be all of the above). Regardless of your situation, working through how you relate to your family in order to establish healthy relationships (or to minimise the potential damage that can come from dysfunctional relationships) takes work. Today I’m going to talk about some ways that you can do just that.
This is going to be the most personal episode I’ve ever posted because I’m going to talk a bit about my relationship with my mother, which I’ve alluded to a few times but which I don’t usually talk about much for a number of reasons – the main one is probably fear of being judged, if I’m really honest. So, here goes: let’s get into this week’s topic!
Family and mental health
Your family life can have a direct impact on your mental health and wellbeing, whether you care to admit it or not. Our family members are usually the people we are closest to in the world since we’ve known them all or most of our lives (depending on your situation), and with that comes pros and cons: pros in that these are the people who know us the best; cons in that these are the people who know us the best, and so they can potentially use that to cause us harm (whether consciously or subconsciously).
Let me be very clear here and say that many people are fortunate to have loving and supportive families, which is wonderful. However there are also many of us who have really difficult relationships with certain family members, and it can become a challenge to keep these relationships running smoothly in order to protect our mental health and wellbeing. Negative family relationships can cause stress, and if you’re struggling with your mental health – for example, with depression or anxiety – then sometimes family interactions can be major sources of distress.
Healthy family relationships are ones where there is love, support, kindness, mutual understanding and, most importantly, clear boundaries that are respected. Unhealthy family relationships will still quite likely involve love, but often that is accompanied by judgement, manipulation, lack of support, cruel behaviour, zero or minimal understanding, and either a lack of boundaries or boundaries that aren’t respected. Often it’s our closest relationships that have the greatest impact on our mental health and wellbeing – the ones we have with our parents, our siblings, and even our children (for those of you with children of your own).
The most difficult relationship I’ve ever had is with my mother, and I no longer have any relationship with her other than sending a card at Christmas and one for her birthday. It’s a very long story, but the kinda-short version is this:
My parents split up when I was seven and I was raised by my mother (my Dad died when I was 23, but after he left I barely ever saw him so it was mostly just Mum & I). I’m an only child and after Dad left, Mum became physically and emotionally abusive. The physical abuse was bad enough – she would hit me so hard that I’d wet myself sometimes or she would chase me around the house with a knife, to the point where I rarely ever felt safe – but it was the emotional abuse that did the most damage. I left home at 17 when I finished high school, and even after I left she enjoyed causing drama and creating arguments as much as possible. I tried to love her in spite of everything, but it was really difficult; at first I called her a couple of times a week, then it became less and less frequent until eventually I would go out of my way not to speak to her if I could help it because it would usually just leave me feeling horrible. I even moved to a different state because, subconsciously, it was a way of getting as far away from her as I could.
Anyway, one of my mother’s regular habits was to create an argument with family members, then announce that she wasn’t speaking to anyone anymore and just stop answering the phone for weeks or months on end (usually in an attempt to drum up some attention). On NYE 2012/2013 (i.e. December 31, 2012) I had a really good, long conversation with her that night – probably the nicest conversation we had had in years – and I told her I’d call her the next day to wish her a happy new year. I called the next afternoon and there was no answer. I kept calling and calling, and was getting more and more worried, and after a few days I called her sister (my aunt) who told me that my mother had announced before the new year that yet again she was cutting everyone off (something about not being happy because we were making her go see a doctor for the serious health issues that she has). I was dumbfounded – she didn’t say a single word to me when we spoke on NYE, and it just felt like a slap in the face. Suddenly, I was done. The manipulation, the drama, the ungrateful and spiteful and vindictive behaviour – enough was enough. And that was it – I haven’t spoken to her since. Roughly six months later one of my aunts gave in and went to see her (she still wouldn’t answer the phone) and she apparently acted like nothing had happened, and carried on that she didn’t understand why I wasn’t calling her, which still makes me shake my head in disbelief…
Here’s the thing: people are who they are and you cannot change them. In any situation to do with another person, you only have three choices: (1) accept things as they are, (2) state what you need from the relationship and give them a chance to meet you in the middle, or (3) let go. You can give people an opportunity to change and you can set boundaries but if you keep on offering people chance after chance after chance and nothing changes, then eventually something needs to give: because nothing changes if nothing changes.
Now, I am not saying that you should walk away from family relationships completely and that doing so will solve everything – because it won’t. Just because I no longer have contact with my mother, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care and it doesn’t mean that I don’t think about her frequently. Even if you do walk away from a relationship – any relationship – you’ll still have a lot of crap to work through – believe me, I know from personal experience. But, you do always have that option and if it’s something that you feel you need to do then that is your choice, and nobody has the right to judge you for that.
Your mental health and wellbeing needs to be the number one priority in your life, because you cannot possibly hope to be there for other people in an effective manner if you’re struggling to even put one foot in front of the other. I know it’s a bit controversial and I know that for many of you, your culture may focus strongly on the family unit as being the number one priority – which is fine and lovely when your family treats you with kindness and respect, but not so much when they consciously or subconsciously hurt you time and time again.
That’s where focusing on establishing healthy relationships comes into play – so let’s talk about that, then we’ll go on to some tips of what to do about dysfunctional relationships.
Three tips for establishing and maintaining healthy relationships
First – choose whether or not to engage. I talk about choice a lot, and as Dr. Victor Frankl said;
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”Dr. Viktor Frankl
What that means is that in every single situation you have a choice, and that choice is how you choose to respond. Whether you take things on board or not, whether you clap back when someone is saying something negative to you, whether you take on board other people’s judgements or nastiness – all of that is on you. Now, I know first hand how difficult that is if you’re dealing with someone who, for example, deliberately goes out of their way to create drama – but you still have a choice, even if that choice is to recognise that your only option is to walk away. To quote Dr. Frankl again, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” So your first choice in any situation is whether or not to engage.
The next thing, and probably the most important for every relationship in your life, is to set boundaries. Let’s be clear that it’s not like we all just sit down and say, “Here are my boundaries” (unless that feels right to you!), but you set boundaries by being assertive about what you will and won’t accept. I’m going to go into boundaries in a lot more detail in a future episode in a few weeks, but the short version is that boundaries are those rules and limits that you set for yourself and for your relationships with others. For example, if your sister insists on calling you at 6 o’clock every Wednesday night but that’s when you get home from work and you’re always tired, then you have two choices: you can accept it, or you can seek to change it by asking for different behaviour in a firm but fair way. You could say, “I love it when we chat however I’m just not up for it when I get home from work; how about we move our weekly calls to Saturday afternoon so I can be in a better frame of mind?” So when we talk about boundaries, it basically means asking for what you need. Remember to take into account the other person’s needs too: in that sister example, maybe she’s calling at that time because it’s one of the only times she has to herself, so perhaps you’ll need to negotiate and compromise. Setting boundaries involves asking for what you need and explaining why you need it, and asking what the other person needs as well, then finding a solution for both (where possible).
The third point that I encourage you to consider about having healthy relationships with family members is to manage your expectations. Like I said, people are who they are and you can’t change them, so you need to really think about what you expect from people. I used to get so disheartened that neither of my parents ever turned up to awards night or to see me perform in the musical in high school (which I did a pretty good job at, I might add!), but it is what it is. Back then I used to get upset about it all the time, but I just didn’t have the emotional tools to accept that they were both people who put their own needs first – if I had have been able to process that and accept that back then, I would have been more easily able to manage my expectations of them. It’s the same when we want someone to accept us for who we are – whether or not someone accepts you for who you are has absolutely nothing to do with you; that is 100% on them. Yes, rejection hurts, but it’s not about you – that’s completely about the other person, so as disappointing as it can be sometimes you need to manage your expectations. By all means, tell them how you feel and give them a chance to change, but if they don’t come to the party then you can’t force it. It’s that old saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. Focus on what you need to focus on, which is your mental health and wellbeing, and manage your expectations.
Managing dysfunctional relationships
Okay. So, if you’ve tried all the healthy relationship advice but you’ve still got some family stuff happening that makes the early episodes of The Simpsons look like The Waltons by comparison… now what do you do? Here are some ideas for managing dysfunctional relationships.
Start by resetting your boundaries, again. If your family is dysfunctional with a capital ‘D’, you’re probably going to have to do this a few times to see if you can make it stick. Set clear boundaries in a calm and rational manner, but be firm and assertive – and stick to it, because boundaries are completely useless unless you enforce them. Look, let’s be honest here: resetting your boundaries will very possibly create arguments, and if it does then that’s okay. Change isn’t easy; it takes time and perseverance, but eventually things will change if you stick to your boundaries. Take it one step at a time.
Another big thing for managing dysfunctional relationships with your family is for you to choose to practice kindness and understanding, even if that’s not what you’re getting back. This is something I talked a little about in Episode 11: The Holidays, but when we’re interacting with family often the emotions run really high and that’s where we can get into big issues – such as when talking about sensitive subjects like politics. I’m going to say this really bluntly: if you know that you’re prone to getting into arguments then you need to come at this from a different angle. If you can, push yourself to be kind and understanding. I have a family member who voted for a right-wing party here in Australia and then told me about it, and my head almost exploded. It affected our relationship for a really long time because I just couldn’t bring myself to engage with this person, but I look at it differently now. First of all, I know he’s a good person and the reasons for people’s political beliefs aren’t always black or white. Secondly, we live in a world where there is a lot of fear, and fear manifests in many different ways. Whether or not that’s why he voted for them is none of my business, but I can choose to be a bit more understanding and ask questions rather than just saying, “Nope, we’re done here” or just arguing. I always have a choice. Which brings me to…
Make a choice not to discuss highly-personal topics with family, especially those who you know are going to argue. Remember when we kept our politics to ourselves? I mean, I don’t think we should be sticking our heads in the sand but we also have to accept that political beliefs are really personal, and no amount of arguing is going to change the way someone thinks. Arguing serves no useful purpose, because you will never reach consensus through heated conflict. If you can’t accept the person as they are, at least respect their right to have their own point of view and ask them not to share it with you. If they don’t respect that boundary, focus on something else or walk away if you have to. And remember that just because someone believes something that you disagree with, that doesn’t make them a bad person – there is always more to any story than what is going on above the surface, so show some kindness and compassion. A lot of the more extreme political beliefs that are out there are happening because people are afraid; afraid of change, afraid of losing the world that they know, afraid of all the horrible things we human beings do to one another. That doesn’t make them bad people, and we can’t just cancel people because we don’t agree with their opinions.
Like I said earlier, you can also choose not to engage. That may mean removing yourself from the situation – either mentally or physically. By ‘mentally’ I mean you may need to distract yourself so you can just let whatever is going on or being said just be background noise – like water off a duck’s back. Or you may need to physically remove yourself – if it’s a phone conversation then make an excuse so you can hang up the phone, or if you’re in person then find a reason to leave. In the more extreme cases it’s always handy to be prepared with an escape plan so you can extract yourself after a polite and reasonable amount of time. I know that might sound a bit mean, but it is what it is. If you know you’re going to be with someone who is challenging to deal with, have an escape plan. And if you can respond with kindness when someone is being less than kind, then it’s a way for you to sow the seeds of change. If someone realises they aren’t going to get a rise out of you, they will often try to push it even further and then eventually they’ll give up and find someone else to play with.
Let’s talk for a moment about feeling judged by a family member. If you ever feel like you’re being judged for some aspect of your lifestyle then know that that’s not about you, that’s about the other person. I made this point before, and I know that it’s tough to hear (and even tougher to accept, especially when it’s someone you’re close to), but let’s be blunt here: happy people don’t judge other people. Let that shit go. Like Don Miguel Ruiz said in The Four Agreements:
“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.”Don Miguel Ruiz
And finally… you can decide what relationship you have, if any, and I believe that as long as you’re being fair and objective about it then to hell with what anyone else might say. If you decide only to see your family once a year, or if you decide to not see certain family members at all, then that is your choice. I mean, don’t be nasty about it – you don’t have to get into some grand confrontation or cut people out of your life in an attention-seeking way because that just creates unnecessary drama, but be clear about what you need from the relationship and if you’re not getting it then reassess your part in the relationship. Just because you are related to someone, it does not mean that you have to put up with shit. Many of us choose to spend more time with our chosen families – the friends who we are closest to – because we feel less judged and more supported, and that is always your choice.
You’ll notice that all of these points are focused on what you can do instead of the other person – and that’s because you have no control over what another person does or doesn’t do or say or think. This is what it all boils down to: managing your family relationships in order to look after your mental health and wellbeing is 100% about what choices you make. You can ask someone to change, you can explain how what they do or say impacts on you, you can set and reset your boundaries with them a thousand times over, but you have no control over what they do or don’t do. Give people the opportunity to come to the party, but focus your energy on accepting what you can control versus what you can’t control. It’s when we let go of the delusion that we can control others that we start to find true peace, true happiness. A loving family is one that is kind and supportive, so do what Madonna said: express yourself, and don’t go for second best.
Summary and three main points to consider
To summarise: family relationships can be fraught with difficulty, because these are usually the people who know us best and who have the strongest ties with us – but that doesn’t mean that anybody has the right to say and do things that impact negatively on your mental health and wellbeing. You have a choice in every relationship in your life: engage, or disengage. Set clear boundaries, give people a chance to respect those boundaries, but don’t put up with crap. If you have to change the nature of your relationships in order to protect your mental health, then do so – just do it in a fair and kind way.
To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:
- Family relationships are important for support, however they can be extremely challenging when you don’t get along
- It’s up to you to set clear boundaries and, most importantly, to stick to your boundaries – there is no shame in putting your mental health and wellbeing first in all things, because you need to make sure you can function before you can take care of others
- Make smart choices about the way that you interact with family members, especially with those people who you have trouble getting along with; nobody can make you feel or react a certain way because your reaction is your choice… it takes time and it takes effort, but you can take control.
As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is another one from The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and it is:
“Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.“Don Miguel Ruiz
So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about purpose – I’ll be talking about what purpose is, why it’s a huge part of mental health and wellbeing, and how to find ways to bring a greater sense of purpose into your day-to-day life while still paying the bills. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning Australian time.
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Have an absolutely fantastic week! Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – because you get back what you give out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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